Much has been said of how Super Mario Odyssey is the return to the “sandbox style” of Mario game found in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. But the truth is it’s much more than that. This is the latest evolution in a series that is no stranger to evolving, as it feels like a culmination of everything Mario has learned up to this point, all tied together with a bag of tricks that are entirely its own. World ensured Mario was an icon to endure past the 8-bit NES, 64 brought Mario into the third dimension and changed the way platformers are played, and Galaxy turned the very nature of the series on its head (often literally). Odyssey is the latest continuation of Mario’s progression, as it contorts and redefines the very foundations of gaming’s greatest icon.
From the get-go, it’s easy to tell that Odyssey is something special. Though the story is the tale as old as time – with the fiendish Bowser absconding with Princess Peach in an attempt to force her to be his bride – there are new twists here that make things feel fresh. The first, and most apparent, is the new cinematic quality given to the game’s events. The story this time around begins with what would be the end of another Mario adventure, with the mustachioed hero coming face-to-face with the King Koopa to rescue Princess Peach.
Bowser, now decked out in a wedding tux, has hired a band of evil bunny wedding planners called the Broodals to aide him in his schemes, which all revolve around the forced nuptials. Bowser manages to get the upper hand in the scuffle, and soon Mario is sent plummeting from Bowser’s airship. Mario awakes not in the sunshine covered grassy hills that would signify the first level of virtually every previous Mario title, but in the Nightmare Before Christmas-esque world of the Cap Kingdom, which is inhabited by spectral hats.
Bowser is traveling the world, stealing different items from various kingdoms to ensure his ceremony is perfect: Flowers from the Wooded Kingdom, sparkling water from the Seaside Kingdom, and a mystic wedding ring from the Sand Kingdom, to name a few of the objects Bowser has apprehended. One of these items happens to be a sentient tiara from the Cap Kingdom (aptly named Tiara), whose brother Cappy is on a mission to rescue her. Mario and Cappy join forces, and soon the duo set off on a globetrotting adventure to save the day.
“Even more esoteric Mario characters, such as Pauline from the original Donkey Kong, show up during the adventure.”
Being a Mario title, of course the plot is simple stuff, but its cinematic presentation is a new high for the series, with many moments feeling like extravagant set pieces ripped out of Uncharted. And though it’s minimal, a travel brochure that serves as the player’s map contributes a bit of world building, with each kingdom getting some little details given to their environment, citizens, and local industries. Odyssey’s world may never pull at the heartstrings like Rosalina’s storybook, but Mario’s world has never felt more alive.
This is perhaps a bit ironic, because Mario’s world has also never been weirder. The realistically-proportioned humans of New Donk City (the Metro Kingdom) have already gained internet infamy for how they hilariously clash with Mario’s cartoonish self. But that’s far from the end of it, with Odyssey seemingly having a ball implementing whatever art directions and world themes tickle its fancy. The Sand Kingdom is home to sugar skull people inspired by Dia de los Muertos, while the Cascade Kingdom houses a T-rex that looks like it was ripped out of Jurassic Park. There are many other wonderful diversities in Odyssey’s visuals, including one boss who – along with its world – looks more like something from Dark Souls or Skyrim than Super Mario.
Of course, with Mario, it’s the gameplay that always comes first, and that’s as true here as ever. The best part is Odyssey’s distinct sense of weirdness is found even in its gameplay.
Describing the gameplay as weird certainly isn’t a knock on the game’s controls – Odyssey is as much a sequel to the Galaxy duo as it is to 64, as Mario himself retains all his classic acrobatics from those games, and controls just as fluidly as he did in his space ventures – but this weirdness is found in the form of Odyssey’s key new feature: the capture mechanic.
By throwing Cappy, Mario can effectively possess creatures and his classic enemies via his ghostly headwear (think of it like Oddjob from Goldfinger meets Bob from Twin Peaks), with each capture-able character bringing its own gameplay.
Some creatures provide small changes, such as the Cheap Cheap allowing for faster swimming without the need to take a break for air, while Goombas can stack on top of each other to reach higher places. Others are a bit more drastic, with the notorious Hammer Bros. having their own sense of movement, and can rapidly throw projectiles to fell enemies and break objects.
“Mario can even become a tank, turning things into all-out warfare.”
The capture ability isn’t limited to Mario’s classic rogues gallery, however, and the former plumber can possess new creatures like the Gushen, a squid-like figure entrapped in a bubble of water which pays homage to Sunshine’s F.L.U.D.D. by means of using the water as a jetpack. The Tropical Wiggler can stretch like an accordion for some unique navigation, while the aforementioned T-rex proves to be an unstoppable behemoth. Mario can even capture some inanimate objects, like the poles of New Donk City, which fling Mario to great heights.
Being able to capture such a wide array of creatures and objects means that the gameplay is constantly changing, and Odyssey wisely incorporates the mechanic into a seemingly endless variety of objects both big and small. Traditional power-ups are nowhere to be found, but the capture ability is so robust and used so creatively that it’s a more than worthy alternative.
It’s all for the sake of collecting Power Moons, the new equivalent to Stars and Shines of 3D Marios past. These Power Moons are the energy source that fuels Mario and Cappy’s ship, the Odyssey, with more moons required to visit each subsequent kingdom.
“Power Moons come in different colors depending on the kingdom.”
Here’s where Super Mario Odyssey lives up to its monicker of an open-world Mario title more than 64 and Sunshine ever did. There is no hub world in Odyssey, instead, each stage is its own wide open sandbox. Without a hub to return to after a Moon is collected, Mario pulls a page out of Banjo-Kazooie’s playbook, and is free to comb through a stage finding as many Power Moons as he possibly can at the player’s own leisure. There is a small caveat in that Odyssey is slightly more story-dictated than other Mario titles, and most of the stages are unlocked in a subsequent order (with only a few instances of multiple levels opening up at once). This is ultimately minor, however, as each stage has so much to do at any given time – with more activities being unlocked as you progress through the adventure – that the sheer abundance of player choice is perhaps equalled solely by Breath of the Wild.
Odyssey’s stages can get pretty massive, but they never feel overwhelming. Checkpoint flags can be fast-traveled to on the map screen, and the capture ability often leads to faster means of exploration. Plus, there’s so much to do in any given space of Odyssey’s levels that you’ll never feel like your travels are for naught.
The story will take about fifteen hours to complete, but rest assured the game is far from over at that point, as postgame content opens the adventure up all the more, leaving every sandbox of a stage completely open for the player to traverse them like never before. With hundreds of Moons to acquire, there’s rarely ever an end in sight, unless the player so desires to move on.
There are other means in which Odyssey gleefully leaves the player in charge, with a host of different control options available. Though the motion controls may take a few minutes to get used to, once you do, they play like a dream, and I found myself actively wanting to play with a joycon in each hand. You can always dock the joycons or use a pro controller if you wish, but Nintendo really went all out in ensuring every control option feels so responsive.
Perhaps Odyssey’s most charming little customizable option is the ability to change Mario’s costume and hat. Coins play a larger role than ever, as they can be traded to a chain of shops known as the Crazy Cap to gain new costumes. Similarly, purple currency is different to each kingdom, and are used to unlock costumes based on or inspired by that region (often with ties to Mario’s past, such as New Donk City’s construction worker uniform being identical to that which Mario wore on the box art to Super Mario Maker).
For the most part, the costumes and hats are purely cosmetic, though there are a few instances of a particular costume set being required to enter specific doors or to get the proper reaction from an NPC. Though this may be Odyssey’s lone lacking element, as Mario is usually just granted a Moon for entering said doors or talking to said NPCs. It’s a minor quibble, but it would have been a bit more interesting if the sections that required specific costumes had more to them.
If one has to search really hard to find anything else to raise an eyebrow about, it’s simply that the penalty for defeat is a measly ten coins. Gone are 1-ups and game overs in an admittedly modernized approach. But seeing as coins are all over the place, and more prevalent than ever before, defeat seems to have very little consequence.
Another noteworthy aspect of Odyssey is its bombardment of memorable boss fights. Although the boss battles tend to be on the easy side, they deliver on the fronts of creativity which, for my money, is the more important area. The boss battles are varied and plentiful, with many of the best ones also taking advantage of different capture abilities.
Visually speaking, Odyssey is the best looking game on the Switch. Along with the aforementioned abundance of art directions, the game as a whole is just a beauty to look at. Every texture, surface and liquid to be found in Mario’s world is given a new sheen, so even the most absurd of creatures and locations have a sense of realism. Better still are the tiny little details that are littered all over the place, like Mario getting covered in soot if he jumps over a chimney, or small animals scurrying in the distance. Although Mario’s world is more surreal than the land of Hyrule, Odyssey evokes the same sense of love for attention to detail as Breath of the Wild.
Of course, what would a Mario game be without a great soundtrack? This is another area in which Odyssey seemingly sets a new highpoint for the series, expanding on the orchestrated wonderment of Galaxy and making it into something even more grandiose, while still sounding distinctly Mario. Odyssey’s soundtrack is as fun and epic as any in Nintendo’s history, and is nothing short of a joy to listen to.
Super Mario Odyssey is a phenomenal game. It never stops piquing the player’s curiosity, and consistently rewarding it with one brilliant idea after another. There’s simply never a dull moment in Super Mario Odyssey, as it displays a constant stream of inventiveness that few games could match. Even a second player can join in on the action, and take control of Cappy while player one takes up Mario’s mantle.
Mario is one of gaming’s oldest icons, and yet he’s also proven to be the medium’s most consistent source of new ideas time and again. That concept has maybe never been more apparent than it is here in Odyssey, as it combines so many aspects of Mario’s greatest adventures while simultaneously rewriting them. It’s the next step in Mario’s evolution, while also being a loving homage to the series’ peerless history.
If I didn’t know any better, I might even say that Odyssey feels like a fitting conclusion to gaming’s most iconic franchise. It won’t be, of course, but Odyssey feels like the crescendo of all things Mario. There were more than a few instance in which Odyssey had me misty-eyed. Some instances were due to personal nostalgia, others were because of how beautifully Odyssey pays tribute to its entire lineage.
Fitting that Super Mario Odyssey should be released ten years after Galaxy. In 2007, Super Mario Galaxy seemed to encapsulate the Super Mario series, and brought it all to such newfound heights that many wondered where Mario could possibly go next. Now, Odyssey has pulled it off all over again. Its restless imagination, non-stop surprises, and pitch-perfect gameplay will leave anyone wondering what the future holds for Mario and company.