When Nintendo’s athletic mascot celebrated his 30th anniversary in 2015, the event coincided with the release of the charming Super Mario Maker. But as likeable and fun as that Mario construction kit was, it arguably lacked the sense of occasion surrounding a major series entry like Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario 64. Super Mario Odyssey, on the other hand, feels like a true celebration for such a legendary character.
There’s a moment in Nintendo’s latest Mario game – the hero’s first proper outing on the Switch – that perfectly sums up its joyous tone. During a vaunt through a metropolis called New Donk City, a rooftop party’s in full swing, with Pauline – formerly the damsel in distress from Donkey Kong, now mayor – belting out a show-stopping tune called Jump Up, Super Star. As fireworks splash across the sky, Mario bounces and jumps through a network of 2D and 3D environments that read like a compendium of games past. Super Mario Odyssey is, in short, a title that takes in everything from Mario’s earliest exploits to the present – and adds more than a few new ideas of its own into the mix.
Like Breath Of The Wild, Super Mario Odyssey feels like a game that looks outwards as well as inwards. Beneath the cute window-dressing, Mario’s new side-kick, a sentient hat called Cappy, introduces a mechanic not dissimilar from the possession ability in Dishonored: by throwing his hat at certain enemies, Mario can take control of them and make use of their special abilities. Those old hapless Goombas, for example, have the advantage of having non-slip feet (perfect for traversing icy ground), and with well timed jumps, you can stack one Goomba on top of the other to reach high platforms. Take control of a Bullet Bill, and you can fly across dangerous stretches of lava; take on a Koopa, and you’ll be able to bounce around and throw projectiles. This is nothing less than Super Mario Bros: The Possession.
It might sound like a minor twist on the established Tanooki suits and Bee suits of old in theory, but in practice, Cappy gives Odyssey an entirely different feel. Far from mere power-ups, the “capture” mechanic (as Nintendo calls it) is vital for beating certain areas: you’ll need to possess a Cheep Cheep – those oddly named fish – to swim to certain parts of the map. You won’t be able to smash through a wall without taking on the charging ability of a Chargin’ Chuck. Mastering these abilities is also key to Odyssey’s main attraction: exploring and collecting trinkets.
Sure, Odyssey has a central campaign and a story to see through to the end, and it’s shop-worn stuff. Bowser’s kidnapped Princess Peach (again), this time with the intention of forcibly taking her hand in marriage. Moving from location to location in his ship, the Odyssey, it’s Mario’s job to collect the Power Moons that keep his craft in the sky. Once he’s got enough of those, it’s off to the next kingdom, each one bringing him a bit closer to Bowser and Princess Peach.
While the premise suggests a race against time, Odyssey positively encourages the player to dally around and explore every bit of the map. Each kingdom contains far more Power Moons than are needed to progress to the next; Nintendo won’t be drawn on exactly how many there are, but we’re told that finding them all could take dozens of hours. As well as Power Moons, there are two varieties of coin to collect – gold and purple – as well as energy-boosting hearts. Gold coins effectively serve as your lives – fall to your death, and you’ll lose ten coins from your reserve. In shops, coins can also be spent on extra items, from energy hearts to Power Moons to new outfits. Purple coins vary in shape from kingdom to kingdom, are more limited in number, and can be used to purchase items specific to that locale. In some instances, you’ll need to purchase a precise outfit from the shop to access an area; other items are simply souvenirs which dress up the background on Mario’s ship. (We immediately made a bee-line for the large Dorrie toy, which now sits proudly on a shelf aboard our Odyssey.)
The bouncing around and item-collecting certainly feels like a modern Super Mario game – and the open design of each kingdom is a clear nod to Mario 64 – but its carefree atmosphere also feels akin to TT Games’ long-running series of Lego titles. The lack of a timer means you’re free to roam around to your heart’s content; the sheer abundance of gold coins means that all but the clumsiest of players will be able to die multiple times without ever seeing a Game Over screen. Similarly, checkpoints are so common that a collision or fall will only set you back a few seconds or so; there are boss battles and jumps that require a certain amount of skill and precision, but even later stages don’t widen the gap between check points to more than a couple of minutes.
Those boss battles, which largely take in a rabble of giant, angry rabbits in hats called the Broodals, are inventive and fun – one encounter, involving a huge wood-and-iron mecha, is a joy – but far less taxing than some of the ones we recall from, say, Super Mario Galaxy or its 2010 sequel. We found that, once we figured out their movement patterns, we were able to beat them within a couple of goes. Even the tricker ones in the very latest kingdoms will provide a bit of additional help for players that need it: die a few times, and a seller will appear to offer a Life-Up Heart, which doubles the number of hits Mario can take from three to six. Assuming you’re willing to hand over 50 coins for the boost, it’s a handy way for younger or less experienced players to make those boss battles just a little easier.
By collecting the minimum of Power Moons, it’s possible to blitz through to the end credits within about eight hours. To do so inevitably misses the point of what Nintendo has attempted to create with Odyssey: a game where discovery itself is the challenge. Through a mix of Mario’s acrobatics and Cappy’s abilities, it’s possible to take all kinds of detours around each kingdom, and spending a few extra minutes trying to reach a distant hill or hard-to-reach platform will reliably reward your effort. Rockets will whisk you off to hidden challenge courses. Pipes will open up areas that playfully mix the two- and three-dimensional. Every kingdom is packed with tiny moments designed to engage and raise a smile.
To the traditional stage themes of fire, ice and lush pasture, Odyssey adds some bold new designs for its kingdoms. The game’s centrepiece is New Donk City, an urban sprawl that feels like Nintendo thumbing its nose to developers like Rockstar and Rocksteady; there’s a moment early on where Mario takes control of a tank on a moonlit street, and it immediately reminded us of Batman: Arkham Knight. Bouncing around on taxis, hunting down jazz musicians or collecting coins on a rooftop, and we started having flashbacks to the superb Lego City Undercover. Opinions may well be divided over Odyssey’s clash of aesthetics: the squat, cartoony Mario looks somewhat odd against the stiff, normally-proportioned humans in New Donk City, who look a bit like refugees from an early Sims game. Others may look askance at one brief scenario where it looks as though Mario’s landed in a stage from Dark Souls.
Again, it’s hard to argue with the invention beneath this surreal mix of design choices. The huge, scaly T-rex roaming around in more than one kingdom may look unlike anything you’ve seen in a Mario game before, but wait until you see how Nintendo employs the thing. One grin-inducing sequence involves one of these lumbering dinosaurs, a trash-strewn alleyway and a scooter. It’s weird, a bit nightmarish, but quite brilliant.
Above all, Odyssey feels like the product of a company growing in confidence with the Switch behind it. Whether played on a big screen or as a handheld game, this latest Mario opus feels perfectly at home; you can use the Joy-Con’s motion controls to throw Cappy if you wish, though we felt more comfortable simply using the traditional buttons and twin sticks, especially in trickier areas with narrow platforms and one-touch deaths. What’s immediately apparent, though, is how well Nintendo has struck a balance between the accessibility of a handheld game and the depth of something you’d expect to enjoy on a console. The plentiful supply of checkpoints, the maps and other markers mean you can dip in and out of the game and always find something to do, even if you have a few spare minutes on a commute or on the loo.
The sheer wealth of things to collect, mini games and movements, meanwhile, add to Odyssey’s longevity: you can complete the game without mastering Mario’s ability to use Cappy as a platform, but you’ll be rewarded if you do. (The two-player mode is a minor distraction, really – one player controls Mario, the other Cappy – but it’s still fun to mess around with if you have a friend round, and it’s far less perfunctory than the one in Galaxy, where, the second player essentially collected items by pointing the controller.)
Without spoiling things, the game only continues to build after the end credits have rolled. Far from just expecting you to revisit existing worlds – though you can do that, of course – Odyssey also provides new missions, an extra hub world, and lots more besides. Nintendo’s made some bold choices in Super Mario Odyssey, some of which will no doubt spark a fair bit of debate. Is it a little too lacking challenge for the most seasoned players? Are its shifts in style from grimy realism to jaunty worlds of marshmallows and candy apples a little too jarring?
Beyond those choices, there’s Nintendo’s seemingly boundless wealth of ideas, which seep from every pixel here: once again, this is a Mario title that has the confidence to introduce an inventive mechanic – the kind of thing a lesser developer would spin out for an entire game – and opts to abandon it for something else a few seconds later. Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t always have the visual coherence of Galaxy, but what it does have is a restless, fidgety charm and energy. It’s a tribute to Mario’s contribution to videogame history, sure, but also modern-feeling and vital. Along with Breath Of The Wild, it’s another essential title for what is fast becoming Nintendo’s finest console in years.
Super Mario Odyssey is out on the 27th October for Nintendo Switch.