A common criticism raised by people who have arbitrarily decided for one reason or another that they are “anti-Nintendo” is that the company relies too much on rehashing old ideas, particularly when it comes to its “big” franchises.
This is, of course, nonsense, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the company’s flagship Super Mario series. The portly plumber’s past few adventures have included a simple but enjoyable mobile game that eschews gacha nonsense in favour of accessible mechanics, a full-on construction kit with online functionality, a vast but highly accessible, level-based 3D platform adventure with the option to play in cooperative multiplayer and a challenging 2D platform adventure later expanded with an even more difficult set of levels. And this is to say nothing of how the series has continually reinvented itself over the years.
Super Mario Odyssey for Nintendo Switch continues Mario’s proud tradition of starring in an enormously varied series of games that cater to the tastes of both casual and hardcore gamers alike. And it’s one of his best games to date.
Super Mario Odyssey steps back from the worlds-and-levels structure that has formed the basis for a number of recent installments in the series. Instead we have a game that is somewhat closer in execution to the Gamecube’s Super Mario Sunshine and the Nintendo 64’s Super Mario 64. In other words, we have a game that is less about working your way through discrete, linear levels, and is instead much more about exploring, experimenting and the joy of play.
The setup for the game sees Princess Peach kidnapped — of course — by Bowser, and this time everyone’s favourite spiky dickhead is forcing her into marriage. This seems like an unusual amount of formality for a villain to go through when realistically he could probably just do whatever he wanted with Peach while she was in his clutches, but I guess Bowser has been saving himself or something. Mario, naturally, is having none of this and comes very close to stopping the whole situation before it escalates further, but unfortunately Bowser’s rather natty boxing glove-equipped hat twats Mario into the sky and — shock! — destroys his iconic cap in the process.
Rather fortunately, Mario lands in a mysterious land that appears to be inhabited entirely by hat spirits, and meets the imaginatively named Cappy, who promply becomes a sentient hat for Mario and agrees to help him on his adventure. Cappy, too, has had someone important to him snatched away by Bowser, you see, and thus they decide to work together to try and sort out this whole mess. Thus begins their journey across the world in an attempt to chase down Bowser before it’s too late.
Super Mario Odyssey initially has a pretty straightforward structure. You arrive at a new “kingdom” and are given a main objective to accomplish — usually reaching a particular location or beating a boss. From there, though, you have complete freedom to use Mario and Cappy’s abilities to explore the expansive areas that make up each kingdom, and the game rewards you in a variety of ways for doing so.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t an “open world” game, however; or more specifically, it’s that distinctly Japanese approach to “open world”, in which you’re able to explore discrete, small-scale and beautifully hand-crafted areas rather than trudging through miles of boring contiguous wilderness on the way to reach an objective marker that is three miles away. Nope; here, you can explore, but you’ll never end up somewhere you’re “not supposed to” — if you can reach it, there’s a reason for it. And, it may be a cliche by now, but if you can see it, you can probably reach it.
Key to Super Mario Odyssey’s progression are the “Power Moons” scattered throughout each kingdom — a rough analogue to Super Mario 64’s Stars and Super Mario Sunshine’s Shines. The difference here is that Power Moons aren’t just awarded for completing major objectives; here, they’re hidden all over the place and are pretty much always waiting for you as a response to your going “I wonder if I can…” Not only that, but collecting a Power Moon, in most cases, doesn’t end the “level”; you just proceed onwards from there.
In other words, while you can pretty much race through a lot of Super Mario Odyssey’s main story objectives and get to the end rather quickly — and in fact, as we’ll discuss in a moment, it might even be desirable to do so — the game is at its most rewarding when you decide to experiment, play with its mechanics and try your best to outwit it. Spoiler: it’s always one step ahead of you; think yourself clever for getting to an out-of-the-way location via unconventional means and there will almost certainly be at least some coins waiting for you, and usually a Power Moon.
The only real “gating” going on in Mario Odyssey is the fact that in order to move on from each kingdom to the next, you have to collect a particular number of Power Moons. This can usually be done as a pretty natural process on the way to the main objectives, and more significant accomplishments are often rewarded with “Multi Moons” that are worth three of the normal Power Moons. These also often coincide with some sort of significant change happening to the level — perhaps a new area will open up, perhaps the environmental conditions will change, perhaps the enemies will move around, perhaps previously inaccessible locations will become accessible. This is the only time that the otherwise continuous flow of free exploration is interrupted; when something like this happens, this is the one time you’re sent back to the kingdom’s entry point to re-explore it and discover what has changed.
Core to Mario Odyssey’s gameplay is Cappy’s ability to “capture” things. This can be as simple as revealing hidden items by throwing Cappy onto environmental objects, but more significantly, there are a large number of enemies throughout the game that you can take control of. Each enemy has its own unique characteristics and abilities, and they’re not just for show — they’re often key to solving puzzles and reaching even more Power Moons.
Sometimes these puzzles are simple — capturing an enemy that can jump high will obviously help you get to platforms that Mario can’t reach, for example. But at other times they require more creative thinking. There are a few points in the game where stacking Goombas on top of one another becomes extremely useful, for example, and others where certain enemies will help you negotiate hazards that would otherwise be fatal to the touch.
All this isn’t to say that Super Mario Odyssey is completely devoid of more “structured” challenges, mind you. Throughout each kingdom are a number of doors that lead to self-contained mini-stages, inevitably with a Power Moon or two hidden throughout them. These areas are enormously varied — some are platforming challenges, some are enemy gauntlets, and some require you to get through without using Cappy’s abilities. There are even some parts of each kingdom that cause Mario to become “flat”, temporarily switching the gameplay to 2D Super Mario Bros-style platforming (complete with authentic NES-style sprites and chiptune music) — though even here there are interesting twists, such as being able to run around the “corner” of a building onto a different face, or pop in and out of 3D based on whether or not you’re standing in front of a 2D backdrop.
And then, when you “beat” the game — eminently worth doing, I might add, as the finale is one of the most ridiculously entertaining sequences I’ve ever experienced in a Super Mario game — a whole bunch more content opens up. Mysterious rocks that you’ve been unable to do anything with for the rest of the game become breakable, scattering even more Power Moons over each kingdom. New kingdoms open up, offering stiff new challenges for veterans who really rate their skills. Harder versions of the game’s boss fights become available to take on. Toadette is waiting to reward you with even more Power Moons for completing achievement-style objectives. And there are even a host of minigames with online functionality, ranging from hiding and seeking balloons with Luigi to timed foot races against Koopas.
Perhaps the best thing about Super Mario Odyssey is that you can engage with it as much or as little as you like. If you’re happy to just prioritise the main story and put the game down after you beat Bowser and save the day, you’ll have still had a great experience. But if you continue on into the sprawling post-game, or decide to try and track down every Power Moon in every kingdom, or collect all the costumes and souvenirs, this game is going to keep you busy for a very long time indeed… and with regular free content updates coming from Nintendo, there’s even scope for the experience to continue to expand over time.
And it would be remiss of me to close off this article without mentioning the game’s presentation. Besides continuing the same beautiful and slick “3D animated movie” style of Super Mario 3D World, the game’s soundtrack is astonishing, taking in a wide variety of musical styles and complementing each kingdom’s distinct and unique visual profile wonderfully. And those visual profiles, in turn, give the game plenty of variety while paying homage to gaming and its tropes throughout the years; New Donk City’s realistically proportioned people and believable cityscape brings modern Western games to mind, for example (as well as explicitly referencing Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong as “Jumpman”), while the low polygon counts and pastel colours of the Luncheon Kingdom are highly evocative of the early days of 3D. There’s even a brief sequence in a grimdark fantasy kingdom, complete with dragon fight, that I will allow you to be the judge of whether or not it is “like Dark Souls“.
In fact, Super Mario Odyssey as a whole feels like an acknowledgement and celebration of Nintendo and Mario’s history since the earliest days of gaming — whether it’s the 2D pixel art sections, the inclusion of Pauline (the girl Mario was rescuing in Donkey Kong) in the cast, or an absolutely delightful sequence as part of the finale that I won’t spoil the details of right now.
Interestingly, Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t take the lead on this game, instead acting in a largely advisory capacity to a team under director Kenta Motokura and producers Yoshiaki Koizumi and Koichi Hayashida. But this game is strongly convincing evidence that even if Miyamoto is taking something of a step back from the series he helped to define, Super Mario is most definitely in good hands. Super Mario Odyssey not only says to us “this is where Mario is now”, it also acknowledges where he’s been over the course of the last 37 years.
Pretty appropriate for a game about an “odyssey”, if you ask me. Long may Mario’s journey continue.
More about Super Mario Odyssey
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