Super Mario Odyssey Review
As 2017 starts to wind down, I was almost certain I knew what my game of the year was going to be. “Could Super Mario Odyssey challenge it? Pssssh”. I almost immediately brushed off that notion.
Now don’t get me wrong, knowing Nintendo’s track record with core Mario games it would be silly to write off and sure I knew it would be great, but it almost seemed like the safe and obvious choice.
Mario is one of those series that, like for many, has been ingrained in this here gamer’s blood for a lifetime, but for some reason when I talk about my favorite franchises, it rarely crosses my mind. Maybe its because it doesn’t have the sweeping melodramas of a Final Fantasy, the incredible set pieces of a Metal Gear Solid or the giant open worlds, ripe for exploration of a Zelda. After all it’s a series about a guy dressed as a plumber who jumps on little brown mushroom fucks while constantly playing damage control for a kingdom whose princess has the dubious habit of getting stolen by some sort of dinosaur turtle.
All kidding aside, the reason I ponder this question as to why I never consider it in my top 5 is the fact when I look at my gaming history, there are few series that have been as much a part of my entire life, the way Mario has been. There is no game I have beaten more (and maybe played more) than Super Mario Land on the GameBoy, no franchise I played more with friends growing up with the likes Super Mario 3, World, and 64. Hell, as I mentioned earlier this year in a review, nothing helped me get out of a slump more than spending a weekend with Super Mario 3D World. But still, I didn’t consider it my game of the year at the time even though I think about it more fondly than just about any other game in the last 10 years. So why is it then?
Maybe it’s exactly what I was saying earlier about the series: it’s the safe choice. Everyone knows what he or she is getting with a Mario game and that’s fun. No sweeping melodrama, no incredible set pieces, and no giant open worlds: just pure unadulterated fun. And you know what, isn’t the core tenant of what makes a great video game, how fun it is? Maybe its time to go back to that list of what makes a game special to me and reprioritize fun because after over 20 years of gaming, I have never played a game more fun than Super Mario Odyssey. Period.
The Odyssey begins like almost every other Mario game. Once again, Princess Peach has been kidnapped from the Mushroom Kingdom by the one and only Bowser, but this time it’s for love – okay, I don’t know if he plans on wedding her out of love or that sweet nest egg called a kingdom. Yes, Bowser plans to take Peach as his unlawfully wedded wife, but not before setting sail through the many kingdoms in the world and stealing their precious heirlooms that all conveniently serve as a key piece for their wedding ceremony. While chasing down the notorious princess-napper through the skies, Mario gets his signature hat destroyed and is promptly knocked into a world littered by talking hats. This is where he meets his newest companion, a Top-Hat adorably named Cappy, who like Mario is trying to get his sister Tiara – who you probably guessed by now is a Tiara – back from the clutches of Bowser as well.
It’s a simple set-up that falls in line with the storied history of the series’ less-than storied history of stories, but it works, is paced well and adds a delightful new partner along with some other memorable characters such as Bowser’s Bunny Bridal Brigade known as the Broodals – say that 10 times fast. What sets it above the regular stable of Mario stories is a series of short but well produced cutscenes, including the most satisfying ending to a Mario game ever that literally had me laughing my ass off and wanting to say “Bravo” to the development team.
The story is fun enough, but that is probably the last reason one plays a Mario game. The real reason anyone here is to see how well it plays and boy even after 30 years, this old plump boy is as spry as he’s ever been and maybe even better. Controlling Mario is a perfect example of the importance of “Game Feel” that Miyamoto talked about. Controlling Mario is like the extension of controlling one’s own arms, it just feels right. From the patented triple-jump, to his backflip, to even the new somersault roll, Super Mario Odyssey gives you the perfect tools to play around in its world, making sure that if you die, its completely your own fault.
Speaking of world, lets talk about the game’s structure. Super Mario Odyssey might at first seem like the spiritual successor to games like 64 and Sunshine, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a game that incorporates the best of Mario from each of his outings and rolls it into one giant love-letter to the series.
Early on in your travels will unearth a ship eponymously named the Odyssey to help you chase down Bowser. The problem is, the Odyssey is in rough shape and needs to be repaired by an energy source called Power Moons, which serve as the games version of 64’s stars. These Power Moons are fortunately plentiful (almost 900 in total) and are scattered everywhere among the dozen or so kingdoms – levels that comprise Odyssey’s world. Obtaining them is the major driver in the game as collecting enough moons gives you the ability to fly the Odyssey to the next kingdom.
There are anywhere from 30 to 100 moons in each kingdom, but the main story only requires you to find around 8-12 to continue on your merry way. Some of them are hidden in plain sight and are as easy to obtain as shimmying up a tree or using the environment to reach them while others will require clever exploration of a kingdom’s entire surroundings akin to the more sandbox style Mario games. Some will require you to solve tricky platforming levels found in hidden rooms, similar to the more linear Mario games like Galaxy and 3D World, but there are also times the game will throw you a total curveball with something you’ve never seen before in a Mario game, such a trying to park a motorcycle on top of a building. It’s incredibly varied and always rewarding, testing your skill, creativity, and curiosity all in equal amounts.
While this might all seem very familiar to Mario fans, there are a few new changes to the formula that were once unheard of for the series. Remember 1-Up mushrooms? Remember lives? These are a thing of the past now, as death only penalizes you with a lenient 10-coin penalty to play again. This might seem blasphemous to series’ veterans, but honestly, it fits the structure of the game perfectly as exploration and experimentation are ever more present in Odyssey than they have ever been before in a Mario game before.
Coins also now play the roll of currency when it comes to buying items at the local Crazy Cap stores housed in each kingdom. You can buy such wares as heart containers (giving you an additional 3 hits), Power Moons, and a large assortment of costumes which you can dress Mario up in while giving nod to Mario’s former careers. There is also a second kind of currency in the form purple coins, which are hidden in each Kingdom. These coins will buy you kingdom-themed costumes, which play a role in opening new areas, as well as souvenirs and bumper stickers to dress your Odyssey in.
Flags too have been reworked. Instead of them working solely as checkpoints, they function as fast-travel points. They work wonderfully as a convenient way to retry challenges in those times where you go for that hard reach moon off the side of the wall and fall spectacularly 5 stories below, instead of having to climb all the way back up again.
While these little changes are beautifully implemented and change up the classic formula for the better, the most major addition to the game that sets Super Mario Odyssey apart from the rest of the series rests on top of Mario’s head. Yes, Mario’s new friend Cappy does more than keep you company over your adventures, he can be thrown at enemies and even be used as a jump pad to help you reach far off platforms, but most importantly he serves as the catalyst for the newest ability in Mario’s arsenal – the capture mechanic.
Jumping alone can only get you so far in this world, especially with the obstacles you’ll be faced with. But now with the capture mechanic, Mario can throw Cappy at enemies and environmental items and inhabit them. Ever wonder what it’s like to be a Chain Chomp, or a Hammer Bro, or even a lowly Goomba? Well not only is it possible, but it is also imperative if you are to get around in the world. Each of these captured characters comes with their own set of abilities, which can be used to help you navigate through the world and solve environmental puzzles. For example, you can capture a Lava Bubble to help you travel across pools of hot soup in the Luncheon Kingdom. Can’t seem to get to that out of reach platform around the corner in Forgotten Kingdom? The length and slinking ability of a Wiggler will get you across no problem. Even inanimate objects such as the poles located in the Metro Kingdom can be captured and used as a way to slingshot quickly up and across buildings.
My biggest worry from the outset for Super Mario Odyssey was that this mechanic would not be fully realized or would make the game way too easy, but the team at Nintendo has made the best out of Cappy and his magic abilities by creating magic of their own with a system that is incredibly unique and fully fleshed out it almost feels second nature to the series. It meshes perfectly with Mario’s stable of jumps and “Wahoos” without ruining the pace of the platforming elements while also working as an ingenious new way to solve puzzles and explore otherwise unexplorable areas.
Well maybe not perfectly.
If there is one issue I have with the game is that it’s twofold – so I guess that means I have two issues. First off, while most of the capture creatures handle at the same level of “Game Feel” you expect from a Mario game, there are a few that do not feel nearly as good, most disappointingly the T-Rex, which feels very stiff and lumbering – but I guess that’s the point. Also, the main method of travel found in the Sand Kingdom’s town of Tostarena, Jaxi, a lion who happens to double as a taxi service, is a pain in the ass to control at times due to its unruly explosiveness, which caused me to die a great deal in levels that required using it. While none of these controls particularly bad, it is jarring to feel after the buttery smooth perfection that is controlling Mario.
My second issue, which piggybacks off the first, has to do with the game’s implementation of motion controls. Yes 10 years later and Nintendo has yet to give up on this novel, but dated method. Motion adds a auto-homing function when throwing Cappy at enemies and objects or can be used to add additional abilities to captured enemies not available with standard controls, such as a spin attack for a Cheep Cheep or extra speed for a Bullet Bill. These can be neat, but the benefits of these additional ablilities for me far outweighed the negatives.
The amount of times the game registered the slightest movement of my hands and threw Cappy while I was in the middle of a tricky platforming sequence made me desperate to turn them off, which you can’t. This also affected my enjoyment of certain capturable enemies such as the bird-like Pokio, which uses its beak to attach to walls so it can be flung to higher ground or in my case to my death due to unwarranted movement, again courtesy of the motion controls. Since most of these actions can be used by both motion and standard controls, it would’ve been nice to be able to turn off the motion so I didn’t have to worry things would go south every time I had to scratch my nose.
While it’s a shame that these issues are present – and frankly unnecessarily so – at the end of the day this is a small inconvenience to pay for one of the most joyful experiences ever crafted.
When I reviewed Breath of the Wild earlier on this year, I mentioned how no game company brings more joy to the medium than a Nintendo on the top of their game. I can’t think of a sentiment that is a more perfect personification of what Odyssey is. There has never been a game that I have played that has elicited this feeling so often during the course of a play through. The amount of times I was left in awe by the game, whether it be the discovery of a new breathtaking world, to the simple joys of finding hidden coins, to speed-running through a brilliantly inventive platforming section for that hard to reach moon, to the bewilderment of being warped back to 1985 in the retro-style sequences, was abundant, verging on overwhelming.
Where games like Breath of the Wild amaze with scope, Super Mario Odyssey does with a sheer density and ingenuity of its kingdom design that could have only been dreamt up and engineered by the finest architects in gaming. There isn’t an inch wasted real estate in any of the carefully crafted kingdoms, which are packed with so many moons, coins and other treats that you literally won’t go more than a minute of playing without being treated with some sort of reward. What makes it all the better is the fact that the game is always organically feeding you enough proverbial breadcrumbs throughout to peek the insatiable curiosity of discovery, to keep you wanting to play this game forever, which it did for me long after the game “ends”.
If you want to take it down a more coldly-calculated scientific path, Super Mario Odyssey has the greatest Joy-Per-Minute (JPM) ratio of all time.
The joy is carried over into the beautifully imagined worlds thanks to the game’s incredible art style. Each kingdom is unique and visually distinct from the next. From the sand-swept deserts of Tostarena, to the Sonic Adventure-esque oddity of seeing a platforming mascot next to real humans in New Donk City, to the candy-colored, crystalline wonderland that is Valbono, Super Mario Odyssey is an absolute treat for the eyes and really showcases Nintendo’s technical genius for getting bang out of underpowered hardware – oh ya, it runs at 60 frames as well.
The music is equally great, with a soundtrack up there with the best in the series. Featuring beautifully orchestrated pieces, ambient tracks, and even a 70’s style blues-inspired joint, there is an astounding amount of variety. I don’t know if takes the mantle from Super Mario Galaxy in the aural department, but what I can say is “Jump Up, Super Star!” – the theme song featured in the trailers and TV spots – is still on repeat in my head over a week later.
There’s so much more I want to praise this game for, but I also don’t want to go into anymore specifics than what I’ve shared because I would feel a terrible disservice robbing you of the same joy I received from the countless amount of “that’s incredible”, “that’s brilliant”, “that’s….weird” moments that litter this game, including some genuine surprises that literally made me squeal in pure delight. To say that you will get your money’s worth with Super Mario Odyssey is the understatement of the year: it’s reason enough to buy a Switch.
5 out of 5
After over 30 years, the former plumber turned sports star, painter, architect, go-kart champion, is back and showing no signs of wear and tear. In fact, just when I thought Nintendo couldn’t outdo itself after releasing one of the best Zelda games ever made, it follows it up with a game that perfects the sense of joy and discovery that was present in that masterpiece.
I don’t remember the last time a game made me this way, a feeling of pure joy and happiness; a game that made me say out loud “I love this game” more times than I can count. From the moment you pick up the controller, through to the rolling of the credits and collecting your final Power Moon and Purple Coin 40 hours later, Super Mario Odyssey not only lives up to its roots as the most influential gaming icon of all time, but it exceeds it with an experience that is equally a celebration of Mario’s glorious past and its even brighter future. It’s simply the greatest Mario game of all time and destined to be remembered as the pinnacle of the medium for years to come. It might also actually be my favorite game of all time.
How’s that for a series that I never put in my top 5?
Final Note: The game recommends – quite forwardly – that you play the game with detached Joy-Cons to get the most out of the motion inputs and that’s fine, but you won’t have a huge issue using a pro controller – other than maybe looking like an idiot for shaking it vigorously.