It’s finally here! After months of waiting, not only has Super Mario Odyssey landed on Nintendo Switch consoles, but it has also got lots of praise from critics and fans alike. Boasting an open-world approach similar to that of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, Odyssey introduces mechanics new to the franchise, such as the capture of enemies with the help of Cappy, a hat that will be the protagonist’s companion throughout the whole adventure. It sounds promising, right? Let’s find out whether it delivers!
NOTE: spoilers in this game do not come in the shape of story elements being revealed. Instead, gameplay mechanics are the biggest surprises in Super Mario Odyssey. Due to that fact, many elements will not be mentioned in this review not to spoil anyone’s experience, and only the main mechanics will be explained.
Bowser, determined to marry Princess Peach, will not only kidnap her, but also travel across the world to steal the dearest items of each kingdom in order to enhance that wedding. When former-plumber Mario steps in, the monster will kick him away and destroy his iconic hat… Luckily, Cappy, a hat from the Hat kingdom will aid him, giving him new abilities for his quest to defeat Bowser and rescue Peach.
First of all, I’d like to address my biggest concern with this game, which is the plot itself. It’s okay from a narrative perspective, but… It does feel old. Damsel in distress, once again. I understand it serves as homage to the rest of the series, but a more innovating approach would have been greatly appreciated, particularly from those of us who are worried about the lack of more feminist plots in the videogame industry. Many will think this claim is exaggerated and say Mario stories are meant to be that way, and I can understand that. In fact, I could be okay with that. But the fact that Mario’s sidekick, Cappy, has to save another girl was the tipping point. Sure, it does get some redemption towards the end, but “let’s go save the girls” being one of the most repeated lines in the game, it made me wish Nintendo had taken a slightly different route.
It is well-known that while designing Super Mario 64, director Shigeru Miyamoto and his crew created a blank environment and decided not to move forward until the simple action of making Mario move wasn’t fun by itself. The result was a phenomenal feeling at every step Mario took, and every jump or flip he performed. This time around, even if Kenta Motokura has been in charge of directing the project, a similar approach seems to have been taken once again. The protagonist’s movements are incredibly vivid, have a compelling momentum to them, and simply running from one side of the scenery to another is a joyful experience. Together with the momentum just mentioned, the biggest change in movement mechanics since Mario 64 and Sunshine is the level-design, which used to be quite flat but is packed with irregularities this time. This gives running a very fun unpredictability that greatly enhances the whole experience. The devil is in the details!
Capturing enemies is the other big game mechanic in Odyssey, and it’s amazing. By throwing Cappy at other characters, such as Goombas, Bullet Bills and even a Tyrannosaurus Rex, you take control of them and perform their usual actions to your own advantage. Fire balls can swim in lava so by taking control of them you can reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Goombas are immune to ice’s slippery properties, so you can use them to make some platforming sections easier. Seeds can make their legs very long, which has quite obvious applications. This capturing ability replaces the costumes we all know and love, such as the fire flower, the super leaf and the Tanooki costume. Fortunately, I believe no one will miss these, due to how incredibly the capture mechanic has been designed and implemented. It is a very natural and compelling power-up system that lacks absolutely nothing.
These mechanics are brought into the Switch’s interface with huge success. The loading screen itself recommends using detached JoyCon controllers, one on each hand, throughout the whole game. This set-up is, quite surprisingly, a very comfortable way to play. Certain unusual actions always have to be performed by shaking the controllers (which is quite odd when in portable mode), but I found myself, who has always hated motion controls, embrace them. After a few hours, I even did every optional motion-controlled action by flicking the JoyCons. They work beautifully and feel really immersive.
Mario games have always been known for being easy enough for casual gamers to be able to finish, but also for having many layers that will be a challenge even for the most experienced players. This scheme is brought back, with a more or less simple main story (even if the final few levels may be quite tough) but lots of optional objectives that are hard as hell. Progress is achieved through obtaining powermoons, and every time you get a certain number of them, you can go to the next kingdom. Those essentials powermoons are the easy and accessible ones, and the rest of them… Can be excruciatingly difficult to obtain.
This decision serves two purposes. First of all, it creates several difficulty levels in a natural way, as stated just before these lines. In addition, it makes the narrative’s pacing perfect. As soon as you get the essential powermoons and complete the little storylines featured in a kingdom, Cappy will encourage you to go to the next location. You can always come later, so why delay the pursuit, right? Super Mario Odyssey is well aware of how vast it is, and it makes the right decisions to avoid players getting stuck with optional objectives. This results in a 10 to 12 hour-long main storyline. This may seem not to be much, but if reaching the credits takes a player that long (which it should), they will probably have just a few powermoons. For instance, I had 200 powermoons when I completed the campaign, even if there are over 900 scattered throughout the many kingdoms. Completing the whole game could take over 70 hours, according to different sources.
The rhythm just mentioned results in a great narrative. It doesn’t feature super deep stories, but the tales shown are told beautifully. From the beginning, lots of memorable moments can be found. “Jump Up, Super Star”, the game’s main theme (and the first Nintendo theme to feature actual singing, if I recall correctly), makes a stellar appearance about halfway through, and the other scene with a song (it’s hard not to spoil the whole thing without being extremely vague, okay?) is also stunning.
Speaking of beautiful stuff, the art direction is spectacular. Perfect, even. Every kingdom has been designed taking even the smallest details into consideration, and every single element has the perfect texture and shape to be a part of its environment and result in a friendly experience. “Eye-candy” falls short as a description. On a technical side, the game does have its flaws, such as a quite short drawing distance, lack of a proper antialiasing solution and low framerates in elements located far from you, but all these are necessary sacrifices in order to achieve a completely smooth, 60 frames per second gameplay. Furthermore, the art direction by itself is able to overcome the technical limitations the Switch has by itself. Trust me, there’s no reason to worry.
All in all, this is probably the finest work Nintendo has done since both Galaxy games. Platforming feels organic, some amazing new mechanics are introduced that will hopefully be featured in future titles, and is able to tell a story without ever missing a beat. It’s one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve had in recent years. Those who have a Switch should definitely give it a try, but those who don’t should start saving for one. Super Mario Odyssey is an unmissable title, but more importantly, it’s an unforgettable one. 10/10