As Breath of the Wild redefined the Legend of Zelda formula, the same has now been done for Mario via Super Mario Odyssey.
I still remember the first time I ever played Super Mario Bros. – It was for my birthday in 1987, having just gotten my NES. At the time, I had never seen a game that “big” before, or so filled with secrets. In 1996, I saw Super Mario 64 at that year’s E3. The game was unlike anything else available. The sheer freedom and exploration prospects were moments that have stuck with me throughout my gaming history. And while other games in the series were no less impressive, Odyssey has taken those secrets and freedoms and perfected the formula.
It’s a celebration of everything “Mario” before it.
It may not even be so much of a small celebration, in retrospect, as the game grabs you buy the collar and yells in your face to love everything Mario like you never have before. And you can’t argue this point, because you will.
Nintendo has been trying some new things with their flagship titles. From the start of both Zelda and Mario, the heroes have lost, bested by their mortal enemies. Bowser has again captured Princess Peach with the intention of marrying her. The King of the Koopas bests Mario easily, causing the plumber to fall into the land of Bonneton, which is populated by ghostly hats that can possess… er, “capture” people and objects. One resident, Cappy, takes the place of Mario’s trademark hat, and off they go.
One should never expect a gripping story in a Mario game. To be honest, I’m not even sure if Mario, Peach, and Bowser are actually enemies with each other. I’m more of the thought that this capture/rescue game of theirs is exactly just that: A game. Similar to how Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph the Wolf would clock in and out for bouts of adversarial mayhem during their work shift in that old Warner Bros. cartoon. I think it’s a thing the trio does for fun at this stage in their lives.
Regardless, this is an adventure, to be sure, but it’s an adventure like Mario has never gone on before. This is an honest to goodness travel the world, take a vacation and make some memories sort of outing. This may be the true definition of a Super Mario World. Mario and Cappy travel the globe, take in new cultures and lands, buy souvenirs, and do whatever they want to. It’s mixing Mario with Disney’s It’s A Small World, and it works.
As with the latest Zelda, Nintendo has experimented with the power of “Yes”. Never before have players had the sheer amount of choice in a Mario game like they do here. Gone are level structures, high scores, timers, and “Game Overs”. The removal of these throwbacks of old-school game design is refreshing. Also gone is restarting a level. Whenever Mario would capture a star or whatever item, Mario would be put out into a hub world, where he would jump back in the level to go deeper. Gone. You now collect moons, and when you do, it’s immediately off to the next one. And there are hundreds of moons. And there are so many places to look for them.
This doesn’t even feel like a collect-a-thon. It feels like an Easter Egg hunt, or a reward for being curious or daring. I didn’t find the game difficult, per se, once I discovered that you can’t just tromp through levels. You can experiment. You can choose multiple options. Deaths never felt cheap. They were more the result of me being sloppy, impatient, or stubborn in my gameplay. Nothing ever felt obtuse or cheap once I really examined the surroundings around me. I had to start thinking more practical and bigger, like how Zelda trained me: If you think you can do it, or want to at least try to do it, just go for it.
Cappy’s capture feature opens up the game in incredible ways. It’s incredibly creative to discover what you can capture and utilize in this game. Some are practical. Some are silly. Some are incredibly insane that someone thought of the subjects to play around with. There are some that left me laughing or saying “Wow” at the ideas, and they kept getting wilder.
The world selection is a grab bag of varying art styles. Some are incredibly realistic. Some look like cartoons. Others look like abstract art. The same goes for Mario’s costume collection. From “fitting in”, with the various worlds to some serious callbacks to previous games, everything mixes and matches. It seems like the developers simply kept in everything that they liked or found amusing and fun. Did I mention the multiple 2D side-scrolling sections that are found everywhere in the game?
The music is no different, everything from chiptune music, to classic Mario themes, to inspired music from around the world. There’s truly something for everyone. Seriously: Listen to the lyrics for the main “Jump Up, Super Star”. They’re brilliant.
And then for me, the personal highlights. New Donk City is incredible (read up on the backstory of the city so I don’t spoil anything), now run by Pauline of Donkey Kong fame. By day, she’s a hardworking Mayor. By night, she’s a crooning jazz singer, because you know what? Why not? It’s a reminder that nothing is off the table for this game. The final mission of this country is an absolute show stopper, and was everything that I hoped would have happened in a segment based on this world. Welcome to Mario, folks. Love it. You don’t have another choice.
That’s nothing to say of the seaside resorts, food based worlds, deserts, frozen lands…. Even segments and missions that I was sure I would find to be a chore, turned out to be enjoyable in execution.
And then… when you do beat the game and get that “The End”…. The world gets even bigger. And still keeps growing as you continue on. There’s also an end boss surprise and a familiar something just past that moment that put a huge smile on my face, and made me say “Wow” yet again.
Super Mario Odyssey is funny, imaginative, absolutely insane, and a love letter to everything that’s ever compromised a Mario game before it. Like Zelda before it, Nintendo has dropped the restraints and perfected the Mario formula to not only be a fun platforming adventure, but a seemingly endless possibility of choices, while letting three-decade old fans like me know that we still have a place in their playground.
Nostalgia can blind at times, but Super Mario Odyssey is a reminder that things are still as good as you remembered it.
This is Nintendo’s second “Perfect” game of this year.