Super Mario Odyssey Review

A grand globe-trotting journey best only taken once.

Super Mario Odyssey Review
Platform: Switch
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Publisher: Nintendo

Super Mario Odyssey begins with the usual rigeraramole of Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach, and Mario being the only person in the Mushroom Kingdom competent enough to save her.  The only differences here being how Bowser is trying to marry Peach in addition to kidnapping her, because there are no obvious holes in that plan. That Mario is joined in his quest by a hat spirit known as Cappy, a creature that takes the form of his iconic hat.  And how the adventure is a very global one, branching far beyond the likes of 8 themed worlds, a transdimensional castle, or eccentrically shaped islands, but not the recesses of space because, well, you can’t get branch out much farther than space.

Anyways, one of the core conceits behind Odyssey is how it is meant to be a revival of the “sandbox-style” of 3D Mario game seen in Super Mario 64 and Sunshine.  One that is led by the new core mechanic of Mario flinging his cap at certain creatures, enemies, or general objects in order to transfer Mario’s consciousness into a new being, which is done in lieu of traditional power ups.  With examples of potential targets ranging from a Hammer Bro, a tyrannosaurus rex, a bullet bill, some cute caterpillar thing, or even a tree.

To a certain extent, that is an accurate description, as the numerous worlds of Odyssey are open environments that do not guide the player down a linear path, as seen with the level-based structure seen in the Galaxy duology or 3D World.  However, the actual progression system incorporated here and general direction employed is actually quite different, and is more akin to an evolution than a straight return.  The core gameplay loop here involves visiting a new kingdom, where the player is presented with a direct “story mission” that has them traverse through this area and grow somewhat familiar with it, before ultimately confronting a boss of some capacity and gaining a number of power moons, this game’s equivalent to power stars or shine sprites.Afterwards, or before if they are so inclined, the player is given free reign to explore this kingdom at their leisure, which they admittedly can do from the moment they enter it, and collect a myriad of moons littered across the kingdom in a variety of manners.  Some of them are quite obvious, poking out in the distance or being conveyed through the level’s general designs, while others can be deceptively hidden and potentially drive someone up the wall as they search through their kingdom-based checklist, though there are thankfully a series of optional hints that may be used to alleviate such frustrations.

As a general concept, I very much enjoy the process of visiting a new area and using mixture of intuition and exploration to discover these moons, excitedly searching for visual clues.  They are a series of micro-challenges that regularly provide the player with a sense of satisfaction while being plentiful enough to satiate that “one more” feeling that is synonymous with many beloved titles.  However, that same plentiful nature and the general structure of some of these kingdoms began to way on me as I made my way through this adventure, while maintaining a desire to obtain all available moons, of which there are a somewhat absurd 999, or 880 if you want to be technical.

That may sound enticing, but in my experience the more plentiful or common something becomes, the less meaningful its impact is, and that is very much true with Odyssey, as the sensation of collecting a new moon is one that comes to fade as hundreds are piled up.  Especially because aside from hitting certain milestones, there really is nothing gained by collecting moons beyond the satisfaction of completing a challenge, and of getting a shiny thing that can be deposited in the bank.

There is also the matter of progression within said kingdom, which I found to be split into two camps.  With some of the kingdoms being more linear in structure, with clear start and end points, and a layout with very clearly divided and interconnected paths that, due to the story missions, the player is guided through.  This method makes the prospect of collecting and searching for every moon quite manageable, as things can be compartmentalized into subsections that can be explored before moving onto the next section of an area.

While the other kingdoms very much adopt an open and more sandbox oriented vibe, casting Mario in a large area with some direction, but no real walls to contain and focus them.  Because of this, it is actually extraordinarily easy to steer off course, zig zag between 10 moons in random directions, and wind up on the other side of the map. It is a trend that makes searching for whatever moons the player missed a lengthier process, and one that I found to be notably less enjoyable due to how directionless it all felt.  Plus, due to the inability to replay a lot of content and the immense amount of time it can take to complete everything, the game is surprisingly less replay friendly than the more mission based title preceding it.

Now, you might think that I do not like the game based on how I’ve spent a good page going on about its structure, but that is not the case.  Beyond the issues I have with this gameplay loop and how it can make for an experience where one’s time is spent doing forgettable actions at a rapid rate with little payoff and a focus on exploration (which I personally feel often results in a directionless experience) I do think that Super Mario Odyssey is a pretty great game, and shines vibrantly in just about every other facet.

Such as the act of movement, which has been expanded and honed from prior games in order to ensure that from running to jumping to rolling the player always has good control over Mario’s movements, and that every one of them manages to feel great on their own, while also being able to string together these moves in order to move faster, jump further, and better handle situations.  It is not a particularly deep system, but it does have a lot of variation for only involving three buttons, is fun to experiment with, and is still easy and accessible enough that just about anybody can pull off higher level mobility moves with enough practice. Even if it caps in a lot of regards at long job, cap throw, dive, and dive again.

This same sense of control and flow is brought over to the capture ability, which replaces the usual power ups seen throughout the series for the ability to take control of enemies and objects.  These give way to a plethora of mechanical variation that does wonders to freshen up the experience as time goes on, giving way to new moons, movement options, and access to all new areas. All while shifting between new forms as levels unfold and new opportunities arrive, and nothing about the process has the opportunity to become too predictable.  

My only gripe with this new ability would be how it is presented as a strictly mechanical one, with the story never really dwelling on what it is like for those who are captured or detailing Mario’s thought process as he forms a hivemind of Goombas.  Part of me really wishes there was some kind of narrative repercussions to these actions, or an event where Mario needs to take control of, say, another person. But considering this is a Mario game, I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything more than a sly reference.

Regardless, capturing is where I felt as if the game’s overall creativity shined the most, only seconded by that featured in the layouts and designs of the various kingdoms.  It is clear that the developers made a concerted effort to push the general art direction of the Mario series heavily with this game, resulting in a bevy of level concepts, creature designs, and general looks that would not ordinarily be associated with the series.  Creating a sensation that these kingdoms are different lands, while everything still retains some degree of familiarity and placement. I mean, sure, the primary species seen in the Metro Kingdom look like mutants next to Mario, but despite their odd proportions, they really do not look too outlandish in comparison.  Though, I’m someone who played a lot of Sonic Adventure as a child, so I might just be broken in that regard.

Furthermore, the actual construction and layout of these levels often feels inspired, with each one being a carefully crafted isolated sandbox meant to evoke a sense of intimacy and familiarity as the player explores it.  Something that does make for a more memorable experience, though I feel that the developers expect the players to remember things a bit too well at times, what with all the moons that require the player to decipher an abstract picture.  Still, they do manage to be a good size to facilitate exploring, often feeling vast in their own way, yet never too demanding or all that daunting.

Furthermore, the game truly does embrace exploration, even beyond the deluge of hidden moons, with piles and swaths of coins being planted across each kingdom as a reward for daring or eagle eyed players.  With coins themselves also having undergone a change compared to prior games, no longer functioning as health or a source of lives, but rather a constant currency that may be used at shops. With hearts serving as the new means of restoring health and deaths being a very temporary setback, in most cases, that simply nip away an insignificant 10 coins.  It is a change that I actually do appreciate, as it removes the stigma of failure from just about any facet of the game, and does little to disrupt the flow as the player is thrust back into whatever challenge they were attempting. Well, except for certain endgame challenges, when that design philosophy is thrown out the window.

As for the presentation, Odyssey is a game of gorgeous worlds brimming with detail, with the various art styles and approaches of all worlds combining to create a vibrant visual spectacle that really does highlight the power of modern gaming systems.  With lovingly animated characters that share the same principles, and numerous setpieces or angles that had me basking in awe at the world before me. That being said, there are some technical limitations here, such as the dynamic resolution and an at times very noticeable pop-in effect when moving towards a distant vista, but nothing major.

It is very easy for me to see and admire just what so many people adore about Super Mario Odyssey.  The crux of its mechanics brim with both polish and excellence at a level that is rarely replicated by other developers, and it all amounts to a delightful core experience.  And one that has the player embark on ecsquisit exploits of extreme enjoyability that are enticing from start to finish. However, as time goes on and the quest to fully complete the game lingers on, the game becomes unable to make the individual achievements of the player feel meaningful, and the creativity the game has in spades begins to dry up as the game starts feeling more like a pursuit to complete a checklist, due in no small part to the literal checklist of moons that exist for each kingdom.  So I guess you could say that I think Super Mario Odyssey is still a great game, but would likely be an amazing one if it had significantly less content and more structure.

…I just know that I’m going to say the same thing when I get around to Breath of the Wild.  Well, that, and complain about the weapon breaking being stupid and lame.

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