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Super Mario Odyssey Review – A Man of Many Hats

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Say what you will about Nintendo, but there is no denying their willingness to experiment with Mario and his self-titled franchise. From his origins in the age of arcades, to his platforming roots, to his adventures with go-karts, across golf courses and soccer fields, to his pioneering forays into 3D, to even his evolutionary steps bouncing between multitudinous gravitational fields, Nintendo has not shied away from taking Mario into new territories. Mario Odyssey is Nintendo’s newest Mario experiment: a massive, open-world, platforming adventure. Having spent a good chunk of the past few month scouring numerous worlds for collectible Power Moons, I feel confident in calling Mario Odyssey one of Mario’s most successful experiments yet.

While Nintendo has taken Mario all over the place, one thing that hasn’t changed is the central conflict of the core games: Bowser captures Princess Peach and Mario sets off after them to save Peach and restore peace to the kingdom. That said, while the early Mario games did not do much to elaborate on Bowser’s motivations, the recent games have seen Bowser’s actions propelled by seemingly misplaced romantic sentiments. Mario Odyssey is the natural evolution of this shift, as Bowser’s latest kidnapping is intended to culminate in his wedding to Peach. Following the game’s opening, Mario finds himself stranded in the monochromatic Cap Kingdom, a kingdom occupied by sentient floating hats. In the Cap Kingdom, Mario encounters his newest nonsensical sidekick, the unambiguously named Cappy. Like Mario, Cappy is on a rescue mission, trying to save his sister who was captured and currently fulfills the role of wedding tiara atop Peach’s head. Mario and Cappy eventually find their own ship, dubbed the Odyssey, to pursue Bowser across the world. The duo set off on a globe-trotting adventure, chasing after the dissonant wedding party and visiting various locals where Bowser has stolen famous artifacts needed to create an extravagant wedding ceremony (a magical wedding ring, a stunning wedding dress, a beautiful bouquet, and so on) -- say what you will about Bowser, at least he’s willing to go all out.

Ever since Mario 64, Mario games have been built around a similar game-play structure: diverse worlds where Mario collects a number of specific collectibles which subsequently open additional worlds. Mario Odyssey does not drastically change this structure, but it makes a few substantial and important tweaks that work to move the franchise forward. Like its predecessors, Mario Odyssey tasks players with hunting down Power Moons, this game’s level-based collectible, requiring that players collect a certain number in each world before advancing along to the next. Unlike previous Mario games, each world is presented as another step in the journey and collecting extra Power Moons in one world has no effect on the number needed to advance in the next. Like previous Mario games, players arrive in a world and are directed to their next objective. However, Mario Odyssey only directs players to the Power Moons necessary to advance the game’s narrative while also requiring additional Power Moons to move to the next level. The rest of the Power Moons must be found as players wander the worlds which are noticeably larger than the worlds of previous Mario games. Another tweak that helps foster the sense of exploration is that players are no longer pulled out from a level upon collecting a Power Moon. Coupled with the larger worlds, many of the Power Moons are not the significant investments that they would have been in previous Mario games, so players are encouraged to wander around and examine the things that seem out of place. A larger cactus, a single rock on its own, or even a crack in a wall could be a hiding place for a Power Moon. All that said, while others have heaped accolades on Nintendo for this change, I’m pretty sure this feature existed in Banjo Kazooie and Tooie on the Nintendo 64. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a feature that makes Mario Odyssey a better game, but on its own, it is not something amazing revolutionary for 3D platformers.

As is the norm, Mario and Cappy venture across a number of gorgeous and colorful worlds during their journey. Worlds range from snow covered mountains, to island paradises, to lush tropical forests, to a city filled with towering skyscrapers. Some of these worlds are vast and invite players to take a closer look at curious sights in the distance, while others are intricately designed and encourage players to look behind every corner and twist for a hidden secret. And as it is a Mario game, don’t be too surprised if each world hides at least a few nonsensical secrets -- one minute you might be rolling through burning desert sands, the next, you might find yourself in a frozen cave. Each world also comes with its own colorful denizens and unique outfits for Mario to wear, befitting the traveling tone of the game.

Like the game-play structure, the core game-play of Mario Odyssey doesn’t deviate too far from the model established by Mario 64, albeit with an obligatory spin on the Mario experience. This time the spin comes from Cappy, who transforms himself to take on the appearance of Mario’s iconic red cap which is damaged in the initial battle against Bowser. In addition to the apparent ability to freely change his appearance, Cappy also provides Mario with the somewhat disturbing ability to possess and take complete control over friends, enemies, bystanders, and even some inanimate objects -- an ability with ramifications that are better left unconsidered. Mario can also throw Cappy to use him as a weapon or a jumping pad, but his possession-ability lies at the heart of Mario Odyssey’s game-play, puzzles, and challenges. Each target provides Mario with a new set of abilities and movements and finding new targets to capture and the abilities they provide is an enchanting experience that will captivate players looking for puzzles to solve. The diversity of the targets Mario can gain control over creates a unique collection of abilities that work hand-in-hand with the open-world and the game’s emphasis on exploration. That said, the myriad of abilities really encourages players to use the split Joy-Cons as many of the moves require some type of motion control, so it is something to be aware of if you’re the type of player who prefers to keep your Switch in portable mode.

For all the praise I could heap on Mario Odyssey, for me, one of the best parts is how much of the game opens up after finishing the main story. The game’s structure, treating each world as an individual step chasing after Bowser and Peach, encourages players to go from one world to the next without turning back (I assume you can revisit previous worlds, I just never did). After the credits roll, however, new worlds open up and extra Power Moons are unlocked in the previous worlds. At times, it honestly felt like there were just as many new Power Moons to collect upon revisiting a world after the game’s climax as I had collected during my initial trip. If you played Breath of the Wild, the sheer number of Power Moons to collect and the way that many of them are hidden will feel similar to the Korok Seeds scattered across Hyrule. Similar, but definitely not quite as insane.

In many ways Super Mario Odyssey book-ended an exceptional year for Nintendo which started with the release of the Switch and Breath of the Wild, and ends with a strong contender for the best Mario game to date (and an amazing Xenoblade game -- but that’s another story). While a lot of people have called Mario Odyssey a major evolution of the Mario experience, I personally see it as more of a refinement rather than an evolution. Mario Odyssey takes the things that made many of the previous 3D Mario games great and executes them in a near perfect way. It might have taken twenty years, but Nintendo has taken the bar they set with Super Mario 64 and elevated it in a way that has me excited to see how they choose to experiment with the Mario experience next.

All images owned by Nintendo.