Super Mario Odyssey is pure concentrated joy. Mario is an undeniable titan of the video game industry and most any platforming game that comes out with him at the head is guaranteed to at least end up a decently constructed experience if not one of the seminal games to come out on the system. Mario has admittedly gotten complacent at times, and with a brand so strong they can call their character “Mr. Video Game” without anyone batting an eye, it would be easy for a new game to come out that rests on those laurels. Super Mario Odyssey, thankfully, is an incredible experience that pushes Mario to new heights and crafts what might be his best outing yet.
But I get ahead of myself.
Super Mario Odyssey throws you into the game surprisingly quickly. Previous 3D Mario titles like to ease you in story-wise when they do bother with telling you the plot, but as soon as you start the game you see that Bowser’s already got Princess Peach kidnapped and he’s taking her off to marry her. Mario’s got to go save her, and then suddenly, it’s time to play the game. Even the New Super Mario Bros. games have slower starts, but Mario Odyssey wants to open its doors and get you going as quick as possible so it can show you all the neat stuff it’s put out for you to play with.
At its core, Super Mario Odyssey can be said to be just a 3D Platformer with the simple goal of collecting the Power Moons. Everything you’d expect to find is here: platforming challenges, boss battles, all the series and genre staples… but Nintendo took all these pieces and refined them, expanded on them, and decided to really explore the worlds it was making so that you too would want to explore them. Mario’s skills are pretty simple, he can jump, he can throw his hat, and he can take control of things his hat hits and act as those characters and objects. …Okay, that last one isn’t so simple, but these three capabilities are so incredibly fleshed out and utilized in constantly evolving ways throughout the game that you never feel limited by them. Mario’s jumping is the best its ever been, which is pretty appropriate for a guy whose main superpower is often listed as “jumping pretty well”. There’s a certain skill to getting the most out of your jumps, and if you can master them you’ll be able to turn each world into a playground for you to explore, and Mario Odyssey makes sure the playground is full of stuff for you to find and interact with no matter how good you are at the game.
The game’s main collectible this go round are Power Moons, and while Stars and Shines in previous Mario titles often required a single laid out task to be completed one at a time, Power Moons are absolutely littered around the Kingdoms Mario visits along his journey. Some are sitting out in the open, others require clever puzzle solving, some require exploring areas and interactions, and some are cordoned off in little puzzle rooms that test your platforming ability. The game has hundreds upon hundreds of these things for you to collect, and to beat the game, you only need 120 of them. To get the extra stuff, you need a whole lot more, and the game is more than happy to keep adding to the amount of Moons to find as you progress in the game. Beat an area’s boss, more Moons are available. Beat the final boss, more moons appear in every level. Trigger something in one Kingdom, and another Kingdom might have something new going on there. I’ve seen some people complain the abundance of Moons makes them feel less satisfying to get, but I think the Moon system is absolutely brilliant. There’s more than enough Moons in simple spots for new players and kids to be able to go through the story and enjoy it all, but there’s plenty of challenging ones for players who really want to wring out all this game has to offer. Sure, Mario’s death is a slap on the wrist now that he has no lives, but the game gives you things you have to figure out and deadly areas to traverse that avoid being frustrating because that penalty is removed. That way, you can grab Moons to your hearts content. The glut of Moon rewards for solving small exploration puzzles and other “too easy” ones reminds me of a complaint I share with most people about Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. In that game, there are many treasure chests that require some problem-solving or careful maneuvering to reach, and when you do crack it open, all you get is a Rupee reward… in a game already overflowing with so much wealth that you can’t even carry that extra currency you just found. Funnily enough, I was worried for a while Super Mario Odyssey was giving me more coins then I would ever have anything to do with as well, but just like the additional Moons it adds in the post-game, the glut of coins you collect suddenly seems a pittance when you unlock the new content you can buy. Twilight Princess didn’t know how to reward a player for engaging its world, but Super Mario Odyssey’s world makes sure everything you do has a proper reward waiting for you, even when its just a simple task you completed.
Speaking of Super Mario Odyssey’s world, I do appreciate the method they took with evolving the franchise without going absurd. After the Super Mario Galaxy games, everyone joked about how Mario had nowhere to go from there. Super Mario Universe? Super Mario Dimension? No, Super Mario Odyssey pulled things back and decided to take place on a single planet with a bunch of interesting locales. Mario visits various Kingdoms on his journey, each one a tightly packed place brimming with personality and teeming with activities. Mario can meet the local creatures (who, in one Kingdom, are regular people who are far more realistic than Mario, which never rubbed me wrong since they were basically the Kingdom’s weird populace similar to the sombrero-wearing skeletons and hat-wearing ghosts of other worlds), he can buy a lot of new outfits (which were a fun addition, but I feel it wasn’t explored to the fullest. It’s nice to play dress-up, but I wish they had some functionality besides a few “wear this” Moons. Maybe the swimming gear could grant you a bit more oxygen underwater, or the parka could make you slower to take damage in the cold), and he can run around to his heart’s content in a sandbox full of little things to keep you occupied. I wouldn’t say any of the Kingdoms are poorly designed, but some of them do have a few faults. Some are small and constrained, making them the less interesting of the bunch as you move through the same places in your search for hidden treasures. Others are large and wide at the expense of not filling them properly. The Sand Kingdom especially spreads itself out wide but fills a lot of that with just sand dunes to navigate. The game also is a bit too hesitant to play music in its Kingdoms, sometimes going for ambient noise in areas that don’t really need it and hiding the more energetic and peppy tunes for only certain segments, which is a shame because so many of them are wonderful melodies that embedded themselves into my brain already and surely will pop up unbidden in years to come. Despite this, none of the Kingdoms are boring and they all have nooks and crannies that will keep surprising you. With so many Moons to find, its amazing the levels never really got old, and even when you start dwindling down the Moons you can find by just looking around and thinking creatively, the game has a few hint systems you can tap to point you towards the right area. Super Mario Odyssey never made me want to look up a solution online because it always felt so satisfying to uncover it in a game that was so eager for you to find all it could show you while at the same time not holding your hand and yanking you towards it.
Somehow, despite everything I’ve said so far, I’ve only barely brushed against the game’s big new mechanic that sets it apart from other Mario titles and a lot of other platformers in general: the capture mechanic. The running and jumping and exploring are all great, but what really pushes this game to even greater heights is this charming little addition. Throw your cap at anything that isn’t wearing a hat and you can take it over… except sometimes they are wearing hats and you have to knock them off, and it can’t be something that triggers the hat twirl, and it can’t be an object you interact with in some other way or is just a part of the environment… Look, there are admittedly only a set of things you can use the hat capture on, and it does limit the game in a few ways. I’d be fine with taking over the tiny yellow Goombas even if they couldn’t do anything interesting, but the game doesn’t allow it. The game also leaves out a few enemies you’d expect to see and seem like good capture targets potentially in deference to not wanting to integrate them with the capturing mechanic. Pokeys do not appear in the desert level at all despite a living cactus monster being a perfect fit and pretty simple to imagine controlling, but Mario Odyssey decided that it would rather try and make each captured enemy or object more interesting to control rather than adding in a bunch for you to play with. Sadly, this also comes with another problem about populating the worlds, in that those empty areas in the larger Kingdoms probably exist because they couldn’t just plop down a few enemies to make them more interesting. Still, when you do get to control something, it can completely shift how you navigate. I could try and give some examples of the really fun ones, but so many of them are a joy to use that it would be almost pointless to compile such a list. Some are limited and rare or just exist for a single moment, but the recurring ones usually bring with them a unique mechanic that shifts how you play Super Mario Odyssey right up until you need to pop out and move on to the next delightful challenge or capture.
Despite all my glowing praise so far, the one part I feel Super Mario Odyssey undeniably falters in with little reason for doing so is the implementation of motion controls. Back in the Wii era, I had no trouble with them, and I still think motion controls can be fun and interesting. I didn’t mind shaking my Wii remote to make Mario spin in Super Mario Galaxy, but the way motion controls are implemented in Super Mario Odyssey is imperfect. Gyroscope aiming is wonderful and makes looking around an area better than using a stick, but the other uses are finicky. You can throw your cap with a shake, or throw it upwards with a flick up, or down with a flick down, or you can spin it around you with a flick sideways, and you can shake it again to guide the cap onto things it can hit. Unfortunately, putting so many things on the motion controls means the game sometimes can’t tell what you’re going for. No matter how far I got in the game, the motion controls never felt reliable, and I only used them when I was absolutely sure I wouldn’t die or suffer for them misreading my input. The game should have at least mapped a few of the functions to one of the many buttons on the Switch controller that just repeated the abilities of another button. Captures also sometimes had abilities that were attached to the motion controls, but they hardly feel natural and the game makes you complacent with how many of them have pointless motion control functionality that you miss the ones you need to know to get certain Moons. It’s a shame these controls were so poorly handled in the Mario game that has perhaps the most satisfying and useful navigation controls of any Mario title yet. There are many Moons that have multiple means of acquiring if you have mastered Mario’s movement or can think outside the box with the environment and objects on hand. I’ve found countless alternate solutions for Moons and am still surprised when I learn someone else had found a different way of doing it with neither of us having gone for what the game seemed to indicate was the expected solution. It’s such a level of openness that it makes your interest in the world and the way you move in it pay off in constantly satisfying ways.
THE VERDICT: Super Mario Odyssey is an amazing package of pure video game fun. Its got wonderfully crafted worlds to explore packed with small challenges and obstacles to overcome, and it never dips into anything overly frustrating and certainly never anything cynical. Super Mario Odyssey is all about joy, and it absolutely oozes that in a well-crafted unforgettable experience that was hard to pull myself away from. Even in previously explored levels, it’s a joy to go back to them as they are populated by new things to do that make the Kingdoms fresh all over again. Sure, playing through the main story is pretty easy, but it’s the extras all around it that make Super Mario Odyssey such a lovely excursion into a world only video games could offer. Even with its minor faults, Super Mario Odyssey makes me hungry for more without feeling like its missing anything too big.
And so, I give Super Mario Odyssey for the Nintendo Switch…
A FANTASTIC rating. Mario has proven once again that he is the king of games and that Nintendo are brilliant craftsmen when they spend their time on a project. The game has so much love and care put into it, and there are so many little things that I could just go on and on gushing about all the wonderful little touches. I didn’t even mention the wonderful little brochures for each Kingdom you visit, I didn’t mention the 8-bit segments that rather than being a neat easter egg are actually a recurring gameplay shift with unique challenges, I didn’t mention the many throwbacks to other Mario games that pull on your nostalgia in just the right way. It makes things you want to take over with your hat, it makes things that didn’t seem interesting to take over with your hat some of the most fun ones, it delivers on scope and spectacle despite shedding the shell on what a Mario game “needs” to be. There is no restraint, but the game hones everything it throws down so nothing is sloppy or boring.
There is certainly a place for games with serious tones, dark subject matter, and heavy subjects… but there is also a place for games that are pure fun. The word I keep thinking of to describe it is “joy”, and that really is the simplest way to describe it. Super Mario Odyssey is a joy through and through, and I’m glad Mario was able to inspire a gleeful sense of wonder in me yet again after a lifetime with this mustached plumber.