This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of Super Mario Odyssey.
Until last fall, the core Mario franchise was in danger of becoming the video game version of Mickey Mouse: an iconic legend with a lack of current relevance. After a string of disappointing entries such as New Super Mario Brothers U & Super Mario 3D Land on the low selling Wii U, the mustachioed man of mushrooms was at the nadir of his illustrious career.
Super Mario Odyssey blows away that disappointing recent history with an experience that is profoundly ambitious & creatively inspired. The latest Mario adventure combines the best elements of Super Mario 64’s platforming with the bright visuals of Super Mario Sunshine & a deep collection of fresh, vibrant new worlds to explore. The unique mechanic in Odyssey is Cappy, a sentient ghost that perches itself on Mario’s head as a cap that can be thrown onto creatures, objects & even people to interact with them. This manifests itself in a variety of fun results from flicking Mario around a dense urban landscape to controlling classic foes, gigantic animals & even bewildered humans (!) to collect moons, a collectible that powers your vessel that traverses from kingdom to kingdom in pursuit of the kidnapped Princess once again.
The quality that makes Odyssey truly special is its focus on the freedom to explore. Gone is the 1-up, replaced by a symbolic penalty of 10 coins for each death which is often replenished in seconds after respawning. The power moons required to progress from world to world can be earned in a wide variety of ways, allowing the player to skip almost any challenges that are too difficult or less appealing to hit each power moon tier before flying to another kingdom. The different levels range from the expected snow, water & sand levels to entirely new creations such as New Donk City, a brilliant take on Manhattan that stands out among a deep collection of wonderful worlds. Without spoiling any particular moments, there are some optional set pieces & retro throwback sequences that are joyous tributes to earlier games which made me exclaim in delight.
It looks brilliant on the Switch’s display, filling the screen with worlds dense with detail & hidden treasures that become progressively more nuanced as they are explored. The focus on design through placement, creature behaviour & modifiers such as shimmering on interactive elements are combined with the extensive use of procedural vector elements over rasterized assets (the entire game is a remarkably small 5.7 GB in size), resulting in worlds with far reaching draw distances as well as nearly instant load times. The cheerful bobble of friendly characters, staccato hopping of Goombas, tenacious pursuit by Bullet Bills, loopy swim patterns of aquatic creatures & much more imbue the world with an energy that never fades.
The melody focused music blends remixes of classic themes with springy, toe tapping new tunes to accompany each adventure. The new tracks aren’t as iconic or immediately etched into memory as the theme songs from the 2D era games, but they inspire the same sense of upbeat fun when exploring each kingdom: from the light percussive tones of the Sand Kingdom to the wind swept harmonies of the Snow Kingdom, each world has a distinctive aural composition. Bouncing off of enemies, flinging Cappy, snaring a Power Moon & every other action has a quick, bright audio accompaniment that is the unmistakeable signature of Nintendo: composers Shiho Fujii, Naoto Kubo & the legendary Koji Kondo deserve special recognition for their work.
The game is so rich with options that many of them can be missed during a completed story experience. I managed to finish the core story mode without using the Cappy sustained throw & jump that creates a temporary landing pad for Mario, missed a lot of the optional moon side quests & barely scratched the surface of repeated missions like the riddles or time attack races that populate each world. I kept both Joy-Con controllers firmly affixed to the Switch while I played exclusively in portable mode, navigating each world without using the variety of motion sensitive controls for spin attacks or specialized throws. For players with a completionist approach, this game can devour well over a hundred hours with carefully crafted puzzles, hidden areas & increasingly difficult challenges to gather a fortune in addictive collectible moons.
Super Mario Odyssey is a remarkable achievement for the adventure franchise. By offering the most powerful combination of old & new since the Nintendo 64 launched with a similarly revolutionary platforming experience in Super Mario 64, it serves as the capstone of an incredible 2017 for the Nintendo Switch & redefines the Mario franchise for the current generation of Nintendo hardware.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars