Game Review: Super Mario Odyssey is About the Journey

The latest installment in the Mario franchise has been lauded even before its release as part of the pantheon occupied by 64 and Sunshine. Now that I’ve finally torn myself away from it, it’s hard to disagree that Super Mario Odyssey is a strong contender for the mascot’s best game yet, with the variance accounting for taste.

Let me sum up the complicated story for you: Bowser kidnapped Peach.

That’s a flippant description, obviously, but Odyssey does at least put care into the details of the plan and make it feel more unique. Bowser’s going for broke this time and marrying the princess, whether she likes it or not, backed up by wedding planners/mob enforcers The Broodals, whose boss fights are somehow equal parts repetitive and really fun. Each world is ravaged by Bowser for some wedding-related resource: an ancient, magical ring, a ceremonial dress, a fancy cake.

What makes the story here still feel strong is that you’re always right on Bowser’s tail, cleaning up worlds and feeling the effect that he has on the other inhabitants of the universe. The cap ghosts don’t know what he is, which lends a strange gravity to a villain who you can play as in tennis games. Most importantly, his presence is felt everywhere you go, and he pops up in cutscenes pretty regularly. Contrast this to Sunshine, which I love, but I’ll be the first to admit that his presence is deeply weak, so his final boss fight means nothing. But in this game, the execution of a villainous presence makes the player’s confrontations with the man himself much more satisfying.

Cappy, a sidekick who brings with him the ability to possess certain enemies and bounce off of him for platforming strategy, is a unique and perfectly-executed gameplay mechanic. He succeeds for the same reason FLUDD did: he doesn’t change the gameplay, but he introduces mechanics that complement the existing structure beautifully.

For pretty much any generation since folks who grew up playing Donkey Kong, Mario is an inherently nostalgic property. Odyssey plays with this, but doesn’t lean on it or pander. The famous New Donk City kingdom (the best in the game with almost no equal) brings back Pauline from the aforementioned arcade game and contains many nods to Mario’s origin as Jumpman. Nods to previous games – the best of which are spoiler territory and will not be mentioned here – aren’t an eye-rolling “remember this?” but a joyful celebration of what brought the franchise all the way to the modern day.

“Joy” is an important word in this game. It doesn’t need to be High Art or tell a complicated story. It’s a fun game.

In fact, most of Odyssey’s Power Moons – its equivalent of stars or Shine Sprites – don’t come from doing anything particularly difficult. They are, instead, largely rewards for looking places you wouldn’t normally look and thinking in ways you wouldn’t normally think. It’s not about being good at platforming. It’s about being good at exploring. I can’t count the amount of times that I’ve gone through this exact thought process:

  • I wonder if I can do this weird thing.
  • I can do this weird thing!
  • I got a Power Moon for doing the thing?
  • The devs knew I was going to do the thing. Again.

It’s a perfect example of the dialogue between player and designer. Pulling a weird platforming trick to get somewhere just to see if it can be done is asking the developers “Is this possible?” And Odyssey’s design philosophy is such that the answer is always “Yes, and thank you for asking.”

In this way, all the criticisms leveled at the game – that it’s too easy and that the abundance of Power Moons rob them of any real meaning – are legitimate. It is largely easy, though I’ll say that my one critique is that the difficulty gulf between the simple main story and the sometimes punishingly hard post-game is a bit wide. Getting a moon isn’t the battle that getting some of the more complicated Shine Sprites were in Sunshine. The game isn’t about the moons; it’s about the fun you have on the way there.

This is a game where you and Mario go on an adventure. You just happen to rack up tokens to give you a feeling of progress and accomplishment.

Between Super Mario Odyssey and the Zelda franchise’s powerhouse Breath of the Wild, Nintendo has two solid Game of the Year contenders supporting the Switch in its infancy. Don’t be surprised to see Mario and Cappy at the top of plenty of GOTY lists at 2017 wraps up. And with the experience that Odyssey creates for the player, it’ll deserve every last one.

Written by Bobby Murphy (@RobertJMurph)

Image courtesy of IGN

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