With Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel, Yoshiaki Koizumi gave Nintendo’s mascot two unforgettable, interstellar journeys. Players would launch Mario through the reaches of space, often having him jump between planets in an effort to save Princess Peach. Both games were complete successes, selling well over five million units apiece. When playing them, it is clear Nintendo’s Tokyo branch gave it their all; the sheer amount of creativity it took to conceive such games is something that only occurs a scant few times per generation. Given that both games demonstrated Nintendo’s continued relevance going into the 2010s, a sequel would seem inevitable. This was easier said than done. How could anyone possibly go about following up not one, but two of the most monumental titles of its generation?
The year 2012 marked the launch of the Nintendo Wii’s successor: the Wii U. Despite its initially positive reception and launching with the latest installment in their popular New Super Mario Bros. subseries, consumers were slow to adopt this console. There were various reasons why this ended up being the case. Many people assumed the Wii U was a mere upgrade of the Wii rather than being a separate console. A larger strike against it, however, concerned its lackluster library. Although several highly praised games such as Bayonetta 2 and Super Mario 3D World would debut on the Wii U, they weren’t enough to sway the market in Nintendo’s favor. The general consensus among independent critics is that Nintendo jumped the gun in their attempts to release a console before Sony or Microsoft. Damningly, it was the first console to lose money for the venerable company. Compounded with their rivals releasing the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, Nintendo found themselves in a dire situation.
A journalist writing for The New York Times felt Nintendo’s hardware sales were comprised thanks to mobile gaming gaining steam around this time. The president of the company at the time, Satoru Iwata, felt they would cease to be Nintendo if they entered the market, though he eventually relented, securing a business alliance with mobile provider DeNA. Tragically, he would pass away on July 11, 2015 due to complications from cholangiocarcinoma – also known as bile duct cancer. He was 55.
Despite the fact that they retained a devoted fanbase, Nintendo’s fate looked grim with gamers gravitating towards the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and one of their greatest technical wizards dead. Even with the odds stacked against them, Nintendo had no intentions of giving up. As early as 2012, they drafted ideas for a console to follow the Wii U. However, they didn’t want to settle for making this new piece of hardware a mere successor to the Wii U or the portable 3DS. Tatsumi Kimishima, the new president of Nintendo, stated the new console was to provide a “new way to play” that would have a greater impact than the Wii U.
The company had historically always featured one handheld console and one home console in a given generation starting in the fourth. One of the criticisms lodged toward the Wii U concerned its GamePad. While players did enjoy using it, they wished it could be used as a standalone console. As it was, it would stop functioning if moved too far of a distance from the console. Therefore, this new console was to bridge the gap between Nintendo’s two major markets, being a portable home console.
Dubbed the Nintendo Switch, the console was released in March of 2017. Despite market analysts expressing skepticism over the Switch, it quickly became a bestseller, moving more units than the Wii U ever did within a year. Keeping to their strange pattern, a mainline Mario installment akin to Super Mario Sunshine or Super Mario Galaxy was not among the Switch’s launch titles. However, unlike the GameCube or the Wii, gamers wouldn’t have to wait long for Nintendo’s mascot to make a triumphant debut on the Switch.
Immediately after the release of Super Mario 3D World in late 2013, the same team began work on a new Mario installment with a little help from 1-Up Studio. This company was formally known as Brownie Brown – the company best known for having developed Mother 3 alongside Shigesato Itoi. Led by director Kenta Motokura, this new installment was going to revolve around the concept of surprise. Taking note of the surge in popularity of open-world sandbox gaming, Mr. Motokura and his team sought to make next Mario installment appeal to the series’ core audience. Up until that point, they had focused on capturing the attention of causal players.
This game, Super Mario Odyssey, was released in October of 2017. It was notable for having been released in the same year as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This made 2017 the first calendar year in which Nintendo released both a console Zelda installment and a console mainline Mario game since 1986. On top of that, 2017 is popularly considered one of the greatest years in the medium’s history. With no shortage of strong competition, did Super Mario Odyssey stand out from the crowd?
Analyzing the Experience
Bowser, with the aid of four rabbit-like creatures called Broodals, has kidnapped Princess Peach of the Mushroom Kingdom. The Koopa King intends to forcibly marry Peach to himself. Once again, Mario leaps into action. Unfortunately for Mario, Bowser proves more than a match for him, utterly trouncing him. For good measure, Bowser even destroys the hero’s iconic hat. One well-aimed attack sends Mario flying off the airship to parts unknown.
Some time later, Mario finds himself in a small town called Bonneton. The being that woke him up is a ghostly creature resembling a hat. Introducing himself as Cappy, he reveals Bowser has kidnapped his sister, Tiara. As if showing a twisted sense of humor, Peach is to be married to Bowser and his sister is to be used as a part of the princess’s wedding ensemble. Vowing to help Mario crash the wedding, Cappy takes the shape of the hero’s hat, joining him on his quest. Their first order of business is to find a means by which they can pursue Bowser.
After experimenting with motion controls in Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Odyssey, and by extension the Switch itself, could be considered Nintendo going back to basics. The controller can register movements under certain circumstances, but navigating Mario is going to primarily depend on key button presses. As such, anyone familiar with Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Sunshine can grasp the controls easily enough. You use either the “B” or “A” button to jump. A majority of the acrobatic maneuvers Mario could perform in previous 3D installments are possible in this one as well. Jumping three times in a row while in motion allows Mario to gain significant height with the third. Other leaps that debuted in Super Mario 64 such as the backward somersault, side somersault, running long jump, and wall jump make a return and are executed in the exact same manner.
Though Mario still cannot throw a punch, he appears to have taken his encounters with Sonic the Hedgehog in various crossover titles to heart. Similar to Super Mario 3D Land and its sequel, by holding the “ZL” or “ZR” button, and tapping “X” or “Y”, he can curl up in a ball-shaped form and roll along the ground. Unlike before, you can easily keep up the momentum until you stop or hit an obstacle. It is significantly faster than running normally, and in certain circumstances, long jumping everywhere. In exchange, it’s a little more difficult to control.
Before you have a means to leave the Cap Kingdom, you’ll soon discover that Cappy isn’t just there to serve as a replacement hat for Mario. By pressing the “X” or “Y” button, Mario can throw Cappy. Just like a boomerang, Cappy will always return to him. Through subtle manipulations of the controller, you can make Mario throw Cappy upwards, downwards, or have him home in on enemies. A majority of the enemies in the game are vulnerable to Mario jumping on top of them, so Cappy is very helpful for dispatching the notable exceptions to this rule. If Cappy was solely a means of providing Mario with a ranged attack, he would be a valuable asset to their journey. However, his true utility presents itself when Mario finds himself facing an incredibly tall wall next to a pond containing a population of frogs. Though renowned for his exceptional jumping ability, Mario has no possible way of clearing this wall.
At this moment, Cappy proposes a solution: he instructs Mario to throw him at one of the frogs in the pond. Mario couldn’t possibly have been prepared for what happened next.
Mario suddenly finds himself in the body of the frog at which he threw Cappy. This is the aptly named Capture mechanic, and it allows Mario to possess whomever or whatever he strikes with Cappy. You can tell a character is under Mario’s influence when their eyes turn blue and they begin sporting Mario’s distinctive mustache. Logically and amusingly, this proposition doesn’t work if the character or enemy Mario attempts to possess wears a hat or something similar. Only by first dislodging it can you attempt to Capture it.
Similar to Super Mario Galaxy and its immediate sequel, Mario can take three hits before being defeated. It doesn’t matter whether Mario was burned by lava or hit by a Goomba; all damage Mario receives takes off a single unit of health. The only thing capable of defeating him in one shot is a bottomless pit. Although coins are as plentiful as they’ve always been, collecting them does not restore Mario’s health. Instead, hearts serve that purpose. There is a larger variety known as a Life-Up Heart, which, like the Life Mushroom before it, doubles Mario’s health capacity. The extra health is retained until Mario is reduced to three units.
In the event that you lose all of your health, you may notice Super Mario Odyssey saw fit to finally retire the life system. Despite the developers having brought back Mario’s classic death animation wherein he simply falls off the screen, the only repercussion for failure is losing ten coins. Interestingly, if you do not have any on hand, you suffer no penalty at all. This is for the best because the life system had always been completely pointless in the Mario series’ fully 3D installments. In Super Mario 64, the game would ask players if they wanted to save after getting a Power Star. Unless the player opted for some bizarre, self-imposed challenge, there was no practical reason for electing not to save. In its sequels, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy, and Super Mario Galaxy 2, the life system truly began showing its age. The only thing it really did was waste the player’s time by forcing them to return to the starting area. By Super Mario Galaxy 2, it was so easy to get extra lives that eschewing the mechanic entirely for Super Mario Odyssey merely took the series’ evolution to its logical conclusion.
After exploring the prehistoric Cascade Kingdom, Mario and Cappy discover exactly what they’re looking for: an airship.
Dubbed the Odyssey, the airship runs on energy supplied by Power Moons. They are the Super Mario Odyssey equivalent of the more familiar Power Stars. It takes only a cursory exploration of the first few worlds before you realize Power Moons are far more abundant than Power Stars. Soon, you will amass far more than 120 of them. The game seems to practically throw them at you, as evidenced by the fact that some come in bunches of three intuitively called Multi Moons. In fact, there are a total of 880 unique Power Moons to be found in the game.
Because it would be exceedingly difficult developing elaborate objectives for every one of the 880 Power Moons, Super Mario Odyssey is a return to form of sorts for the series. The familiar open-ended collectathon gameplay of Super Mario 64 is back after experimenting with more linear designs starting in Super Mario Sunshine. When you arrive in a new kingdom for the first time, you will frequently be forced to make your way to a boss or solve some kind of problem plaguing the land. Once you have resolved it, the kingdom will revert to its normal state, allowing you to explore at your own leisure. You need a certain amount of Power Moons before the sail is repaired enough to move onto the next world. Because of the game’s exploratory nature, you are not forced out of the stage upon obtaining a new Power Moon. In fact, very few kingdoms actually require you to fight a boss and much of the main storyline can be skipped as long as you procure enough moons. Although the kingdoms are visited in a mostly predetermined order, how the player goes about completing the game is up to them.
To complement the series’ rekindled exploratory nature, the checkpoint flags have been slightly repurposed. They still mark your progress so in the event you fail, you will be sent to the last one you touched. However, keeping in the spirit of open-world design, the flags also act as a fast travel system. Once you have activated one, all you need to do is open up the map, which takes the form of a travel brochure, and select the corresponding flag icon. Notably, the Odyssey bears an identical flag, allowing you to warp to it just as easily. This is handy if you’re running low on health, as going inside allows Mario to recover. To prevent players from circumventing the ten-coin penalty, the fast travel system does not work if Mario is in midair. It’s important to know that the flags can still be used as checkpoints even after they’ve been activated. All you have to do is touch it, and your progress will be recorded. You can also manually save the game if you so choose.
Having established that coins no longer restore health, one may ask what their purpose is. If you assumed collecting one-hundred of them causes a Power Moon to appear, you would be wrong, but not entirely off the mark. Much like in Mario’s RPG games, coins are instead used as currency. In every kingdom is an outlet for a store headquartered in the metropolitan New Donk City: Crazy Cap. There are actually two different currency systems in this game you can use to purchase items from Crazy Cap. The first uses the familiar oval-shaped coins synonymous with the series. Each kingdom also has its own unique currency. They vary wildly in shape with the Cascade Kingdom’s coins resembling Yapese rai stones and a later Japanese-themed area’s modeled after ryō. Nonetheless, the one common factor between them is their distinctive purple color. There are either fifty or one-hundred regional coins, and unlike standard ones, they do not respawn.
These regional coins are used to purchase souvenirs you can use to decorate the Odyssey. Stickers act as decals for the airship whereas models are used to add to the interior décor. You will have exactly enough regional coins to purchase every souvenir the local Crazy Cap branch has to offer. Though collecting one-hundred coins doesn’t cause a Power Moon to appear, you can purchase one from Crazy Cap for that exact price. You can also buy a Life-Up Heart from Crazy Cap if you so choose. In fact, if you lose to a boss repeatedly, a vendor will appear and offer to sell you one.
Normal coins can also be used to purchase new outfits from Crazy Cap. Mario can have equipped at any given time one hat or other headpiece and one outfit. Unlike in an RPG, the equipment doesn’t serve a much of purpose outside of an aesthetical one. However, certain establishments have strict, oftentimes bizarre dress codes. Every kingdom has its own set of clothes, so it’s usually a good idea to buy the local variety whenever you can. This is primarily because these establishments always have something, usually a Power Moon, to make your investment worthwhile.
After not one, but two games that had Mario travel the cosmos in search of Power Stars, having the follow-up take place on a single planet seems like a step back. The Mushroom World has been explored quite extensively – most notably in Super Mario Bros. 3. In fact, its diverse world designs created what are now considered standard video game settings. By 2017, the franchise was over three decades old; it wouldn’t seem as though the franchise had any possible way to surprise audiences anymore – a problem when you consider the central theme. Fortunately, as it turns out, the designers had many more tricks up their sleeves.
Mario will find himself in the Cascade Kingdom shortly after leaving the Cap Kingdom. Just in case a veteran player felt they had seen the Mario franchise explore all the possible ground it could cover, they would be shocked to discover one of the kingdom’s inhabitants is a tyrannosaurus rex. This isn’t the winged, cartoonish creature from Super Mario World either; it’s the real deal – or at least an approximation of what it may have looked like in life. A particularly audacious player who wasn’t exposed to the game’s promotional materials may try throwing Cappy at the dinosaur to seei if Mario can Capture it.
They would be rewarded for their avant-garde strategy when it turns out it is indeed possible. Personally, I feel this moment right here encapsulates exactly what made Nintendo’s efforts so admirable in the late 2010s; they demonstrated they weren’t willing to play by anyone’s rules but their own. So while developers such as Naughty Dog set their games in the real world and, at least theoretically, subjected their works to the limitations thereof, Mr. Motokura and his team successfully recaptured the kind of imagination that drove the pioneering works of the 1980s and 1990s. It would be easy for the uninformed looking at this development to assume Super Mario Odyssey to be a random, chaotic mess. In reality, there is quite a bit of internal consistency to the Capture mechanic. Staying true to the rules of the game, he wouldn’t have been able to Capture the tyrannosaurus rex if it was wearing aviator goggles.
Moreover, given the immense size of the creature, Cappy isn’t able to hold onto it for too long. If whatever Mario attempts to capture is of his size or only slightly larger, Cappy can latch onto it indefinitely.
The Mario franchise has always had one of the most extensive and famous bestiaries in gaming history. However, the player’s interactions with these enemies began and ended with what tactics they devised to defeat them. While the Goombas were easily dispatched, players often found Hammer Brothers the most difficult enemies outside of bosses. Regardless of the amount of thought players had to put into defeating them, the end result was always the same; you would defeat the enemy and move on to the next.
What the Capture mechanic does is allow the Mario series to fully capitalize on a strength that had existed from the very beginning. By giving players the ability to control enemies, it allows them to use their unique abilities to progress. Have you ever played any of these games wondering what it would be like to use the Hammer Brothers’ weapons to defeat your foes or if you could prove the lowly Goomba has a hidden potential? You can do all of that and more in this game, and the possibilities only increase from there when you realize friendly characters and certain inanimate objects can also be Captured.
Because the Capture mechanic so fundamentally alters the manner in which it’s played, one could argue Super Mario Odyssey isn’t a singular Mario experience as much as it is several miniature games sharing a common universe. Just like with Super Mario Galaxy and its unique power-ups, what makes the Capture mechanic so laudable is that you never get the sense the developers attempted to get too much mileage out of these ideas. They’re explored in puzzles, boss battles, and smaller stages within these kingdoms, but once the developers covered sufficient ground with them, they move on.
A majority of the kingdoms Mario and Cappy visit upon recovering the Odyssey have some kind of real-world counterpart. As a result, you’ll see many standard video game settings, but they are all in some way atypical examples of them. The Cap Kingdom with its foggy town uses London as an inspiration. It along with the Cascade Kingdom qualify as the fertile, grassy starting area, yet the former has a spooky design you wouldn’t normally find until the halfway point of a given game whereas the latter is prehistoric in nature. Mr. Motokura has stated that the Sand Kingdom, which features many Mesoamerican elements, was inspired by a trip he once took to Mexico. This is in defiance of most desert stages, which are modeled after the Sahara.
The game’s first water stage, the Lake Kingdom, incorporates French and Greek elements. The former can be observed in the citizens’ fashion and local nomenclature while the community borrows the latter’s architectural style, also bringing to mind the lost mythical land of Atlantis. Their next stop brings them to the Wooded Kingdom, which resembles the famous Black Forest in Germany. Fittingly, the region is well known for its advanced engineering. Later down the line, Mario and Cappy visit the Snow Kingdom, whose polar bear-like citizens bring to mind Scandinavia, though there are Russian elements as well such as the matryoshka dolls being sold by the local Crazy Cap. However, in accordance with the harsh environment, a majority of the community is underground.
Most of the time when you get a video game that takes place on the seaside, you can tell the creators were inspired by the Caribbean or Hawaii. With the Seaside Kingdom of Super Mario Odyssey, Mr. Motokura’s team opted to model it after the French Riviera. It is populated by snails wearing berets and a gigantic champagne flute dominates the center of the bay. The obligatory lava stage is the Luncheon Kingdom. It is a region made entirely of food, with platforms precariously floating atop boiling hot, pink lava that resembles stew broth. Regardless of what it actually is, it is every bit as damaging as lava, so you would do well not to have Mario attempt to swim in it. The food is primarily based on Italian cuisine, which is accented by the Roman architecture littered throughout the region and its active volcano.
This defiance of expectations even extends to Bowser’s Kingdom, for it is depicted as a Japanese castle rather than a European one. It’s surprisingly realistic as well, featuring three concentric walls, yagura towers, and holes from which arrows are shot. It doesn’t even have a single pool of lava, which is practically the Koopa King’s thumbprint. I don’t think most people playing this game would have expected the last leg of their journey to aesthetically resemble a Kurosawa film – even with the kingdom’s varied predecessors.
Of course, the most famous location in the game and the one that generated the most hype on social media when Super Mario Odyssey was first announced is New Donk City. This bizarrely named community within the Metro Kingdom is a clear analogue for New York City, and its inhabitants are realistically proportioned humans. The brochure equivocates when it comes to confirming whether they’re actually human, simply calling them New Donkers. Amusingly, this development has a precedent in the franchise of Mario’s rival, Sonic the Hedgehog. In his often maligned 2006 installment, Sonic and his friends wandered a world that also had realistically portioned humans. This clashed horribly with the art style, and formed the backbone of one of the many criticisms people had for that game.
Along those lines, Nintendo had outsourced characters from the Mario franchise to The Software Toolworks and Radical Entertainment in the mid-1990s, leading to the creation of Mario is Missing! and Mario’s Time Machine. These games had the Mario brothers explore the real planet Earth in order to stop Bowser’s machinations. Just like the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog, these games were widely derided. Critics cited their distinct lack of meaningful challenge as the primary reason for their failure, and even the fact that they were educational games did nothing to excuse their shortcomings. On top of that, it became clear the real-world juxtaposition simply did not complement the spirit of the Mario series.
So why does it work in Super Mario Odyssey when it patently didn’t in Mario is Missing!, Mario’s Time Machine, or the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog? I feel it’s primarily because the oddness of seeing these New Donkers alongside the more cartoonish creatures from the other kingdoms is a celebration of the surrealism this series frequently indulges in. After games in which Mario has jumped into paintings, cleaned graffiti with a sentient water pump, and flown through space, interacting with the New Donkers is downright mundane.
New Donk City also allows Pauline, the character Mario sought to rescue from Donkey Kong in the game that started it all, to make a triumphant debut in a mainline title. She is now the beloved mayor of this city and she quickly reveals herself to be an excellent singer as well, lending her voice to game’s theme song. Her voice actress, Kate Higgins, was trained under a jazz musician by the name of Bob Richardson. In fact, it’s implied that this is where the events of Donkey Kong took place. On the edge of town are many buildings in the process of being constructed. As he did all of those years ago, Mario must navigate a series of girders when he first arrives in this kingdom. There is even a sidequest you can undergo once you’ve completed the main campaign wherein Mario can give a gift to Pauline. His choices are a hat, umbrella, and purse, which reference the items Mario could collect for bonus points. While the callbacks could be considered overbearing, I do find myself enjoying them more often than not because what Nintendo did was take a litany of random elements and give them meaning within another context. It’s one thing to have collected these items to score points in Donkey Kong, but in this game, Mario is trying to find a gift for a good friend.
The design of New Donk City is interesting as well. The New Donkers dress in clothing reminiscent of the period shortly after the Second World War’s conclusion. This aspect is reflected in the architecture as well. At the same time, the taxicabs you see are based off of models that wouldn’t be invented until the 2000s and some of the New Donkers are seen playing with RC cars, which weren’t available to the public until the 1970s. Yet others use laptops – a true rarity until the 1990s. All of these subtle details were intentional on the developers’ part. What better way to lend the city a timeless appeal than by refusing to anchor it to a specific era?
The desire to take bits and pieces from various eras and form something new is another running theme throughout the entire game. When you inevitably enter a pixelated pipe, Mario will be rendered as a sprite similar to his appearance in the first Super Mario Bros. – albeit with the more familiar red shirt and blue overalls design made official in Super Mario Bros. 3. On the surface, this would appear to be merely a more tenable way to justify the side-scrolling segments from Super Mario Galaxy 2. In that game, there were many instances in which the act of limiting Mario’s movements to a two-dimensional space was not contextualized. It was still appreciated because giving Mario fully three-dimensional movement in those situations would have made the side-scrolling portions unnecessarily difficult.
While rendering Mario an 8-bit sprite seems to be a different way of accomplishing the same goal, playing through the game reveals the developers took this idea to many interesting places. In the Cascade Kingdom, you may discover through probing the outermost boundaries of the first 8-bit wall that it is not perfectly flat, wrapping around a corner. As long as the wall connects to where you’re trying to guide Mario, you can have him travel there with little difficulty. Even if Mario doesn’t leave these areas via a pipe, he can still fall out of them if he tries traveling outside of the scenery. This is the most noticeable should he fall into what would normally be considered a bottomless pit, but in certain later stages, the scenery is mobile, requiring the player to keep up with it lest they have Mario fall to his doom. In the Sand Kingdom, you will learn that enemies are affected by these strange walls as well. Mario will have to dodge Bullet Bills in the 8-bit portions only to deal with them in a three-dimensional plane once they exit. With these small touches, I like to think of the challenges the 8-bit walls present as an allegory for the series’ evolution. Players learned how a 2D platformer should function in 1985 only for the rules to be redefined with the addition of depth eleven years later when Super Mario 64 was released. This game forces players to employ both sets of skills at once.
Mr. Motokura wanted his game to revolve around the concept of surprise, and as is evident by now, he certainly succeeded. If someone were going into Super Mario Odyssey completely blind, they would be taken aback at how a game with a control scheme that could have been conceived three or four console generations ago managed to surprise them at every corner. After traversing Mario’s world and seeing him take control of a tyrannosaurus rex, help perform a jazz song in front of millions of viewers, and defeat Bowser by stealing his hat that has two boxing gloves attached, it’s easy to assume the developers played all of their best cards. The feeling that the player has the game all figured out is then completely dashed when they attempt to infiltrate Bowser’s Kingdom for the first time. Before Mario and Cappy can reach Bowser’s domain, they learn their foe has recruited a particularly powerful minion.
Riding a gigantic dragon known as the Lord of Lightning, the Koopa King makes a sudden appearance. The dragon then accosts the Odyssey, easily bringing it down. What makes it especially jarring, even with the presence of the New Donkers, is that this creature wouldn’t seem out of place in a contemporary fantasy title such as Dark Souls or The Elder Scrolls. The area in which Mario and Cappy find themselves is known as the Ruined Kingdom. You’re never told exactly what happened to this kingdom, but the desolation speaks for itself. It’s as though the heroes stepped into a post-apocalyptic backdrop.
Throughout the 2010s as technology improved, more and more developers began adopting one art style in particular: realism. It stands to reason when one takes a step back and looks at the big picture. During the earliest days of the 3D era, games with a more cartoonish art style appeared alongside the grittier, realistic ones. However, even when the games in question were intended to take place in the real world, the then-crude polygons betrayed the severe technical limitations developers were saddled with. Going into the 2000s, the improved technology afforded developers a chance to implement increasingly realistic computer animated models. Because the technological leaps hardware manufacturers made weren’t as readily apparent with a more simplistic cel-shaded style, these realistic games often became a given console’s selling point.
As this was going on, Nintendo stuck to their guns and focused on gameplay rather than style. This was ultimately to their benefit – particularly in the early 2010s when many developers attempted to extol the medium’s artistic merits – because it ensured their work stood the test of time far more gracefully. They continued to make works sold entirely on their gameplay while their most visible competition – such as Naughty Dog with their Uncharted series – frequently placed style before substance. What this team accomplishes with the Ruined Kingdom and the Lord of Lightning can be construed as quite the audacious statement. It makes the case that no matter how much developers strive for realism in games, they’re always going to bear the quirks and oddities of the medium. Any medium is at its best whenever it embraces what makes it so fascinatingly bizarre, and with the Lord of Lightning Super Mario Odyssey manages to celebrate gaming’s past, present, and future all at once.
Bringing this interpretation to its conclusion, after Mario’s fierce battle against the Lord of Lightning, it surrenders, content to rest in its arena for the duration of the game. If you attempt to speak with it, the dragon complains about feeling tired. Despite its fearsome exterior, this one line of dialogue makes it fit right in with the colorful cast of the average Mario installment.
The moon forms the basis of this game’s primary motif. The fact that the goal of the game is to collect artifacts known as Power Moons is the most obvious manifestation of this motif, but it shows up in other forms as well. It is especially visible in the Cap Kingdom, yet no matter where you may end up in the world, you can look up at the sky and see it. The Broodals also hail from the celestial body, alluding to the classical association with rabbits and the moon. Because it is such a persistent element, it is thematically fitting that Bowser would choose the moon as the location to stage his wedding.
The Moon Kingdom draws a lot of obvious inspiration from Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel. Not coincidentally, the regional coins are shaped like Star Bits. However, keeping true to the subversive nature of the stage designs, it does not come across as an unused Super Mario Galaxy stage. While every single planet Mario visited had a gravitational pull similar to that of Earth regardless of their size, the Moon Kingdom’s is significantly weaker. The Moon is also noticeably dusty and colorless, and when Mario journeys underground, you’ll learn the interior houses a lava area far more traditional than the Luncheon Kingdom or Bowser’s Kingdom.
The boss fights against Bowser have traditionally been the highlights of a given three-dimensional Mario title – the sole exception to this trend being Super Mario Sunshine. After fighting Bowser in the skies above the Mushroom Kingdom and while hurtling through space, it would seem as though the developers had no more ground they could possibly cover with him. Surprisingly enough, they seemed to agree with this sentiment. While the final encounter with Bowser is appropriately challenging, what makes it truly memorable follows immediately afterwards. As is standard practice in video games, Bowser’s defeat causes the immediate area to begin collapsing. However, Mario, Peach, Cappy and Tiara soon find themselves trapped by debris. In order to escape, Mario must resort to a drastic measure.
That’s right, after facing off against him for over three decades, Mario Captures his archnemesis and uses his immense strength to escape with Peach and Tiara. Bowser had been a playable character in various spinoff games such as Mario Kart and Super Mario RPG, but this development is quite another thing entirely. Never before could players control Bowser, even in a possessed state, in a mainline game. When in control of Bowser, Mario is automatically starts with an additional three units of health and can effortlessly destroy giant, stone blocks. He is deceptively agile as well, being able to jump as high as he normally can, though he’s not quite as graceful when in possession of Bowser. The sequence itself is perfectly implemented, striking a good balance between making the players think on their feet while not rendering the gameplay a matter of trial and error. Amusingly, their escape involves entering an 8-bit pipe, which causes them to be rendered in Bowser and Peach’s Super Mario Bros. sprites. It’s a twist nobody who made it to the end of the game’s first castle back in 1985 could have seen coming.
Much like in Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel, clearing Super Mario Odyssey unlocks a surplus of postgame content. While a lot of it does add to the experience, I have to remark that attempting to see everything the game has to offer reveals its greatest weakness. The supplemental campaign of Super Mario Galaxy 2 in particular was as long as it needed to be. The game proper was over, yet there were a few extra challenges for those who wanted it. The Green Star challenge was often maligned for unnecessarily padding things out, but they didn’t take as long to obtain as the original set of Power Stars. The developers had deftly broken their own rules in order to give players a challenge that wouldn’t have felt out of place in Super Mario 64. Admittedly, one aspect I do like about the postgame content is how it incorporates a mechanic that had been popularized by the Xbox 360. In many games on that platform, you could receive achievements for passing significant milestones, which might include defeating a boss or clearing the game on a certain difficulty setting. This was eventually adopted by the PlayStation 3 and it had become a staple feature of both company’s consoles in the years since. Nintendo, despite eventually learning of the importance of online gaming, curiously didn’t implement a similar feature. Even when the Switch made its debut, it was nowhere to be seen. Certain Switch games included their own internal achievement system – including Super Mario Odyssey.
You can visit Peach’s castle in the Mushroom Kingdom once the game is completed. There, Toadette will give you a list of achievements for various smaller tasks you can accomplish throughout the game. Among other things, you can get Power Moons for jumping 10,000 times, rescuing Peach, and buying enough items with the regional coins. In most games with an achievement system, I end up ignoring them, feeling a sense of closure once I see the credits roll. What Super Mario Odyssey does is take a popular mechanic and gives it an in-game justification for existing. While the Xbox Achievements are primarily for bragging rights, similar actions in this game give the players tangible rewards. Even better, you don’t really have to go out of your way to fulfill these achievements, and you will likely get most of them just playing the game normally.
However, Super Mario Odyssey ultimately doesn’t grasp what allowed its predecessor’s postgame content to work. It would have been impressive had the developers made obtaining every single one of the 880 Power Moons a test of skill as in previous 3D titles, but should you aim for a completionist run, you will learn that is patently not the case. Some of the moons are well-hidden, but once you know where they are, they are not at all challenging to obtain on any subsequent playthrough. Several involve scraping up against the boundaries of an 8-bit wall while others can be found simply after examining a suspicious spot. One is simply given to Mario after sitting down on a bench and talking with an NPC. This really doesn’t complement the gameplay-heavy tone of the series. An ideal 3D Mario game should make players earn every single Power Star – or Power Moon as the case may be.
This isn’t even accounting for the fact that a significant chunk of the Moons cannot be obtained until after Mario crashes Bowser’s wedding. After Mario and Cappy’s trip to the moon, the mysterious cube-shaped objects you may have noticed as you were exploring these kingdoms begin glowing. Hitting them opens up a plethora of new challenges. The problem I have with this aspect is that nearly half of the Power Moons cannot be obtained until after main campaign is over. While the same was true of Super Mario Galaxy 2, the additional Power Stars were either Green Stars or located in the postgame-only World S. The rules of the game changed significantly in order to supply players with an additional challenge. Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t catch onto this distinction, instead merely causing a larger number of Power Moons to appear in the kingdoms you’ve already gone over with a fine-toothed comb. The unlocked challenges certainly test the players skill, but they merely feel like they’re stapled onto the stages in which they’re completed.
In this respect, I like to think of Super Mario Odyssey as a less successful example of what Breath of the Wild tried to do. In a series that became known for its linearity, Breath of the Wild returned to what made the original The Legend of Zelda such a groundbreaking title in 1986 by offering players an open-world experience. To this end, director Hidemaro Fujibayashi took elements from the collectathon subgenre and molded them into the Zelda template. The result is that the Spirit Orbs, which increased Link’s health or stamina for every four he found, acted as an analogue for both Power Stars and experience points. While longtime fans were upset over the lack of strong dungeons, I likened Mr. Fujibayashi’s approach to how the Minutemen conceived their masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime – a double LP featuring forty-three short songs. That is to say, while one could make the case none of the dungeons in Breath of the Wild were phenomenal, a majority of them made excellent use of their few moving parts. The end result is a game with more good levels than franchises have in the entire history of their existence.
The problem is that giving players a large number of small objectives had been how the Mario franchise operated ever since it made the 3D leap. Attempting to place even more of an emphasis on quantity caused the average quality of the objectives to slip slightly. Continuing with the music analogy, it’s like how many classic hip hop albums from the 1990s were peppered with skits that rarely added anything to the listening experience. Though that decade is considered the genre’s golden age, many of those albums could have been edited down significantly without losing anything of substance. The same principle applies to Super Mario Odyssey. There are plenty of missions on par with the best ones from preceding installments, but many of them simply involve wandering around aimlessly until you find them by accident.
Ultimately, where the postgame loses me concerns the stages unlocked after ruining Bowser’s wedding. The Mushroom Kingdom is a nice callback to Super Mario 64, but the other two stages also take place on the moon. The first of the new moon stages is primarily a boss rush against the Broodals. It is challenging because you aren’t intended to heal between rounds, though you can backtrack and retrieve a Life-Up Heart from the starting area if you so choose. It’s a fairly standard feature one would expect out of postgame content, and clearing it without backtracking lends itself a satisfying sense of accomplishment.
The second moon stage is the Super Mario Odyssey equivalent of the Grandmaster Galaxy from Super Mario Galaxy 2: Culmina Crater. Appropriate given its name, Culmina Crater takes bits and pieces from the previous kingdoms to form one giant stage. What made the Grandmaster Galaxy so gratifying is that it pushed your skills to the absolute limits – particularly the second time around when you had to clear it without making a single fatal mistake. Because the Prankster Comets do not exist in Super Mario Odyssey, conquering Culmina Crater lacks the emotional high of clearing The Perfect Run. While it is difficult, it is merely a lengthy stage with no checkpoints. You can start the stage with a Life-Up Heart and there are a few within the crater as well. As long as you take your time, it shouldn’t take you too many attempts before you’re successful. You don’t even need the rest of the Power Moons to enter, meaning it could potentially not serve as a coda for the experience.
Luckily, these minor slights don’t completely detract from what is otherwise a solid game. These challenges are there for those willing to seek them out. If you merely want to complete the game normally, you’re not forced to experience what would otherwise be pointless filler. Plus, having Donkey Kong in his original 8-bit sprite as the final obstacle Mario must overcome is a perfect way to cap off Culmina Crater while celebrating over three decades’ worth of great games.
Drawing a Conclusion
Following the release of Super Mario Maker in 2015, there was a persistently cynical sentiment that giving players the ability to create their own levels signified Nintendo had run out of ideas for the franchise. Every single one of the people who perpetuated that theory had egg on their faces when Super Mario Odyssey proceeded to receive universal acclaim from nearly every major gaming publication. However, many of them were unwilling to admit they had jumped the gun. Instead, they began claiming that, because of the numerous callbacks to previous Mario games, Super Mario Odyssey had an unfair advantage over contemporary efforts – the developers of which didn’t have an extensive legacy to rely on.
Although I can agree to some extent that the callbacks are a little gratuitous, what those critics often forgot is Nintendo themselves made the games being directly referenced. By the end of 2017, Nintendo had created some of the greatest games of four consecutive decades – a feat few, if any, other companies could claim to have matched. In other words, they well and truly earned the right to use their extensive legacy in such a fashion. There had been plenty of other companies that attempted to do the same despite their successes having been smaller in scale. One of the most striking examines to me was when Naughty Dog included a sequence in Uncharted 4 in which the main characters play Crash Bandicoot. Other than allowing for a small bit of character development, it was pointless and added nothing to the gameplay. In that regard, Nintendo had the upper hand. Whereas Naughty Dog stopped at reminding their audience they made Crash Bandicoot once upon a time, Mr. Motokura and his team used the spirit of past installments in a way that formed actual game mechanics – and highly inventive ones to boot.
If one wonders why there would be a preemptive backlash at all when Nintendo had proven time and again that doing so is betting against the house, it’s important to know exactly what the critical climate was like in the late 2010s. Video game critics – particularly independent ones – were still taking cues from their film-loving counterparts. Although they sought to legitimize the medium as an art form, it was, in practice, akin to jamming a square peg in a round hole. Many of the sensibilities film scholars built up over the years simply couldn’t be applied to video games critiques. Series could still be good ten installments in, gamers regularly accepted premises film critics would dismiss without a second thought, and domestic developers had to compete on even ground with foreign masters. It was highly defeating for the critics to begin latching onto games that toned down its unique qualities. The Western AAA industry taking cues from Hollywood and the indie scene’s openly cynical walking simulator movement were manifestations of the medium’s serious self-esteem issues.
As such, my feelings about Super Mario Odyssey are very similar to the ones I have about Breath of the Wild. The game was so fundamentally against what critics wanted at the time that I knew it earned every single one of its accolades fairly – not by pandering to them. If you have been following the series from the beginning, Super Mario Odyssey is a wonderful trip down memory lane; for newcomers, it is a history lesson come to life. Either way, Super Mario Odyssey is an essential experience, easily being one of the first truly great games to debut on the Switch and proving to the world that Nintendo hadn’t lost their touch.
Final Score: 8/10