Super Mario Odyssey – Review

Ever since I was old enough to hold a controller correctly (many years spent holding the SNES controller longways – true story), Mario has been my go to adventurer. I followed him in all his side scrolling adventures, played Tennis with him, and stole many stars off my friends on various board game boards. For all the highs Mario has shared with me, such as entering the third dimension in the genre defining Mario 64, he has had some low points. He can’t play Baseball, the water pack he held in Sunshine was pretty flawed and he has had a few too many Mario Bros games under the title of ‘NEW’. But it is all of his high points, and all of his low points that come together in the new Mario Adventure. Super Mario Odyssey is a true love letter to Mario fans, and shows Nintendo never ceases to amaze in creating new and exciting objectives that one up each other long after the credits roll. Simply put Mario has never been better.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way, Bowser has kidnapped Peach. But there’s no early prologue that leads to this, no reveal that Princess isn’t at the castle, but rather the game throws you in at the end of a bowser battle. Mario is defeated, his signature hat destroyed in Bowser’s ship motor blades and Peach, along with a living tiara with eyes, are whisked away. Mario soon wakes up in a new location inhabited by top hats that looks very Tim Burton-esque, but it ain’t long til new partner Cappy takes over as Mario’s new hat so that together they can save their respective partners and stop the wedding of the century. The story may appear to be typical Mario simple, but the game does take some surprising turns, including a finale that is worth playing the game for alone.

When Mario Galaxy 2 came out, many – myself included- couldn’t imagine a Mario game that didn’t go so big with its planet hopping, gravity defying gameplay. It looked like Nintendo had taken Mario to its next big game changing state. So when Nintendo announced Super Mario Odyssey, many were intrigued to see that it reverted back to Super Mario 64’s open spaces and feet planted firmly on the ground, but no one could have imagined Cappy’s significance. Spend just one hour with Mario’s new hat throwing, jump combo-ing and enemy hurting new friend, and it’s hard to imagine a Nintendo game without it. It’s so seemless with the controls, and with the motion controlled Joy-cons of the Switch (which are not essential, but are surprisingly well implemented), you can throw the hat in any direction. It’s easy to get the hang of and before long you’ll be thanking Cappy rather than Mario for each of the game’s collectibles you get.

As previously mentioned the game is all about open worlds, but unlike Mario 64, you don’t enter a painting from a hub world, but rather land in various kingdoms from your ship, the Odyssey. While the lack of Hub World disappointed me, as Peach’s castle became one of the most amazing worlds in 64 itself, I soon understood why there is no hub world. The worlds are more than just 7 Stars like in the N64 classic. With worlds featuring anywhere from 15-100 Moons to collect, the game could get very frustrating for throwing you out of the world after each Moon collected like they did in the past Mario games. The freedom of finding hidden stars, tiny pockets of platforming specific challenges, time challenges, races and riddles that absolutely clutter the worlds will have the player saying ‘just one more’ thanks to the lack of being thrown out of the world.

This year Yooka-Laylee was released and one of the bigger criticisms was that there were huge worlds, but objectives seemed far away (especially in the game’s Casino level), but Mario does not face the same critique. For example, I landed on the early Sand Kingdom and found that the world had 69 Moons ready to be found by completing tasks, and even areas that looked empty were hiding something. Moons are broken up by story specific and freedom gameplay styles; during the main campaign you’ll be dropped on a kingdom and tasked with stopping Bowser or his new rabbit cronies from collecting a new Wedding item. Completing the main level’s campaign changes that particular kingdom in some way to allow exploration. One world for example, had tonnes of rubble littered over the space, but defeating the boss cleaned up the rubble and offered new rooms and quests. These campaigns award you with a fair few moons, but players will need to find more along on the way in order to power up the Odyssey to the next kingdom. It’s an addictive gameplay loop that, while feeling a little hand holding, does encourage exploration. I accidentally found more moons than I needed in the Sand Kingdom before completing that world’s boss and found that I could just skip the boss and come back to it later. After Zelda Breath of the Wild earlier this year, which had the same sort of freedom, I was stoked to see it again here. Nintendo are truly catering to the speed running market here, and I can’t wait to see how fast people can complete it!

It’s at this point that one of the game’s biggest new innovations to the Mario formula needs to be addressed. In old Mario games, you’ll pick up hats that change Mario into other forms. Well in this game you’ll throw your hat onto other creatures or items that will let you transform into whatever you have thrown it on. Not everything in the game can be taken over, but with more than 50 different Mario transformations, it won’t take long to realise that if you can’t get to that Moon as Mario, it’s because you need perhaps a frog’s high jump, a tank that can destroy walls, or even a fork stuck into the side of a mountain that will fling you up. The game never rests on one transformation, or one kind of use for it, as the game constantly throws new challenges that change your perception of your transformations and opens the door for even crazier stunts. Discovering these randomly while wandering around the worlds is one of the game’s brightest spots.

Over the course of the main 10-12 hour adventure (if you purely stick to unlocking Kingdoms) you’ll play some of the most inventively designed bosses, play in some of the most colourfully decorated sandboxes and discover hundreds of different ways to collect Moons. But like all good Mario games, besting the final boss only unlocks the larger post-game content. Not to spoil anything here, but it won’t be long until you realise that one kingdom you have traversed to the point where you think there could be no more surprises hidden under it’s depths, will now have dozens of reasons to return. And the main narrative focus of the post-game content is just as interesting as the game that came before it.

While all of this is just reinforcing the opening statement that this is the best Mario game to date, the game has a few problems that must be addressed. The major one is difficulty. While the game does have pockets where the game ramps up your platforming prowess, it comes way too late, and does not last for long. Not counting the game’s sometimes aggravating Koopa Races (which are the only cheap moments that killed momentum for me), the game never made me dread upcoming challenges. Maybe it’s because I’ve almost destroyed my Xbox controller recently with Cuphead, but playing something as easy as Mario shocked me. Plus, even if you did get stuck (which veterans of platforming probably won’t), the game comes with an almost impossible to fail assist mode. It gives you more lives, if you fall you’ll be placed in a bubble and taken back up, arrows will point you in the right direction and your health refills if you stand still. You could put a controller in the hands of anyone and they would be able to almost beat the entire game without ever feeling challenged. Basically put the game can be as easy as you want it, but never as challenging as it could be. Difficulty doesn’t break the game – and you’ll still have a dumb smile on your face the entire time – but it is something that players will notice when their Moon count balloons closer to the final number. I for one was waiting for harder challenges to emerge, and when they did, I was already overly prepared for them.

Super Mario Odyssey is a big game and I haven’t even touched the surface of the dozens of costumes you can unlock, hundreds of area specific Purple coins to find (think Banjo Music notes), or the collectable souvenirs that you must buy on your way to 100% completion. When Nintendo announced a bigger game than Mario Galaxy 2 I never imagined one that was this size. Thankfully for completionists that niggling feeling of wanting them all will guide you to that amazing 100% file that you really want, but it does lack the real reason for doing it. The game acknowledges your achievement, but whether what they do is enough for the hard work is debatable. However, in keeping with the game’s globetrotting theme, it’s the journey not the destination that makes the travel worth it.

It’s a big claim to say Super Mario Odyssey is the best Mario game of all time, and there will be a fair few people who disagree of course, but the fact that Nintendo has created a game that deserves the right to the crown is saying something. Nintendo has managed to change yet another historic franchise this year (after Zelda), and  has gone a long way to prove that the Nintendo Switch is a console worth investing in. These two titles provide a 1-2 punch that solidifies this console’s first year as probably the best first year for any console to date. Make no mistake, Super Mario Odyssey is an absolute must play for any gamer.

Score 95/100

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