Mario is a videogame icon whose longevity is not so much a testament to his character design as to his creators’ willingness to innovate with every new iteration. We’ve had a Mario adventure on every Nintendo console for 30 years, and now his first on the Nintendo Switch is here. Hold on to your hats, folks.
Bowser, the perennial yin to Mario’s yang, has decided that straight kidnapping is no longer his style. Instead, a sham marriage is on the cards. The game opens with Bowser, replete in a fancy wedding suit, duking it out with our favourite plumber on the decks of a flying wooden ship. Unfortunately for Mario, Bowser not only kicks him off of his floating fortress, but destroys Mario’s lovely red cap in the process. As Mario plunges towards earth, hollering his trademark scream, he grabs the attention of a hat-shaped ghost named Cappy.
Cappy, who happens to belong to a strange race of hat-ghost-people, agrees to help Mario rescue Peach on condition that his sister, Tiara (guess what shape she is) is also rescued. The two now pals, Cappy morphs into Mario’s red hat and suddenly, just like that, you’re thrown into a new adventure. With Cappy’s help, Mario can now possess (though Nintendo seems to prefer the word ‘capture’) different creatures and enemies across the world. Doing so causes a fetching moustache to sprout from your target's face and imbues Mario with the victim’s powers. It’s a lot like Kirby’s inhalation, though only marginally less terrifying and slightly more philosophically perplexing.
As well as capturing enemies and creatures, Cappy has a whole host of new moves to help Mario with. Players can use the JoyCon controllers to fling their hat forwards, backwards, up, down, and in a dazzling 360 degree spin. Cappy can also collect coins, pull levers, clean up poison, and open doors. Within ten minutes of the opening credits you’ll be flinging the poor guy at everything you can see, just to explore what might happen. Odyssey even allows co-operative gameplay, with one player on one JoyCon controlling Mario, the other controlling Cappy.
This flawless integration of new technology is impressive in its own way, and shows how much foresight Nintendo has in incorporating its flagship titles with the intricacies of its new console. As a cynical, fairly lazy gamer, I scoffed at the idea of using the JoyCons, yet before too long I was waving my arms about like a madman.
As Bowser sails the world, trying to find a collection of mythical items to make his forced wedding the best forced wedding of all time, Mario and Cappy follow him in the Odyssey, a sail-powered ship designed by one of Cappy’s people. The Odyssey is powered by Moons, which can be discovered across the world in the many different Kingdoms. Most of these kingdoms come in the form of an open world - think an expanded version of the paintings in Super Mario 64. In each there will be one of Bowser’s minions to destroy, as well as a wrong that needs to be set right. Usually the latter is tied to the nature of the world: a vacuum is stealing all the flowers in the woods or an enchanted pyramid is freezing a desert usually oven-hot. Solving these major issues will reward the player with a few Moons, yet most are actually gathered during everyday platforming.
Some Moons are as obvious and jumping in certain spots or hitting certain items with Cappy. Others involve parkour challenges, puzzles, races and all manners of trickery. While only 124 Moons are needed to get all the way through the game, there are 800 to collect in total. A fair few will have you scouring areas you’ve beaten long ago, trying every nook and cranny to tease out that last Moon position. If you’re stuck, a handy companion will be there to reveal to you a Moon’s location, for a fee of a few coins, anyway.
There are no lives in Super Mario Odyssey. Instead, every time the player dies they lose 10 coins. It’s the sort of harmless try-and-try again formula that some would label as “casual”, yet Mario games have never really been about brutal platforming and punishing gameplay. Coins can be racked up easily by defeating enemies, interacting with scenery and, as ever, hitting blocks. A secondary currency in the game, purple in colour, can also be collected and used to buy a variety of costumes for Mario or accessories for the Odyssey. Some of the costumes unlock areas of the game while many are well-placed easter eggs and callbacks to previous titles in Mario’s extensive back catalogue. There’s even a Luigi costume for the cultured folk out there who know who the better brother is.
There are almost too many charming touches to Super Mario Odyssey to mention. The game is jam-packed with extras, tidbits, features and style. A recurring set-piece that will have Nintendo fans giddy is the ability to warp into the famous green pipes and emerge as 2D Mario in a section of the world designed to look exactly like the original Super Mario Bros. Nintendo’s idea of player freedom really comes to fore with these sections too - many can be completely bypassed by capturing the right enemy or jumping on the right platforms. Very rarely does Super Mario Odyssey explicitly tell you how to go about your business and the game does everything it can to encourage you to explore.
Odyssey also rewards ingenuity. Already, there are dozens of speedrunners trying to break and explore Mario’s new movement controls and bounce across levels with ease. Nintendo, it appears, has also encouraged their playstyle. On top of seemingly unreachable buildings and in hidden alcoves, piles of coins are left for the players who manage to bypass sections of levels or maneuver their way past enemies and platforms. It’s another little touch that shows just how much thought the creators have put into making a game that leaves an impression.
Graphically, Super Mario Odyssey showcases what the Switch can do. It looks fantastic, and doubly so when you're playing the game on the move. Whereas Breath of the Wild was perhaps hampered by its dual-console development, this Switch-only game takes great lengths to push the hardware. Mario is the best we’ve ever seen him, and the environments, characters and cutscenes are rendered in exceptional detail. It’s a surprising feat that the Switch, when not plugged in, manages to handle such a high level of fidelity and still maintain a battery life of between four and five hours of solid gameplay.
Perhaps there’s something to be said about the samey plotline of a kidnapped Princess Peach, but the damsel in distress herself plays wise with the idea, breaking the fourth wall in another moment that will have players stifling a giggle on the train to work. Similarly, there’s no mention nor appearance of Luigi, though it’s probably safe to assume that he will be getting his own title in the next few years. Cappy, the new sidekick, could have easily been an annoyance, yet his appearances are limited and impactful. He’ll pop up on occasion with some repeated hints or dialogues, but you’ll be having far too much fun to notice.
In a year full of drudgery, dull games, exploitative mechanics and fake news galore, it’s refreshing to have a title come out and embrace having as much fun as humanly possible. From playing catch with a shiba inu in the deserts of the Sand Kingdom to shooting across the skyscraper-dotted skyline of New Donk City as a Mario-shaped ball of energy, Super Mario Odyssey exists purely for the player to enjoy themselves. I cannot think of a single moment playing this game where I felt expenses had been spared or shortcuts taken. On many occasions my girlfriend had to ask me why I was grinning like an idiot. Super Mario Odyssey is a phenomenal return for Nintendo’s mustachioed mascot, and (whisper it) the worthy successor to Super Mario 64 that fans have been longing for.
Super Mario Odyssey (Reviewed on Nintendo Switch)
Outstanding. Why do you not have this game already?
Super Mario Odyssey is a phenomenal return for Nintendo’s mustachioed mascot, and (whisper it) the worthy successor to Super Mario 64 that fans have been longing for.