Platform: Nintendo Switch

Uh oh! Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach again! And he’s going to marry her, again! And now Mario has to chase him down by hunting down shiny collectibles throughout a variety of different worlds… again!

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

More of What Works

The 3D Mario formula hasn’t changed much since Super Mario 64, and for good reason. Adherence to this the formula has given Mario a sort of baseline quality. 3D Mario games don’t get any worse than Super Mario Sunshine, which was still a pretty good game in its own right. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mario’s latest adventure, Super Mario Odyssey, doesn’t break the proven Mario mold. Yet Odyssey manages to feel like a fresh new experience by taking that mold and making it much much bigger. If there’s one word that describes Super Mario Odyssey it’s “more.”

More what? More of everything! More ways to jump, more characters to speak to, more environments to explore, more abilities to use, more puzzles to solve, more coins to find, and of course, more shiny collectibles to collect.

So Many Moons

Mario’s collectible du jour is the power moon, and they are everywhere. You know how Super Mario 64 let you collect seven stars per level? Well, it’s not odd for Super Mario Odyssey to give you 70 moons per level, or more!

Following the plot will get you a moon after each platforming segment and three moons after fighting a boss. This alone won’t even get you to 100 moons. That’s not enough to face the final fight with Bowser and is only a tiny fraction of the over 800 moons to be found. To flesh out your collection you are going to have to stray from the beaten path, where you will find that you can earn moons for doing practically anything.

Found a shiny spot on the ground? Pound it and you’ll get a moon. Found Captain Toad hiding in a cave? Talk to him and you’ll get a moon. You can earn moons by finding five moon pieces or collecting all 100 special purple coins per level. Some moons are just hiding out in corners of the map and are easily found by rotating the camera. You can even buy moons at the shop for 100 coins a pop.

This is what keeps Super Mario Odyssey engaging. I haven’t even begun to describe all the ways you can earn moons. At points you’ll participate in Mario Kart style races. At other points you’ll participate in Sunshine-esque platforming challenges that limit Mario’s capabilities. There is always something new to do, and that’s the kind of simple genius that Nintendo is known for.

None of Super Mario Odyssey’s challenges could carry it alone. If all you had to do was search for hidden moons strewn about the map, you’d get pixel hunting fatigue. If every moon was tied to a mini-game or side-quest, you’d get bored of the lack of platforming. If every moon was tied to a platforming segment, you’d wonder why Super Mario Odyssey decided to bother with huge open worlds. Only together do these challenges make a cohesive whole.

The Legend of Mario: Hat of the Wild

Super Mario Odyssey also takes a page from another Nintendo success, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, in that its challenges have multiple, in fact near infinite, solutions. The fun is in figuring out your own unique way to tackle each challenge.

Mario can’t climb cliffs like Link could, but he sure can jump. He has access to all of his moves from Super Mario 64, as well as an array of new moves granted by his new companion, a sentient hat named Cappy. Throwing Cappy works like the spin in Super Mario Galaxy. It causes you to pause in the air granting you a tiny bit more height and distance. You can also jump off of Cappy like a platform for yet another boost. Using these moves lets you bypass most platforming challenges. Why nimbly dodge hazards when you can long jump to your goal?

Mario’s other new ability is to possess… sorry, “capture” enemies and each of these enemies gives him a wealth of new abilities. You can jump super high as a frog, bust through walls with Hammer Bros., or stretch from platform to platform as a Wiggler. Some enemies are more geared toward combat, like tanks and Charging Chucks, while others are used primarily for exploration, like Cheep-Cheeps and lava balls. There are also set-piece possessions that give you a unique form for small segments, like a Banzai Bill, a t-rex, or a giant uncooked slab of roast beef… and I don’t really want to think about the implications of that last one.

The trick is you can use the abilities of the possessed enemies to get around challenges that Mario couldn’t tackle on foot. This is where the game starts really feeling like Breath of the Wild. For example, I was having a problem with a small platforming segment in a water themed world. Instead of doing it, I just possessed a squid that could hover by firing water downward, reminiscent of FLUDD from Super Mario Sunshine. No platforming is needed when you have a hover-pack.

The similarities to Sunshine aren’t accidental. In fact Super Mario Odyssey feels like a “greatest hits” album from Mario’s past. Aside from the water spitting squid, you’ll also find patches of ink and lava that you can clear out by wiping them down with your hat. From Super Mario 64 you’ll find magic paintings that can transport you to other worlds. You’ll even find pipes that turn Mario into his 8-bit self before challenging you to 2D platforming segments with mechanics that perfectly copy the original Super Mario Bros.

Easy to Finish, Hard to Complete

With all this stuff to do, it’s weird that the game ends after a short eight hours. That’s really all it takes to get to the final level and defeat Bowser once and for all. It leaves you wanting more. Luckily, there is so much more!

After the game is complete you can chase Princess Peach from world to world as she takes a much needed vacation. You can access new worlds, like the Mushroom Kingdom which is an almost perfect remake of Peach’s castle from Super Mario 64. You can speak to Toadette who will give you power moons for completing a variety of achievements. You can possess Yoshi, and use his unique abilities to earn yet more power moons. You can attempt boss rushes, buy costumes, and even collect a whole new set of power moons in each level that only show up after the end credits roll. The difference between the eight hours it takes to finish the game and the 100+ hours it will take to complete it is staggering.

And you’ll sink hundreds of hours into Super Mario Odyssey because of its fantastic pacing. The abundancy of moons makes you feel constantly rewarded. They also modulate the game’s difficulty. If you can’t beat a certain platforming segment, who cares? Give up on it and buy a moon at a shop. Heck, at the end of the game you can literally buy unlimited moons just to get you that much closer to the next world. You aren’t committed to finding every moon in the game. You only have to collect the moons that are fun for you personally.

Super Mario Odyssey isn’t very hard. In fact, dying only sends you back to the last checkpoint and costs you a measly ten coins. If you want an even more casual experience, you can turn on the game’s “assist mode.” In this mode, Mario’s health is doubled from three to six and regenerates as long as he stays still. He also won’t die instantly from falling down pits. Instead he’ll lose one health and get returned to the last stable platform he stood on. Assist mode also plasters the environment with blue arrows, always leading you toward your next objective. It’s a great way to prevent frustration and you can turn it on or off as you like.

Some Minor Flaws

Overall Odyssey is a wonderful Mario experience, but it’s not without its flaws. While the wide open worlds are fun to explore, they are somewhat uninspired. Other than The Moon, which lets you experience low gravity, and New Donk City, whose urban environments have an impressive sense of verticality, most of the worlds hit the same old Mario beats. You’ll travel through multiple forest worlds, water worlds, an ice world, a lava world, a desert world, yada yada yada. There are a few other worlds that really break the mold, like a ruined medieval world ripped straight out of Final Fantasy, but you never stay in unique worlds long. You’ll stop by for a boss fight or two and then get back to the same old Mario shtick.

The controls are another sour spot. The basic controls are fine, simple, and responsive as always. However, there is a second set of moves that is accessible only through motion controls and these are the best abilities in the game. You can’t use Cappy’s spinning shield throw or homing throw without waggling the JoyCon everywhere. Some possessed enemies have half of their abilities assigned to motion controls only. Separating the two JoyCons from their dock and using them like Wiimotes isn’t the worst thing in the world, but if you are taking your Switch on the go it’s infuriating. It’s impossible to shake around the JoyCons when they are firmly attached to the Switch’s screen! There are more than enough unused buttons to allow access to these moves without waggling. I don’t know why Nintendo is still so committed to this gimmick.

Co-op mode could’ve been thought out better. In this mode, one person controls Mario while another controls Cappy. The problem is that Cappy can’t do much. While being controlled by a second player vastly increases Cappy’s range and gives Mario access to new moves like ultra-high jumps, the most Cappy can do is defeat minor enemies and collect coins. When Mario possesses an enemy, control is taken away from the second player completely. The first player can also wrest control of Cappy back from the second player whenever he wants. It really feels like the second player is just along for the ride.

The Conclusion of The Odyssey

That’s about as many flaws as I can really think of. Everything else is just a solid Mario game. The graphics are bright and cartoony and the framerate never dips below 60FPS. The music is great; a combination of classic Mario tunes and remixes based the cultures of each world Mario visits. This game will put a smile on a casual player’s face from beginning to end and if you are a speedrunner, this is your dream game.  There is so much potential for different routes and categories that you’ll be optimizing the game for years to come.

Super Mario Odyssey is exactly what we all expected, a great 3D Mario game. It doesn’t shake up the formula, but it nearly perfects it. This is the collect-a-thon platformer that people have been waiting for, a chance to bring the genre into the modern day gaming environment. All it took was a massive expansion of scope. I suppose if you have a formula that works, all you have to do is give your adoring fans as much of that formula that you can cram into one game. This is a must own Switch title, whether you are a Mario fan or not, and it’s likely going to compete with Breath of the Wild for best Switch game of the year.