Mario, now well into his 30’s, remains Nintendo’s most recognisable icon and an indisputable legend of gaming history. The mustachioed Italian has been a plumber, a driver, a doctor—he’s even been to space—and his newest adventure is just as exciting. Super Mario Odyssey is, shamefully, my first 3D Mario game. I’ve always been interested in the games, but at the worst times: 64 almost 15 years after its release; Galaxy after I’d sold my Wii; 3D World when it was…well, a Wii U game. The point is, I’ve always been at the fringe of Mario, always tangential to a critically-acclaimed series that I really should’ve been playing. With Odyssey, I made sure to dive in hat-first.
Yeah, I really should’ve been playing those games.
Super Mario Odyssey echoes the expert craftsmanship and curiosity of Breath of the Wild. Every inch of the game’s space has a purpose; whether it is hiding a moon or a puzzle or just a few coins. And like Link’s open-air adventure, Odyssey is about making do with a compact toolset in a wide world. There’s always something to see or do; a minigame to beat, a cryptic clue leading to a hidden moon, or some previously-inaccessible area to plunder. The areas are small, but so generously laden with activities that I have trouble tearing myself away from one kingdom to visit the next. There’s a lot of variety, too. Each locale brings its own unique spin on the mechanics and characters, as well as new enemies and obstacles.
For all his presence in the name and marketing material, this is a game that frequently yanks Mario from centre stage. Indeed, the army of possessable creatures and objects get almost as much screen time as the bouncy adventurer himself. The ability to leap into and control near-anything in the world replaces the series’ staple power-ups, but it goes further than that. Many of the puzzles are reliant on Mario inhabiting a specific, unsuspecting enemy. Walk a goomba over to one of the swooning females and she’ll drop a power moon; hop into a long-legged onion-thing and you can reach higher platforms. The first time Mario body-snatches a frog is a David OReilly-esque nightmare, and it’s scary how quickly this mind slavery becomes standard fare. Someone should probably go and make sure Nintendo are feeling okay.
That tonal weirdness pervades the whole game. In one moment, you’re rolling carefree across the sands of Tostarena; in another you’re leaping from the bonnet of a New Donk taxi to reach the top of a skyscraper. The visual shift from vivid beaches that are very much Mario to realistically-inspired cityscapes is both discordant and hilarious. On top of the visual oddities, the story itself is just nuts. Bowser and his troupe of evil wedding planners have kidnapped Peach and stolen a suite of bridal accessories to conduct their nefarious marriage ceremony. It’s a thinly-spread narrative, but bombastic and joyous and unabashedly silly.
The bossfights are appropriately gaudy, despite being built around the same three-and-you’re-done style Nintendo seem to love. At their best, they push you to use all the mechanics and timings the stages teach. At their worst, they’re repetitive, frustrating and easy. Luckily, there are only one or two that fall under the latter.
Moving around the saccharine-bright worlds is a simple joy, all the way down to the basic left-analog movement. The controls are tight and easy to grasp, yet tuned to such perfection that speedruns will be mind-blowing. The addition of Cappy the Hat allows for some ridiculous and wholly satisfying jump combos, allowing me to bypass an entire challenge level if I was good enough. The control perfectionism applies to all of the numerous captures as well. Despite 52 of them having unique abilities, they control just as fluidly and sensibly as Mario himself. This game is hard to put down simply because it’s such a constantly gratifying world to move around in.
But with that unbridled joy came some frustration. Odyssey’s controls are fantastic and fluid, but the near-mandated use of motion controls attacks makes it difficult, uncomfortable and dangerous to play in handheld mode. Many of Cappy’s abilities rely on waving the Joy-Cons in a given direction, and Nintendo recommends that you play with the two controllers detached. This would be an understandable compromise if the game’s control scheme made full use of the Joy-Cons. Instead, both triggers—which would be ideal for some of the more advanced attacks—are dedicated to crouching and ground-pounds. It’s a low-hanging setback in Nintendo’s vision for a hybrid console and an obvious one at that.
There’s also the camera. For the most part, you’re given full 3D control over the perspective, so it’s jarring when the game nonchalantly rips it away from you when you’re in a tight corner or enclosed space. It’s a rare but frustrating niggle in a game that controls so well.
The beauty of the world and controls would be nothing without the technical power to back them up, and the Nintendo Switch does a near-flawless job of keeping up with the game. It’s sharp and smooth both docked and undocked, suffering only minor framedrops when physics go wild in a busy area. Compared to the stilted performance in Breath of the Wild, this is a buttery-smooth adventure.
This is a genre-defining platformer—or it would be if Nintendo hadn’t already defined and re-defined the genre with every other Mario game. The controls, the worlds, the unbridled sense of curiosity and fun; everything about Super Mario Odyssey is made with care, and to bring joy.