Mario’s latest adventure, ‘Super Mario Odyssey,’ is part greatest hits, part unearthing of endless potential.
For more than 30 years, Nintendo has captivated the world with the platforming genius that is Super Mario. If one game franchise were universally considered the flag holder for all video games, it would undoubtedly be the lovable, pint-sized, mustached man. What Super Mario has achieved so consistently across more than a dozen mainline games is to capture the art of the “aha!” moment, that smile-inducing lightbulb that makes one thing clear — Nintendo thought of everything. Super Mario games are ceaselessly clever, utterly charming and fun for all ages, and Super Mario Odyssey adds so much to the legacy.
Even with Mario’s expected brilliance, it would’ve been hard to predict the sheer excellence of our determined hero’s latest adventure. Super Mario Odyssey, the series’ Nintendo Switch debut, accomplishes two very different feats in one cohesive experience. First, it employs every aspect that’s made Mario so great over the years. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it manages to tap into a sea of potential that was always there to turn the page forward to a new, seemingly boundless chapter filled with genius and buckets and buckets of pure joy.
Super Mario has spent the majority of his career in 2D side-scrollers, meaning Mario runs and jumps horizontally across the screen until he reaches a flag. His first foray into 3D came with the revolutionary Super Mario 64. In the Nintendo 64 classic, players used Princess Peach’s castle as a hub to enter different portraits that acted as levels. Each had a variety of objectives but was still self-contained, with dedicated paths to completion.
This 3D concept was later used in Super Mario Sunshine for GameCube in 2002. Once again, the levels were self-contained, although the hub world, a beach resort, was a bit more open than Peach’s castle.
Ever since Super Mario Sunshine, though, Mario’s intermittent trips to 3D have been increasingly linear, starting with Super Mario Galaxy for Nintendo Wii and its sequel, and later with Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World — which merely presented classic side-scrolling progression in a 3D context.
Super Mario Odyssey takes lessons from each disparate style of Mario games, mashes them together and, in the process, elevates the journey.
The plot hasn’t changed much over the course of the series. Bowser still kidnaps Princess Peach in Odyssey and has plans for an unwanted royal wedding. But the means by which Mario ultimately reaches his inevitable showdown with the king of the Koopas has changed. Mario’s adventure takes place across worlds outside the Mushroom Kingdom, but he also has a buddy to assist his efforts.
Cappy, a sentient white top-hat from Cap Kingdom, is also in search of his love, who just happens to be with Princess Peach. The pair team up, with Cappy taking the shape of Mario’s red hat. But Cappy is more than just an extra pair of eyes. Mario can now throw his cap like a boomerang and execute new jumps by vaulting atop Cappy. Beyond that, Cappy’s powers allow him to possess other creatures and inanimate objects. Capturing objects and longstanding Mario characters like Goombas lets players move around as those creatures and things for a time.
Mario’s new moves alone make Super Mario Odyssey a more varied experience than ever before, giving players more tools to reach their destinations, but it’s how Nintendo designed the game worlds that separates it from other Mario experiences.
Early on, Mario acquires the eponymous Odyssey ship. To make it run again, he needs to find power moons across Cascade Kingdom, an eclectic world of waterfalls, ruins and even a Tyrannosaurus rex. Power moons are the equivalent of the stars gathered in Super Mario 64 or the sunshines of Super Mario Sunshine. The big difference is that they aren’t always contained for a specific objective; they are all over the place. And there are many more of them.
After getting enough power moons to take off, Mario and Cappy head off to another world. This loop continues throughout. On each world, there’s a boss battle, but the bulk of the experience is in freely scouring the land for power moons to fuel the ship past the threshold needed to move on to the next world. In many ways, this removes the linear aspects that have been firmly planted in Mario’s roots throughout his games.
Trusting the player to be observant, to use the tools they’ve learned over three decades of platforming goodness, and to put Mario’s new tricks to use, Nintendo has given gamers free rein over their own experiences. Yes, all the power moons are in the same spots for each player, but no two players will find them, or even secure them, in the same fashion.
To reach Bowser, Mario only needs to collect roughly 125 power moons, but there are nearly 900 power moons in the game, a large number of which aren’t even present until after you’ve seen the credits. The wealth of optional content is unprecedented in a Mario game, but Super Mario Odyssey compels you to keep going long after you’ve thwarted your spiked nemesis and rescued Princess Peach.
Due to the significant number of moons scattered throughout more than a dozen kingdoms, you likely will never go more than 10 minutes without making a new discovery. Not only does this provide so many rewarding moments, but a great number of the moons are found in totally unique ways.
You might see a moon high in the sky and have to figure out how to reach it, or you may come across one in the shadows below. A cheery character you meet might ask you to put on a certain costume before rewarding you with a moon. You can jump rope in New Donk City, a kingdom inspired, of course, by New York City. Mario can play volleyball on a beachside resort or race Koopas for both moons and glory. Toads will ask you to put on a specific song before doling out a moon. You can play slots for a chance at a prize, chase a nimble rabbit, impress Goombas, water plants, race RC cars and perform many of the other unique tasks crammed inside these sprawling worlds.
In gaps between these joyous, surprising encounters, you will find hidden rooms that house more traditional Mario levels, each with a moon at the end, and a moon or two hidden along the way. Sometimes Mario slips through crevices or heads down the traditional green pipe into a retro eight-bit stage mirroring the original Super Mario Bros. for the NES. You can even find paintings that very well could have been in Super Mario 64, each of which vaults you to a new moon and a fresh perspective of a different world.
While some power moons are easy to grab, others involve some of the most complicated platforming sections seen in a Mario game. The game is a sly but expert teacher, slowly imparting knowledge that helps you improve your skills. It’s both approachable for novice players and kids and challenging enough for the most seasoned of Mario veterans.
For the first time in the history of the most popular video game franchise of all time, Nintendo trusts you, the player, to create your own fun. Yes, the venerable studio expertly laid the foundation, giving players a diverse assortment of biomes to jump around in, but your personal experience with Super Mario Odyssey is what you make of it. Mario games have always worked because of their immaculate level design, clever mechanics and irresistible charm. As curiosity takes over, Mario’s possibilities seem limitless.