First Impression: Super Mario Odyssey

I’ve got my hands on Nintendo’s great big sales pitch for the Nintendo Switch.
So, how does it feel?

Super Mario Odyssey is both deeply familiar and totally strange. It looks and sounds like a wholesome Mario game I remember falling in love with twenty years ago, but that can’t be right. It must be some kind of trick that I don’t understand yet: nothing is this pure and straightforward today. It’s been two long, cynical decades since 1996, and now we’re living in the never-ending surreal crisis that is 2017, so games need to reflect that somehow. Children’s games need to be Pay2Win phone apps and shoddy in-browser clickbait; classic franchises need to dramatically overhaul their characters and abandon loyalists in the name of capturing a new market. I keep waiting for something offensive to happen.

I’m not saying there’s any reason to pop open champagne bottles and dance in the streets, but Super Mario Odyssey is a big occasion for the gaming industry, not just for Nintendo or the Switch. It was reasonable to suspect that Nintendo might never make a serious big-world platformer again, which would change the ecology of the whole business. Like them or not, proper Mario games remain one of the tentpoles that shapes how we think about gaming, along with franchises like Zelda and Gran Turismo. The Wii sort of copped out with the Galaxy games, the Wii U didn’t even attempt one, and yet Nintendo seemed convinced that the solution was to keep moving further away from the Mario 64 formula if you asked Miyamoto. They hoped that dumbing down the gameplay and aiming it squarely at toddlers was the answer, so what happens when you can’t dumb it down any further? Quitting? Odyssey instead taps into the same vein as Super Mario 64 and doesn’t take the audience’s loyalty for granted. It’s a return to form.


Structural integrity

The way Odyssey organizes itself is interesting. Although you have freedom to explore the “kingdoms” you visit without restraints, your point of entry will be near an introductory area that establishes the types of dangers and obstacles you’ll face. Further in you’ll explore larger areas with chokepoints connecting them; you’ll need skill to bypass these to get to the climactic boss fights. Throughout the level you can find moons (instead of the stars you’d normally collect), but gathering these does not cause you to exit the level or fly back to your ship. The game isn’t structured in a way that forces you to re-enter the level multiple times with different objectives. Instead, there are flag checkpoints scattered around that you can teleport to at any time, introducing a fast travel option so you don’t get bored crossing the same places many times, and other than that you’re just on your own discovering what you can. This is a great feeling, and one that I’m happy children will get to experience in 2017. As you’d expect, entering buildings, pipes, caves, and passages can change things up instantly, plunging you underwater or into some dangerous walkways.

The narrative structure has you chasing after Bowser, who has kidnapped Princess Peach and plans to marry her. In order to get hitched, however, they need to make pit stops around the globe (yes, there is a globe roughly the shape of Earth) and collect various wedding garments and accessories. You’re always too late to catch Bowser’s airship or stop him from nabbing the key item from the people who live there, but you can clean up the chaos they leave in their wake and make the locals happier. Defeating the boss of each area essentially resets the level, changing some of the visuals, as well as the way things are laid out. New areas can open up, and the remaining moons can be found.

Collecting moons lets you power up your weird hat ship, which unlocks more levels to visit. Aside from some forks in the road, it’s a linear path to follow Bowser, removing the option of flying any place in the world you want.

All of this is sensible and pleasant from a game design perspective. Mario 64 locked areas of Peach’s Castle behind doors that required stars to open, making sure you didn’t progress until you completed a certain number of challenges, and if you consider that each kingdom in Odyssey has a bunch of extra moons, you’re given a similar level of flexibility. You can be a completionist if you want, or you can do the minimum.


Mad Hatting

Running and jumping is tighter than ever in Odyssey, to the point where I almost miss the weighty feeling of Mario we got in 64. Inertia, momentum, and turning speeds are almost nonexistent, allowing you to zip around easily. There’s no learning curve to controlling Mario himself, which was clearly an accessibility priority for Nintendo this time around. The core gameplay therefore becomes easier, but less satisfying. You also don’t have the ability to punch and kick anymore, but instead throw your hat at stuff.

For the most part, you can hijack whatever you want with your hat. Bullet Bills, Goombas, and even weird stuff like traffic cones. There’s no real logic for why you can or can’t control something. This encourages experimentation, but not a sense of coherency. The “world” of Odyssey is mashed up and silly even the aesthetics department, going against the Super Mario World concept of game design progress, but you’re not supposed to stop and think about the world much in this game. You’ve got wacky enemies to control!

So far, the abilities and controls for the myriad of creatures I encountered have been delightful. It’s hard to overstate how clever this mechanic is, because enemies are specially suited to their environments in ways that make them central to navigating the spaces. And because Mario himself enters and possesses the enemy once you throw the hat on them, he’s the one who pops out on the other side when the minigame is over. Crossing a chasm as a Bullet Bill and then jumping out on the other side, for example, is a genius excuse for creating both geographical and gameplay chokepoints. You can’t get across unless you do this particular challenge correctly. This means that despite having freedom in an open world, everybody will experience the same stuff a few times.

My favorite creature so far is the weird potted plant type you encounter, who extend their legs and drop down on top of you. Their legs have harmful thorns on them, and they can follow you pretty effectively up platforms without technically jumping at all. This is a new enemy design, and one that perfectly fits in the universe of Mario. When you possess them, however, their ability takes on a new meaning. You can walk around the level with them, busting through blocks above you and pushing platforms with your head. I felt myself wanting to explore a lot more with them, but they’re too slow and limited to achieve the things Mario needs to do. You take damage normally while possessing an enemy and don’t get ejected unless you choose to, which is nice.


Coins and Hearts

Can you believe it? Unlike any other Mario game I can think of, your extra lives are directly tied to the number of coins you’re carrying, not some kind of mushrooms and 1-up’s. You lose about 10 or so coins whenever you die, making ordinary exploration and coin collecting a vital part of staying alive. This is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I would never have thought of it.

Coins are abundant and reappear if you die, meaning that you effectively have unlimited lives as long as you take the time to collect. This is great because we don’t live in the arcade era anymore; but you still have a deterrent that stops you from screwing around not taking things seriously. Hearts that heal you are harder to find. You can only take three hits before you die, so you’ll want to find hearts and keep their locations in mind. All of this means you’ve got a high sense of vulnerability, but a lot of retries. Perfect for a Mario game, if you ask me. This alone gives me enormous faith in the future design staff at Nintendo, because it’s a fundamental innovation on the old formula in a way that has zero gimmicks or pretentious flair. This is a system that could have been implemented at any time in the past, but it took somebody with real brains to question the life-health-collection formula. Bravo! Contrast this to the mindless idiocy of New Super Mario Bros. (horrible name) for the Wii, in which players can turn into a bubble and bypass challenges at any given time as long as their friends remain alive, and you’re given a big inventory full of power ups to spam at any time. I’ve seen my nephews and nieces playing these games and abusing the systems like crazy without a second thought, ruining the spirit of the classic platformer and betraying the core concept of Mario. In Odyssey you can abuse the coin collecting as much as you want, but you still don’t have much in terms of health or gimmicks to get around the tough stuff. In fact, this point is reinforced by the game’s shopping options, where you can purchase extra three extra health points for a whopping 50 coins, essentially trading a handful of lives for a bit more protection as you travel. You can also purchase a moon (I haven’t tried it yet, so I don’t know if you can do it multiple times per level, but I assume not) for even more money, punishing those who can’t manage to find the moons the hard way. Playing through the levels myself, I was surprised how tense things could get. The puzzles and hidden areas are fairly obvious to an experienced gamer adult like myself, but I can imagine they would tease the brains of children and give them a good sense of accomplishment.


No Love Lost?

I look forward to playing the rest of Mario Odyssey because so far the execution has been sharp. The biggest complain I have is about the music, which hasn’t impressed me once. The soundtrack in a Mario game is almost more important than the visuals and gameplay as far as immersing me in the experience, so it’s sorely missed. It seems that the good old composers of the past have all disappeared from Nintendo, and they haven’t found a replacement yet. Some sections have no music at all, which just feels wrong. Music is a driving force, not a reward to be handed out selectively. In a platforming game where you have to earn every step of progress you make, music is like a friend cheering you on. Go! Make that jump! Now slide, spin, and dodge! In Mario Odyssey you feel alone and silent in the world, which is a terribly backward mistake coming from the single most musically iconic franchise in history.

Here’s some other observations and opinions:

  • The bosses have all been excellent so far. They hit the sweet spot in terms of fast learning curve, high danger, but good chance to figure it out and beat it on your first try if you’re vigilant.
  • Collecting each local kingdom’s currency alongside the normal coins and buying new clothes with them is a neat option that clearly sets this game apart from the previous games, but they don’t make much difference. They feel more like a marketing gimmick than a gameplay experience. I would love to have seen changes in the way enemies behave if you dressed differently, for example.
  • There haven’t been any grand-scale challenges so far, which is weird. One of the great things about 3D Mario platformers is that they play around with scale and gameplay in epic ways, forcing you to traverse extreme scenarios with novel things like sliding down a huge ice path while racing a penguin in Mario 64. There are interesting mechanics here, but where’s the epic test of skills to go with them?
  • Although there are some consistent threads of gameplay from one kingdom to the next, it’s a shame that there isn’t a more clear escalation of gameplay elements. Kingdoms seem to be relatively the same in difficulty from one to the next.
  • The flattened 2D platforming portions are highly enjoyable so far, but I wonder if they will ever recreate a larger sense of scale (and skill) or just be sprinkled in for novelty.

I’ll be writing a full review of the game once I’ve played through it and understand the nuances more. For now, I will say that I’m not disappointed but I hope to see more big showcases of what the game can do.

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