Review: 'Super Mario Odyssey' (Switch)

From 'Super Mario Odyssey'. From 'Super Mario Odyssey'. NINTENDO OF AMERICA

I wasn't sure I would ever see a Mario game like Super Mario Odyssey. Since the release of Super Mario Galaxy in 2007, the games in the main Mario series have gotten mechanically sharper, but creatively sterile. The powerups may have changed, but the series felt less exciting and more stale as time went on. Odyssey doesn't just have a spark of creativity, however; it has a tidal wave that washes over everything, filling every nook and cranny with brilliance and cleverness and fun. This delightful inspiration, combined with near-perfect mechanics, makes this game the best Mario title of at least the past ten years, and possibly the last twenty-five.

Bowser has kidnapped Peach, as per usual, and he's taking her to their wedding that he has all planned out to the last detail. When Mario fails to stop the Koopa King, he's joined by a mysterious hat creature named Cappy, who takes the place of Mario's destroyed hat. Together, the two of them journey beyond the Mushroom Kingdom, through a number of other kingdoms, searching for Power Moons to power the hat-shaped ship, the Odyssey. Mario games never needed much story, but a little goes a long way, and this game strikes the perfect balance. What few cutscenes and story twists there are help get you excited for what lies ahead, and it's just plain old charming.

This hat makes up the core of the game's new mechanic, which I refuse to call a "gimmick" because it's brilliantly implemented. Your main move is to throw your cap, which you can use to collect coins, hit switches, and uncover secrets. The main use, however, is to "capture" objects or other creatures and control them, taking on their abilities and completely changing how the game is played. You could fly around the level by capturing a winged Goomba, or zoom along power lines by capturing a terminal point, or jump super high by capturing a frog, or grow incredibly tall by possessing the weird onion creature that can give itself extremely long legs. By constantly giving you new things to capture, the game constantly introduces new mechanics, right up until the end credits and even beyond.

Trying to capture things quickly becomes second nature, and you'll constantly be throwing your hat around. It's easy to tell what you can and can't capture: if someone or something has a hat on, then you're out of luck, but if it's uncovered (or if you can knock its hat off) then it becomes fair game. This ultimately means that the world of Odyssey is a world that revolves around hats, which is delightfully bizarre. Bosses will even attack you with hats, and you can sometimes tell how hard a boss is by how powerful their hat is - or how many hats they've brought to the fight. It's a wonderful creative touch, and it's details like this that help make Odyssey such a joy to play.

Odyssey abandons the linear style of the past several Mario games, instead adapting the sandbox/exploration style of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. Each level drops you into the middle of an open world, tasking you with collecting enough moons to power up the Odyssey and make it to the next world. The levels aren't exactly sprawling or enormous, but they are absolutely jam-packed with moons in a way that's impossible to understate. In Super Mario 64, each level had seven stars to collect; in Odyssey, many levels have upwards of 80 moons to be found. And however big the game looks at first, it becomes even bigger after the credits roll; when you think you're done, you realize that you've barely even gotten started. This is by far the most massive Mario game ever made.

How do you cram 80 moons or more into a single level? You put them absolutely everywhere, is how. There is a power moon around every corner, tucked into every nook and cranny of this game. See a landmark in the distance? Head over there and solve a puzzle to get a moon. Eyeing another path hidden off to the side? There's a moon at the end of it. Something look breakable? Break it and find the moon inside. Every bit of exploration you could possibly engage in will probably lead you to a moon. This lets you do whatever catches your eye, all the time, and you always feel like you're making critical progress, because you are. This is how you incentivize exploration in a video game.

There are so many moons around that it actually starts to get pretty overwhelming; finding the last couple of moons in a level can be extremely difficult. Luckily, Nintendo has provided a couple of in-game hint systems. If you find a bird named Talkatoo in each level, he'll tell you the names of up to three moon quests, which double as hints. Once a level is "beaten", a Toad will appear near your ship, and for a small price he'll point out the location of a moon on your map. If you get a Talkatoo hint and a Toad hint for the same moon, your job of finding it becomes much easier. This helps turn what could be a frustrating experience into a much more manageable one, and if you want to complete the game 100%, these hints are invaluable.

On top of the game's many moon challenges, there are a handful of mini-games that you can play as well. These are for things like volleyball, or racing, and some of them show up more than once over the course of your adventure. These games have leaderboards associated with them, as well, which lets you see how you stack up against your list of friends, as well as the world. By the way, you won't be getting on top of the world leaderboards anytime soon - the high scores and best times are already absurd. Still, though, it's cool to see, and competing with your friends is always fun.

While getting to the top of the leaderboards can be a near-impossible task, the same can't be said for the rest of the game. Super Mario Odyssey is easy, and the difficulty doesn't pick up for experienced games until after the credits roll. If you're looking to beat everything 100%, you're in for some trouble, but it's no trouble at all for most people to see the end credits. And for those who are even younger or less skilled than that, the game offers an Assist Mode, which gives you more health, more guidance, and less penalty for falling off ledges.

The game's level design and creativity are off the charts. There are over a dozen levels to explore, and while a number of them have the same themes that we always see (desert, water, etc.), there are others that have fresh twists on them, or that feel completely fresh. One standout level is clearly acting as the volcano/lava level, but Nintendo decided to give the theme a twist and made it a food-based kingdom, with the level surrounded by hot... soup, I suppose. Creativity like this is all over, and it's buoyed by brilliant details. For example, if you head to a cold level Mario will shiver when he stands still, but only if he's underdressed. The game developers paid attention to the details at every juncture, and it paid off in spades.

While you're exploring the huge 3D levels, you'll occasionally come across pipes that transport Mario into 2D platforming areas, reminiscent of the original Super Mario Bros. These are great throwbacks, but they also introduce twists of their own to keep the 3D platforming fresh and fun. Plus, it's always fun to hear the NES-remixed level music whenever you enter one of these sections. This 2D gameplay ends up being the backbone of one of the game's most stylish and delightful centerpieces, which I won't spoil here, but you'll know it when you see it.

Also, this game has a dog in it, and he is a very good dog. He's adorable, and he wears an adorable hat, and if you're nice to him he'll help you find power moons. If he's not used in a level, he'll be chilling out on the Odyssey. Most importantly, though, you can throw your hat, and the dog will catch it and bring it back to you. This might be the best dog in video games and he gets a 13/10.

Since it's a Mario game, there are naturally coins everywhere to be collected. For once, however, these coins actually mean something. You can use them at stores to buy more moons, or more outfits for Mario. You can also use them to buy hints from Toad, and there is at least one moon that requires you to use up a huge amount of coins to get it. The fact that coins actually matter means that you care about going out of your way to get them - and that losing ten coins every time you die is a penalty that eventually adds up. On top of the standard gold coins, each level has a fixed number of purple coins in it, which you can use to buy level-specific souvenirs and outfits.

These outfits are mostly cosmetic, but not completely. In each level, there is at least one moon that requires you to wear a specific outfit in order to gain entry to someplace, so you had better frequent those shops if you want to complete the game 100%. Most of the time, though, you can wear whatever you want for the fun of it, mixing and matching different hats with different outfits. You can even set your outfit to randomly change whenever you die, which has plenty of amusing results. The outfits also contribute to the game's robust Snapshot Mode, which lets you take pictures of the game with great detail. You can change the camera's location, zoom, filter and more, before saving them to your Switch album and eventually sharing them over social media. The game will even give you hint art and expect you to take a picture of it for future reference; these will lead you to moons in other levels.

The game controls almost perfectly. Running and jumping feels as good as it ever did, and you have an even wider breadth of moves than you did in Super Mario 64, though nearly all of those make a comeback here. The only problem is, sadly, the motion controls. Nintendo has once again forced them into this game, and while they work well enough most of the time, they are unmanageable in handheld mode. There are certain moves that can only be performed with motion controls, and these moves are required to get certain moves, and these moves are ridiculously tough or impractical if you're playing the game in portable mode. Some alternate controls would have worked wonders here. This is not a big game-ruining issue, but it's frustrating to see something like this get overlooked in a game that is this close to being flawless.

Many people have likened this game to Breath of the Wild, the Switch game from earlier this year that revolutionized the Legend of Zelda series and was met with universal acclaim. While this game is masterfully put together, it doesn't quite occupy the same space in my mind. Breath of the Wild was a complete reinvention of its series, throwing away many series staples and bring fresh blood into the franchise, showing everyone the true potential of the Zelda games. Odyssey feels like Nintendo reached backward into its history, pulled out a great idea, and polished it to a mirror sheen. It's not a revolutionary step forward for the series, but it is one of its best games. It feels simultaneously fresh and retro, calling back to older games while infusing them with new ideas.

Graphically, the game is beautiful. Popping with colors, great level and enemy designs, and impressive lighting and water effects, this title is a joy to look at, and it never stops being one. Each level looks different from the one that came before, bringing a huge amount of variety that's a feast for the eyes. The game sounds great as well; Charles Martinet always impresses as Mario, and the voices of Bowser and Peach are good as well, perhaps even better than normal. The music is fantastic and memorable; the Wooded Kingdom, in particular, has a great piece of music that keeps getting stuck in my head, but I don't mind.

If you're going to play Super Mario Odyssey and complete it, you're in for a very long haul. Exploring everything the game has to offer, even for just one playthrough, is going to take you dozens of hours. I've been playing almost nonstop since it came out, and I'm only about two-thirds of the way to collecting all the game's moons, which is absurd. There is so much to do here that you will undoubtedly be getting your money's worth. And there's already a speedrunning community forming around the game, if you're into that sort of thing.

Super Mario Odyssey has its flaws, and it's not the revolutionary step forward that Breath of the Wild was for the Legend of Zelda, but it is a masterpiece nonetheless. With the exception of the motion controls, everything is assembled perfectly, with creativity and inspiration spilling out of every pore. The game is exquisitely designed to encourage you to explore its massive worlds, and has rewards waiting around every corner. If you own a Switch, you simply must own this game. I haven't had this much fun with Mario in over a decade, and if this is what the future of Nintendo looks like, then it's a bright future indeed.

Final score: 9.8 out of 10

A copy of this game was privately obtained and used for this review.

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