When it comes to consistent quality, few franchises can claim the success of Mario. Everyone’s favorite plumber has made the tough transition from 2D to 3D and back, and at least when it comes to the core games, there’s hardly a dud in the bunch (I’m in the apparent minority in thinking that Sunshine is a pretty good video game). In recent years, my personal favorite has been Super Mario Galaxy, which expanded the possibilities in platforming and helped reinvigorate my love for a franchise that seemed to be starting to rest on its laurels.
I wouldn’t say that Super Mario Odyssey completely changes the platforming rulebook the way that Super Mario Galaxy did, but it’s incredibly polished, a blast to play, and actually makes great use of the capture mechanic gimmick that originally turned me off while watching pre-release coverage.
I don’t think I’d surprise many people by saying that Super Mario Odyssey looks great. Nintendo has long been near the top of the industry in its ability to technically execute on an artistic vision. Sure, many of Odyssey’s worlds feel like modern versions of things we’ve seen before, but they’ve never looked better. There are the boilerplate snow, sand, and water kingdoms, but there are also fun variations like Bubblaine, a combo sand/water kingdom with a carbonated sea. You can really feel the bubbles as you swim around, and there’s a constant, satisfying crackle playing in the background.
Then there are the weird ones like New Donk City, a “real-world” kingdom where you can jump on taxis and visit an actual sewer. Bowser’s kingdom gets a samurai overhaul, there’s a photo-realistic ruined castle, and Mario even gets to jump around on the moon. The visual variety in Odyssey makes it feel like you’re truly traveling through an unconnected universe. Its lack of cohesion is deliberate, and that works more often than it doesn’t.
In a time where modern video games are leaning into the browns and grays of post-apocalypse, I always appreciate Nintendo’s use of color. The Luncheon kingdom, in particular, is a feast for the eyes (pun definitely intended).
I’d say fighting a realistic looking dragon or walking around a city block among humans twice Mario’s size are definitely odd experiences, but that’s one of the things that makes Odyssey feel like more than “yet another” Mario platformer. Rather than taking a huge risk in gameplay design, Nintendo went out on a limb on its style.
But while Odyssey’s big gameplay hook — Cappy’s capture mechanic — won’t change the way we play platformers for years to come, it’s just straight up fun.
For anyone that hasn’t played Odyssey, you essentially throw your hat at a creature to possess it. There are some things you can’t “capture,” but pretty much every enemy qualifies. You then control the creature — which has some unique mechanic to it — to solve a puzzle or reach an area or fight another enemy or grab a moon. Goombas can stack on each other and don’t slip on ice, cheep cheeps can breathe underwater, hammer bros can break certain blocks, lava bubbles can swim in lava, etc. And they all look adorable with a mustache and red hat.
I honestly never got sick of capturing different creatures in my dozens of hours of playtime. There’s enough variety and freedom that I felt encouraged to try new things constantly. I do have some complaints about the moon collecting system, though.
In previous Mario games that used the traditional star system, it felt like a real feat to get a star. You’d either beaten a boss or solved some difficult platforming section or found a hidden area. There were only a few stars in each world or area, so it meant something to earn one. Well, in Super Mario Odyssey, there are hundreds and hundreds of moons to earn. I had 280 or so when I beat the game, and I’m now closing in on 400. I’ve seen people online saying there are well over 900 moons you can get, which admittedly counts the ones you can purchase for coins. But that highlights my issue with the moons.
Not only are there so many that you never feel like you’re making progress toward getting them all, but the difficulty in getting them varies so wildly that it takes away some of the prestige of earning one. Sure, I got the moon that required me to capture a tropical wiggler and time my movements perfectly across moving platforms, but then I went and just bought one for 50 coins and got another free one from Toad just for talking to him. I don’t feel as enticed to bang my head against a hard challenge because I know I can get 10 easy moons in the time it would take to complete it.
I brag about it all the time, but I got all 242 stars in Super Mario Galaxy — and I clearly still feel like a badass for doing it. There’s no way I’ll ever get every moon in Super Mario Odyssey — one, because there are so damn many, and two, I feel less of an impulse to keep trying the really hard levels. The reward doesn’t seem as great.
Thankfully, the game does feel great to play, which is what keeps bringing me back even though I beat the story weeks ago. I’m not sure I buy into what people say about the “real” game unlocking after the credits roll, but the challenge definitely increases once you beat Bowser for the last time. But whether you want that extra challenge or not, jumping around feels as great as ever.
Mario’s platforming is tight as hell — whether it’s in 3D or in the more traditional 2D levels. I’ve never been a fan of using Mario’s shadow as an indication of where he’ll land, but I’ve gotten used to it at this point. The camera also creates small issues as it often has a mind of its own, but the penalty for dying is so small that it’s rarely more than a mild annoyance.
If you’ve played a 3D Mario game before, most everything will feel familiar. Mario can triple jump, wall jump, crouch jump, and more, and the game is good about encouraging you to use different styles of platforming to conquer obstacles. Cappy’s moves are new and add a fun layer of strategy to the platforming. You can use him to stun enemies; you can throw him in a circle around you to grab coins; you can even use him as a jumping platform if you time it right. I was discovering new moves well past the point of finishing the story mode. Considering the less than precise nature of the joy-cons, the aiming is fairly generous and there were only a few times where Cappy didn’t do what I wanted.
The “story” in Odyssey is pretty rote for a Mario game. Bowser has captured Peach and wants to marry her. It’s up to Mario and Cappy to save her. Each kingdom has some special thing needed for the wedding, thus Mario’s journey across the world. It’s enough to drive you from point A to B, but it’s not that interesting.
I think the bosses are a tad disappointing, too, considering the mechanics available with the presence of Cappy. Each kingdom has its own boss which does require you to capture a local creature, but the Bowser fights are more traditional. You avoid his attacks, find the right time to strike, and jump on his head. Rise and repeat three times. The same is true for the Broodals, Bowser’s sidekicks in this game. You also have to fight each Broodal multiple times throughout the story, and the mechanics don’t really change. One will just throw more spiked hats the next time around, or another will drop more lava bombs. A satisfying challenge isn’t really there.
On the other side of the coin (get it?), the music is some of the best in the series and does this amazing thing where it’ll transition to an 8-bit version of the same song as you move between 3D and side-scrolling 2D sections. It’s absolutely fantastic. The music is also weird for a Mario game, with more than one track that offers actual pop vocals. There’s one particular sequence as you finish the New Donk City kingdom that has you jumping between old-school 2D levels as jazz music blares, and it filled me with more joy than I can possibly express.
Breaking down Super Mario Odyssey in this critical format doesn’t truly do it justice. It’s easy to nitpick here and there and find disappointment when compared to a game like Super Mario Galaxy, but there’s just so much polish and fun in Odyssey that it’s hard to care about the potentially missed opportunities. There’s a near-infinite variety of things to do. Its lack of a cohesive aesthetic is what ties everything together. The music, movement, and visual variety work in perfect harmony. As soon as you’re getting bored with a kingdom, the game is ready to dole up another one. And in the post-game, you’re given complete freedom to do what you want in the order you want.
Super Mario Odyssey isn’t a game-changing Mario game. But while its new ideas are smaller and weirder than previous titles, its execution on those ideas is near-perfect. It’s hard to fault the game for that.
So, what did you think of Super Mario Odyssey? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to check out my other video game reviews!