Nintendo has seen some dark times in the last five years. The catastrophic performance of the Wii U is not something a fan of the company can easily forget. This year, however, has been something of a renaissance for Nintendo. In March, alongside the successful launch of their brand-new console, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was met with near universal critical acclaim. It shifted the paradigm of that franchise so dramatically, yet stayed true to what fans know and love. Every familiar element was given an enormous shake-up and infused with a seemingly endless well of new ideas and creativity. This sentiment sums up the entirety of 2017 for Nintendo, and Super Mario Odyssey is the strongest expression of it so far. This game is an astonishing achievement, and while mere words could never do it justice, let me attempt to express why.
Super Mario Odyssey begins with a familiar sight. Bowser has once again captured Princess Peach, this time with plans to put on a lavish wedding and marry her. Mario’s attempts at rescue are thwarted, and his hat is shredded in the propellers of Bowser’s ship. Tumbling down below the clouds, Mario awakes in Bonneton in the Cap Kingdom. Cappy, a local resident, mends and then inhabits Mario’s hat, giving him a whole range of new abilities enabling him to jump, attack and… capture various creatures and objects, bending them to his will.
This, of course, is the big new feature of Super Mario Odyssey. Instead of power ups you essentially possess animals, monsters, people and even machines in order to gain their abilities. A block of cheese obscures the path in the Luncheon Kingdom? Capture a Hammer Bro. and fling frying pans to break it apart. Want to swim faster underwater? Capture a Cheep Cheep and stop worrying about coming up for air. Want to play with remote control cars in New Donk City? Then possess a literal human and go for a spin. Not only are each of these captures a blast to actually use, they’re incredibly quick and simple to understand and control, they’re always integrated seamlessly into the world they inhabit, and discovering new ones is a delight.
After teaming up with Cappy, Mario soon uncovers an ancient aircraft fueled by Power Moons. It’s called The Odyssey and it allows Mario to travel between Kingdoms, each of which has their own currency, Power Moons, inhabitants, story and more to uncover. These Kingdoms vary in size, with most of them featuring wide open areas with gated sections tied to that Kingdoms main story line. For example, you could land The Odyssey in the Sand Kingdom and spend half an hour just wandering around the nearby village, collecting Power Moons and coins without even progressing the main story. Once you do explore a bit further however, perhaps even collecting a coveted Multi-Moon, the Kingdom may expand dramatically, or the weather or time of day might change. Each Kingdom is astoundingly beautiful and an absolute joy to explore. Multiple times I was left mouth agape, struggling to process what I was seeing depicted in a Mario game.
It really is difficult to put into words how gorgeous this game is. Nintendo have always been fairly good at eking the most out of dated hardware, but Super Mario Odyssey is just beautiful. The texture work on some surfaces is impressive, seeing intricate details in the stitching of Mario’s various costumes or the scratches on the nose of a giant Bullet Bill was even a little shocking at first. Prior to playing the game, I had harboured concerns about the clashing of realistic environments with the decidedly colourful, stylised characters and objects of the Mushroom Kingdom. As mentioned, there are literal humans in this game with taxis and street lights and jazz bands. But ultimately it all just works, partially due to them leaning heavily into the wackiness of it all, but partially I think due to the games basic premise: this is a journey grander than any Mario has embarked upon, it’s about travelling far from home, basking in the drastically different sights and sounds of exotic lands. Nothing is ever too jarring because it all fits within the context of its own Kingdom.
Each Kingdom also has two shops, one that uses regular golden coins, the other only accepting the purple currency unique to that world. The regular store has general items and clothes, the purple coin store sells things unique to that world, like a themed costume or souvenir that you can display in (or on) The Odyssey. Not only does this provide a far stronger incentive to collect regular old golden coins, having a set amount of purple currency per Kingdom provides yet another reason to explore every inch of them.
A lot of care has been put into the post-game. There are 600 Power Moons to get in total, but you only need a little over 100 to finish the story. Once you finish, each Kingdom activates an extra set of Moons to collect. There’s more to this but I don’t want to spoil anything. From the beginning of the game, each Kingdom has a list of how many Power Moons it has, which, once you obtain them, fills out with the title of that challenge, its location on the map, and the date you completed it. This alone makes things far more manageable but, best of all, if you revisit one of the little side-worlds (usually through a warp pipe or secret door) Cappy will let you know if there’s still some Power Moons or purple coins yet to find. As I make my way towards 600 Power Moons, this feature has already proven to be extremely useful, cutting out a lot of the tedium in gunning for 100%.
When I started playing Super Mario Odyssey I was using the Joy-Con Grip but after a few hours I switched to just using the Joy-Cons on their own. This was for two reasons. First, the implementation of HD Rumble in this game is probably the best the Switch has to offer so far. Everything from revving a scooter to splashing around in water feels accurate and immersive. The second reason is that certain kinds of hat throws and capture abilities are only available, or enhanced by, motion controls. For example, if you capture a frog you can dash by holding Y and jump by pressing B, but if you shake the Joy-Con frog Mario will do a much higher leap. Most captures have a motion control ability, a lot of which are quite useful. You can still do these abilities in handheld mode or with the Joy-Con Grip, it just isn’t as easy or fun.
I could talk for a long time about the many wonderful things about Super Mario Odyssey. The soundtrack complements beautifully the visuals on display, producing some vibes truly unique for a Mario game. The boss fights that are creative puzzles all on their own. The way the story twists and turns, sending you places you never thought you’d go. Finding flaws in this game is a difficult task, even Breath of the Wild had performance issues and sketchy voice acting. To be so consistently surprised and delighted by a game, right up to the credits and beyond, is a rare thing indeed and an achievement worthy of the highest praise. This year has undeniably been an insane one for video games, but even amongst such strong competition Super Mario Odyssey manages to shoot for the moon and stick the landing. Superb.
Super Mario Odyssey was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch using an eShop download code provided by Nintendo.