Let’s Do the Odyssey!
Decades have passed since Super Mario 64 introduced an entire generation to 3D platforming, and it holds a special place in my heart for that reason. Super Mario Sunshine continued the open sandbox formula, but after that, the series moved in different directions. Super Mario Galaxy took a more linear approach to 3D gameplay, while New Super Mario Bros. returned the franchise to its 2D sidescrolling roots. But I still longed for an experience like Super Mario 64, so I was beyond excited when I first learned that Nintendo would revisit that untapped well with Super Mario Odyssey.
Check out the Video Version for spoiler-free gameplay and some singing from your 1-UP Panda!
Indeed, the game features non-linear sandbox worlds, just like the classic 3D titles. You enter a large, relatively open area to find Power Moons that are used to power up your flying ship and travel to new kingdoms. But there are some key differences. For one, there is no hub world à la Peach’s Castle. While the nostalgic fan in me misses the hub system, it’s a fine design decision to complement the other notable change. Namely, once you collect a Power Moon, you are no longer booted out of the world but can instead move on to find the next one, similarly to games like Banjo-Kazooie. It’s a huge improvement that fosters continuous exploration without having to retread ground. And it ultimately serves the ambitious scope of the game’s collectibles.
Remember how many Power Stars Super Mario 64 had? The magic number of 120 has persevered to Sunshine and Galaxy. Super Mario Odyssey throws that limit out the window and features many hundreds of Power Moons. A single level may have around 50, and some push it way past that, which means every area is densely packed with Moons – to the point where you could potentially find multiple within minutes. Though the game leads you to certain story-relevant Moons, you can freely go anywhere in the sandbox, collecting anything you find on the way. On one hand, some Moons require such little effort that they feel devalued. But on the other hand, the game is overflowing with content, and who am I to argue with that? For every Moon that felt undeserved, there were at least a dozen other ones that required me to pull off amazing platforming tricks, solve intuitive puzzles, or face incredible enemies to earn them. The quality more than justifies the quantity, and I am constantly encouraged to explore every inch of the world to my heart’s content.
It helps that the new areas themselves are the freshest they’ve been since Super Mario Galaxy. New Donk City is every bit as fun to explore as the initial trailers suggested, and the Luncheon Kingdom has a distinct flavor, with its pink soup-like lava and crystalized food. Even the Sand Kingdom is different from the norm with its ice protrusions. Plus, the new variety of creatures made a big impression on me, from the Wooded Kingdom’s gardening robots to the Lake Kingdom’s mermaids. The increased worldbuilding efforts extend to the map screen; your map is part of a travel brochure that actually tells you fun facts and lore about the kingdom. I love how the game pushes the tourist angle with its Souvenirs and Stickers, both of which spruce up your flying ship and are only purchasable with each land’s corresponding currency. And of course, it’s ridiculously entertaining to play dress up with Mario’s plentiful costumes, even though they’re mostly cosmetic. My only wish is that I could have seen more of the smaller kingdoms, which is a testament to my enjoyment of their designs.
Most importantly, each world is a giant playground that suits Mario’s acrobatic abilities. And the mustached plumber is a joy to control. Like a true Jumpman, he can perform all of his trademark maneuvers like the Triple Jump. The fluid controls make it easy to perform death-defying leaps, which are the heart and soul of the game’s platforming. They truly shine in the tough pure platforming sections, reminiscent of the popular FLUDD-less levels of Super Mario Sunshine. And instead of punching or firing water streams, Super Mario Odyssey features one of his most versatile weapons yet: his own hat, which he can throw at enemies or even bounce on.
But by far, the best use of his hat is capturing other creatures, taking over their bodies and utilizing their special attributes and abilities. After all, this isn’t Mario’s ordinary headwear. A ghostlike creature named Cappy has possessed Mario’s hat in an agreement to defeat the evil Bowser and save his sister Tiara and…Princess Peach. Surprise! The story involving Bowser scheming to marry Peach isn’t groundbreaking (though I must say that Bowser looks dapper in his getup), but Cappy’s inclusion is gamechanging.
By throwing your hat at certain creatures, you can capture them, essentially becoming a mustached Goomba or a Hammer Bro. or what have you and inheriting its powers. Stacking Goombas and tossing hammers are inherently fun, but clever environmental puzzles are what give depth to the mechanic. For example, stretching a Tropical Wiggler’s body to find footholds and creating pockets of lava for the fiery Podobos to bounce on are creative implementations. Additionally, their unique abilities lend to some of the most original boss fights in any Mario game. I was always eager to discover how to use my newly captured creature to find Moons. And did I mention that you can capture a T-Rex? A T-Rex!
Mario’s odyssey isn’t flawless, though. For some reason, Nintendo insists on motion controls for some movements where a button would suffice, such as spin attacking with your hat. There are roundabout ways to perform some of these, but some capture abilities are motion-exclusive, for instance, high jumping with Frog Mario. They’re unnecessarily difficult to pull off in handheld mode, one of the Nintendo Switch’s defining playstyles. I would have liked an option to remap it to a button for this reason. And no, the options menu deceptively only toggles the first-person gyro motion. The camera is also a bit awkward. It’s usually reliable, and you can control it easily – but for whatever reason – it likes to steadily angle itself to a top-down view, making it difficult to see what’s ahead. Again, these overall don’t ruin the experience but are odd inconveniences.
Despite the large worlds and numerous Power Moons, beating the main story takes about ten hours, which some may consider short. To compensate, playing to 100% completion is a herculean task. Without spoilers, the postgame is massive and more than doubles the playtime after the credits roll. And the later challenges add considerable difficulty to the main game, which otherwise isn’t terribly hard for veterans of the genre. On that note, the game is friendly to newcomers. Instead of a life system, you merely lose ten coins upon death. Going one step further, there is an optional Assist Mode that covers the ground with objective marker arrows and increases Mario’s health, both of which are perfect ways to introduce the 3D gameplay to inexperienced players. Alternatively, there is a 2-player mode, in which one of you plays as Cappy. The co-op multiplayer is light, but it’s perfect if you or your partner wants to participate but has trouble with platforming.
The detailed character designs and the utterly stunning worlds are truly a sight to see, like a travel brochure photograph come to life. The colorful and vibrant Mario aesthetic has never looked this polished. This is highlighted by the Snapshot Mode, which allows you to take pictures of any scene, with filters if you desire. In both docked and handheld mode, the game runs smoothly. Most of the music is superb, featuring catchy orchestral tunes like those in Mario Galaxy. And of course, Pauline’s vocal track, Jump Up, Super Star! has been firmly ingrained in my head on an infinite loop.
Mario’s 3D titles only come once in a blue moon, so this game had a lot to live up to, especially following the Switch’s launch release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a series-defining game. While it’s tempting to argue which was better, I actually appreciate the games’ similarities. For me, Super Mario Odyssey felt like playing a Zelda game if Link were an acrobatic platformer mascot. As in the Zelda series, I got to freely explore large, open worlds that unraveled the more I progressed. Every area was densely packed with environmental puzzles and genuinely surprising secrets that made me smile. Thanks to the proximity of the Power Moons, it was easy to pick up and play in portable mode, like Breath of the Wild. Even capturing enemies and using their abilities reminded me of Majora’s Mask. The familiar Zelda beats, combined with a reimagining of sandbox platforming gameplay, has created a worthy successor to the classics. Hats off to this true masterpiece!