It's crazy to think now that, just nine months ago, there was major doubt that Nintendo could pull it off, so much fear that the Switch would be another Wii U, another point of decline for the one-time emperor of videogames. Here we are though, in a world where a new Super Mario game is not something on which the latest Nintendo hardware depends for survival, but rather a valedictory lap for the little console that could.
In other words, Super Mario Odyssey didn’t even need to be this good – but it really, really is. This is Mario with every last stop pulled out, the platform game as a near-constant state of bliss and discovery. Such claims have been made of latter-day Mario games before, of course, but those always succumbed to a certain degree of arguably excessive fiddliness and repetition after a time. Odyssey, however, sticks the landing. Despite being broadly built from familiar components, it really does feel as though this is the point where a combination of technology and experience could realise Nintendo’s grandest designs for their age-old mascot.
It’s worth saying that Odyssey does not have the sense of grand departure or escalation that we saw from Mario 64 or Mario Galaxy. Though much has been made of the chirpy plumber’s ability to hurl his newly-anthropomorphised cap at various other creatures and people and take temporary control of them, this is less about a whole new world of sandbox possibility and more like a remixed version of the suits and power-ups of Mario games past.
In other words, it’s by and large about temporarily using specific tools for specific jobs, but the real fun is in thinking laterally about a possessed creature’s abilities in order to reach, say, a clutch of hidden coins. If there’s one thing that really marks out Odyssey as profoundly different to the Marios of yore, it’s the simple fact that he can always use his cap as a projectile weapon. The classic Mario attack, jumping on enemies’ heads, takes a fairly distant backseat as a result.
To Odyssey’s eternal credit, hat-hurling almost immediately feels as though it’s been part of the Mario repertoire forever, and within minutes you’ll be comfortably using it not just to clobber or take control of baddies, but also to smash crates and pull up posts to uncover hidden passageways.
There’s a sense of effortless flow to all this, exploration and secret-finding happening organically as you sprint and bound towards a level’s main objective, but of course the work that went into making these worlds feel like perfect playgrounds is almost unfathomable. Best not to think about that side of things really, and instead lose yourself in using a slowly-growing repertoire of jumping moves, hat attacks, possession abilities and in-world items such as bouncy umbrellas and flowers that make you run at rocket speed to comb every corner for coins and Moons.
Ah, Moons. These are Odyssey’s take on the old Mario trope of the collectible you need a certain number of to open up a whole new area. The conceit this time is that you’re in a hot air balloon-powered aircraft that can travel to far-off countries in your pursuit of perpetual uber-villain Bowser, but it needs a certain amount of Power Moons before it has the range to reach each new place. Fortunately, Power Moons are everywhere.
There are Power Moons that you can only gain by beating bosses, there are Power Moons that lie on the end of extreme tests of jumping skill, and there are Power Moons that are tucked away in places that only an almost paranoid mind would think to check. Most of all though, there are dozens of Power Moons in places that you will naturally run past and think, "I wonder what’s up there." 10 or 15 minutes later, you’ve been on this micro-adventure with its own bespoke puzzle or action sequence that you’ve solved after just enough challenge to feel like it was a real achievement, but not so much that you turned the air blue.
Again, it’s the flow here that’s so remarkable. The game guides you to Moons without ever being obvious about it, so it always feels like a genuine act of discovery on your part. This happens at surprising speed, too. Every time you reach a new world, you’ll probably feel that slight touch of ennui, the thought of all the Moons you’ll need to find before you can go on to the next one, but what feels like moments later you’re halfway there already.
As it is, finding enough Moons to beat Odyssey’s story is relatively easily done – a gentle but significant shift from, say, intensively collecting Stars in Mario 64. Of course, this is a Super Mario game, and so arguably the real game begins once you’ve given Bowser what for, i.e. going back to all the previous worlds and hunting around in their darkest recesses for every last Moon, and the small tests of skill and lateral thinking that each requires.
‘Odyssey’ is as apt at title as this game could have, for some of the trickier Moons really do feel like you headed off on some great journey to a strange and lost place, hidden behind a block or pipe or door you never even saw first time around. Again, generally speaking each Moon only takes minutes to attain, but the intensity and ingenuity involved in some of ‘em makes them feel like so much more.
Another reason why Moon-pursuit shines brighter than the core campaign is that – typically for a Mario title – the story is paper thin, and in the main simply recycles the same chase-Bowser-across-the-world structures these things have always had. In a sense, we wouldn’t want a Mario game to try and do anything more involved, but it is a crying shame that, in 2017, it’s still tethered to ancient and exhausted helpless princess rescue conceits. The particular approach Odyssey takes, in which Bowser has kidnapped the e’er simpering Princess Peach and intends to force her into marriage via the use of assorted stolen magical items such as crowns, cakes and dresses, somehow comes across as even more retrograde than the standard ‘the princess is locked in the tower’ setup.
Without wishing to bang this particular drum too hard, there’s simply no reason the simple story had to be anything more than stopping Bowser from stealing or breaking things, but instead it has this almost bloody-minded determination to rob one of very few women in the Marioverse of all agency. Odyssey just seems so very tired in this respect.
Fortunately, that is pretty much the only bum note in the game. Some of the checkpointing in the final furlong of the story is a little inconsiderate, while the first section set in New Donk City (a place with relatively photoreal humans – like a tiny bit of GTA in a Mario game) is weirdly dour and has a long tank-shooting section that doesn’t feel quite in keeping with everything else. Nitpicks, though: again, this whole thing flows so beautifully, so very aware of the line between engaging challenge and frustrating fiddliness. Its places too feel so much more like places than in any other Mario game with the exception of Sunshine. The Galaxy games’ planet-hopping may have been spectacular, but it also made its individual worlds feel disposable and slightly lifeless.
By contrast, in Odyssey you inhabit one place – the beachy world, the icy world, the foresty world, the lava world, the world made of food, the world that is a bit like 1940s New York – for a long time, really come to know it, to feel it, even to miss it once you move on. You can always go back, of course, and there’s always more to do, more to find, and most of all more to simply enjoy bounding across. Most every place gains a secondary objective after you’ve dispatched Bowser’s henchmen from it, and if you return to do this, some of the pay-offs are absolutely joyful to behold.
Switching it up
It’s that joy, that flow, that constant sense of discovery that entirely overwhelms any faint disappointment that hat-based mind control plays such a small and rigid part in proceedings – this is a Mario game, and that means it is mostly a jumping game. The miracle here is how deftly it sidesteps the sense of jump’n’fail frustration that can dog earlier Mario games’ latter stages, how it dials irritation right down but – crucially – without ever feeling too easy.
This is particularly true of boss fights, with the arguable exception of the last two. They are appropriately intense, multi-stage and require observation and learning, but they are here arranged in such a way that you cotton on to what you need to do while you are in the middle of them, rather than only by failing them. There’s usually just a little bit of wriggle room to recover, so most bosses will fall on the first or second attempt – yet never do they feel like a pushover.
No complaint can be made about Odyssey’s appearance either, for all the Switch’s ostensible hardware paucity compared to Xbox One and PS4. Bar the odd slightly plain texture or blocky character, it’s vibrant and detail-filled and, really, so close to a living cartoon that it might as well be. Nintendo have always been masters of making Mario games look better than the hardware would normally be considered capable of, but seeing this stuff looking this good and running this well in handheld mode too counts as a double miracle.
Again though, the real miracle is that we got a Mario game this good this early in the Switch’s life – and at a time when it didn’t even need it yet. If we got the near-perfect double-whammy of Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in merely the first year of the Switch, just imagine what the future might hold.