Super Mario Odyssey Review
[Reviewed on Nintendo Switch – games™ 193]
There is something miraculous about Super Mario Odyssey. The joy of it is inescapable. Perhaps we could have said much the same about a number of Mario titles over the years, but this one just keeps delivering over and over and over, and each time with a new twist or element that elevates each experience from the last. Just when you think Super Mario Odyssey has given you its peak moment of happiness or nostalgia or nerve-jangling challenge, it has another one up its sleeve.
So, clearly we have been impressed with Mario’s latest offering and at the time of writing we still haven’t stopped playing. The story has long been completed, but as we approach 300 Power Moons we’re not even halfway through gathering that particular collectible. It may seem odd to begin talking about this new Mario release by discussing its post-story longevity, but the depth of content and the variety of it that lasts hours and days past the final chapter of the typically light story speaks to the overall creativity of the project. Power Moons, purple coins, coins in general for buying costumes, music files, recurring characters and more all need to be sought out if you want to be an Odyssey completionist. And there’s a very good chance you will want to be because Nintendo has excelled at making each one of these small elements really fun and engaging.
Whether the challenges to find these items are born of new concepts, fun combinations of well-trodden ideas or steeped in Mario nostalgia, there are very few in the game that do not make you smile, laugh or feel a shiver of recognition or excitement. As you delve deeper into the post-game of Odyssey the more nostalgic elements rise to the surface, a reward perhaps for franchise fans who are typically the most committed to finding every secret and collectible a 3D Mario title has to offer. Simultaneously the difficulty begins to rise, but we’ll get into that shortly.
Let’s go back to the beginning proper and the core of what is new and innovative about Super Mario Odyssey, because that’s ultimately what’s going to draw you in and get you motoring through this pretty epic adventure. Narratively, as we’ve suggested, this is as light as you would expect with Peach in the clutches of Bowser once again and Mario forced to chase his airship around the globe, gathering up enough Power Moons to keep his ship, the Odyssey, moving to the next location. In reality, it’s a globe-trotting adventure where engaging in the local customs and cultures rewards you with Moons, money and collectibles, enriching your understanding and appreciation for Mario’s world.
And it is his world, as while we had pondered the relative location of this adventure against the Mushroom Kingdom and Mario’s other favourite haunts prior to release, it turns out this is his home planet after all, just not as we’ve ever had the chance to experience it previously. And what a wonderfully wild world it is, packed full of peculiar characters and opportunities to reinterpret 20 years of 3D Mario game design. The most prominent shift is obviously the capture mechanic that allows Mario to ‘possess’ characters in the game and adopt their abilities.
The idea of Mario becoming these strange creatures seems like a nice amusement at first, but it’s actually so much more than that. While they do offer a nice break from the clearly familiar mechanics of this game (you’ll be triple-jumping within five minutes of the start of the game) they also offer a genuine change of mindset. Being a Paragoomba or Wiggler is so utterly foreign, the feel of playing as them so altered from the baseline we’ve been learning since 1996, that it’s a bit of a revelation. Each new vessel offers its challenges and rewards and makes you rethink the layouts of the level around you.
Let’s take Goombas as an example, the very first enemy we faced in Super Mario Bros., who haven’t changed a great deal over the years in terms of their appearance or moveset, except in instances when they have a pair of wings stuck to them. As a Goomba you can waddle along, you can jump a little, but not as high as Mario can on his own and you can be hurt by other Goombas who recognise you as an interloper. However, you can stack them. Jump on the head of a Goomba as one of their kind and you control them both.
Jump on more and a tower of Goombas is gradually formed, giving you access to all sorts of ledges or items that would otherwise be out of reach. And as you move, the Goomba tower leans ever so slightly under its teetering weight. And you get the same kind of fun, peculiar mechanics or interactions with each possessed creature in the game. The Hammer Bros. are another fantastic example as they bounce around rather than walking, making movement precarious on tight ledges, but they also have a forgiving and high leap that means you can jump halfway off a ledge and still make it.
Which brings us onto the subject of movement, which we wanted to spend a moment praising Super Mario Odyssey for, although it could well be extended to many Mario games over the years. Something we don’t talk about enough with games, except in the negative context, is the weight of how a character feels in the world. They can feel floaty, they can feel plodding. They can have too much inertia, making running and leaping at worst inaccurate and at best unpredictable. This can be covered up with additional mechanics and action rather smartly, disguising inconsistencies. Super Mario Odyssey has no such facades at its disposal given how essential to the experience Mario’s movement is to the overall experience.
And so it’s a remarkable thing that time after time this series delivers a feel to its hero’s movement that is both grounded within the world, responsive to your commands and adaptable to new parameters. Super Mario Odyssey is one of the most transformative and experimental titles in this series we have ever seen, and yet Mario’s moves are so familiar. Every footfall has purpose, every turn is sharp, he floats in the air with ease, adjusting to your subtle directional inputs. And then he turns into a frog or Goomba or Hammer Bros. and the weight, inertia and responsiveness shifts to something just slightly off but still predictable and consistent. Suddenly you’re over steering or finding greater limitations in your lateral movement. You have a whole set of parameters to consider and exploit, and in this way the game remains fresh and surprising.
Mario himself has never been better represented and personified than in this game, and that’s saying something for a character who has been brimming with personality, certainly since the time you could pull his rubber face around in Mario 64. The way he reacts to the local weather in the game, yawns as he waits for you to act (then lays down for a bit of a rest), leans into his turns, how his nose wobbles as he runs, how he yells with delight as he pulls off a somersault leap; it all adds more and more layers onto his persona and makes him a delight to spend time with.
And every world feels built to exploit and exemplify that. Super Mario Odyssey really is a series of playgrounds, giving you the space to play with your possibilities and hunt out rewards at every turn. These are levels that reward experimentation and curiosity. These are worlds where you’ll spot something you want to do and find 30 minutes later that you have only just gotten around to doing it because you got distracted with five other things first. Two of the locations that probably best exemplify this are the long anticipated New Donk City and the more mysterious Tostarena. The home of Mayor Pauline is everything we could have hoped for in terms of gameplay possibilities. The tall and closely positioned buildings make a perfect location for wall-jumping, the heights offer a sense of peril that is not insignificant in a game where death is rarely a major concern, and the general lack of enemies (in comparison with some other worlds) means its primary interest is in hidden objects and doors.
Tostarena, on the other hand, might be our favourite world in the game, because it just keeps opening itself up to you with new secrets every time you return. While the rolling sand dunes disguise all sorts of hidden gems between them, the underground sections of the game are classic Mario through and through and it has some of the most fun transitions from 3D to 2D platforming in the game. It also houses one of the game’s best bosses, a possible homage to Eyerok from Super Mario 64.
On the subject of bosses, this is perhaps the only area where we would say Super Mario Odyssey is a mixed bag, but even that must come with caveats. Bowser’s minions of choice this time are the Broodals, a family of wedding-planning bunnies who seem dead set on delaying Mario every step of the way with their own magic hats. They are really the weakest boss fights in the game, although some combined appearances in the later stages offer greater interest. Bosses like Knucklotec in Tostarena are far more traditional in their design, size and ingenuity and so work a lot better. The caveat is that in the post game all of these bosses are seemingly replayable with all sorts of modifiers added, increasing the difficulty and giving you more to think about. We won’t say too much about the ultimate showdown, except that while it may not be tail-swingingly good, it might actually have something even better as a reward to compensate.
And as we said, that post-game support is very impressive, not just in terms of the immense number of things to collect, which could have been a rather hollow hoarding endeavour, but in the way new levels and trials are added that are harder and more involved than what you’ve experienced before. Platforming stages offer new obstacles or trickier surfaces, possessing enemies means navigating more complex corridors or threats that are unique to those creatures. It just goes on and on and on. So while in terms of scale Super Mario Odyssey might not have the sweeping vistas of The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, it certainly doesn’t lack for content.
And so really the score that this game is getting should be pretty obvious. We don’t give out tens lightly, but we have to ask, what more could we have wanted from this game? What could it have offered that would have made it better? The answer is not much. Playing Super Mario Odyssey is to experience pure joy. We couldn’t wish for anything more than that from this series or from Nintendo.