The first verse in Super Mario Odyssey’s explosive title track Jump Up Super Star contains the line, “it’s freedom like you never knew.” This jazzy song is not just a catchy tune, and players who pick up Mario’s first appearance on Switch are sure to realize the truth in the song in the opening minutes of the game. A collection of unique worlds, characters, and a few surprises along the way are a nice touch to every additional Mario game, Odyssey included. The star-studded Italian’s latest adventure goes deeper than just adding some freedom though, as any fan, new or old, will likely find that Odyssey offers the best way to send Mario running and triple-jumping from kingdom to kingdom.
Where other franchises are scared to take a leap of faith by adding in bizarre elements, Odyssey embraces and explores some of the most creative decisions the series has ever seen. The game is not concerned with explaining the semantics of a companion that is a ghost hat or why realistic people are walking next to a two-foot tall cartoon character. Odyssey—and Nintendo as a whole—has one goal above all else: the player needs to have fun. The illogical and Mario-tailor-designed levels return from Super Mario 64, but not without the vibrant colors and beautiful landscapes seen in Super Mario Sunshine. Nintendo found a way to make the settings of the character’s latest outing feel like a greatest hits of previous 3D Mario games, and the best part is that it all feels completely natural. This mix of familiarity and innovation allows Odyssey to soar to unfamiliar heights. Nintendo goes a step further by including 82 new songs, including both original catchy tunes such as the aforementioned Jump Up Super Star and remixes of some retro classics. Some of the unheard songs have no business being as good as they are, even if a few of them do fall short of memorable.
Levels are designed to fit Mario’s unusual friend Cappy and his “cap-ture” ability to ensure every area is fresh and exciting enough to meet this fun factor goal. Wooded areas with platforms high in the trees come paired with flowerpot enemies that can grow to normally unreachable heights. Levels flooded with water have plenty of capturable cheep-cheeps, so the regular tedium of swimming is a thing of the past. Even Goombas have the ability to walk on ice without slipping. Mario’s new power to possess gives fans a way to experiment with enemies in manners never previously dreamed of. Some of the potential possession hosts stand out in the game and will no doubt stick in the memories of gamers for years to come.
Nintendo clearly had the goal to keep players smiling from ear to ear during their time with the game. This mission means little diversions and attentions to detail will keep gamers engaged with their surroundings at all times. Tufts of grass uproot as Mario moves his tiny short legs through a dinosaur kingdom, and toads cower in fear at the sight of a single enemy. NPCs are dynamic and interactive in interesting ways, similarly to March’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Almost every mini-game comes with its own scoreboard as a way to keep competitive players returning for more. Odyssey feels like a full-on adventure 100% of the time, and discovery has never felt so rewarding. Old-school Mario fans manage to get some love squeezed in the game as well, with 2D platforming sections in the style of the original Super Mario Bros. making a return for short bursts of nostalgic gameplay. These short retro gameplay sessions come packaged with remixes of new songs, giving them an 8-bit feel as well.
For those worried about Mario’s latest installment being too familiar, Odyssey’s biggest changes to the traditional platformer are noteworthy. A fully customizable Mario and ship are two of the smaller, yet surprisingly entertaining, parts of the game. Each kingdom offers a unique collectable coin to be used at shops where Mario can buy clothing that matches the respective theme. A couple of random unrelated costumes are thrown in as well for added insanity.
The other major change affects Mario’s base move set. A clear steer towards the Mario 64 physics can be felt when playing, but Cappy is the wrench in the cogs of naysayers attempting to call out too much sameness. Like FLUDD, Cappy expands Mario’s moves exponentially. He is an extra foot stool to jump on and can even attack enemies from afar. Some of the widest gaps in Mario history can be traversed with ease thanks to Cappy, but Odyssey takes creative jumping a leap further. Certain platforms that would normally not be thought twice about may hide a secret, and Nintendo encourages truly skilled players to think outside the box this time around. A general rule of thumb when playing Odyssey is to check back through an area once, twice, or maybe even three times because hidden rewards are almost always present.
Mario’s latest adventure follows him as he travels through a whopping 17 kingdoms. This time around, Mario has to stay on Bowser’s tail to stop the spiky-shelled brute’s plan. The player will assume the part of a wedding crasher, as Bowser’s ceremony doubles as his latest plot to kidnap Princess Peach. The story is completely ridiculous, but the game is aware of its nonsense. Never has a Mario story actually been engaging because of its humor and self-awareness until Odyssey. As far as stories go, the narrative is nothing to shower in praise, but it still manages to be one of the more interesting plots in series history. This decision to have Mario moving place to place is fitting considering players can now game on the go with the Switch. Each kingdom is a unique, dense playground filled with a seemingly never-ending number of power moons (Odyssey’s version of the more traditional power star). However, power moons are not limited to four, eight, 12, or even 15 moons per kingdom. No, players hoping to spend a lifetime in Odyssey’s world can rest easy, as the 999 moon total is sure to keep even the most meticulous players busy. Thankfully, the increase from the usual 120 is not padding. Each moon is given a unique name and placement, making every second of lunar hunting memorable.
Unfortunately, a few downers in an otherwise non-stop enjoyable experience can sometimes be a little too noticeable. Motion controls and a reluctance to step away from the confinements of current-generation hardware are two of Nintendo’s vices, and Odyssey is no exception. Odyssey plays best on a wide-screen TV with the lights turned low and the Joy-con controllers separated in each hand. HD rumble feels great and is shockingly useful, but does not excuse the downgrade in Mario’s freedom when playing with any other setup. A homing-cap attack is locked to shaking the controller and only feels natural with the Joy-cons. The Pro Controller feels great, but can oftentimes feel like shaking a brick when trying to perform the more intricate motion-based moves. An option to map controls to different buttons could be an easy fix for this issue. Sadly, this privilege is not available. As such, playing the game with the Pro Controller results in a bogged-down experience. The same is also true of playing with the Switch undocked, which is disappointing considering portability is one of the platform’s key selling points. Platformers are infamous for poor-quality third-person cameras, something especially true for the more open Mario games. Issues involving the camera are scarce in the game, but stick out when they do pop up. These issues will affect a smaller number of players, and are more likely to be overlooked than not.
Regardless of a few minor errors, Odyssey is an absolute joy to play through. Bowser’s latest attempt at kidnapping Peach is an interesting one, but the adventure does not stop after the credits roll. In fact, the game’s offerings seemingly have no end, and sets a new bar for Mario’s 3D ventures: one that stands much higher than anyone could have expected. Creativity and pure joy shine in Odyssey, and they do so in a way that will be looked to by developers, artists, and gamers for a long time to come.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch