Be The Goomba
HIGH New Donk City.
LOW The Broodals.
WTF Tacked-on motion controls? Still? Really, Nintendo?
The unveiling of Super Mario Odyssey was accompanied by the jarring image of Mario cavorting with realistically-proportioned humans in an obvious stand-in for New York City. For many, this triggered uncomfortable flashbacks of Sonic striking up romantic relationships with disturbingly lifelike women, but Mario games are nothing if not tonally consistent.
New Donk City, as it’s called, shows up about halfway through Odyssey, and it immediately dispels any notion that Mario is foolishly striving to be taken seriously. Footballs litter the ground and every pedestrian is wearing a suit and fedora. The whole thing plays like a one-sentence thesis statement on the last century of American culture.
It’s as convincing a representation of a metropolitan area as Bob-Omb Battlefield was an actual war front. And it’s a blast to explore precisely because it’s the sort of environment we’ve never seen Mario in before. Putting these time-tested mechanics to use amongst the high rises of the Metro Kingdom is as fresh and thrilling as it was on miniature planets in Super Mario Galaxy. I only wish the rest of the game was so gleefully incongruous. Odyssey is polished, delightful, and just a hair too familiar.
The word “odyssey,” tracing back to Homer’s epic poem, refers to a sprawling series of adventures – a single journey in which numerous isolated stories crop up. In his pursuit of Bowser, Mario inherits a small airship and travels beyond his own kingdom to neighboring worlds. Players collect decals, souvenirs and apparel along the way, turning Mario and his flying machine into a veritable scrapbook of their exotic destinations.
However, there’s a big missed opportunity here. Despite its promise of ripping Mario out of his comfort zone, most of the levels in this game feel just like Mario levels. Many of them can be categorized in the usual elemental fashion (ice world, desert world, etc.) and I’d have had no trouble believing that the cartoonish-looking inhabitants of Tostarena didn’t already occupy a sandy region of the Mushroom Kingdom.
New Donk City stands as the towering exception, but most of the other brushes with the unexpected feel non-committal. I got excited when Mario crash-landed on a gloomy, dilapidated castle that wouldn’t look out of place in Demon’s Souls, but it houses a single boss battle and almost nothing else. Even the much-hyped prehistoric kingdom is full of the usual Mario merriment, save for one or two T-rexes that barely get any use.
The good news is that even a relatively ordinary Mario platformer still looks and plays better than the vast majority of what’s on the market today, and anyone who’s ever controlled Mario in a 3D space will feel instantly familiar with the moveset – the triple jump, the quick-turn side somersault, the running long jump, and so forth.
Odyssey brings the series back to the open-ended level design first introduced in Super Mario 64, wherein players are set loose to gather shiny things in any order they see fit. There are more collectibles in Odyssey than the average player will likely amass, and so the sheer volume of content available contributes to the game’s sense of freedom. It doesn’t take long to reach Odyssey’s finale, but everyone’s journey there will be just a bit different.
Crucially, Nintendo gets a lot of mileage out of Odyssey’s central mechanical gimmick, which is that Mario can use his sentient hat to possess and control various people, creatures and objects throughout the game. When I throw my hat at a Bullet Bill, it dons Mario’s mustache, and suddenly I’m blowing through walls and rocketing over large pits.
This power essentially multiplies Mario’s ability set a hundredfold, but its true genius is that gives each world its own unique identity through mechanics rather than color schemes. I think of the Forgotten Isle not for its purple, poisonous water, but for how cool and bizarre it felt to inhabit the body of a caterpillar and navigate otherwise-tricky jumps by elongating myself like a Slinky to cross gaps.
Also, while we know how much Nintendo likes to wallow in its own history, they’ve found a charming way to do it here – by integrating 8-bit segments into walls, cliffs and other surfaces within the game world, and seamlessly transitioning between the two dimensions. The best use of this trick, during the New Donk City Festival, is not only one of the most memorable sequences of this game, but of any game this year.
While Odyssey is largely as tight and beautiful as we’ve come to expect from Nintendo (at least on one of their good years, which this certainly has been), I have two major complaints. The first is that it’s 2017 and forced motion controls need to be hurled into the nearest singularity. Although Odyssey isn’t as aggressive with it as certain Wii-era titles were, there’s no reason I should have to wildly shake my Switch to perform an action that could have easily been mapped to a button.
The second flaw is that while Odyssey is awash with clever and seemingly random ideas and details, very few of them were directed toward the boss battles. The repeated fights against a group of uninteresting rabbits called the Broodals feel like they could have been in any Mario game, so they’re a waste of space in the one where Mario can take on literally any form the developers could have imagined. Even the final boss is both routine and a rehash of an earlier bout.
Aside from those issues and a cooperative mode that seems to exist purely to give a spectator something to do, I had a great time with Odyssey. It doesn’t feel like the massive leap forward that some of Mario’s earlier 3D outings have been, but its polish and spirit make it another must-play in the ever-increasingly impressive Switch library. Leave it to Nintendo to deliver us some blissful escapism in a year when a lot of us really need it.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Nintendo EPD and published by Nintendo. It is currently available on Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 14 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. Two hours of that time were spent in co-op.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+ and contains Cartoon Violence and Comic Mischief. There’s nothing offensive here beyond the moral crisis of possessing sentient creatures and forcing them to perform actions against their will.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is text-based, and sound cues aren’t important. I played long stretches of the game without sound and had zero problems.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.