How do you make a 20-year-old video game series feel fresh? It’s a question that must regularly keep the creators of Mario –Nintendo’s EAD Tokyo –up at night. With our favorite ex-plumber already mastering go-karts, space exploration and, well, pretty much everything else in between, this mustachioed mascot has seemingly done it all before.
Apparently though, no one told the Mario team. Because after spending 15 glorious hours with Super Mario Odyssey, somehow, Nintendo has managed to make its aging icon feel new again.
Just like with March’s captivating The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, Super Mario Odyssey shows Nintendo back at its daring best. While the house of Mario could have easily churned out another fun but familiar-feeling romp, with each new level in Super Mario Odyssey, it becomes more evident that Nintendo has gleefully set out to defy series conventions. Thanks to moments of grin-inducing level design and a plethora of refreshing new game mechanics, Mario’s first Switch outing is the rarest of things – a video game sequel that’s oozing with creativity.
Goodbye Linear Levels, Hello Sandboxes
A big reason for this is the playgrounds you find yourself hopping, running and jumping across. Unlike in 2013’s Super Mario 3D World, Super Mario Odyssey abandons linear levels for more open-ended “Kingdoms”, and it’s a move that’s definitely paid off. While these sizable sandboxes still see Mario tasked with pursuing a main objective, players are also free to traverse each level as they please.
With no time limits to be found or hastily moving stages hurrying you along, you’re free to discover the wealth of collectibles and secret areas that have been carefully hidden across each Kingdom.
It’s a refreshing nod to the glory days of Super Mario 64. But aside from Super Mario Odyssey’s subtle (and not so subtle) nods to the 1996 classic, this more open-ended approach to level design hints that EAD Tokyo has also taken a healthy bit of inspiration from Link’s latest adventure, too.
Don’t get Cap(py)tured
Yet, it’s not just each Kingdom’s brilliantly varied level design that makes Odyssey feel so endearing. It’s also thanks to our hero’s latest googly-eyed companion. We are of course, talking about Mario’s new-found anthropomorphic, flying hat, Cappy. In a nice touch, flinging this new friend at an unsuspecting foe temporarily allows Mario to take control of them, granting our hero access to his chosen enemy’s unique abilities.
With players getting to inhabit the bodies of everything from classic enemies like Cheep Cheeps to screen-filling T-Rexes, Cappy’s Capture mechanic is a brilliantly absurd inclusion. A hat that allows you to possess almost any enemy is the kind of gameplay mechanic that simply sounds ridiculous and overly ambitious. Yet, in utterly Nintendo fashion, somehow, it’s one that works perfectly.
Thanks to some clever use of enemy variants and our trust pal Cappy, Super Mario Odyssey’s seemingly simple kingdoms actually cram in a surprisingly diverse selection of game mechanics.
A Whole New World
The first time this really became apparent was while we were exploring the Wooded Kingdom. At first glance, this early forest level didn’t really appear to be anything too special. Tasked with hopping and jumping our way across the overgrown paths before us, Goombas and other staple Mario enemies slowed down our advance. So far, so familiar. Yet, just as we captured our 10th Goomba and thought we’ve seen it all before, suddenly a fleet of angry, googly-eyed tanks appeared. Yes, canon-toting tanks.
Commandeering one with Cappy, we rolled up the winding hills before us, using our newfound canons to carefully blast away parts of the environments and forge a new path. It all felt refreshingly un-Mari.o Yet, to our surprise, this cool little section was just one of many unexpected palette cleansers waiting for us in this Kingdom.
A hidden area saw us navigating a field of fog blind as a flying Goomba, a later area required us to take control of beanstalk-esque extending enemies, and messing around with some suspicious looking trees even led us to discover a hidden boss battle. The best part? After experiencing all of this, we discovered that we’d only collected 15 of the stage’s Power Moons. To put it bluntly, this one kingdom had more varied gameplay mechanics than most other games manage throughout their entire campaigns.
Another thing about Super Mario Odyssey that caught us by surprise is just how inventive its boss fights can be. While recent titles like Super Mario Galaxy and even 3D World had their fair share of memorable boss battles, Super Mario Odyssey comfortably one ups them. With later standoffs and their enemy designs sporting a surprisingly dark tone, it seems like Nintendo’s very own Mario makers haven’t just been comparing notes with the Zelda team.
With giant robotic spiders and a few nastier foes that we won’t spoil, several of these breath-taking encounters felt like they’d been created by Nintendo collaborator and Bayonetta creator, Platinum Games. That’s not something we ever thought we’d say about a Mario game, but it speaks volume to the level of creativity that’s been poured into the globe-trotting adventure.
Is Super Mario Odyssey Any Good?
Mario’s first Switch outing is not only one of the best releases in an unusually brilliant year, but arguably one of Nintendo’s greatest gaming achievements ever. With refreshingly varied kingdom designs that offer a playful mix of the old and the new, Super Mario Odyssey is a game where you never really know what to expect next. We could tell you more about the individual moments that make this game such a magical experience, but honestly, to reveal too many of its secrets would simply spoil the fun.
If you’re tired of empty-feeling open worlds and soulless grinds, do yourself a favor and pick up one of the most inventive and enjoyable video games in recent memory.