Super Mario – the emblematic moustachioed plumber clothed in red and blue – is easy to like. The games he’s in are excellent too; whether it be classic platforming, role-playing or a mixture of the two. They’re easy to like too. Super Mario Odyssey, the first open-world 3D platformer he’s starred in for over 16 years, isn’t easy to like. Because Odyssey isn’t the sort of game you just like. Odyssey is the one-of-a-kind experience that captivates you from beginning to end, inducing a smile wider than you thought possible. Super Mario Odyssey is incredibly easy to fall in love with.
The escapades of Mario and the consistently-in-danger Princess Peach never cease to take a break, and Odyssey doesn’t take its time communicating the stakes. Bowser is once again attempting to kidnap Peach against her will, setting up an extravagant wedding that Mario is trying just as hard to stop. The ensuing scuffle leaves Mario beaten and bruised, but more importantly without his signature cap. It’s a good thing then that he happens to land in a kingdom filled to the brim with living, breathing hats just waiting to help, one of which – Cappy – has his own score to settle with Bowser and Co.
Like most Super Mario games, the narrative is simply a vessel to give the rest of the elements a reason to exist. Mario’s adventure to rescue Peach is neither surprising or new, but it is one filled with some character thanks to the many locales you’ll be forced to chase the bridal party through. The different types of new creatures you meet are only made better by the areas they occupy. And when the story eventually reaches its goal, there’s no shortage of climactic encounters to make it one you’re likely going to remember for some time.
Part of Mario Odyssey’s charm is thanks to its various Kingdoms, many of which you will want to experience any prior knowledge of them. Each exudes its own sort of style, whether it be a tropical island with glistening blue water or a decrepit, old kingdom that time took back. Each of these areas breathes life into the puzzles they obscure, and discovering them is one of the most alluring parts of the experience.
As with most 3D platformers Mario has starred in, exploration is key. There are clearly defined routes through each of these Kingdoms, but sticking to them exclusively would be robbing yourself of the best parts Odyssey has to offer. Finding hidden passages, solving seemingly complex puzzles or happening upon new areas entirely is almost the sole element that keeps the hours ticking by. It is however, their expert craft that makes them engrossing. Zipping through delicately designed jumping puzzles or dexterously taxing environment is a breeze, and it’s a design Nintendo pulls off effortlessly.
Good examples of this present themselves in abundance. The Sand Kingdom, for example, enjoys giving you sinking pits of sand to avoid while making your way up a pyramid – whether it be in 2 or 3D. The Lake Kingdom flips this by submerging you in water-dense areas, making you think about a new feel of movement while also managing Mario’s breath. In a vacuum these sound like classic, standard encounters, but both their feeling and execution just put it on a whole new level.
The stages themselves tie these up nicely with some recurring themes, but they, more importantly, tie them into the characters you’ll find inhabiting them. Where they may have been window dressing in the past, nearly every creature, person and everything in-between is a tool for Mario to use, in a sense. Tossing your hat on to compatible beings lets you inhabit their body, giving Mario abilities to tackle obstacles in exciting new ways.
See a large chasm that simply can’t be jumped? Take control of a Bullet Bill and propel yourself across large stretches of treacherous falls. How about platforms that sit simply too high to reach? A nice tower of Goombas should sort that out. Have a stretch of water too long to hold your breath through? A fish nearby might be able to help. These are examples of the early, simple creatures you’ll be able to commandeer, because like the worlds they populate their mystery is what makes them exciting. There’s an overwhelming sense of joy when coming face to face with an entirely new skillset to explore, and extremely well-built puzzles to test them on.
Each of Odyssey’s worlds adjusts to fit these clearly defined themes, but they remain constantly surprising in the various ways they manage to twist them. Boss fights are an extraordinary example of testing everything you’ve learnt until that point, with most (if not all) culminating in memorable and rewarding duels. Some of Odyssey’s best really stretch your understanding of new mechanics you feel you’ve just been introduced to, but the expert slope that Nintendo presents beforehand as a learning guide makes it all feel supremely natural at the same time.
There are some instances of these fights repeating, almost exclusively thanks to the persistence of Bowser’s latest foursome of henchmen (who all have some nasty hats of their own). These encounters are challenging though, and morph in subtle but effective ways to keep them from feeling like filler. But it’s the once-off boss fights that really shine brightest – those that depend on your understanding the creatures you’ve been hinging your progress on. They’re consistently surprising, even if all of them retain the same sort of “hit me three times and you’re done” damage patterns.
It helps then that Odyssey just feels so damn good to control, even when it’s completely flipping the script on its traditional mechanics. While Mario’s movement and platforming are a joy to interact with, and as precise as its levels demand, it’s the way in which gravity-defying, movement bending controls transition with such ease that really takes it over the top. Every new move added to your repertoire feels natural as it is introduced. And because of this ease, getting to grips with new abilities is less important than quickly seeing just how far you can push them.
But it must be said just how heavily Odyssey favours one form of input over all others. While you could play the game with the Joy-Con grip or the Switch Pro Controller, the game makes it clear that it wants you to play the split way. One Joy-Con in each hand is easily the best way to get around the heaping helpings of platforming goodness Odyssey presents, thanks to some clever integration of motion controls. A flick of the wrist sends Cappy out with an appropriate angle, while flicking both in the same direction initiates a swirling, powerful area attack. Many unique abilities you get from taking control of other beings are augmented by motion control too, such as moving quicker on a power line or jumping higher than normal as a frog.
These advantages might make other forms of control less desirable, and that’s certainly the case in practice. While playing on the go with the Joy-Con attached to the Switch, motion controls are still available for use. But swinging the entire system doesn’t lend itself that well to pulling off the moves you want. Some of these improvements can be initiated via other means (you can quickly swing Mario in a circle to pull off the same area attack, for example), but they’re either far slower or less intuitive than the preferred method. It’s a strange choice at times, but Odyssey never really locks out anything that important simply because of your input method of choice.
If there’s one aspect unaffected by the way you play though, it’s the sights and sounds Odyssey so thoughtfully presses on you. There’s no question about it – Odyssey is a gorgeous game that just shines on the Switch, whether docked or on the go. Sporting a rock solid 60 frames per second seems almost unbelievable with the density and detail each of the Kingdoms has to offer. Whether it’s the sandy, crimson dunes of the Sand Kingdom or the sun-kissed beaches of the Seaside, the dense metropolis of New Donk or the overgrown forests of the wild, Odyssey manages to vary its visual style while also making sure every detail is accounted for.
In no way lagging is the soundtrack, which features some alarmingly catchy tunes that should quickly become classics. It was hard for me not to find myself humming along to familiar loops after spending hours scouring a certain piece of lands for more items, or tapping my feet to the beat of Pauline singing her lungs out in New Donk City. Odyssey is simply a treat for both eyes and ears.
It’s the individual elements that you expect to work so well, and doubly so from Nintendo’s strict attention to quality. Incredibly, Odyssey manages to bundle them in a way that seems extraordinary even for them. Nintendo is delicate and brash in the best sorts of ways. It’s never afraid to experiment with the core gameplay loops these games have been known for, while making call-backs to traditions that will make any Mario fan giddy with joy. It’s these sprinkles of magic that just push Odyssey above any sort of expectations you might have of it, no matter how high.
Super Mario Odyssey is modern, and classic – done right, making it both perfectly accessible and deeply endearing. This isn’t just a game for fans of a long-running franchise, or those just concerned with some of the finest 3D platforming ever created. It’s an unbelievably well-crafted experience that invites new and old players alike to jump in and never let go. With secrets still pouring in after playing through 30 hours to the credits, it’s a game that I will struggle to ever, ever forget. And one that’s likely not going to be topped for some time.
Last Updated: October 26, 2017