1996’s Super Mario 64 was the first, and the last, 3D Mario game I completed before playing Super Mario Odyssey. 21 years separate these games but they are inexorably linked. I will never forget the first time I saw Mario 64 in motion on a Nintendo 64 kiosk at a major league baseball fan appreciation day. It was an unbelievable triumph of translating the 2D Mario games into a 3D world, even for someone who was in the process of turning into a jaded teenager,
Super Mario Odyssey is a complete continuation, and improvement, on that same exuberant, fun, platforming that impressed everyone, even that horrible teenager, in 1996.
It isn’t perfect, but there are very few meaningful caveats in recommending Odyssey.
The first issue is that while the story is told in fun cutscenes that don’t wear out their welcome, it is just a slight variation on the same tired plot that Bowser has captured Princess Peach, again.
This time Bowser wants to force Peach to marry him, and he has a crew of unlikable rabbits (the Broodals) working as his wedding planners. They’re the mini-bosses scouring every kingdom on the planet for flowers and everything else Bowser wants at the wedding with Peach. Mario has to stop the wedding with his new friend in Cappy, your living hat guy from a kingdom of living hat people. Cappy ends up replacing Mario’s iconic hat, and most of the ranged attacks that Mario would otherwise acquire via pick-ups. When Mario launches Cappy he’ll possess any enemies that aren’t wearing hats (and the occasional bystander frog) in the kingdoms that they travel to.
Mario and Cappy travel onboard a cap-shaped flying machine, the titular Odyssey. It acts like a flying RV on their journey to each kingdom where they will try and cut off Bowser’s minions before they can get everything ready for the wedding.
The Odyssey is powered by collectibles, moons, they’re hidden in each kingdom just like the stars were in Mario 64, except there are hundreds of the moons scattered everywhere. Just like in Mario 64 It’s still a delight to find each moon. My almost-2-year-old son absolutely loves the music and animation that plays each time Mario collects one. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about it, but that reaction epitomizes the Super Mario Odyssey experience. It’s almost all fun, mostly all of the time. You’ll only need a very few per-kingdom to move on but I constantly found myself collecting “just one more,” and before I knew it I had collected dozens to hand in to the Odyssey.
Mario is still on the hunt for coins, of course. Each kingdom that Mario and Cappy visit also has a purple currency specific to it. The inverted pyramid desert level has inverted purple pyramid tokens, for example. You can spend these at the shop in each kingdom and get new costumes, gear to decorate the Odyssey inside and out, and some power-ups. All of the costumes are charming and wonderful like the old Doctor Mario outfit, or more appropriate for the kingdom you’re in like the sombrero and poncho outfit pieces. In each world one of the costumes will unlock a special area with at least one moon, but you can also skip the stores if you’re not interested in Mario Teaches Capitalism Jr. It’s 2017 so I should say there are no loot boxes, premium currencies, DLC, or anything with real money besides purchasing the game.
The worst problem for Odyssey is that the motion controls are abysmal. You have to wiggle the controllers in a circle to get your cap to spin in a circle and slam into every enemy around Mario when he’s surrounded, or just aggressively shake them to get Cappy to home-in on a slightly distant target after launching it.
It’d be different if the controllers that come with the system, the Joy-Cons, weren’t attached to the sides of the Switch while you’re playing in handheld mode. But they are, and it definitely doesn’t feel like you should be shaking the entire system. There is a work-around for the motion controls most of the time. You can spin the left analog stick in a circle, before launching Cappy, to get that spin attack without shaking your system. This takes a bit longer to perform the action but it still gets it done and is more reliable than the motion controls. Although the homing action is only necessary for some of the more advanced platforming areas, there isn’t any work-around for it that I’ve found.
This is one of the few games that also rewards exploration to the extreme. Launching Cappy enables Mario to perform a series of dives and jumps that can be used to ascend to places he wouldn’t normally be able to get to. I’m not that great at doing this, but if you are then you will find that Nintendo stocks all of these off-the-beaten-path areas with coins. The harder it is to get somewhere the more coins you’ll find, and it’s absolutely great that they do this.
More minor explorational feats are rewarded with moons, but you always feel smart just for finding one by instinct, even if it is really just good game design that lead you there.
Most of the kingdoms Mario and Cappy visit are terrifically designed, a few are bizarrely unexpected in a Mario game, and New Donk City ended up being my favorite. It’s very strange seeing Mario interact with a city of humans that look very different from his bizarro adult toddler form, but that level also goes places that I absolutely didn’t expect. There are things in many of these kingdoms that I wish I hadn’t known about going into them, because they’re so incredible and unexpected that I felt like the surprise was spoiled. I’ll say that even after rescuing Peach there is still more to do in the game, and I definitely have spent more time with it, and leave it at that.
I don’t feel like anyone else could have made Odyssey, there just hasn’t been another 3D platforming game that achieves half of what Odyssey does in the 21 years since Super Mario 64 was released. Almost every kingdom has unique enemies to possess and delightful puzzles to complete. I’m not the first person to say it, but, each kingdom feels like it could be the basis for an entire game that another developer would make and drive the mechanic into the ground before the game is finished. Super Mario Odyssey is a wonderful adventure that really made me happy to have the Switch. As a parent it was a fun game I could share with my son around. As an adult human in 2017 Odyssey is some fantastic sunlight brightening up a terrible year.
5 out of 5 musical Marios for Super Mario Odyssey