“Above all, video games are meant to be just one thing: Fun for everyone.”
Super Mario has enjoyed one of the longest running and most successful careers in gaming history. Though not consistently revered, Mario has left an imprint on not just gaming culture but on world culture, befitting an icon recognized across ethnic, linguistic, and generational divides. He is the best representation of what Nintendo is all about. He’s featured in many titles that have been met with critical acclaim. He’s survived every downturn his company has suffered. He’s an emblem of the joy and magic of gaming.
The latest culmination of this legacy is Super Mario Odyssey, a game which feels familiar and fresh at the same time. It has been rightfully called the true sequel to Super Mario 64. What Mario 64 got right in terms of turning three-dimensional game space into an enduring and addicting adventure about collecting stars, Odyssey builds on and masters. Odyssey is an instant classic set at a grand scale, one which Nintendo purportedly hopes will become a perennial title, and likely that will be the case.
This is what you get when a series has the opportunity to refine and polish itself to a brilliant shine for over thirty years.
MILD SPOILERSTUFFS AHEAD
Super Mario Odyssey, in formulaic fashion, begins with our hero chasing down his archnemesis Bowser in an attempt to rescue Princess Peach from his clutches. This has been Mario’s life story but the difference here is that Bowser has at last revealed his true intentions: the Koopa King is planning to wed the Princess. Gross, but c’mon, we knew this all along.
Mario confronts Bowser atop an airship fortress, the Koopa King clad in his white tuxedo and top hat. Their battle is resplendent but Mario is foiled and knocked senseless, hurtling downward through the clouds to whatever lies below. He just so happens to land in the Cap Kingdom and he’s met by the appropriately named Cappy, a shapeshifting specter who takes the forms of hats. All is not well in the Cap Kingdom, however. Bowser’s quest for unholy matrimony has carried him on a conquest through the kingdoms of the world, plundering priceless treasures and artifacts for his big day.
Bowser has hat-napped Cappy’s sister Tiara from the Cap Kingdom, for the Princess’s bridal headgear, so Cappy and Mario decide to join forces, pursue Bowser and Peach across the kingdoms, and present their formal reason why those two should not be wed rather than forever hold their peace. They’ve a wedding to crash but while everything is sunshine and roses (since this is a Mario game), the going will not be easy. Bowser has enlisted the Broodals, a quartet of leporine wedding planners, to appropriate the treasures of the kingdoms and stop Mario in his tracks.
Odyssey represents the fullest vision of Mario’s world that we’ve ever seen as he and Cappy go globe-trotting from region to fanciful region. There are many such regions, including but not limited to Bonneton the Cap Kingdom (evocative of England), Tostarena in the Sand Kingdom (representative of Mexico), Shiveria in the Snow Kingdom (the Arctic), and New Donk City in the Metro Kingdom (referencing the US of A).
Each of these fantastical visions of real world cultures provide unique backdrops for Mario’s explorations. They make you feel like you’re seeing the world alongside the hero in his airship modeled after a hot air balloon, à la Jules Verne’s Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingts Jours, undoubtedly. Each kingdom is filled with fun and colorful characters for Mario to aid, as well as tons and tons… and tons of secrets to find.
Chief of these are the Power Moons.
Power Moons are the energy sources of this world. They power cities and Mario and Cappy’s airship, the Odyssey. Mario is initially tasked with hunting down a set amount of Power Moons in order to fuel the Odyssey’s voyage, and then with each subsequent journey to another kingdom more Moons will have to be found in order to reach the next.
This structure of completing miniature challenges, puzzles, and platforming sections in order to collect items that open up more of the game is directly lifted from Super Mario 64, where originally the collectibles were stars, and Odyssey constantly reminds you of this connection referentially. Where Mario 64 included just over a handful of discoverable stars per area, accessible through magic paintings, as you’ll recall, Odyssey includes many more Power Moons in comparison. Though each sandbox region isn’t that large (nowhere near as huge as the playground of Breath of the Wild), there are some kingdoms that contain as many as 60 Power Moons, with even more to be found post-game.
The fact that Nintendo made virtually zero embellishments to this gameplay loop of collecting items to unlock more areas to collect more items shows off the Big N’s confidence in the system, bolstered no doubt by the rousing success of every past iteration this loop has seen. The “just one more star” mentality from Super Mario 64, wherein you unlocked new rooms and passageways in Peach’s Castle, was reinforced again in Super Mario Galaxy where Power Stars had to be obtained in order to reach new galaxies. Here it is utilized again on a larger scale and the only difference is Odyssey is concerned with Power Moons, not Power Stars.
The sheer quantity of the Moons tucked into each kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey is alone impressive. I made no to-do about checking the list of Moons as I went along. I merely discovered what I could, completed the little story segment in each region and fought the Broodals in order to make it to the end of the main game as quickly as possible. There was, after all, the marital status of Princess Peach at stake.
When I completed the game and prepared to go back to clean up and find all the Power Moons I missed, I was floored at how many I’d left behind. Both Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy contained a total of 120 stars. Super Mario Odyssey has nearly nine times that amount in Moons… clocking in at a whopping 900 plus.
With so many to find, the “level” doesn’t end and return you to a hub upon finding a Moon (excepting the Moons from the kingdoms’ bosses). Odyssey feels a little more open-world in that regard. You’re left to explore each region finding whatever Moons you can in whatever order you like, with more unlocked later on.
Most of these Moons, given the shocking amount present, are quite easy to find. Simple things like talking to an NPC, purchasing the local duds, or climbing to the top of a spire will earn you a Moon or several but there are still gruesome trials for the late game Moons. Though the repetitive tasks of chasing down rabbits for Moons or buying them from shopkeepers occupy a lot of space, what’s most impressive is how meaningfully hid a majority of these Moons are. Considering there are more than 900 of them, it’s surprising how many of them feel purposeful instead of random. They are indeed scattered across the kingdoms but finding all of them isn’t as simple as just looking around.
One such set of Moons is obtained (spoilers: highlight to reveal) post-game on the Dark Side of the Moon by fighting five Broodal bosses in a row with only one healing heart in sight. The balance of challenging Moons and easy Moons in Odyssey ensure that the game doesn’t feel too easy or too hard. It’s balanced, providing incentive to keep finding more through accessing more worlds and unlocking more goodies in the shops. Yeah you can be sure I kept wanting to find more Moons when I unlocked the (spoilers: highlight to reveal) Wario, Waluigi, Diddy Kong, and polygonal N64 costumes.
It has been said that Super Mario Odyssey is designed to appeal to the core Mario audience, rather than the casual player. Mario games, to my mind, have always attracted fairly casual players, but this aim to please is clearest in the many cameos, references, and old school side-scrolling sections mixed into the game. These are of course a delight but one wonders if Odyssey could have aspired to greater success and truly captured the hearts of millions, as Mario has many times before, if the paradigm had shifted just a little more. Several friends I’ve talked to have expressed that Odyssey didn’t quite click, didn’t quite resonate with them as they expected. Is this due to Nintendo relying too heavily on tried-and-true formula?
Ultimately, my thoughts are that Odyssey is enjoyable but not quite as captivating as its progenitors on the 64, GameCube, and Wii. The magic that Nintendo wields in unparalleled fashion is surely present in Odyssey, though it wears thin in moments that feel especially like all too familiar ground. I expect that this isn’t everyone’s take on the game and the difference of opinion is likely measured in iotas but let it be known that Odyssey doesn’t fundamentally change the Mario formula. Though Bowser marrying Peach seems like the climax of a triple decade history of kidnapping and rescuing, Odyssey doesn’t do for Mario and sandbox-style games what Breath of the Wild did for Zelda and open-world games earlier this year.
Odyssey doesn’t reinvent through simplicity, it repackages games near and dear to billions of hearts with great success, though the level of attraction that Odyssey can sustain on that front remains to be seen. For those looking for an escapist window back to the games of yesteryear, blown into monolithic proportions, Odyssey will likely make your heart soar. I admittedly experienced that myself during the “Jump Up, Super Star!” sequence in New Donk City.
My goodness, I cannot get that song out of my head.
The 8-bit Review
Have you ever watched the new release of a Pixar movie at the movie house only to hear your companion say something like: “That was a fun story but the graphics were too kiddie and terrible!” Probably not. If so, you likely need new companions. With films like Up, The Incredibles, and WALL-E (my favorite) we extend the courtesy of allowing the movie to be moving, to impact us and engage us not in spite of but through the comparatively simplistic visuals. Pixar films do not of course aim for high definition realism most of the time. They’re stylized digital cartoons. I might’ve had a hearty sob at the end of Toy Story 3 (maybe) and that emotion was carried along by the visuals, not forced through them like an impediment.
One thing which leads me to believe that video games are still in their adolescence, particularly in light of the conversation that surrounds them, is the matter of many players’ obsession with high definition realism as the sole measure of visual quality. Standing back from the statement, surely it’s ludicrous to suggest that a game is great simply because its graphics are realistic. Certainly these kinds of graphics are indicative of the power of the hardware, but that’s not to say that they automatically serve the execution and presentation of their games and accompanying stories better than heavily stylized, simplistic, or cartoonish graphics. Or, as I discussed in my Axiom Verge review, games can opt for the limitations of pixel art in order to give impressions of their characters that the player’s imagination must fill in, a cooperative phenomenon which high definition realism cannot attempt at the same scale. Since games are after all meant to be played, the graphics are then meant to allow the player into the world, not bar them from it. Therein is at least one decent standard for quality graphics.
With Super Mario Odyssey, I really did think of Pixar as I was playing it. It is gorgeously rendered, full of the life and vibrancy that has filled Mario’s world for decades, though now we’re allowed to see the individual strands of hair in his mustache and the gleams of light catching in his cerulean irises. The cutscenes are exceptionally beautiful though not every moment is visually perfect. There are quite a few regions, textures, shadows, and characters with edges more jagged than you’d perhaps expect. The lighting is particularly garish in the open sunlight of gray-toned New Donk City, for instance, and that place is populated with hordes of ugly PS2-faced plastic people muttering their creepy anti-language.
However, on the whole, Odyssey is a delight to look at. Besides, this is the game that finally gave us Mario nips. That alone will make you thankful Odyssey isn’t rendered in full HD realism.
Let me immediately embed “Jump Up, Super Star!” for you. We all know it’s the only reason you’re here, unless of course you were already listening to its 10 hour YouTube video on repeat. Highly likely.
As astonishing and even a little incongruous as it is that we’re actually hearing a vocal song in a Mario game, it’s impossible to listen to that song without smiling. It’s performed in-game by Mayor Pauline of New Donk City, who is in fact the damsel from the original Donkey Kong arcade game, and the vocalist who lent her voice in real life is Kate Davis, singer, jazz pianist, voice actress of Sakura in Naruto, Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog, and so on.
There, now that that’s out of the way we can actually talk about the rest of the music. Audio should allow the player into the world, welcome them in, just like the visuals, and I felt that as soon as I hit Cascade Kingdom right after Bonneton. The orchestra swells up into their playful, soaring, adventurous, sprinting melody. I was immediately reminded of Super Mario Galaxy and how the series turned away from its steel drum and calypso roots to the scope and scale of symphony.
What keeps the style of orchestrated music in post-Galaxy mainline Mario games so distinct (beyond the new chiptune versions that play during side-scrolling sequences, which you can hear above) is the brightness of the music. There seems to be a tendency toward ambient sounds in games with the use of the orchestra, and within that there seems to be another tendency to wield the power of the orchestra to brood and set a dark or pensive mood.
With Odyssey, there’s nearly none of that. The music conveys a kind of energy that makes the player propel Mario forward. Odyssey highlights excitement. You remember… that thing which fades with teenage years and eventually leaves most adults entirely. Odyssey reminds us that it’s exciting to be alive, to be curious, to explore, to see the world and experience wonderful new places and cultures. The ethnic tapestries Odyssey pulls from encapsulates all of that and the toe-tapping rhythms ensure you catch a sense of what Mario games are all about at their core…
So what are Mario games all about? Momentum.
Nearly every Mario game I’ve played has been about momentum, aside from spin offs where he’s driving a cart or a golf club. Often Nintendo fans seems to triumph the values of gameplay over graphics, given the development tendencies of the Big N, so is there a nucleus of valuable gameplay at the heart of Mario games? I would say yes, though that doesn’t alone entirely validate the statement “gameplay over graphics” or mean I ascribe to it, necessarily.
Why the gameplay of Mario works is because it’s invitational. Mario games invite you to run. The presence of timers in early side-scrollers prodded you to run faster. The platforming in the later 3D titles emphasize velocity in order to navigate wide distances. Mario sprints so smoothly and so pleasantly at top speed that slowing for a hazard becomes less and less desirous, especially as the player becomes accustomed to the way Mario handles in each outing, their skill level rising. This is why speed runs of Super Mario games look like such impressive, game-breaking stunts. These games are designed to make you want to play that way, so you’re fighting against your better instincts to play it safe while at the same time craving speed. Though it is Sonic the Hedgehog, Mario’s 90’s rival, who capitalized on this aspect of gameplay in platforming, it is Mario who maintained the balance of interesting level design, dangers, and room enough to explore, backtrack, slow to a crawl and reach top speed at will.
Mario games are secondarily about variables in platforming. This hearkens all the way back to the first Super Mario Bros. with its introduction of unique power ups such as the Big Mushroom to add an extra hit point and environmental damage, the Super Star for invincibility, and the Fire Flower for projectile offense. The Super Mario games have built on the concept of variations since: flight came with Super Mario Bros. 3, the devouring steed Yoshi hatched in Super Mario World, 3D platforming entered the arena in Super Mario 64, the concept of gravity shifts messed with our minds in Super Mario Galaxy. There have been suits and power ups and items galore since Mario’s inception and now there’s Cappy in Odyssey.
Mario’s jumping and leaping move set isn’t dramatically changed from what we’ve seen in his previous 3D adventures but he can now throw Cappy like a boomerang off his head. Cappy can interact with environments to smash obstacles to unveil coins, or collect coins. He can even provide a temporary platform for Mario to bounce off of, but the Cappy mechanic which is most significant is when he’s used to CAPture (heh) enemies. The game calls it capturing but it’s essentially possession. Remember, Cappy is a ghostly entity, and Mario games have a history of flirting with the creepy and even the macabre on occasion.
Everything is instantly more adorable with a Mario mustache.
Captured enemies are controlled by the player and come with their own unique abilities, whether that’s jumping higher than ever as a frog or blasting through the air as a bullet bill or firing your cannon as a tank. I had a conversation with a coworker fairly recently about how Mario has been translated into so many different genres and now that he can inhabit tanks I guess he’s also touched third-person shooters, as well. Encountering and capturing enemies provide a ton of unique variations for the gameplay, though I could wish the enemy population was much more dense so that choice-making was less confined to solving individual puzzles and platforming linearly.
One of the best moments in the game comes at the end when Mario (spoilers: highlight to reveal) captures Bowser in order to escape the Moon. I was on cloud nine that whole time.
The big thorn in the side of Odyssey’s gameplay is its reliance upon motion controls, that persistent relic from the Nintendo Wii. Here, the motion controls are less front and center, and you’re fortunately not required to point a remote at the screen the whole time, but they are still unreliable and though Odyssey presents them as optional, that’s really not the case.
When starting up the game, you’re treated to a screen that welcomes you to “try playing with detached Joy-Con controllers”. Doing so is comfortable (in the proper seating arrangement) and the set up allows you to access unique motion control features like throwing Cappy with a wave of a Joy-Con and causing him to home in on enemies. You’ll miss often otherwise. This, and a few other features, are too convenient to play the game without them, all but forcing you to “try” these “optional” controls.
The problem is that it shoots the Switch in the foot. The Nintendo Switch was marketed on its versatility. You could play it on your tele. You could play it in the car. You could play it on the loo. Super Mario Odyssey was marketed as a flagship title for the Switch, one of the biggest exclusives of 2017, but rather than show off the versatile features of Nintendo’s handheld/console hybrid, Odyssey is built to confine you to one specific mode of play with detached Joy-Cons. You cannot competently play it in handheld mode. Shaking the entire tablet to get Cappy to home in on enemies does not make for an enjoyable experience. This is less stupid when playing with the Joy-Cons connected together, though shaking an entire traditional controller immediately seems inappropriate.
I therefore had to play Super Mario Odyssey on TV mode with detached Joy-Cons the entire time. I didn’t have much other choice. On my lunch breaks, I chose to enjoy other titles in handheld mode while sitting in my car. Not only does the return of and reliance upon motion controls seem somewhat antiquated, still clumsy, even for the ambidextrous and capable Joy-Cons, they actually limit the capabilities of the Switch itself. That’s just no good, especially for one of the biggest games to hit the Switch in its launch year, typically the kind of game that would demonstrate the hardware’s capabilities, not detract from them.
But hey, at least there’s an awesome photo mode! Love that SNES filter.
The thing about motion controls that leans toward the positive at least is that they generally tend to feel intuitive. Shaking a Joy-Con to get Mario to spin-throw Cappy felt like an extension of my consciousness more so than if a shake made Mario jump. The developers did seem to attempt to dial in to some kind of muted second fiddle for the place of motion controls, though the game’s recommendation of them is more like a requirement. Otherwise, I don’t see how a Mario game with this kind of singular focus narratively, mechanically, structurally could be at all inaccessible, especially considering most of us have played a Mario game at some point in our lives and Odyssey presents itself as a natural extension of the platforming that has come before it.
Speaking of which, the 2D side-sequences are a surefire pleasure. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. It’s a nice callback to Mario’s 8-bit origins but it’s implemented in such a way that it feels like an organic progression of the level design.
The majority of Odyssey’s content lies after the credits roll and it is there that you’ll find some deeply worrisome challenges. It took me quite a while to best the quintet of bosses but besides that there are several platforming trials that I just couldn’t complete. I left and decided to come back later. Odyssey is far from the hardest Super Mario game ever released but you’ll probably need a guide if you plan to 100% this beast.
With just short of a thousand Moons to find, Odyssey is the biggest Mario game yet. I’m not sure they’d ever even want to go bigger as collecting that many Moons becomes quite daunting, if not tedious, by the end of the game. I do love how much post-game content there is: more kingdoms to discover, more content to unlock, more secrets to find, more costumes to buy. One such costume costs 9999 coins. Yeah I’ll have that by 2018. No, really. I expect that I shall. That’s because at the time of this writing I’ve got about 450 Moons, so I’m going to still be collecting a lot more coins as I collect a lot more Moons.
Purple coins are other collectibles to keep an eye out for. They represent local currency that are kingdom-specific. These are used for special costumes, such as those which are necessary for grabbing all the Moons. I don’t know why, but dressing up Mario is one of the best parts about this game. It was one of the first things I wanted to do in each kingdom. Don’t pretend like a zuit suit Mario doesn’t tantalize you!
Nintendo is constantly fighting a war with itself between innovation and formula. Both attributes are clearly visible across their history. While they constantly emphasize new ways to play, they also consistently rely on their previous successes, often with little to no changes. This ensures some measure of success but I’m sure it also accounts for why some folks believe they’re stuck in the past.
The Cap Kingdom and Cappy are great additions to the magical Mario universe. Capturing enemies is an interesting way to bring in the variables for this quest. I don’t know ultimately how appealing and how persevering Cappy will be in the Mario mythos (I’m guessing this will be unique to Odyssey) but it’s just one more slight embellishment to a franchise which hasn’t evolved much over time. Again, Odyssey feels quite new while at the same time never leaving the safety of the kiddie pool.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
While Odyssey may be the perfect sandbox Mario game to some, I hesitate to call it a true masterpiece. Motion controls that stick it to the Switch aside, it is no small wonder that Mario is Nintendo’s leading character, their Superman, their Mickey Mouse, their Bugs Bunny. Yet unlike so many leading characters throughout entertainment history, Mario has not fallen to the wayside. Not yet, if ever. He has proven that he is malleable. He can be reinterpreted again and again and again in dozens of different settings and genres. Odyssey is not the all-consuming shock-and-awe masterwork that I felt Breath of the Wild to be for Zelda, but it’s an enjoyable, delightful, happy, fun little/big distraction from the real world. That’s exactly what games should be.
Hats off to Nintendo.
Aggregated Score: 9.0
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Categories: Game Review