Please Note: This is a spoiler-free review, as much as possible. I mention no hard numbers, no ruinous plot details, and no specifics regarding unlockables or later-game environments in the review. Please enjoy.
The key to remaining relevant in nearly any industry is not simply to evolve, but to find and embrace your core competencies—those defining characteristics which you do best. While gaming is littered with remakes and revivals of properties long past their prime, it’s not common that a franchise truly thrives for more than a couple of decades.
Meanwhile, Mario has remained at the crest of the industry for more than 30 years, routinely starring in some of the most critically-acclaimed games of their time. What’s the secret?
Though the specifics of the blueprints have evolved over time, there is a single, predictable common denominator in this equation: fun, at all costs, with no exceptions. Mario games dispense with the complexities that are foundational to many other videogames—story chief among them—and refocus the entire operation on the visceral appeal of the experience. Quite frankly, not much else really matters.
Recent Mario titles have augmented this philosophy further with another catalyzing devotion: a relentless pursuit of variety and surprise. For all its well-deserved fame, Mario 64 had to spend so much time merely introducing the notion of a 3D platformer that it didn’t have the luxury of exploring wider variations on the concept. But with the Super Mario Galaxy series, Nintendo took this challenge head-on and refused to look back—and as a result, we received two games which are almost identical in design, but which simultaneously are completely unique in terms of the assortment of ideas and experiences they provided us. And, predictably, those games were endlessly lauded by videogame critics for their absolute brilliance in design.
Reviewers of Super Mario Odyssey received an accompanying letter from the developers explaining that surprise was the primary focus of the development team from the very beginning. And sure enough, despite understandably lofty preliminary expectations, I found myself repeatedly and often surprised. What begins conventionally transitions over time into more and more outlandish and unpredictable—but throughout the entire journey, fun is the central theme which permeates nearly every moment.
Before we continue, it’s worth mentioning that there actually is a shred of story behind Odyssey. Bowser’s kidnapped poor Peach once again, and this time, he’s determined to seal the deal by marrying her. Naturally, this occasion demands the very best resources and amenities available—so he brings these four troublemaking rabbits named the Broodles on board to do the wedding planning. In the course of preparation, Bowser’s minions wind up razing various kingdoms throughout the world in pursuit of their prized resources, which just so conveniently all happen to be wedding related (magical dress, giant ring, and so forth). Yeah, it’s ridiculous… so what did you expect?
At the start of this adventure, Mario teams up with a hat-shaped ally named Cappy after losing his trademark red “M” hat; Cappy’s sister was also kidnapped in the Bowser raid and is masquerading as Peach’s crown. Cappy’s contributions to the adventure are significant: apart from the fact that Mario can leverage him to extend his jumping range and as a projectile to defeat his foes, by tossing him, Mario can often take control of other living things.
Not every creature in the game can be commandeered in this manner, but the vast majority can. Apart from all else, the variety provided by this addition to the formula alone is overwhelming. And while it would have been easy to settle for second-rate gameplay while controlling some of these creatures (many of whom are only fleetingly available before moving on to the next challenge), Nintendo naturally perfects the controls and mechanics associated with each individual one, such that it would have been possible to build nearly an entire game out of just a few of them (Sunshine essentially did this, in fact!).
But while Odyssey borrows the commitment to variety and surprise from the Galaxy series, it also adopts Super Mario 64’s explorative, slower-paced, open-ended gameplay. This makes for quite a bit larger worlds to explore—though they’re not huge, and there are (of course) significantly fewer of them. Now, Mario is collecting moons instead of the typical stars, and those are a bit different as well: there are far more of them in the game than there were stars in any previous Mario title, but by the same token, they’re collected with much greater frequency. The more impactful variation of moons, then, are termed multi-moons, just for sake of differentiation.
Moons are the key to powering Mario’s ship, which is hungry for dozens of them before travel to the next kingdom is possible. The greater frequency with which Mario collects moons does numb the player somewhat as to their significance—it’s not uncommon to ground pound a suspicious location, collect a moon, and then walk for a couple more minutes and discover another—but it really doesn’t make the overall adventure any less fun. If anything, it’s simply overwhelmingly rewarding, to the extent which the real focus is on the actual exploration and gameplay as opposed to the hit of dopamine associated with individual moon acquisition.
Likewise, some may worry that the return to 64 and Sunshine’s open-ended worlds means a loss of the more linear, focused gameplay of the previous games (and all of the 2D side-scrollers of yore). Even this isn’t entirely the case, however, as the game very clearly marks your next objective on your map—and there’s also an Assist Mode for those (younger) players who really struggle with the design. For the most part, it’s entirely possible to head directly for the next objective, stopping only a few times along the way for the collection of some additional moons.
In fact, the game is conspicuously pushy with regard to suggesting constant forward progress to the player, essentially encouraging them to collect the required moons to move on and then simply fly off to the next world. However, some six or seven times that many moons are available for collection—so those players who choose to spend time collecting as many as possible will hardly run out of things to do in the interim. And the game is equally adept at rewarding proficient explorers, with everything from hidden moons to stacks of coins tucked away in remote, sometimes seemingly unreachable locations. The game is designed to be “broken”, but the developers are always one step ahead of the player.
What can all those coins buy? A plethora of other outfits, of course, spanning countless Mario adventures from decades past. Apart from the typical coins (which, again, double as your currency for “purchasing” another life each time you die—just 10 coins each time), additional items are available for purchase within each individual kingdom using local purple-colored currency specific to that kingdom (of which there is a limited amount, unlike yellow coins). Most of these are souvenirs—stickers, figurines, pillows—which decorate the Odyssey to showcase all of Mario’s triumphs.
The rest of the basic gameplay will be completely familiar to anyone who’s spent time with past 3D Mario games, and in fact, the smorgasbord of available techniques, jumps, and attacks is wider than it’s ever been in previous Mario titles. So not only are we supplied with the dozens of additional gameplay styles associated with various indigenous creatures and enemies, but Mario’s core platforming locomotion has truly never been better (and most of the game is still spent as vanilla Mario, thankfully). If any criticism could be raised, it might be that his running speed seems just a bit slower than usual in Odyssey—but it’s really a small point, and it’s always possible (sometimes necessary) to move more quickly by stringing together a series of well-timed jumps.
Aesthetically, Odyssey is stunning. Half of this is the art style, which is so frequently varied and inconsistent (to its credit), and the other half is the wonderfully fluid 60 frames per second at which it is presented. There are rare performance drops, but they’re few and far between, and they really don’t detract from the experience in any material way. The game runs at 900p resolution when docked, which appears more than sufficiently beautiful on our 65-inch 4K television.
The only other real presentation quibble is with regards to the in-game camera system, which is perpetually (and inevitably) a struggle in any free-roaming adventure/platforming game. Galaxy sidestepped this challenge by incorporating its more linear paths through the various levels, but Odyssey leaves the player to his own direction. Still, there were only a handful of scenarios where this was a notable problem, and even then, it was predominantly a minor one.
Music has most often been a serious focus of recent Mario titles, and Odyssey’s doesn’t disappoint. While it lacks the across-the-board majestic, cinematic wonderment of Galaxy’s stellar soundtrack, that’s mostly a factor of theming and attitude. Rest assured that Odyssey supplies its fair share of majestic moments—the first romp through the spectacular Cascade Kingdom at the start of the game is right up there with Gusty Garden Galaxy and other hallmark Mario memories—but as touched on earlier, this time, sheer variety is the uncompromising rule. Such is thus the case also with the musical score, which is all over the map in terms of style, ranging from moving orchestral arrangements to hard rock to the conventional big band jazz—even with vocals, as many readers by now are surely aware.
And majesty this time isn’t the only trick that Nintendo has up its sleeve. It will come as no surprise that the company has mastered the ability to evoke nostalgia in its audience, and Odyssey accomplishes this in perhaps the most tactful—and downright effective—manner of any Nintendo game yet. It consists, therefore, of arguably some of the highest highs of any game the developer has ever released, even to the point where it’s shockingly emotional. Seriously—the fierce cocktail of nostalgia, aesthetic dazzlement, and unadulterated fun is almost too much to process in a couple of different segments. You will never forget these moments. It’s that good.
It does take a little while to reach the apex of the design, though—which arguably could be perceived as a negative, since the first handful of worlds really build up to these later-game moments. But even Odyssey’s worst is better than most games’ best, and should the player ever find themselves disillusioned with the current environment or whatever challenges accompany it, it’s nearly always possible to simply move on to the next.
Let’s now return to the central concept of surprise. Despite all its presentational triumphs and nearly-perfect gameplay, this is the sole element which truly sets Odyssey apart. The Galaxy games were a masterclass in this art as well, but Odyssey shifts the focus away from simply gameplay variety and chooses to push the boundaries of environmental variety as well. Though the number of kingdoms is dwarfed by the number of smaller worlds in the Galaxy games, Odyssey makes up for that discrepancy with notably larger, denser environments chocked full of activities and secrets.
The game hardly ever punishes the player: in fact, there are no more lives to lose—dying simply costs the player ten coins, and checkpoints are frequent and generous. Fast travel is easy and immediately available, providing quick access to any of the checkpoint flags Mario has reached. This encourages the player to explore unrestrained by any inhibitions relating to progress.
The kingdoms also slowly change throughout the course of the game—some of them more than others. All of them feature evolutions which simplify routing and navigation after the completion of some objective, and other tangential touches also apply, such as the appearance of characters indigenous to other kingdoms visiting a previous one after you’ve encountered them. Even the postgame provides an unprecedented case for continued play—so much so that it really might not even be accurate to call it the end.
Sprinkled throughout the worlds—and ever-growing in number, with even more added as the adventure progresses—are little Sunshine-style obstacle courses, all of which are completely different from each other, and many of which rob Mario of Cappy so that he’s forced to rely solely on his traditional moveset within them. Though it’s most evident in here, a design strategy that permeates the entire game is to quickly introduce—and then just as quickly abandon—new gameplay concepts. This happens just as often with regard to capturable creatures as it does to environmental idiosyncrasies—and just when you’re settling in with a concept, there’s a pipe, or a hole, or a door, or something else behind which is an entirely different experience, an exploration of some other idea that Nintendo teases before gleefully abandoning it in favor of something else. It’s relentless variety, Galaxy-style, and it’s a foundational component of any modern Mario blockbuster.
The game also features myriad 2D segments with old-school Super Mario Bros. style gameplay, many of which are plastered onto the sides of 3D objects (even curved ones). Apart from serving as a refreshing contrast to the rest of the game’s heavily-3D gameplay, these segments are also deeply integrated into the surrounding environments; like Mario, for instance, enemies can sometimes exit the 2D plane and jump into 3D, and many of these sections are central to solving some sort of puzzle in the “real” world. A select few of them probably comprise some of our favorite moments in the entire Odyssey game.
And it’s also certainly no coincidence that these ideas seem to become progressively more outlandish as the game progresses. The same is true of the environments and the story, both of which are evidence of the developers’ repeated attempts to catch the player off-guard. And regardless of your level of preparation going in, they do exactly that—often without warning, and usually to great effect. It’s surprising how effective this can be even now that we have two different Galaxy titles chocked full of what seemed like every possible permutation of platforming bliss imaginable. Odyssey is non-sequitur game design done properly, and the result (naturally) is an inability to predict what will happen next. Let’s just say that it kept us guessing—and smiling ear-to-ear—right up until the end credits (and even afterward).
Super Mario Odyssey is essential gaming. It’s a sanguine throwback, a jewel of gaming fundamentals distilled to its core, constructed with the building materials of fun and surprise. Predictability and reason have no place on this journey—but the kid in all of us will surely take the helm, a smile on his face.