The arrival of a 3D Mario platformer is always a seminal event for Nintendo fans. They’ve been a rare treat since gaming entered the three-dimensional sphere, their scarcity magnifying their illustrious quality. Previous 3D Marios such as Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy are still heralded as contenders for the greatest game of all time.
That leaves Super Mario Odyssey with an impeccable legacy to live up to. It has the ambition, but does it successfully make the leap to join its renowned predecessors?
In trying to reach such a lofty echelon, Super Mario Odyssey draws most of its inspiration from the earlier 3D Marios, Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. Odyssey ushers in the return of a focus on sandbox levels, where you’re allowed to stroll, run, and jump about to your heart’s content. These levels, called Kingdoms, are sprawling. They’re bustling with activity as friendly NPCs, enemies, and all manner of environmental obstacles litter the landscape. There are challenges and collectibles at every turn; most alluring being the Power Moons, which take the role of the Power Stars from previous games by serving as the primary reward and your means of progression through the story.
Odyssey makes a determined effort to move away from singular goal, platforming-heavy design in favor of open space, and freedom. It might not be accurate to describe the game as a “platformer”, since platforming is only one piece of its diverse gameplay. Most Kingdoms contain a near-perfect balance of exploration, puzzle solving, and platforming, ensuring that you’ll rarely have to complete the same task too many times in a row if you prefer to mix it up.
Many of the Power Moons are either sitting out in the open, or require something as little as a single ground pound to uncover. The game is always rewarding you for snooping around and investigating your surroundings; never assume that you’ve seen everything that a certain section has to offer, because, most likely, there’s still a secret path or nook just waiting for you to find it.
In its goal to prioritize exploration, Super Mario Odyssey lets Mario traverse the environments in a number of ways that the famed video game icon never could with his own two feet. This is thanks to your sidekick for the game, Cappy–a talkative, anthropomorphic top hat who comes along for the ride as you chase down Bowser across the globe to rescue Princess Peach. Mario can throw Cappy at any time to collect coins and strike enemies, and sometimes, Cappy will actually allow Mario to assimilate to that enemy. You can take command of a Cheep Cheep to swim and breathe underwater, a Podoboo to move through lava, or a Bullet Bill to jet through the air. These are a just a handful of the many different creatures whose unique abilities you can take command of to help you navigate your tricky surroundings; several also figure prominently in the game’s boss battles, which, collectively, are among the best of any 3D Mario yet.
The only issue with Cappy is that there’s no manual way to lock onto a specific target, so expect to have trouble from time to time landing your throw. As a whole, the controls in Super Mario Odyssey work fine, but like any 3D platformer’s, they’re not perfect. Mario’s movement feels a little slippery when he’s going full steam ahead, and the game’s collision detection will occasionally be questionable enough to make you raise an eyebrow. While it may never become a regular occurrence, you’re bound to have a few deaths because of these hiccups, and they’ll usually be during the game’s longer, more intricate sequences.
Platforming is still very much a pillar of Super Mario Odyssey’s gameplay, it’s just that it comes in smaller doses from what we experienced in more recent 3D Marios like the Super Mario Galaxy titles, Super Mario 3D World, etc. While the sandbox areas for most of the Kingdoms are primarily built with exploration in mind (save for the last handful), they smartly place action-based platforming sections in hidden, linear levels that are detached from the open spaces. In making these platforming stages locked away beyond a warp pipe, or behind a hidden door, the game completely separates them from the surroundings outside. The challenges are built with no handcuffs of the free-roaming areas, forcing you to overcome their obstacles as intended.
Unfortunately, these just don’t add up to a sufficient amount of platforming. Aside from the tail-end of Super Mario Odyssey’s main story and some of the post-game content, these platforming sections are bite size, at best. They usually feel over before they even get started. This goes a long way toward making Super Mario Odyssey one of the easier 3D Marios to date. In betting it all on a mix of gameplay, with a decided emphasis to bring back exploration, the creativity and challenge that platforming offers often is missing from this Mario adventure. Simply happening upon a Power Moon because you decided to investigate a suspicious spot will never be as compelling or as engaging as having to surmount a series of hazards which test your reflexes and precision.
There’s far more than just Power Moons to collect, too. Super Mario Odyssey adds incentive for you to collect coins by turning them into currency, as opposed to their prior purpose of building toward extra lives, which had become a rather trivial feature as the years went by. Your coins allow you to buy a number of different goodies from the various shops throughout the Kingdoms: stickers and statues to adorn your airship HUB, hearts to restore your health gauge, but most importantly, the litany of different costumes that Mario can don. You can dress Mario in a black tuxedo, or as a cowboy, or as a chef, or an astronaut–the options go on and on. For the most part, these costumes have no functional purpose, but they always look so cool that they [finally] give you a great reason to hunt for coins as you’re scouring the stages, and they just feel appropriate given the stylish worlds that Mario finds himself in.
As Mario’s adventure spans the globe, he dives into some truly fantastic settings. Super Mario Odyssey absolutely nails its aesthetics, creating a gorgeous set of environments that are filled with color and personality. While several of these whimsical, vibrant lands are exactly what you’d expect to find in your traditional Mario game, there are also a bunch that aren’t so far-fetched, sometimes even with a taste of the real world. The only problem is that there are just 17 Kingdoms, in total, and a couple aren’t exactly full-sized. Everything that’s there is a joy to behold, but don’t expect the same diversity in your surroundings as what other 3D Marios offered.
One of the more charming touches that Super Mario Odyssey brings is unabashed pride in the franchise’s roots. The game is loaded with nods to Mario’s 36-year history, some subtle, and others very deliberate. Many of the sequences where you must traverse a section in a 2D perspective are appropriately visualized with the same 8-bit sprites of Mario’s earliest days. There are more than a few characters and locales that longtime fans will grin upon seeing; there might even be a sequence or two that procures a tear from the most nostalgic gamers.
The game is also the most cinematic of any 3D Mario to date, with cutscenes that emphasize the drama and action through dynamic camera angles better than what the franchise has ever attempted in the past. There are some truly epic moments along Mario’s jaunt across the globe–enough to make you wish that the plot wasn’t a “been there, done that” situation. If you’ve played a 3D Mario, you already know what the premise is here. A heart-stopping narrative isn’t necessary, but is something in line with the writing of one of the Mario RPGs too much to ask?
Super Mario Odyssey has big aspirations, and it succeeds in realizing most of them. It doesn’t quite strike the balance in its gameplay that it’s looking for, leaving the platforming element to feel a bit underwhelming. But in reaching back to its roots, injecting healthy doses of exploration and puzzle solving into its design, Super Mario Odyssey takes you on a unique, eclectic journey that no Nintendo fan should miss out on.
+ With exploration, puzzle solving, and platforming all making up the game’s design, there are challenges for everyone to enjoy
+ A dizzying amount of collectibles that will keep dedicated players busy for many hours, while finally giving us a reason to amass coins
+ Many of the Kingdoms are some of the more memorable locations from a Mario game in recent memory, all loaded with beautiful imagery and appropriate callbacks to the past
+ Using Cappy to take control of enemies and objects is a fantastic mechanic that opens up your possibilities to traverse the stages, while making for some terrific boss encounters
— Platforming and challenging action don’t get enough love as they share the spotlight with exploration
— Controls aren’t always perfect, occasionally resulting in a frustrating misstep or fall
— A surprisingly-small number of stages, meaning that you won’t see quite the variety of themes as we’ve been graced by in the past
Jeff Pawlak is the Nintendo Expert on the Geekiverse; he’s been exploring dungeons as Link, leaping across obstacles as Mario, and blasting aliens as Samus for the past 24 years. You can find him on Twitter @JeffreyPavs, where he’s never short on words for what’s going in the world of Nintendo. Feel free to add him on the Switch with his Friend Code SW-1774-4999-4185.
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