Super Mario Odyssey and the Future of the Solo Action Game

How to marry longevity with a single-player campaign that can hold our interest for 50 hours or more? Super Mario Odyssey has the answer...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

NB: The following contains very mild spoilers for Super Mario Odyssey.

In the wild frontier of video games, things seldom remain the same for long. Properties come and go. Company mascots quietly check themselves into retirement homes. Once popular genres can wither into obscurity. Quick-fix, 80s arcade experiences gave way to the kinds of games that lasted eight hours or so in the 90s and 2000s. With many of today’s online shooters and RPGs, the constant drip-feeds of content can keep us playing for months.

Taking these changing tastes into account, it left us wondering: how can Nintendo’s venerable Super Mario franchise – a resolutely single-player, offline, closed-ended series of games – keep itself relevant while at the same time retaining its core identity? Certainly, when Super Mario Odyssey emerged a few weeks ago, it was in the wake of some dramatic news that affected one of the highest-profile single-player games on the horizon.

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In October, Electronic Arts created a disturbance in the Force when it shut down Visceral Games, the studio that was, at least at the time, hard at work making a big-budget Star Wars game in the mold of Uncharted. Headed up by former Naughty Dog designer Amy Hennig, the title was widely expected to be the cinematic counterpart to Star Wars Battlefront, EA’s hit multiplayer shooter. With the closure of Visceral, however, EA effectively shelved the studio’s as-yet untitled action adventure, with the publisher’s official line being that it had plans to “pivot the design” to something that would “give players a Star Wars adventure of greater depth and breadth to explore.”

The announcement led to a ripple of opinion pieces about the current state of single-player games. Did EA’s handling of its solo Star Wars outing mean the beginning of the end of cinematic, single-player titles?  That games like Battlefront 2, with its loot boxes and other controversial unlockable content, are clear money-spinners for EA might suggest that they are. And while the reality behind the Visceral headlines is complicated – it seems there were tons of production problems with the studio’s Star Wars game – the fact remains that single-player titles have become something of a financial risk for major developers. 

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It’s been pointed out elsewhere that “let’s play” videos on YouTube and Twitch can spoil a game’s plot points without would-be purchasers having to spend a penny. That’s bad news for a style of game that, with its reliance on spectacle, scripts, and other technical glitz, requires a considerable financial risk for the studios that make them. Add to this the lack of replay value in a typical single-player game, and it’s easy to see why some companies would rather make the shift to a multiplayer, games-as-service paradigm, where things like loot boxes and regular DLC can keep users coming back – and spending money – for months on end.

So again, how can a three-decade-old franchise like Super Mario respond to these huge shifts in an increasingly cut-throat and expensive industry? With Super Mario Odyssey, Nintendo’s answered that question in spectacular style. 

The scale of Super Mario Odyssey‘s challenge doesn’t necessarily become apparent until after its end credits have rolled. Unless you’re not the kind of player who diligently collects every hidden power moon and purple coin before moving onto the next kingdom, Odyssey offers all kinds of secrets to uncover, even after you’ve spent eight or ten hours defeating Bowser. Even then, the game throws in more power moons and new locations to visit: it’s only once you’ve ruined Bowser’s wedding and rescued Princess Peach that Odyssey reveals the true nature of those mysterious metal cubes (or Moon Rocks) that sit in each kingdom. Bashing each one will disperse a shower of added power moons around each map, providing new challenges to complete. The game’s designers provide a good reason for finding those cubes and moons, too: you’ll need to collect 500 power moons to unlock the additional locations.

All told, there are a startling 999 power moons to track down – and what’s most impressive about Odyssey is not just how much stuff it asks you to collect, but that it’s so captivatingly designed that finding everything rarely feels like a chore.

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Like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild before it, Odyssey addresses a prevalent problem in open-world games: sure, they offer lots of stuff to do and missions to complete, but can we really be bothered to tackle it all? In a well-meaning attempt to give their games added longevity, developers will often fill their huge maps with so many trinkets and errands that it all begins to feel rather exhausting – as the AV Club‘s Clayton Purdom recently pointed out. 

Breath of the Wild and Odyssey address this issue in two distinct yet equally ingenious ways. Breath of the Wild created a landscape of interlocking physical engines, involving fire, water, gravity, and AI, to create a world where every player action felt invested with meaning. Everything, from cooking and crafting to taking out an encampment of Moblins, has a positive impact that keeps the player invested.

Odyssey‘s approach is at once redolent of previous open-world Mario games and the products of studios like Ubisoft and Rockstar. Odyssey is a huge game, yes, but it’s divided up into so many smaller chunks that its scale doesn’t overwhelm. Similarly, its designers constantly provide routes around potential roadblocks: if getting to one power moon gets too challenging, you can simply head off and look for another one – there are relatively few instances where the game forces you down one specific path.

While Odyssey lacks the technical complexity of Breath of the Wild‘s detailed physics, its level of craft brings its own rewards. In short, the game’s so full of zany and unexpected ideas and little twists that it’s worth collecting everything just to see what the designers have left for the player to discover. That a developer wouldn’t even reveal a location as big and packed with things to do as the Mushroom Kingdom until after the end credits is mildly astonishing. Even falling to what appears to be certain death in one kingdom merely opens up a hidden area with its own secret power moons. 

It’s worth noting, too, that Nintendo doesn’t confuse scale with depth. At first glance, New Donk City – arguably the game’s centerpiece, in marketing terms – looks like a sprawling metropolis vaguely on par with a Grand Theft Auto title, and some players might be a little disappointed, on opening up the map screen, to discover that it only really spans a couple of square blocks. But then it becomes apparent that every square inch of the place, from the drainage systems to the highest point on the skyline, is positively stuffed with things to do – riding mopeds on a rooftop, driving little radio-controlled cars, or engaging in jump-rope competitions with the locals. It’s the kind of detail-rich environment where things can easily be overlooked – even after visiting the city a dozen or so times, your humble writer only recently discovered a door tucked away down a side alley that whisks the player into a delightful Mario experience, circa 1985.

Even when Odyssey‘s self-referencing, it’s fascinating to see how successfully it looks outwards at the work of rival studios. Breath of the Wild is often compared – quite fairly – to Skyrim; Super Mario Odyssey has elements that recall open-world action games as disparate as Dishonored, Crackdown, and Traveller’s Tales’ Lego series. It’s this latter aspect that is most surprising about Nintendo’s latest big release: how well, and how seamlessly, it can fold ideas from other titles into the surreal world of Super Mario

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The team working for Odyssey director Kenta Motokura understand that the bedrock of the Super Mario franchise, whether in 2D or 3D, is the specific feel of its platforming mechanics: Mario’s faintly skittish running to and fro, the precise feel of bashing a block with the head or squashing a Goomba with a ground pound. Odyssey takes a concept like transferring the player’s control to another character with its own mechanics – something explored already in Dishonored and the Lego titles – and works out how that might look and feel in the context of a Mario game. The result is Cappy: a combination of weapon, mobile platform, and chatty sidekick.

While not everyone will have the time and skill to find all 999 power moons – that last kingdom is a real challenge to a player’s dexterity all by itself – Super Mario Odyssey successfully marries depth with broad, approachable design. The result is a single-player game that puts the output of some other studios to shame: Odyssey manages to marry a cinematic sense of occasion and fun characters to a wide-ranging challenge that lasts dozens of hours. It’s a testament to Super Mario Odyssey‘s design that there are still surprises to be found even after you’ve collected the 500 power moons it takes to unlock the final stage.

With the pressure on developers to give single-player games longevity and depth as well as a one-off challenge, Super Mario Odyssey proves that it’s possible to achieve all these things with apparent ease.