2017 is the new 1998. Kids growing up with video games in their households will look back at this year with the same reverence that my generation holds for the late 90s. Nearly twenty years ago there was a renaissance that helped redefine what ‘fun’ is, spearheaded by consoles like the Nintendo 64. The Switch is not the only force driving the gaming industry into a new golden era, but Nintendo’s impact is as undeniable today as when it was releasing Ocarina of Time and Pokemon Yellow.
While the real world feels like it is dipping into the darkest timeline, our digital escapes are proving themselves as powerful reminders of life’s lighter side. There comes a point where what we play and how we experience it influences our lives in truly impactful ways – a point where happy memories are born. Thousands of games try this every year, and many succeed, but few are as immediately timeless as the content Nintendo has released this year. Super Mario Odyssey is the culmination of this. It is the fine art of making people happy, perfected.
Super Mario Odyssey is groundbreaking, in the sense that it rehabilitates the very foundations on which it is based. The game takes everything good in terms of what we know regarding sandbox Mario titles, puts it all together, and chops out everything else that never really worked. There is familiarity to the controls – running, jumping, backflips – and yet the new actions we get come with instinctive ease, so much so that they’re deceptively simple at first. Mario’s sidekick Cappy is such a natural part of his adventuring kit, the initial learning curve is almost nonexistent. In Bonneton, the duo’s first foray into Odyssey’s many kingdoms, you learn about Cappy’s basic actions through fluid motions and open freedom. There is very little pressure to get good, considering it’s easy to feel like a cap throwing pro by the end of the tutorial level.
Possessing enemies with Cappy’s power never gets old, nor does it ever feel like his presence is overstated. Cappy and Mario work in perfect harmony, where going from Mario’s familiar movement to the new, limited actions of every possessable enemy is rarely, if ever, awkward. The times in which Cappy’s possession power is necessary for completing a task is typically rewarding, and as of my play through, there are no moments where you are forcibly stuck inside one creature without the ability to escape. Compared to his Mario Sunshine analog, F.L.U.D.D., Cappy is more of an extension of Mario himself, instead of some tacked-on gimmick. He quite literally allows you to become a wholly different character, and yet the transition between Mario and his controllable enemies always feels logical given the situations at hand… as silly as those situations get.
You might be a skillet-chucking Koopa one moment, a living lava ball the next, but each and every enemy has a simple enough design to pick up and almost immediately understand. Anyone hesitant about throwing Mario’s new friend around shouldn’t worry; nothing is overly complicated in regards to enemy possession, which helps keep the game’s pacing as close to perfect as a Mario game could get.
In Super Mario Odyssey the progression from simple collection quests to more expansive tasks help you naturally advance in skill, and with every new undertaking – whether it’s platform, puzzle, or a good old-fashioned boss fight – there is a breakthrough in understanding, with new horizons constantly forming as you learn the extent of Mario’s new abilities. The game eases into more challenging moments, but with so much to do, if you can’t be bothered to grab that one collectible you can simply move on with almost zero repercussions. Of course, like Mario 64, you can always come back to complete whatever you’ve skipped.
The quest list for every kingdom is jaw dropping. The sheer amount of tasks in every area is almost unbelievable, until you start exploring and realize just how Odyssey takes advantage of its 3D world. There is a verticality to everything that layers each Kingdom with depths unseen from any previous Mario game. There is a reason why the Metro Kingdom served as Nintendo’s advertising focus; there are so many heights to climb, depths to plumb, and places to explore that a single glance could never unveil New Donk City’s true detail.
There is an expansiveness that cannot be seen through the lens of someone who has only played Mario 64 or Sunshine. Playing Super Mario Odyssey first hand is the only way a player could truly see the monumental design of every Kingdom. While it is in the same vein as it’s predecessors, Odyssey is truly its own experience.
Whoever marketed this game did a hell of a job obscuring just how much there is to do. Seeking Power Moons – this game’s Stars or Shine Sprites – might seem like it would get old fast, but the variety of ways in which they’re obtained rarely feels repetitive. There are similar tasks in every Kingdom – purchasing one Power Moon for 100 coins, for example – but those tasks are simply there to provide cohesiveness to the entire world. Each Kingdom is so unique that the only reason to ever leave is to see just how crazy the next Kingdom will be.
With that craziness comes new faces, mostly in the form of boss fights. While they’re never terribly difficult, each boss is different enough to where you have to stay on your toes, even during occasional rematches. Figuring out how to utilize your cap in whatever arena you’re placed in is usually easy enough, with very few bosses being too difficult to figure out within the first few moments.
There may be one or two instances where the enemy you need to possess becomes the biggest obstacle in regards to beating the boss, but practice always makes perfect. Coupled with generally low health, even the most out-there bosses are easily tackled. The Dark Souls crowd will likely scoff at Odyssey’s hardest fights, but at least every one provides a new experience that showcases the game’s inborn creativity.
Like its Grecian namesake, Super Mario Odyssey’s story starts in medias res, and with it you’re tossed into a new world, filled with familiar faces. Without spoilers, the game’s climax is the most satisfying conclusion to any Mario game I’ve played – I would go so far as to say it tops most game endings I’ve seen. As for everything that comes before it… it’s a Mario game, what do you expect? It’s light, it’s silly, and it’s the appropriate vessel in which the fun of actual gameplay is contained. That said, by endgame there is a sense that Nintendo is self-aware of this idea, that “it’s just a Mario game”.
You beat the bad guy, save the princess, but with that comes a new twist that will appeal to critics of this all-too-familiar formula. It’s hard to say exactly what without spoiling Odyssey’s final scene, but fans of Princess Peach – particularly those critical of her treatment as a character – will want to play Odyssey for something new.
Beyond that, Mario’s romp from Kingdom to Kingdom is a satisfying enough tale, with plenty of literal ups and downs to keep players invested in the story through the end. It’s completely possible to reach the conclusion within ten to fifteen hours of gameplay. The game itself absolutely does not end with the story though. Including all of the post-game material, there are 999 Power Moons to collect. Some are purchased, but the vast majority are found throughout the Kingdoms, many of which spawn only after the ending. Mario Odyssey isn’t endless, but it certainly sometimes feels like it. It is that draw toward the next goal that makes this Mario’s most addictive adventure yet. But there are more rewards to Odyssey than Power Moons and story completion.
Nostalgia is a reward that Nintendo has earned the right to use. Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t force Mario’s history upon the player, but instead skillfully weaves it into a modern title among new, standout memories. Nostalgia isn’t Odyssey’s backbone, but it doesn’t shy away from reminding players of where they’ve been and why they came back to this series. It is like introducing a newborn to their older relatives – Odyssey isn’t just the series scion, but an altogether new force for joy that carries Nintendo’s legacy to it’s fullest potential.
The game itself is so naturally fun, not just because we are playing on familiar foundations, but because of the new places we get to go and the new memories that are made. There are so many moments where Odyssey reminds its players of Mario’s past adventures, and with each triumphant call-back we are reminded of just what makes these games sometimes feel like magic. But with everything new in the game, that magic is expanded in ways that I frankly think nobody expected. Just as each Kingdom has so many surprising layers, Super Mario Odyssey itself is so well made that the more you look at it, the more you appreciate the passion put into it.
Super Mario Odyssey is, in my opinion, the very best game the Nintendo Switch has to offer. Considering it’s competition, surely there is something that makes it stand apart from titles like Breath of the Wild. And for that, like game does itself, we simply go back to the start: Super Mario Odyssey is the fine art of making people happy, perfected.