So what if Odyssey lacks the music and visual consistency you’d expect in a Mario title? They did their best job weaving the levels together. The flying ship isn’t offensive. Throwing your hat for absolutely every interaction in the game isn’t too bad, either. Certainly it’s child friendly, although I seem to remember getting the hang of the much more complicated Mario 64 when I was a kid, so I don’t see the need to dumb things down a lot. The challenges feel like proper Mario material. Thanks to the portability of the Switch I had fun in almost every room of my home with Odyssey, and I have to say that changes the way you look at a product you’d normally associate with a dedicated spot in your house.
I won’t repeat myself too much regarding the design genius of Odyssey’s life and health systems, but I will elaborate on how the coins-as-1up plays out. I personally ended up with over 4,000 coins after beating the main story and completing a bunch of the endgame content. It’s exceedingly easy to recover lost coins, meaning that failure doesn’t end up feeling punishing at all. This isn’t too much of a complaint considering nobody’s found the right balance of punishment for single-player games (except Dark Souls and its imitators). Telling you “Game Over” and kicking you back to the main menu is hardly special when you can just hop right back in. I imagine that even kids will have more than enough coins, although I respect the logic of making power-ups like extra HP cost coins for those who need such things to beat a section. Knowing that your coins will always be useful is a very refreshing change for Mario in general. It’s a core improvement.
My biggest gripes and concerns (aside from the music) about the game originally came from being underwhelmed by the scale and ambition of the game, and that much was never quite satisfied. Although there’s more content than expected once you count the endgame, there’s almost nothing clever to experience. There are some bigger challenges, but they’re tucked away and short lived. When I try to show off the game to my friends there’s three things I would like to demonstrate: 1) the awesome vibe created by harmonizing the music and sound design with the gameplay; 2) the surprising gameplay sections that really show off Nintendo’s creativity; and 3) the epic challenges that you have to try to overcome. Tone, creativity, and challenge need to be readily apparent for all to see. The closest thing I could do was show off the first big level, called the Sand Kingdom, where the visuals are gorgeous. In this level there’s a fine balance between tight platforming, open vistas, and quirky gameplay features. Unfortunately the music is awful in this level (too cliche and repetitive), and everybody agreed that it felt bizarre to run around in silence for minutes at a time. I consider it to have achieved two out of three things it really needed to be perfect.
Two other concerns I had:
- 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.
These also proved disappointments. The most impressive 2D section involves a moving background that you need to stay within or you’ll pop out into 3D again and fall to your death. You could argue that the New Donk City celebration level is creative, but that was actually the low point of the whole game in my opinion. I didn’t just dislike the “Jump Up, Superstar!” portions of the game, I hated them. It felt extremely tacky, corny, and embarrassing as a fanservice tribute to something that they couldn’t even live up to. Why show off a huge tribute to the legacy and musical importance of Mario if your own soundtrack is garbage and you can barely stitch together your tech demos? Having actual in-game song lyrics about jumping and collecting coins feels too surreal and self-aware. Listen to the soundtrack yourself and cringe at the amateur composition of every song there is. I dare you to listen to the whole thing some time…
Very quickly we realize why Nintendo doesn’t play music constantly as you play in Odyssey. It’s trash from start to finish. The forest level literally sounds like a Beach Boys surf song. The opening level (the ghost island) is a brooding, sleepy, low-energy lullaby that saps your strength before you even get to learn the controls properly. The boss fights sound like random mashing of a keyboard mixed with dubstep. The Mexico level — oops, I mean “Sand Kingdom” — has such generic fiesta music that it’s cringey. You’re not actually supposed to be in literal Mexico, are you? The water level sounds so bad it’s like I could have written it. Not even one level properly captured a mood worth a damn.
Much to my surprise, hidden away in the menus of the game there is even a music player function, allowing you to hear any music you’ve discovered any time you want, including in levels that don’t match. This way you can play it all the time with full audio, not just bits and pieces as you run past spots! Trust me, you’ll learn to appreciate the silence if you use this a lot.
Negotiating A Draw
Let’s try to ask the real question. You could argue that Odyssey easily “surpasses” its predecessors by simply repeating their same formula with today’s modern technology. You could call it an objectively superior game in that case. The levels are larger, more densely populated, and shinier than ever. Hat throwing is a bonus gimmick that changes the whole function of the game momentarily and sometimes feels delightful. What more do you could you ask for?
Well, at the very least, you could ask for the old magic back. A strong tonal command of the experience, which grips you and energizes you to constantly enjoy yourself. That’s the real heritage of the series. You could also ask it to take another leap forward, like its predecessors did. A proper Mario installment should take leaps, no pun intended. Odyssey makes small innovations where it can, but there’s no point at which you’re blown away by anything. The final boss fight with Bowser is quite good, and so is most of the platforming, but it feels like they’re constantly trying to skate by with doing the minimum. For as much as you can casually enjoy Odyssey while you turn your brain off (which I suggest you do, as I did for the most part) it doesn’t take much probing to realize that the bar has not been raised. Should we not demand that the bar is raised before we tip our hats, so-to-speak?
I honestly believe that some of the enemies in Odyssey (such as the army tank, the New Donk City’s conspicuous citizens, and the big dinosaur at least,) were generic assets Nintendo were testing and just tossed in without forethought. I don’t say that lightly. There’s a certain sub-section of New Donk City you can enter where you’ll find an endless stream of bystanders walking out of one building and into another, with no thematic framework, musical cues, novel gameplay elements, or apparent purpose. It’s a totally useless side area that connects two other places together. But now think of our tech demo theory: what this area actually shows off is how many NPCs the Switch can handle moving on screen at the same time. That’s it. In other words, it was a tech demonstration that got tossed in as a part of a level, purely as filler because they had it laying around. At its worst, this tech demo vibe destroys the illusion of a meaningful Mario adventure and replaces with something depressing and lazy. At its best, the game covers up the stink and has you sniffing out Moons and dressing up Mario in funny ways instead, without a care in the world. But which one ultimately comes out on top, and how many times do you need to turn a blind eye before you can admit there’s a problem?
The Judge’s Decision
Super Mario Odyssey is a welcome return to form for Nintendo and a respectable entry in the Mario series despite its shortcomings. Taken purely on its own terms it is a wild success that deserves to be celebrated, even as it so gaudily celebrates itself, but we at least have to acknowledge that it could have done much more to earn this celebration. More enemy types, tighter integration of the enemy possession into the platforming challenges themselves, and a thematic thrust beyond routine battles with ugly rabbit goons in predictable arenas. If you’re satisfied with this, you have low standards. I consider that to be an insult to the prestigious reputation of Mario, myself.
Let’s be clear: I don’t dislike this game, and if I was really offended by it I would have no problem rating it in the negatives, which my rating system is designed to handle. It’s a good game. And so it gets a good rating… But nothing more.
Nintendo couldn’t decide what it wanted during development, but in the end they did their best to patch together a fun experience that hearkened back to nostalgic days. In doing so they sacrificed some real opportunities for greatness, but still gave us some solid structural improvements in the design. They have done the work necessary to smooth out the jagged edges left by their clumsy tech demo scheme, but they haven’t polished the experience at all. There are many flaws if you’re looking for them, the sum total of which is knocks the game all the way down to a modest +1.3 rating. Still good, but not great. We must make one caveat, however: if Nintendo really is serious about turning Mario into a cross-promotional mascot who jumps into every partnership he can get involved with, it may prove that Odyssey’s clashing styles and obsession with fashion is still a legitimate attempt to market him as a guy who can go anywhere and do anything. Time will tell whether Odyssey is a sign of things to come, or simply an emergency plan with a fantastic marketing campaign to save face.