Arguably, the best playing, most polished 3D Mario games to date have been Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Mario 3D World. This isn’t much that’s up for empirical debate- the sheer level of polish, and spit and shine on those games, as well as the utter tightness and inventiveness of their level designs, is beyond anything that any other game in the series has managed to do.
And yet, those games lack a crucial element that once upon a time was synonymous with Mario, an aspect of Mario that is common to all of his most beloved games, from the original NES Super Mario Bros. to the superlative Super Mario Bros. 3 to the seminal Super Mario 64 to the mind bending Super Mario Galaxy– both of those games lack a sense of ambition, content to build upon their immediate predecessors, and polish them up to pitch perfection.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course- but Mario was once known for blazing new trails, and always setting sights on newer targets still, never content to rest in one place. With Super Mario Odyssey, Mario has found his sense of ambition again, and delivered what might just be his finest outing yet- which is very high praise, considering the pedigree of the Mario franchise.
"With Super Mario Odyssey, Mario has found his sense of ambition again, and delivered what might just be his finest outing yet."
Eschewing the more linear, obstacle course like levels and platforming that Mario games had begun to hew towards starting with Galaxy, Odyssey instead returns to the sandbox style platforming that it pioneered on the N64 to begin with, taking Mario on a globe trotting voyage that lands him in a multitude of vast, open areas for him to traverse and navigate. The imagination at display in these sandbox arenas, known as ‘kingdoms’, is stunning, with even the simplest levels revealing layer upon layer of depth, density, and nuance as you return to them, discovering something new each time you do. From the lush basins of a prehistoric waterfall, to a greenhouse forest biome tended by robots, to a frozen desert, to the urban jungles of New Donk City, this is the most inventive set of locales we have seen Mario visit yet. On the other hand, the sheer tightness that came with the directed sense of progression in Galaxy 2 and 3D World is gone in Odyssey– which was a necessary concession.
Instead, each level sees Mario in a vast new locale, a fully realized place with a tone, style, culture, aesthetic, music, and even mechanics all unique to it. Hidden away in these kingdoms are Power Moons, which are sort of like the equivalent of the Stars from Super Mario 64– I say sort of, because it’s a tenuous analogy at best. While Stars in Super Mario 64 were scarce, each assigned to a specific setpiece or mission that Mario would have to complete before he got it, Power Moons are abundant- in fact, there are a thousand of these for you to hunt down and collect across all the kingdoms in the game. And while some of them are tied to the game’s main narrative objectives, or boss fights, most of them are just hidden and tucked away in just about every nook and cranny in the game, begging you to explore the worlds you find yourself in so you can uncover them and collect them.
Much like Nintendo’s own The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild from earlier this year, Super Mario Odyssey is a game that encapsulates the joys of interacting with a video game, and wants to invite you to share those joys. Every world in Super Mario Odyssey is alive, and your curiosity is always rewarded. If you see something conspicuous, examine it and interact with it- and almost certainly, you will get a Power Moon. If you see something unusual, chances are it will lead you to a maze, a dungeon, a puzzle, or a challenge, which, again, will give you a Power Moon. Soon, you will find yourself swimming in the damn things- and yet, you can never have too many of them.
"If you see something conspicuous, examine it and interact with it- and almost certainly, you will get a Power Moon. If you see something unusual, chances are it will lead you to a maze, a dungeon, a puzzle, or a challenge, which, again, will give you a Power Moon. Soon, you will find yourself swimming in the damn things- and yet, you can never have too many of them."
Much like Stars in Super Mario 64 and Shines in Sunshine, Moons gate progress- you need a certain amount to be able to power up your ship, the Odyssey, enough to be able to make it to the next kingdom. This means that even if you’re just messing around in the world, the rewards are never trivial- everything you do in the game is categorically going to help you progress. It’s a wonderful twist on the concept, and ensures that the game never feels like busywork.
The level of interactivity in Odyssey is perhaps best exemplified by Cappy, Mario’s now-sentient cap. Cappy is Odyssey‘s chief ‘hook’, so to say- you can use him to clear obstacles (such as pools of poison), to attack enemies, to assist in platforming, and, in the game’s signature mechanic, to actually possess objects, enemies, and even human beings. There are over 50 things you can possess in Super Mario Odyssey, and each comes with its own set of mechanics, movement, physics, and rules. This leads to a gleeful variety in how the game plays, and leads to all sorts of inventive interactions with the world, and solutions to its puzzles.
These possessions are backed up by the most versatile move set that Mario has ever had- after 3D World in particular stripped down his range of movement abilities, Odyssey returns with the most agile, nimble, and mobile Mario has ever been. In fact, there are so many moves, and such a range of possible things for you to do, that much like a fighting game or an action game, Nintendo has an actual list of moves that you can access from the menu at any time in the game- these list the moves in Mario’s repertoire available to you, and also tell you how to activate them.
This brings me to the one point of contention in Odyssey– the motion controls. To be clear, motion controls in Odyssey are strictly optional, and you can finish the game without them. And yet, at least a fourth of the moves available to Mario, including some of his most versatile ones, can only be activated via motion controls. To be fair, the motion controls in Odyssey are actually unintrusive and frankly fun- flicking your controller will activate Cappy’s spin attack, for instance, which can take out everything around Mario in a certain radius, while gentle nudges and jerks can also be used to trigger Mario’s regular moves. They never feel tacked on and never detract from the experience- and yet, there is no way to turn them off, and have the moves locked behind them remapped to regular button presses. Again, I don’t actually mind the controls here- but this is definitely a shame, especially since it makes certain maneuvers harder to execute if you are playing the game in handheld mode.
"Pulling together over 30 years of gameplay traditions and conventions, and adding a new spin and twist to every one of them, Super Mario Odyssey is a game that consistently manages to surprise and delight."
That is really the only point of contention I can find with Mario Odyssey. It’s a vast, hugely interactive world, challenging the player to be every bit as inventive as the inventiveness that it itself exhibits, and it makes the very act of just moving and existing within it a joy. The game looks lush and gorgeous, moving at a steady 60 frames per second, and with a strong art style compensating for any technical deficiencies the graphics may otherwise have. These strong graphics are backed up by a wonderfully catchy and jazzy earworm of a soundtrack that sees some of the series’ best showings in this area, with the signature song ‘Jump Up Super Star’ being the highlight of the bunch.
All of this pulls together probably the strongest, most varied package the Mario franchise has ever had. Pulling together over 30 years of gameplay traditions and conventions, and adding a new spin and twist to every one of them, Super Mario Odyssey is a game that consistently manages to surprise and delight. For as long as I was playing it, I had a grin on my face, and there was never a time that I thought of doing something outlandish that didn’t end up working. Hugely expansive, wildly varied, and never ceasing to surprise the player, Super Mario Odyssey is a celebration of video games, and perhaps the best Mario game there has ever been.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.
Looks gorgeous; great soundtrack; controlling Mario is a joy; hugely inventive and varied game worlds that are vast an yet dense, begging to be explored; a whole range of mechanics that constantly keep things fresh and the player on their toes; huge set of moves and actions available for Mario; controlling Mario is a joy.
Some moves cannot be remapped from motion and gesture controls to buttons.
Super Mario Odyssey is a culmination of thirty years of Mario, and a celebration of video games.