30th Oct2017

‘Super Mario Odyssey’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

super-mario-odyssey

Who’d have thought it? Barely eight months since Breath of the Wild brought us the first game of the year contender, Nintendo has gone and done it again.

After the supremely taut, linear design of Super Mario 3D World on Wii U, and the semi-linear lines of the Galaxy (Wii) games, Super Mario Odyssey represents a return to the open pastures seeded in Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64) and Super Mario Sunshine (GameCube). But in harnessing the additional power of the Switch, and applying some bold new mechanics, Nintendo has crafted a sumptuous toy box which could only have existed in series creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s dreams two decades ago.

The Odyssey is a hat-shaped spacecraft which our titular hero uses to soar across the globe in pursuit of Bowser. Mario’s nemesis has not just kidnapped Princess Peach… he’s gone and arranged their wedding. So, as you traverse the various kingdoms – boldly themed around water, woodland, snow etc – you must defeat various incarnations of the wedding planners, known as the Broodals: giant rabbits (I daresay, not unlike the mutants in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle) who possess a deadly collection of hats.

The final goal is, of course, Bowser himself. And what a journey to get there. Each main kingdom is a sprawl of platforms, monsters and deadly traps. The sub-quest structure of those first two 3D Marios returns, except this time it isn’t a matter of repeating the level over and over. Instead, most of the Power Moons (the Odyssey’s power source) are available from the off. Which moons you choose to collect depends on your willingness to stray from the beaten track. Beat a boss and the level may transform – a rain-soaked, midnight city may become a bustling, sunlit metropolis – and a whole new set of challenges awaits.

Each kingdom requires a certain number of moons to progress. Hit that number and you can jump into the Odyssey (via a new fast travel system, no less) and move on. But because the game constantly rewards the player for exploring, it’s almost impossible to simply burn through the game with a bare minimum. Not when there are so many ideas being thrown your way (the hit-rate for sheer imagination is the highest it’s ever been for the series), and not when the core mechanic – no, let’s unapologetically call it a gimmick – is this much fun.

You see, you’re not alone on your journey. On your head is Cappy, a cute little ghost in the form of a hat, who can be tossed from Mario’s head. Cappy can be a weapon, a temporary platform, or he can possess other creatures. Once possessed, an enemy (complete with a Mario moustache, of course) comes under direct control of the player. Each creature has different skills. The Goomba, for example, can be stacked to reach higher places; Bullet Bills can fly cross deadly pits; the restless Koopa can smash scenery with a mad rally of hammers. And that’s just the enemies we’ve seen before. The possibilities are virtually endless, and almost always hilarious.

Cappy is not the only feature that will be unfamiliar to long-term fans. Gone is the lives meter, which had become meaningless many iterations ago. Instead, when you die, you lose ten coins. Coins can also be spent on costumes and collectibles at shops. In addition, there is a second type of currency – distinguished by its purple colour, and shaped in accordance with the kingdom – which is less commonplace and can only be spent within that zone. Costumes are not purely cosmetic, by the way – in order to gain access to certain sections (and therefore certain moons), some doors may only be passed when dressed in the appropriate garb.

Despite these additions, to call Super Mario Odyssey revolutionary would be pushing it – and probably missing the point. What we get is an exquisite distillation of elements from throughout Nintendo’s recent history, and not just Mario. From Breath of the Wild we get the concept of smaller, challenge-like dungeons; from Splatoon we get zip lines; and from Color Splash there are sections of scenery which can be “unzipped” to create new platforms. But more than anything, Super Mario Odyssey takes all the best elements from the previous Mario games – the openness of 64 and Sunshine; the relentless barrage of ideas from Galaxy – and balances them to perfection. There are even NES Mario sections, seamlessly built into the 3D walls.

Part of why the game feels so balanced and refined is because Nintendo constantly mixes things up. Following a particularly sprawling open world section – say, the Metro Kingdom, with its amusingly incongruent real-world aspects – Mario might find himself in a smaller, more linear sub-kingdom. Then, just when things are getting almost too cutesy, you’re thrown into a Dark Souls-like crumbling castle to fight a dragon from Skyrim. Dotted about, through hidden doors and secret crevices, are wonderful sub-games, which might involve controlling a radio-controlled car, hunting a hidden moon through the HD rumble feature, or racing somersaulting Eskimos along a snowy track. In the fifteen-or-so hours it took me to see the main story, never once did the game feel predictable.

Fifteen hours, you say? That might seem relatively short, yet the end is just the beginning. The vastness of Super Mario Odyssey should not be underestimated. Not only is a new kingdom unlocked at the game’s ending (and it’s a real treat for long-term fans), but there’s another beyond that. And of course there are the power moons. Hundreds upon hundreds of power moons. It’s catnip for the collectionist.

Some of the moons may require motion controls in order to access. Flicking the joy-cons in certain ways will give Mario access to extra moves. For example, jerk them upwards and Cappy will fly off vertically; jerk them sideways to perform a spin attack. Locking certain achievements behind motion controls may be considered a gripe because, however easy they are to pull off, it could be that some players cannot hope for 100% completion. It’s worth noting, however, that nothing in the main game requires anything except the standard control scheme. And that control scheme is amazingly versatile – days after release, there are already videos online in which players have perfected the art of cheating gravity by using Cappy as a mode of flight. It’s a speedrunner’s dream.

There’s so much more I could delve into with regard to Super Mario Odyssey, but with every detail I divulge, it’s one more moment of joy diluted for the reader. And joy is precisely the right word. For while Breath of the Wild stole the breath with its evocation of wonder, Super Mario Odyssey steals it through laughter: the laughter of delight, as another bizarre environment opens up before you (just wait for the food-themed Luncheon Kingdom), or another minute detail rewards the player for simply trying something out. The moment I knew I was playing a classic was when I fell off the world. The Wooded Kingdom, to be precise. But rather than falling to my death, I found myself in a new area, the Deep Woods, shrouded in darkness, where I was hunted by a tyrannosaur. Just brilliant.

For those of us ‘of a certain age’, Super Mario 64 represented a paradigm shift not just in terms of Nintendo’s enduring mascot, but in video gaming itself. For millennials, it was Super Mario Galaxy. Now, a new generation gets their revelatory moment, and I couldn’t be happier. Super Mario Odyssey takes the promise made two decades ago and runs with it, far beyond the horizon, resulting in the most exhilarating, funny, madcap adventure the podgy plumber has ever undertaken. It’s a masterpiece, and an essential experience for gamers of any generation. Buy it; and if you don’t own a Switch, buy one to play it.

Super Mario Odyssey is out now on Nintendo Switch.

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