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For quite some time, the Super Mario franchise has felt like it has been running in place. After Galaxy and its sequel was not the redefinition of platforming its makers would have liked, the series as a whole decided for the first time to fall back on familiar design for a few games. That isn’t to say 3D Land, World, and the New games are bad. When you define an industry, refine a genre, survive over thirty years of upheaval, and create new genres on your days off, you get to rest on your laurels. Even so, recent releases haven’t felt as bold or fresh as Mario games have come to be known for. Enter the Nintendo Switch. Seemingly invigorated by the hybrid console, Mario has already had one bold adventure in Mario + Rabbids and has now come back home to internal development for an even bigger quest; and Super Mario Odyssey delivers on that front.
Defining Super Mario Odyssey is somewhat of a complicated task. The game is very much a successor to previous large scale 3D Mario titles, particularly the legendary Super Mario 64, as the game’s world is made up of many diverse environments designed to feel even larger than they are. In that particular regard, Odyssey is what 64 feels like in your memories. The better comparison might be the Switch’s other golden child The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; in so much as both titles are fundamentally about taking the base mechanics of their respective franchises and expanding them to massive proportions. Each then focus on rewarding the player through exploration and experimentation.
That’s about where the similarities end, though. Odyssey quickly works to set itself apart from the crowd after the intro, which does unfortunately lead with Princess Peach being kidnapped by Bowser to force her into marriage (but if you expected a deep and progressive story in a Mario game I’ve got an Ouya to sell you.) From there, Mario teams up with his new partner Cappy and it’s off to multiple “kingdoms,” chasing Bowser as he steals everything one would need for a big wedding. Each kingdom has its own inner narrative that mostly consists of Bowser’s evil wedding planners wreaking havoc; but the components of each are tied into the design and aesthetics of the kingdom in question and tend to be more interesting as a result.
Questing either for story or for fun is in pursuit of Power Moons, Odyssey’s designated collectible. Power Moons serve as the fuel of Mario and Cappy’s vessel, also named The Odyssey. In order to proceed in the game, a certain number of moons need to be uncovered per kingdom; but rarely does completing the bare minimum story grant you enough moons to proceed. To really make headway, Mario will need to explore the kingdoms he visits in extreme depth. Some moons are incredibly easy to locate, as they’ll just be hanging out on the tops of trees or hidden in the ground indicated by vibrations in the controller guide you to. In fact, with hundreds of moons spread throughout the game, it can sometimes feel like there are too many easy to get moons. Thankfully the game has put plenty of challenges and obstacles in the way of other moons that beg to be collected, thanks to the meticulous detail put into the very construction of each location. Getting over a particular hurdle and securing the moon that’s been evading you for an hour makes picking up a few more on the way back more of a bonus than a detriment.
The game does have other collectibles, though not too many. The franchise’s icon gold coins are spread all over as usual, however they now serve direct functions to the gameplay. When Mario either runs out of health or takes a fall down a bottomless pit, he won’t lose a life. Instead, ten coins are deducted from your collection, and you resume at the last checkpoint. Each kingdom has its own special currency in the shape of something relevant to that kingdom, all colored purple. While it feels entirely stupid to have to point out, all of this is legitimate in-game currency, Mario Odyssey has no interest in prying open your wallet more. Both sets of coins can be used to buy different costumes for Mario from across different appearances, eras, and more. Nearly all of them are absolutely worth having and wearing for a while.
However, one section early on in the game comes off as more troublesome than inspired. The Sand Kingdom is a kingdom populated by small people all with Dia de los Muertos sugar skulls for heads. Every single one is dressed in a sombrero and poncho and dance around as if they had maracas added in at one point. One of the costumes obtained here puts Mario in the same poncho and sombrero and he can then enter a secret room to straight up perform mariachi. It all feels more patronizing than an attempt to add a nod to a culture not always represented in Nintendo games.
Assisting Mario is the aforementioned companion, Cappy, a sentient top hat whose sister was also kidnapped by Bowser to serve as Peach’s wedding veil. Taking the form of Mario’s iconic cap or whatever costume currently in use, Cappy is able to fling himself away from Mario in multiple ways. Doing so gives Mario a longer range attack, and can extend Mario’s jumping significantly. With Cappy’s help, Mario becomes even more mobile than before. It truly becomes amazing what kinds of stunts are possible using Cappy, and all the kingdoms (especially the Metro Kingdom, home of New Donk City) are designed to give players plenty of freedom to try it out.
Cappy facilitates the game’s most unique and best mechanic: the ability to “capture” enemies and other entities. Mario takes over the entity in question when Cappy lands on them, complete with a Mario mustache. Each new capture grants new abilities and tricks needed to progress in the kingdom, fight enemies, and more. The real joy comes from finding out just exactly what Mario is able to take control of and how. For example, you might have seen the T-Rex capture from trailers earlier this year. That shows up in the second kingdom. Super Mario Odyssey is a game so confident in its ideas that it leads with a T-Rex mode and trusts you’ll stick around for the rest. Several captures had me laughing out loud in astonishment. It really does feel like the development team wrote every gonzo idea they could think of on the board and never cut any of them – and it pretty much works.
Well, it mostly works. Cappy is also the face of the worst part of the game: mandatory motion controls. While not necessary to complete the game or get a large portion of moons, Mario Odyssey expects players to play with two Joy Con, one in each hand. While doing so, players can flick the controllers to perform other tricks with Cappy like aiming upward, downward, or in a circle. None of these are really tied to locomotion, but there’s also no way to really avoid them as there’s no way to turn them off. Adjust your hand with a Joy Con in it and Cappy will go flying. This even carries over to other controllers and even Switch modes. Indeed, somehow it was missed that many players like to take advantage of the Switch’s handheld mode, with the Joy Con inserted on the sides. In that mode, to do any advanced Cappy tricks, you’d have to flick the console around; and that’s a nonsense notion. Even if the Joy Con respond better to motion than Wiimotes (they do), it’s a gigantic misstep to not give the option to remap for the sake of accessibility, and against the very nature of the Switch.
Provided you can look past the slight blemishes, Odyssey is a riot. There isn’t a spot in the game that isn’t hiding some special treat, and it’s almost guaranteed to make you smile. The kingdom maps are presented as travel brochures filled with tidbits, hints and jokes – one in particular is a treat for longtime Nintendo history fans. No character animation goes to waste either, many have quotes that will hover above them as you go past, adding life to their own actions. Mario himself will shiver and sweat, he’ll get tired, and he’ll dance to the game’s music. Special credit to the animators for making Cappy feel expressive and alive, considering he’s only a top hat and eyes. A snapshot mode that actually is mapped to a button is on hand to capture all of these little details throughout the adventure, and no doubt you’ve seen them litter Twitter over the past week. It’s not as robust as, say, Horizon Zero Dawn’s brilliant photo mode, but it does a perfect job for the material.
Truly, Super Mario Odyssey feels like a return to form for the franchise; but more in spirit than a particular design. This feels more like a game in a franchise that asked questions like “What if our first sequel was an entirely different game that we inserted our characters into?” or “Mario likes go karts, right?” This is a Mario game where ambition and talent come together to make a rich and rewarding experience from start to whenever you feel like you’ve explored enough. A wonderful bookend to the Switch’s first year.
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: October 27th, 2017
Copy Purchased By Reviewer