Around the World in 80 Power Moons
To say that Super Mario Odyssey had big shoes to fill is an understatement.
In 2007, Super Mario Galaxy essentially took the franchise someplace it had never gone before: outer space. As crazy of an idea it was at the time, Nintendo’s thinking paid off. Galaxy was a massive hit, selling over 12 million copies (to date, the best selling of the 3D-Mario platformers) and garnering “universal acclaim” with a 97 Metacritic score. However, the big N wasn’t done there. Spending the next three years iterating on cut content from Mario’s space adventure, the company released a sequel to Super Mario Galaxy in 2010. Surely, a grab-bag of cut ideas couldn’t result in a great game… could it?
Super Mario Galaxy 2 released to rave reviews. Matching its predecessor with a 97 Metacritic score of its own, the sequel was considered by many to be even better than its inspiration. Praised for its inventive design, diverse levels, sharp controls, and beautiful presentation, Super Mario Galaxy 2 continued to raise the bar for 3D-Mario platforming experiences. Some critics even went so far as to call it the greatest 3D-Mario game of all time.
Now, in 2017, Super Mario Odyssey has hit store shelves, bringing with it a lot of questions. Will its globetrotting premise feel like a step down from the planetary leaping of Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2? How will its open, sandbox nature compare to earlier entries in the series: Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine? Will the game translate well to portable play on Nintendo Switch? And, of course, the question we’ve all been asking since March of this year: will it surpass The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild?
As I similarly prefaced my review of Breath of the Wild, I alone cannot and should not be the be-all, end-all authority in answering these questions. The Mario and Zelda franchises have and continue to hit such high and consistent levels of quality that there are fair arguments to be made in favor of any of their recent titles. Whether or not Super Mario Odyssey becomes your favorite Mario game, your favorite Nintendo game, or your favorite game this year is ultimately up to you. Like you, I stand to offer my own opinion: nothing more, nothing less.
Disclaimer aside, let’s get this out of the way immediately: Super Mario Odyssey is an incredible game. Its varied worlds are a joy to explore, from urban metropolis to freezing tundra. Its levels are tantalizing sandboxes of discovery, offering wide-open exploration that feels freer than any Mario game before it. And of course, this freedom and variety of experiences is buttoned up with innovative design that challenges players to think outside the box, again and again.
It is by no means a perfect game. Awkward motion controls and a frustrating late-game kingdom stunt the fun from time to time. The game is also a lot harder to enjoy in handheld mode compared to when its docked. However, in spite of these issues, Super Mario Odyssey is an incredible journey and an absolute must-play for Switch owners and non-Switch owners alike.
For a series with a premise as tried-and-true as Super Mario’s, Super Mario Odyssey cuts to the chase surprisingly quickly. The game begins above Peach’s castle, with Princess Toadstool already captured by Bowser and Mario attempting to save her. Bowser intends to marry Peach, to the dismay of both the princess and her Italian plumber. Suffering an initial defeat at the hands of his enemy, Mario loses his hat and gets knocked out of the sky.
Mario awakens in a dark, gloomy land known as the Cap Kingdom. After getting his bearings—simultaneously serving as a tutorial for the player—Mario befriends a talking hat named Cappy. Like Mario, Cappy is also seeking to rescue someone from Bowser: his sister, Tiara, who is being used as head-dressing for Bowser’s bride-to-be. With a common goal in mind, Mario and Cappy set off to sabotage the wedding and save their loved ones from the clutches of King Koopa.
Over the course of Super Mario Odyssey’s 12 to 15-hour campaign, Mario and Cappy travel the globe in their ship, fittingly titled “The Odyssey.” Upon reaching each new zone, referred to as a “Kingdom,” the plumber-cap duo scour the land in search of Power Moons, an energy source that helps power their ship. Along the way, they witness the devastation that Bowser and his lackeys—a group of wedding-planning rabbits known as the Broodals—have caused in their wake. From stealing a bridal dress to sealing a sparkling-water fountain, Bowser and the Broodals are hell-bent on putting on the perfect wedding, even it if comes at the expense of the rest of the world’s populations.
The story is a bare-bones as you would expect from a Mario title—after all, gameplay is king in Mario‘s domain. That said, what’s here is a delightful mix of humor and charm that’s sure to entertain whenever the game cuts to a new cinematic. There’s something hilariously ironic about seeing Bowser dressed to the nines in white, trying his best to round up a bunch of checklist “wedding” items for someone who clearly isn’t interested. The game’s ending plays with this idea to dramatic effect, leaving me in stitches laughing at the absurdity of the whole situation. And while I won’t spoil the final set-piece, know that it’s equal parts entertaining as it is plain weird. Zelda’s frog escapades from Breath of the Wild have nothing on Super Mario Odyssey’s affinity for wackiness.
2017: A Space Odyssey
But we didn’t anticipate Super Mario Odyssey all year to witness its story; we did so with the dream of exploring its many worlds and uncovering their secrets. Teased by Nintendo as the first 3D-Mario sandbox since Super Mario Sunshine back in 2002, Super Mario Odyssey offers 14+ unique playgrounds for Mario to explore during his travels. While two of these are relegated to simple boss-fight areas, the remaining ones are jam-packed with NPCs to converse with, mini-games to play, and moons to collect.
Odyssey’s maps vary greatly in size and layout. Some, like the Sand and Seaside Kingdoms, are sprawling, open vistas, while others, like the Lake and Snow Kingdoms, offer smaller, more intimate areas focusing on verticality and interior environments. And, of course, there’s the highly publicized New Donk City (of the Metro Kingdom), providing a mix of both vertical and horizontal navigation in a sizable interpretation of the Big Apple.
The variety of these worlds is Odyssey’s greatest strength. With each of the kingdoms having a unique feel, look, and play to them, Super Mario Odyssey succeeds in giving off a global-sized adventure. Add to this the post-game content, which adds a couple of extra kingdoms for players to peruse upon completing the game (alongside a bevy of additional collectibles in existing worlds), and Super Mario Odyssey provides a journey that constantly surprises, even after the initial credits roll.
The World Is Your Sandbox
Like Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario 64 before it, Super Mario Odyssey awards the player a surprising amount of user agency. While encouraged to follow a main objective from world to world, players are ultimately free to do as they please, exploring the nooks and crannies of Odyssey’s kingdoms and embarking on their own adventures. While the zones themselves are not massive—some, like Tostarena of the Sand Kingdom, are slightly bigger than your average Mario 64 sandbox, while others are smaller in comparison—they are extremely dense. It is entirely possible to spend hours of playtime in a single zone. Oftentimes, I felt compelled to move on to the next world after spending an inordinate amount of time in the current kingdom. And even then, I wished to return as soon as I’d left it.
The irresistible pull of these worlds is a testament to their excellent design. Moons practically litter the landscape, yet never feel forced in their placement. Exploration is almost always rewarded with something, whether that be unique currencies (used to buy regional clothing and souvenirs), concealed areas, or mysterious doors hiding secret levels. Of course, these avenues of exploration also tend to lead to power moons of their own. This all lends itself to a satisfying gameplay loop of exploration, discovery, and reward that is unrivaled by most modern sandbox and open-world games.
While most of these destinations are pleasant sandboxes to explore, I was nonetheless disappointed by one of the later kingdoms in the game: Mount Volbono of the Luncheon Kingdom. While sharing in the same design variety as its peer locations, Volbono ultimately fell flat for me. Serving as Odyssey’s equivalent of a fire/lava level, its mechanics didn’t jive quite as well as those found in the levels before it, and I soon became frustrated at several platforming segments required when following the main objective. That zone aside, Odyssey’s worlds are a joy to wander, and offer up hours of additional playtime for those willing to invest the hours.
Cap-turing The Moment
Helping to keep gameplay fun throughout Odyssey is its bizarre-yet-ingenious capture mechanic. Throughout Mario’s travels, the plumber will encounter a wide variety of classic Mario minions and creatures. By tossing Cappy at many of these enemies, Mario takes control of their consciousnesses, free to roam the kingdom in their place, hat and mustache intact.
Weird? Yes. Terrifying? A little bit. Perhaps a little immoral? You bet. But “cap-turing,” as Nintendo itself refers to it, is one of the most unique ideas brought to the table with Odyssey, and makes for one of its best. With a wealth of unique targets to possess from world to world, Super Mario Odyssey keeps the action fresh from set-piece to set-piece. Whether stacking Goombas on top of one another to reach faraway places, or stretching as an iconic Wiggler to reach around a precarious corner, Odyssey continually gives players new mechanics to play with, and does so in inventive and satisfying ways.
This is helped in large part by Odyssey’s tight control scheme. The developers at Nintendo EPD clearly took their time planning and mapping out exactly how each of the game’s capturable minions would feel to play. I can only imagine the number of prototypes that got thrown out or recycled before the game was completed, and appreciate the effort put into nailing this aspect of Odyssey’s design.
Waggling Till The Cap Comes Home
I can’t say the same for Super Mario Odyssey’s motion controls. While Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 were rare examples of motion controls being implemented in a non-intrusive, experience-enhancing way, Super Mario Odyssey goes overboard on the idea, to mixed success.
For those unfamiliar with how the game controls, a tap of the Y button throws Cappy in whatever direction Mario happens to be facing. The same can be replicated by a flick of the wrist, either using a Joy-Con or the Switch Pro Controller. While Cappy is away from Mario, a second flick of the wrist allows him to home in on neighboring enemies and objects. Additional motion controls include flicking both Joy-Con to make Cappy move around Mario in a circle, as well as flicking them up or down to make Cappy do the same.
On paper, this might not sound like a terrible grievance. In practice, however, I never found the motion controls to be as accurate as I would have liked. There was always a slight delay between me flicking my wrist and Mario throwing Cappy, leading to numerous occasions where Mario was vulnerable to enemy attack. Furthermore, the Joy-Con constantly had trouble differentiating up from down, leading to messed up inputs and occasional deaths during trickier platforming segments.
While I can overlook these minor annoyances, these controls really reared their ugly head when I was trying to ground pound. On more than several occasions, I made a subtle movement after executing a ground pound (to scratch my neck or reach for some water), only for Mario to react to the sudden motion and aggressively dive forward from his (usually precarious) position, resulting in immediate death. Upon searching the menus for an option to disable these controls, I was dismayed to find that there is no way to do so (aside from disabling camera motion controls, which ironically never bothered me while playing).
On the one hand, I get it: the Joy-Cons have built in motion controls, and Nintendo feels obligated to make use of the capability in their flagship titles. On the other hand, this is now the second instance of motion controls making a Switch game decidedly worse (Breath of the Wild’s awful motion-control shrines making it the first offender). It didn’t seriously hinder my enjoyment of the game, but Super Mario Odyssey’s motion controls are a negative mark against what is otherwise a tight, responsive gameplay experience.
A Disappointingly Un-Switch-Like Experience
Super Mario Odyssey’s motion woes bleeds into the game’s other big, glaring issue: it just isn’t as fun to play in handheld mode. This isn’t to say that Odyssey wouldn’t be an enjoyable game to play on the go. Far from it, as Odyssey’s gameplay would and should be fun no matter the circumstances. Unfortunately, technical issues, both graphically and control-wise, ensure that Odyssey is best experienced when hooked up to a television.
Let’s start with the controls. As I said before, the motion controls in Odyssey are both prevalent and unavoidable. Upon players booting up the game, Nintendo reminds them, “Try playing with detached Joy-Con controllers. The motion controls enable extra options!” As if the overbearing and unskippable notice wasn’t enough, it turns out that the motion controls don’t just enable extra options, but are also necessary for reaching many of the game’s power moons. Some, like shaking the Joy-Con to jump higher as a captured frog or grow longer as the plant-like Uproot, provide access to normally inaccessible areas and secrets. As you can expect, these controls don’t exactly translate well to portable play (I wouldn’t recommend my readers to violently shake their Switch console in any scenario). Add to this the fact that Mario’s hat also relies on motion controls, and playing in handheld mode becomes a whole lot more arduous for those looking to do so.
The game also just doesn’t look that good in handheld mode to begin with. While docked mode outputs at a dynamic resolution and scales between 900p and 720p as play becomes more (or less) intensive, handheld mode looks a good deal worse, with less-crisp, more-pixelated textures and character models on display. Fortunately, the action stays locked at a crisp 60 fps in either format, but the hit to graphical fidelity in handheld mode is nonetheless disappointing, especially when Breath of the Wild looked as stunning as it did when away from the television.
What A Wonderful World
Thankfully, when playing in a docked setup, Super Mario Odyssey looks absolutely stunning. Kingdoms pop with lush greenery, azure waters, and velvet dunes, making for a contrast of color and foliage that continues to wow and awe from land to land and city to city. New Donk City practically towers over the player as Mario navigates its metropolitan streets, whereas Bubblaine of the Seaside Kingdom provides breathtaking sunsets and exotic scenery with its aquatic, resort-like feel. Like with its gameplay, Super Mario Odyssey’s art style never rests on its laurels and finds crafty ways to reinvent itself from locale to locale. Don’t be surprised if the game serves up a couple of daring surprises from time to time…
The sound design of Odyssey is equally impressive. While music takes more of a passive role here compared to its grand, ornate presence in Galaxy 1 and 2, there are still many great tracks to savor. From the beautiful melody of Fossil Falls to the eerie and atmospheric theme for Forgotten Isle, the soundtrack of Odyssey is as varied and delightful as any other aspect of the game. The ability to listen to any of the game’s tracks via an in-game music player upon beating the game is another nice touch, helping to add longevity to an already complete package.
What more is there to say that hasn’t already been said about Super Mario Odyssey? Its story is simple yet entertaining. The game’s worlds are charming, varied, and fun to explore. Nintendo did a knock-out job designing capture mechanics that are as clever as they are entertaining. Better yet, the game provides a sizable endgame with hours of extra gameplay value for those willing to uncover Odyssey’s many secrets.
Regardless of whether you’re a fan of platformers or not, whether you own a Switch or not, whether you remain steadfast that Breath of the Wild is the greatest game of all time… go out and play Super Mario Odyssey. It’s the rare type of game that has been crafted with gamers of all ages and interests in mind, and one that transcends the types of boxes we typically use to categorize experiences such as these.
It isn’t without its flaws, but Super Mario Odyssey stands out as one of the best platformers in recent memory, as well as one of the best games this year.