It’s almost difficult to critique Super Mario Odyssey. The game is designed in a way that almost makes rendering thoughtful criticism against it redundant. That’s not really the point, it feels against the very spirit of the game. Super Mario Odyssey is a joyous experience. It feels meticulously crafted at every turn for maximum fun. It is bright, colourful, vibrant, thrilling and most importantly utterly delightful. The antithesis to the industry trend toward the grim and gritty, it’s as close as the video game industry has come to producing raw packaged distilled happiness.
Odyssey isn’t just a name – its the core theme of the whole experience. Mario travels the world in pursuit of Bowser, attempting to rescue Princess Peach from a forced even if impressively meticulously planned wedding (I’m not gonna lie, Bowser puts a lot of effort into this one and you almost feel bad for him – if only he’d find love he wouldn’t have to resort to kidnapping). This takes Mario to locales entirely different to those seen in past Mario games – the colourful, cartoonish Mushroom Kingdom is replaced by the cyberpunk Steam Gardens or the pseudo-realistic New Donk City.
It’s the variety and specificity of those different Kingdom’s that truly makes Super Mario Odyssey shine. They feel unique, different to anything we’ve seen in Mario games gone by but vitally each feels fully formed. They all have their own culture, musical motifs, enemies, NPC’s, currency, climate, history, game mechanics and story elements. It’s not simply the water level, the desert level, the lava level – they’ve fleshed these worlds out so that particularly for the larger ones they feel dynamic and alive. You get a real sense that Mario is seeing the world, not just wahooing his way through another Mario course.
Take Steam Gardens for example. Steam Gardens is an artificial greenhouse surrounded by a dome simulating a forest catered to by self-aware robots (who are probably my favourite characters in the game) routinely in the midst of an existential crisis however whom care about nothing but their flowers. The music rules, the stage has so many layers and the Uproots feel awesome. All of that combines to form delightful sandboxes that are a joy to sift through. The Luncheon Kingdom isn’t just the lava stage – it layers on a bizarre and brilliant food framing to make it something utterly memorable.
Each Kingdom is stuffed to the gills with content. It seems at times that there are an overwhelming number of moons – you can spend hours and hours in a single Kingdom and still find yourself a number of moons short of the total available – but Super Mario Odyssey understands something fundamental about collectibles in video games. The joy is not in the thing you’re finding but how you go about finding it. Solving the puzzle, overcoming the platforming challenges or noticing the little breadcrumbs the game sprinkles through every single level is immensely satisfying.
With the sheer number of moons in the game you’ll never go too long without finding one, even when you’ve got hundreds and hundreds of them – that lends itself to both quick short play sessions and longer deep dives. Even challenges like planting seeds are smartly ramped up as suddenly you’ll have to find ways of getting those seeds to interesting places without all of Mario’s abilities. The game implements 2D sections in a way that feels both nostalgic and essential to the game. They always have a new idea involved and are absolutely gorgeous to look at.
New Donk City is the true testament to just how densely packed Mario Odyssey is. You’ll be finding new nooks and crannies, different doors and alleyways and new challenges constantly – many giving a loving nod to Mario’s past. It helps that each Kingdom evolves over the course of the game with new areas and challenges to be found. Not all Kingdoms are created equal, but all of them are delightful to explore.
There is a lesson in open world design to be taken from Mario Odyssey. Mario Odyssey is not an open world game but it does prove that smaller, more content rich areas are considerably more gratifying to play through than larger, vaster more open games. You can’t walk for thirty seconds in Super Mario Odyssey without coming across something new. The game constantly throws new ideas and obstacles in your path. More games should follow suit, scaling back the sheer size in favour of finer attention to detail.
The new movement options make Mario a dream to control. Cappy, Mario’s new hat companion capable of possessing anything that doesn’t have the protection of a hat of their own, allows you to control your jump – allowing you that vital delay coupled with Mario’s usual floaty jump to control Mario in a 3D space. The new dive and roll moves, like all good Mario controls, just feels nice to use in and of themselves – regardless of application. The motion controls, while never really central to the experience at all, feel clumsy. And that’s coming from somebody who thinks Super Mario Galaxy’s simple flick of the wrist to do the spin attack was remarkably elegant. Using motion controls to dictate the direction of your hat throws just felt unreliable. Otherwise the game is as tight as you’d expect Mario to be and combining all of Mario’s moves to get to hard to reach areas and make desperate last minute saves is incredibly neat.
The hundreds and hundreds of moons scattered all over the game may seem daunting but it allows the game to scale in a remarkable way. You can blast your way through the whole game in around 8 hours if you stick solely to the story missions and collect only the minimum number of moons. That allows for literally any level of skill to pick up the game, collect the low hanging fruit moons (there are some moons literally sitting out in the open for that very purpose), have a good time and move on. But if you want more, my goodness is there more. The challenge ramps up considerably if you’re to hunt for every moon with some devilishly difficult platforming challenges and some cleverly hidden moons to seek out for completists.
As a result you can get out of Mario Odyssey what you put in. The game is designed to return whatever investment you’re looking to put in. There’s more moons that you’ll ever need but if you keep going you unlock cool costumes and super post-game content. If you’re a young inexperienced player the game is designed so that you can get through it (even if you need the built in Assist Mode) but if you’re a longtime Mario player there is tonnes of depth and challenge.
The capture mechanic feels both revolutionary and somehow the natural extension of the power ups that have been a staple of the Mario series since the beginning. Each has a different control scheme and is applied in different ways (and an extra special shoutout has to go to the sound design of this game, whether its the accordion noise of the Tropical Wigglers or the satisfying wind up and pop of the Uproots, it contributes to all of the captures being a delight to use) and constantly adds variety to the game without it feeling incoherent. The motif of travel and surprise bring the whole game together when otherwise it could have felt like a tonne of ideas thrown at the wall without many sticking. Somehow the vast majority of them stick.
Every single aspect of Super Mario Odyssey feels lovingly crafted from the ground up to instill joy in the player. Every Kingdom, every brilliant varied bit of music, every small animation, every joyous 2D sequence, every single tiny little detail went into fine tuning an experience that video games in 2017 desperately needed. It’s colourful, its creative, it weaponises charm and delivers it all in a package where Mario is constantly playing dress up, smiling, dancing and wahooing his way around the world as he brings cultures and communities together to live free of the tyranny of Boswer celebrating one another’s way of life in the process. More video games should be like this. More games should just be fun. No bleak post-apocalyptic future. No insidious microtransaction system. No overbearing moral finger wagging. It’s just fun.
The Super Mario series has been a benchmark of quality in the video game industry for thirty years – Super Mario Odyssey is why. A reinvention of the series, a mastery of its tropes and a deeply satisfying sandbox that fulfills and perfects the potential of Super Mario 64 two decades later. Super Mario Odyssey is an essential video game. It will make you happy, what more could you ask for?
Super Mario Odyssey gets a 10/10.
Super Mario Odyssey is available now for Nintendo Switch.