Super Mario Odyssey is weird. I must admit my initial reaction after learning of its hat-possessing gimmick was not great. It felt odd.
Little did I know, this was a very normal feeling to have when Nintendo pitches a new Super Mario game on a new console. I skipped the Wii games entirely and when I had a GameCube I never played Super Mario Sunshine so, I skipped on the previous two major leaps in the eponymous plumber’s impressive resume.
One thing is to hear about a new Mario game when you’re so disconnected from the gaming industry you know you’re not going to be playing it, and another entirely is to be eager to play a new Mario game hoping whatever the mustached little man does next is awesome. Which, to be fair, it rarely isn’t.
I came into Super Mario Odyssey with such high hopes, after skipping his two adventures in Space and spending time almost exclusively with his 2D escapades on the Nintendo DS and 3DS. This would be my return to the wacky realm of 3D platforming. Full stop.
Well, you can read about my thoughts in the next thousand words or so, but to sum it up: it was all I hoped it would be and more.
The Plumber Who Wears Many Hats
Mario’s shtick is his jump. His jump is synonymous with fun, and Nintendo has spent decades perfecting it so that it’s the one verb that feels the most satisfying to execute. It is also the core move around which every other mechanic in the games revolve.
To hear that the next game would involve a sentient hat named Cappy that could be thrown to possess other objects and enemies felt alien as all hell, so imagine my surprise when the game immediately charmed me with Cappy’s endearing Tim Burton-esque world and his plot, which runs in tandem to our titular hero’s.
The first time I was able to throw Mario’s cap around, I understood. Ironic as it seems for a writer, the thing about recent Mario games is that I rarely read or instruct myself before trying anything. This plumber is a man of action, not a complicated tutorial-laden robot.
Ever since the Mario 64 days, the motto to progress in these games has been learning by doing it, mastering by doing it a lot. The gameplay loop here is so fast, very few games in the current climate of AAA blockbusters can match it. Which is why I’m impressed that Nintendo could introduce another core mechanic that works so well into the proceedings. It’s almost as if Cappy had been around since the N64, except he wasn’t.
Cappy’s existence isn’t just a plot device tied to a new gameplay gimmick. It serves the very specific purpose of extending Mario’s range of movement horizontally. The little man can already cover great distances by jumping, but what about reaching platforms or objects around him on the X plane?
Throwing the cap allows him to not only interact with it as a temporary mini-platform to jump off from, but it also makes it easier to reach pesky coins, and to possess other characters and inanimate objects. When you factor in all the new fun ways of gameplay that open up, the game is simply nuts.
I didn’t really get this last part until I got to throw the cap at a sleeping T-Rex and suddenly my brain lit up with the ‘A-HA!’ tingles that sparkle when an idea clicks. It is so mischievous and yet brilliant. Allowing Mario to become whatever enemy or object within reach allows him to acquire said target’s innate abilities (and weaknesses).
Possess a T-Rex? You can now stomp on massing rocks and chomp on your enemies like Jurassic Park. Possess a Goomba? You can stack up on top of other Goombas to get on hard-to-reach places and impress the ladies. For real. Possess a Christmas tree? Now you can… skip around and hide in the woods.
When it comes to ‘capturing’ (this is how the game calls it) enemies, the results are equally surprising and funny almost every time. In the case of inanimate objects, the fun is in learning how to use them to your advantage, since every object has its separate controls.
Previous games in the series taught a basic mechanic to the player and then gradually ramped up the difficulty and complexity of the game by extrapolating on said mechanic. It is an excellent concept that keeps the game fresh and challenging well into the 100th hour.
Super Mario Odyssey exponentially extends this basic learning curve in every level and with every captured enemy. Think about that for a second.
Every time a new character is captured, the learning curve resets as you learn said character’s moves and how best to use them to your advantage. Some characters might not prove as useful or as important to the experience as others; some characters you’ll only capture once of twice in the game and never see them again, but the mechanic will still make your brain work to solve that tiny puzzle, which in turn will keep you motivated to play more.
Easy On The Life
In my experience, it used to be that Mario games relied on a lot of trial and error. Some of them instilled a sense of urgency to memorize enemy movement and level layouts. Super Mario Odyssey just wants you to have fun in the massive sandboxes it lays before you.
Rarely does failure mean death and, when it does, ten coins are deducted from the stash you own, of which you can collect up to 9,999. The game is incredibly chill about handing them out too. You’ll find coins by the tens scattered all over every map so that, even from the start, the fear of dying does not get in the way of experimenting.
The Perks of World Plumbing
Speaking of maps and sandboxes, have you seen the level design in this? Even if you haven’t played or seen the game in action, a screenshot of Mario running bare-chested on the sand in the Seaside Kingdom has got to draw your attention to the detail and beauty in each of these worlds.
I dreamed of playing a Mario game where he could visit real-world locations like Rome and Tokyo, but the game went a step further and created New Donk City, where almost every street name carries a Donkey Kong Country reference, you get to drive a scooter, and get a Jazz band together.
The absolute best kingdom, though? That would be the Luncheon Kingdom, with its sizzling cooking fest brewing in the distance and all manner of sounds, colors and textures enticing your senses in the best of ways. I simply cannot play this world and without the urgency to make myself a soup or eat some ramen.
Each kingdom even offers a souvenir shop to splurge on memorabilia and locally-produced goods. You can buy stickers for the outside of your big red hat of a ship, decorative items for the inside of said transport and even outfits you can interchange whenever you feel like. I, personally like my Space Captain Harlock-inspired get up here.
I love what Nintendo is doing with its stalwarts. Both Link and Mario’s most recent adventures bank on the portability of the Switch by providing two distinct angles to the idea of travel. Breath of the Wild would be your rugged backpacker experience: camping in the woods and cooking meals from items you’ve gathered in the wild.
Mario, on the other hand, is your tourist world tour. You follow the brochure, you see the main attractions, you buy the tourist merch and attend local cultural shows performed by locals. Super Mario Odyssey is cityscaping in its most raw sense and it uses this hook to put you in beautiful scenarios with plenty of cool things to do.
I’ve been both of these persons at one point or another in my travels, but never did I think I would connect with these characters at that level. I find this overlap of these two passions of mine to be amazing, and it allows me to truly assert that Nintendo has stuck close to me throughout my entire life.
I don’t know what Nintendo’s plan is for the next Super Mario game, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’s Super Mario Odyssey 2, where I’m sure they’ll let us possess Waluigi. Then, and only then, will I be certain that we’re in the doomed timeline. And it will be just as glorious.
Super Mario Odyssey not only scratches that itch for truly game-changing platforming, it does so as elegantly as one could hope in the current generation of consoles. I came into it hoping for a good game and walked away having experienced a great adventure that left me wanting both more Mario and more travel.