It’s been forever since Nintendo has released a mainline Mario game with progression modeled around Super Mario 64 and Sunshine – what they call sandbox games. When the developers confirmed that Super Mario Odyssey would focus on exploring worlds and discovering exciting new power-ups I was beyond excited. As E3 came and went and I digested all of the hands-on impressions and videos my hype continued to grow. Over the past few months I deliberately stayed away from many of the trailers and videos because I was already sold on the concept and didn’t want to see all of the various locations ahead of time, because that’s half the fun. Despite being one of my most anticipated games of the year and having unbelievably high hopes, I’m happy to report that Super Mario Odyssey delivers on all fronts and is one of the best games currently available, not only on Switch, but on all platforms.
When it comes to story, the Mario games have never been page-turners. Much like classic fairytales, the premise is always simple: Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach and Mario must give chase and rescue her. Sure, there have been some slight deviations, especially with the Super Mario Galaxy series introducing Rosalina, but for the most part the concept is essentially the same. This time around Bowser has also taken Tiara, a sentient crown that he places on Peach’s head as part of her wedding attire. Wedding? Yes indeed, the King of the Koopa Troopas is about to marry Peach, and to do so he needs a bunch of items to get the wedding sorted. These include an item from many of the Kingdoms you’ll be visiting, including things like icing for the wedding cake, flowers for the bouquet, and of course a little bubbly water for the toast. I must admit this story conceit is better than those used in prior games, but also a bit creepy to force someone into marriage. But, hey – it’s cartoon logic!
As much as I knew about Super Mario Odyssey going into the game, I still managed to constantly be surprised by the various locations Mario visited and the awesome Capture abilities. The main hook for this game is that Mario now wears a hat, named Cappy, who can be thrown at certain objects and enemies to take control of them. He’s helping Mario on his quest to save the princess, because he wants to save his sister, Tiara, from Bowser’s evil clutches.
This cap mechanic is central to the entire game and it’s not only genius but also a ton of fun. You can throw it at anything in the game with surprising results. Let it twirl around on a knob or a round surface and you’re sure to get some coins or activate a secret. Throw it in mid-air and then jump on it for more distance. You can throw it in a circle, taking out all of the monsters around you, just like Link does in Zelda! Of course, the absolute best thing to do is capture the enemies and use their abilities to navigate the world. Each Kingdom has unique inhabitants and part of the fun is discovering which ones can be captured and what move set they bring to the table. By design most of the enemies have a very specific use, so while you’re undoubtedly gaining a new power, you’re leaving all of Mario’s moves behind.
One early example, and one that has been shown off in countless trailers, is the ability to finally become a Bullet Bill. These iconic enemies have been the death of many Marios over the years, so it felt like sweet justice once I was in control. As soon as you take possession of one, you’ll notice a quick control scheme listed at the bottom of the screen that give you instructions on what each button does. In this case, really the only things you can do are fly around with the control stick and accelerate with the Y button or by shaking your controller. You have a limited amount of time before the Bullet Bill will detonate, so you’ll have to get to your location fast or ram it into a breakable wall or an enemy before it explodes on its own.
Each adversary has its set of moves and abilities that Mario can twist to his advantage. There are many different ones to find throughout your long adventure, and I wouldn’t want to spoil them all here in the review. However, I simply must mention a few of my favorites, so if you don’t want to know about them, please skip the next paragraph.
I had fun playing with so many of the different enemies, but a few really stand out. The first is the Tropical Wiggler, which can extend its body like an accordion to reach otherwise inaccessible paths. He can’t attack anything, but stretching out and around objects is so much fun and it really brought a smile to my face just playing as a Wiggler (you’ll remember they debuted in Super Mario World). Another favorite of mine is the Gushen, a squid-like creature that lives inside a water bubble. It uses the liquid to propel itself straight up and also horizontally, which gave me slight FLUDD vibes from Super Mario Sunshine. Moving around the stage with this guy is just amazingly fun and exhilarating, but you have to be careful to not run out of water or you’ll just uselessly flop around. Finally, and because I can’t spoil them all, I absolutely adore Pokio, a small bird with a needle nose that can extend to destroy items and enemies. But, that’s not the best part. His nose can penetrate wooden surfaces, so you can jump and poke a hole and then he’ll stay there. Moving the control stick in any direction will shift his body and bend his beak and when you let go you spring in that direction. It’s so enjoyable to effortlessly climb walls and find hidden areas with this creature! That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to controllable enemies – there are roughly 24 in total, and don’t forget you can also capture some items and use them as well.
So, what’s the gameplay loop look like? It’s not too different from prior 3D Mario adventure games. This time you must seek out Power Moons that will power-up your ship, appropriately called the Odyssey, so you can keep chasing Bowser to the next Kingdom. Each world will have a specific number of Moons you’ll need to collect before you can move on to the next. There are many, many, many more Moons available to find than what’s required, so depending on how you like to play your games you’ll either keep on chugging along to the next Kingdom or you can choose to stay awhile and take in the sights and try to find as many Moons as you can. It’s important to note that each world has its own colored Moons and so if you collect, say 20 extra ones in one Kingdom, they don’t help you bypass the next level. You’ll have to find at least the minimum amount for each level before progressing.
I chose to fully explore each area before hopping on the Odyssey to continue on my quest. I’m a huge fan of exploration in games and love discovering secret areas and figuring out exactly how to collect the various items. Some of the lands are pretty vast and I found myself spending hours in some of them to try and collect everything I could. This includes the standard gold coins and also special purple coins that are specific to each world. Gold coins and purple coins can be spent in the local cap shop to unlock new outfits for Mario as well as stickers and other items to place in your ship. Some costumes will be required to solve small puzzles, and indeed it’s important to pay attention to what the locals are saying to you as they often give hints as to where to go next and how to find new Power Moons. I’m such an explorer that by the end of the game I had way more Moons than necessary and my game time sat at roughly 19 hours when I saw the credits. There’s plenty to do after the credits roll and you’ll definitely want to see what happens next! It’s so cool!
Given that the game’s producer is Mr. Koizumi and that he was the one that introduced the world to what HD Rumble was all about when the Switch was revealed back in January, it’s perhaps no surprise to hear that Super Mario Odyssey is the poster child for the new technology. The game makes extensive use of HD Rumble for nearly everything. This isn’t the normal vibration you may have felt in other games, but often very subtle pulses that telegraph what’s going on around you. From collecting coins to feeling the rush of a river flowing under a bridge, the game is constantly letting you feel your surroundings. Hidden Moons buried deep in the ground will also give off a slight vibration as you approach them and continuously increase in strength until you’re directly overhead and can butt stomp to reveal their locations. Thoughtful use of the technology is abundant, and I especially liked how it matched the sounds given off by the scooter that Mario can ride or the Odyssey ship itself as it took off and landed. HD Rumble is expertly used throughout the entire game and it really does add some extra impact to the on-screen action. There are options to turn it off or increase the intensity if you so desire.
I think it’s fair to say that Super Mario Odyssey has some of the best graphics on the Switch. It’s simply stunning to look at and the amount of detail in the environments and the characters is fantastic. Every surface shimmers and shines and the lighting effects are wonderfully implemented throughout the entire game. It runs at a solid 60fps in docked mode on the TV and the animations are just so fluid. Mario has never looked better with semi-realistic looking hair, a nose that jiggles when you quickly move or stop, and a huge variety of wearable clothes and hats. The game never ceases to amaze with its sheer variety in environmental design for the various Kingdoms. Each one looks different from the last. Some even have a completely unique graphical aesthetic that almost look like they belong in a different game. From realistic skyscrapers and inhabitants of New Donk City to the shimmering sandy desert in Tostarena, I was never once disappointed. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a game mix realistic and cartoony elements together so extraordinarily well before, but somehow the team has pulled it off.
Complementing the amazing visuals is one spectacular soundtrack. I’ve been a huge fan of the music in the Galaxy games and really liked some of the tracks in Super Mario 3D World. The same team appears to be back as the music is highly dynamic with each world featuring distinctive tunes. From the upbeat jazzy numbers in New Donk to a more serene aquatic ambiance by the seaside, I loved every second. Once again, this game features orchestrated music and, for the first time ever, includes vocal tracks that really stand out. It’s clear the sound design team didn’t want to simply regurgitate what had been done before in Mario games, and they’ve raised the bar yet again. You’ll hear some iconic tracks from prior titles sprinkled in here and there, and these always manage to bring a smile to my face – but the new arrangements are the true stars of this game. In the Wooded Kingdom a song plays that’s so catchy that I immediately started whistling it even though I really hadn’t heard it before. That’s a sign of amazing song writing!
As with many Switch games, you can play with any manner of control styles. The game constantly recommends players use the split Joy-Con approach, with one in each hand. This enables the full suite of moves that Mario can pull off with Cappy. Jerking up on the Joy-Con will throw the cap up in the air, flicking to the right sends it flying in that direction, etc. About 80% of the time I play my Switch on the TV and have fallen in love with the Pro Controller, so I played through the entire game with it. It works just fine, however I found it extremely odd that Nintendo didn’t map the spin throw technique to a button. Instead, the game still requires you to jerk your Pro Controller horizontally in a direction to do the spin move, which is essential in some situations. This is also the case if you’re playing solely on the Switch in handheld mode, which can be especially cumbersome since now you’re jerking the entire system, screen and all, away from you. Sometimes I think Nintendo gets too carried away with a design choice and doesn’t give gamers enough options to tweak the gameplay to their liking. I never really had any severe problems with the motion controls, but some may have some complaints.
I did, however, occasionally have some issues with the controls of the game. For example, when you capture a Bullet Bill he won’t always fly in the direction you press. His movement is dependent on his relation to the camera’s point of view. So, if he’s flying straight toward the screen, pressing right might actually turn him left. This isn’t too hard to wrap my head around, but it quickly became annoying because after I turned him around the controls would reverse, many times sending me to my death. This became very frustrating in one area – to the point where I seriously almost threw my controller after dying over ten times (then I remembered hoe expensive they are). This is unacceptable in most games, but it’s even more noticeable when it comes from the Mario team at Nintendo. Luckily this instance was isolated.
I will also point out that there is a bit of a learning curve with all of Mario’s new moves. It can be difficult to pull off some of his more spectacular stunts – like throwing the hat, then long jumping and bouncing off the hat, and then diving forward to get more distance. It looks amazing when you master the technique, and you feel a bit like a superstar when you reach an area that seemed impossible before, but man it takes some finger gymnastics and perfect timing to be successful. No doubt some players will never even know some of these moves are possible, but hardcore gamers will relish in the advanced moves that Mario brings to the table this time.
Controls aside, Super Mario Odyssey isn’t that difficult of a game to beat. The bosses are all fun and great to encounter, but I never died on a single one of them, except Bowser, but perhaps that’s to be expected. The game does a great job of allowing novice players to collect enough Moons and move onto the next stage, while at the same time providing more challenging ones to collect for completionists. Prior 3D Mario games were like this – you didn’t have to collect all 120 Stars in Super Mario 64 to beat the game, but that’s where the challenge was. I recommend taking your time on each stage to find as many Moons as you can until you grow tired or frustrated and then move on to the next level. You’ll get way more out of the game this way and the allure of a new world to explore will still drive you forward. If you simply collect the bare minimum and blast through the entire story, you’ll still have all of those other Moons to collect, but the sense of wonder and discovery will be somewhat muted because you’re revisiting areas you have already been to. Take your time! It’s worth it.
It’s hard to believe that the Switch is only eight months old and it already has two of the best games of the year as exclusives. Both The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey are must-haves for anyone with a Switch. Inevitably someone will ask which one is better, and to them I reply, “Why not both?” They both contain wonder and excitement and promote exploration, but Mario does come equipped with a much more robust set of moves. Simply running and jumping around is fun in and of itself. The amount of innovation and surprise is unparalleled and just wait until you play some of the 2D retro-inspired sections – so much fun! It’s the best Mario game since Super Mario 64, and that’s high praise if there ever was any.