It could be argued that Mario has the most prestigious legacy in the history of gaming. Sporting not one but two titles that have revolutionized/invented different styles of the platformer, the weird mustachioed hobgoblin man has been at the forefront of many of the most immaculately designed gaming experiences ever conceived. Along with a diverse and usually excellent catalogue of games spanning various genres (Mushroom Kingdom XCOM is somehow a real thing), it goes without saying that a new mainline Mario game comes with a fair degree of hype. Luckily, this hype is more than well deserved. Super Mario Odyssey is one of the most purely enjoyable games I’ve ever played.
Much like how Breath of the Wild put a substantial twist on a classic Nintendo series, Odyssey innovates by challenging the traditional structure of 3D Mario games. Instead of besting an area to acquire a single star, there is instead a series of worlds which are populated with dozens of Moons. These Moons can be hidden in plain sight, gated behind a feat of acrobatics, awarded after clearing a mini-level, or dastardly tucked away in elusive alcoves. Through finding these Moons, you are allowed to move onto the next area.
This change is arguably the most dramatic design departure for this game compared to the rest of the series, and the result is a world that feels filled to the brim with a deluge of gratifying challenges. Each area feels densely populated with a wide variety of activities, and exploration is rewarded and encouraged. Every challenge links seamlessly into the next, creating an arresting and breezy playing experience. The positive feedback loop here is so strong, that I can easily say that Mario’s latest outing is one of the most purely joyous video game experiences I’ve ever had, and a much needed tonic to soothe the woes of 2017.
The general structure here is accompanied by some of the smoothest platforming that Nintendo has ever produced. There’s a certain characteristic of openness to the movement, engendered by the large arsenal of moves that can be used at almost any given time. With the classic options of the triple jump, standing backflip, and sideflip, as well as the new mobility options afforded by Cappy, simply moving around is immediately satisfying in a way that puts other platformers to shame. There’s enough mobility options that any given challenge can be approached in a number of different ways based on player preference, sometimes to the extent where it feels as though the “correct” way to nab a Moon can be circumvented through cleverness and skill. In an interview with Metro Gaming game director Kenta Motokura described Odyssey as a “sandbox, walled garden kind of game; kind of related … to Super Mario 64 or Mario Sunshine”. This is a sandbox in more ways than one, a design methodology that is not only supported by the level design, but also by the degree of player control which is afforded by the snappy controls.
In addition to the standard mobility options afforded by the portly plumber, there are also a slew of other abilities that can be acquired through nightmarishly possessing his hapless foes. One of the most impressive aspects of Mario’s latest outing is how immaculately designed most of the possessed creatures feel. These enemies appear for the first time, are utilized for a single stage, and then disappear, ensuring that they each never overstay their welcome. In addition to controlling well, the levels are entirely designed around these possessions in a way that makes the majority of these sequences feel indispensable. (Anecdotally, there are some truly hilarious moments of discovery around some of the insane nonsense that can be possessed, culminating in many dumb grins.) The diversity of experiences available here results in rapt anticipation over what the next world holds.
Although it feels like there is some conceptual retreading in some of the worlds of this globetrotting experience, the previously described variety in the creatures is mirrored by the general level design. Some of the levels feel like mini-open worlds. In Metro City, an active cityscape gives Mario a jungle gym of cars, street lights, and skyscrapers to jump around in. In the Sand Kingdom, vast arrays of sand dunes await being trampled by a weird dog mount creature in what feels like the game’s most open area. On the other side of the spectrum, in the penultimate stage we are treated to a feudal Japanese treatment of Bowser’s castle. This more narrow stage that feels most similar to the game’s predecessors, appropriate as more of a series of challenges leading up the the game’s first conclusion.
Although many of the methods to acquire Moons recur throughout these different areas, there’s enough hidden challenges and unique experiences to help mask the rehashing. As a result of this, many of the worlds feel expansive, but amply filled with various breadcrumb trails that guide the experience down various avenues. It feels as though every sightline betrays another potential Moon, steadily ushering the player through the game’s zones. Additionally, as mainline quest objectives are met the layout and characteristics of the world change. Impressively there is an entire series of endgame content that is unlocked after “beating” the game, which culminates in a challenging gauntlet that matches the difficulty of many of the series’ harder offerings.
While some of the world’s themes definitely feel more inspired than others, there is notable variance here, driven home by the charm of the character designs. From the adorably rotund Russian polar bear people, to the sentient silverware, the denizens to be encountered always add to the desired aesthetic. The music here complements the rest of the presentation nicely, including a weirdly pretty good vocalized theme.
There’s some warts to be found for sure. Aside from some endgame Moons, most of the game doesn’t extensively challenge the player’s core platforming skills. There is also a frustrating retention to motion controls. This mostly only affects a very limited subset of the overall moveset, but the issue is exacerbated if the Switch is undocked. That said, this is a fairly clear cut case of the pros dramatically outweighing the cons.
Whether it’s finally finding a way to make coin collection actually relevant with the addition of costumes, to the constant stream of new game mechanics in the form of different creatures to posses, Odyssey innovates without ever losing the core essence of what makes the series great.
Up until now Nintendo has always felt as though it operates within its own bubble. It was a bubble full of some of the most immaculately designed games, but an insular bubble none the less. However, between BoTW adopting the mechanics of survival games, and now Odyysey, it feels as though Nintendo’s design methodologies have updated to the modern gaming landscape. Odyssey is a near-perfect sequel, retaining the tightly controlling core of the previous games, while providing enough new structurally to avoid existing in the shadow of previous series highs.