What an incredible year this has been for Nintendo. Not only did they launch the Switch, which has been embraced on a level that the Wii U could never have dreamed of, but they also managed to release two of the best games available for any system. I am speaking in part, of course, of the genuinely incredible Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Breath of the Wild is, for what it’s worth, my personal choice for game of the year 2017. The way that it evolves the formula of the Legend of Zelda series while still managing to feel familiar is remarkable, the gameplay is addictive and enjoyable, and it is breath-takingly (pun intended) gorgeous to look at. If this weren’t enough, it also manages to be one of the very best open world games ever made. With its approach both to the Legend of Zelda series, and the world of gaming at large, Breath of the Wild stands apart as a revolution in game design.
Mario Odyssey is, surprisingly or not, another of the very best games released in 2017. However, despite its undeniable quality, it feels more evolutionary than revolutionary. After having completed the main storyline over the course of 15+ hours, collected over 280 Power Moons (which is sincerely unimpressive when you consider that there are 999 in total), and played a few hours of endgame content, I can safely assure you that as evolutions go, this one is a spectacular treat.
Bowser is at it again: Princess Peach has been kidnapped and everybody’s favorite (former) plumber is off to save her. There’s a little wrinkle in that plan though, namely that Mario gets his ass handed to him at the very beginning of the game. He falls from Bowser’s airship, and his hat is torn to shreds in the propeller. He lands in a town populated by odd hat spirit things that bear a strange resemblance to very fashionable Boos. One of them, Cappy, awakens the fallen Mario and asks for his help saving his sister, who has also been kidnapped by Bowser. This is all fairly standard Mario game stuff, and serves almost entirely as a bridge to get you to the gameplay. Its Mario, none of us came here for deep character studies.
What we came for is the historically excellent gameplay. On this front, Odyssey, predictably, excels. It would be a waste of time to talk at length about the delightful music or the perfect platforming – that’s what made Mario such a classic in the first place. What’s far more interesting are all the new additions to the gameplay, and the ways that Odyssey uses the design principles introduced in Breath of the Wild to create one of the most fresh, creative, and purely delightful games I’ve ever played.
The biggest divergence from the standard Mario formula is that now each kingdom is essentially a sandbox wherein you can collect the game’s main currency: Power Moons (not stars, moons). In every 3D Mario game since ’64, the levels would be broken up into several missions. You would enter a space, and attempt to collect a select number of stars from that area, be removed from the level after each one, then re-enter to find the next. For instance, you’d enter each world in Super Mario Galaxy a minimum of 3 times, and there would be one Power Star at the end of each mission.
This formula has been streamlined exquisitely in Mario Odyssey. Each kingdom functions as an open world area, where you can choose to solve as many or as few environmental puzzles as you would like. You get Multi Moons for completing story missions, and you need to collect a certain number of moons in total to unlock the next kingdom.
If this doesn’t sound like a particularly big difference from the original formula, you should play the game and see for yourself. It opens the world up like never before, and makes returning to kingdoms to try to find Power Moons a delight, not a chore. Furthermore, it means that you rarely travel more than a few seconds in any direction without finding something to peak your curiosity.
The most incredible thing about all of this is that your curiosity is always rewarded. If something seems interesting or different, you can almost guarantee that it will be hiding a secret Power Moon. Each kingdom in Odyssey is a playground where you can let your imagination run wild, and the game will reward you for that imagination. Every. Single. Time. It is not an exaggeration to say that Mario Odyssey is one of the most satisfying games I’ve ever played, whether I was sitting down for multiple hours of fifteen minutes.
Additionally, Each kingdom has its own unique currency that can be spent on unique outfits (literally all of which are adorable, but the pinstripe suit is a personal favorite of mine), models to be put on display in your ship (named The Odyssey, of course), and other collectibles. Usually this kind of busywork collectible is irritating, but this one is actually very well implemented, and you never have to grind too hard to find enough coins to buy the new outfits.
Aside from the main gameplay loop, there are multitudes of other additions and refinements. There are no more one-ups, no more game over screens (when you die you just lose 10 coins), and no more mushrooms. There are no Fire Flowers, no Bee Suit, and no invincibility stars. What there is, is Cappy.
Cappy, situated on Mario’s head as any one of the dozens of unlockable hat-styles, provides a nearly astounding variety of new powers to the player. By flicking the right Joy-Con or pressing ‘Y’, you can toss Cappy, similar to the Spin move in Mario Galaxy. A thrown Cappy can collect coins, hit enemies, clear pools of endlessly infuriating poison-slime, and most importantly; throwing Cappy allows Mario to control certain enemies.
Need to breath underwater? Take control of a Cheep Cheep. Want to get that power moon that’s way too high up to jump for? Take control of a Goomba, and then jump on the heads of your Goomba compatriots to make a tower of the little guys. Need to get from tiny platform to tiny platform, or extend far over a ledge to get some coins? Take control of the new extending Wiggler, and grow and shrink at will. Need to smash down that wall? Take control of a Chain Chomp and pull against his chain to fling him backwards. Need to let out some inner rage? Take control of a T-Rex. I think I’ve mentioned five possibilities here, but there are over fifty captures available, all of which provide their own unique gameplay opportunities, and can be used for their own puzzles. Also, seriously, you can control a T-Rex.
I honestly cannot remember the last game that was this (possibly over-) stuffed with ideas, and wasn’t a complete train wreck. But somehow, Nintendo managed to make this insane fever dream a reality, and they did it with a mastery of craft that hasn’t been seen since… well, I guess we saw it earlier this year, didn’t we?
A complaint that I’ve frequently heard leveled at post ’64 Mario games is that they haven’t really introduced new, weird things into the world; that it’s been Goombas and Koopas and all the standards for a long time. While I do not necessarily agree with this opinion, I defy anybody to claim the same about Mario Odyssey.
The game confidently introduces us to fork-people, hat-people, spherical seal creatures, evil rabbit henchman, day-of-the-dead skelemen, and actual human beings. Speaking of those humans, it is far less unsettling than I had originally assumed to see Mario standing next to a man in a business suit. In fact, the strangeness of this pales in comparison to the plethora of questions I have about why Mario’s nose has to be so wiggly. Its uncomfortable, and I don’t know why it wiggles so much. It haunts me.
All joking aside, the point that I am trying to convey is that Super Mario Odyssey is absolutely exploding with creative ideas, all of which are somehow fully fleshed out. Additionally, this is a game that while boldly pushing the design forward is unafraid to look back and appreciate what came before. If you’ve read any of my reviews before, you may have gotten the impression that entertainment fueled by nostalgia is not exactly my cup of tea. You would be correct. That having been said, Odyssey should serve as the model for how to do nostalgia properly.
There are a number of charming sections where Mario goes 2D, and plays stages in the style of the original Super Mario Bros. There are several collectable outfits that invoke things like the Famicom, Mario’s original suit from Donkey Kong, and even a wonderful homage to the Mario 64 suit in all its polygonal glory. On a deeper level, you can see the influence that each 3D Mario game had on the design of Odyssey, and it wears that inspiration on it’s sleeve. Somehow though, Nintendo managed to make all of this feel totally organic. It all eventually culminates in the festival mission in New Donk City, which, without spoiling anything, is the single most delightful and joyous thing I have ever played in any video game ever.
As is often the case though, there are a few small things holding Odyssey back from perfection. To begin with, the game does an absolutely terrible job of communicating alternatives to its motion controls. For the most basic moves, the tutorial explaining the action will display both the motion control and face button configurations. However, many other abilities, including the nearly essential homing-cap, seem to have absolutely no alternative shy of just not using them.
Thankfully, the motion controls work perfectly fine when you are playing with disconnected Joy-Cons. The unfortunate byproduct of this is that the game is nearly unplayable in tablet mode, unless you’re willing to do without some abilities that make the game far more fun. You can mostly get by when you have the Joy-Cons attached to the controller, but I found myself flicking the entire thing out of my left hand at certain points to make use of the homing-cap ability I mentioned before, causing me to fail spectacularly at certain platforming sections.
Seriously, if they wanted people to use the motion controls, they should have just designed the entire thing for motion controls. Instead, they designed it for motion controls, then timidly said “you can also kind of play it without them… kind of.” I understand that the entire point of the Switch is to provide a versatile and dynamic gaming experience, but designing the game around motion controls then giving players the option to control fifty-percent of the available abilities without them just seems sloppy.
Additionally, while I will sing the praises of the new approach to Power Stars/Moons until my dying days, having 999 of them is almost excessive. In terms of providing bang for your buck it’s not at issue, but when endgame progress is broken up by intervals of over 300 moons, I feel less inclined to keep scouring the maps for them. No matter how creative the puzzles are, after 500 of them they start to feel a little bit stale.
The only other complaint I have pertains to checkpoints towards the end of the game, specifically the final boss fight. If you die during the last fight with Bowser, the game will transport you to the hallway outside of the place where you initiate the fight, and force you to re-watch (or skip, which is still an inconvenience when you’re as bad at this fight as I was) two cutscenes. How did nobody at Nintendo realize how frustrating this is? This is not a new issue; it has been frustrating people for decades, and I’m genuinely confused as to why it’s still a thing that happens.
Despite these minor issues, Super Mario Odyssey makes a solid case for itself as the very best 3D Mario game. It shows a strong understanding of the things that made Mario great in the past – namely a focus on deeply enjoyable gameplay, charming settings, boundless creativity, and a fundamental opposition to the logic of safety – and takes every single one of them to the next level. Between Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, not only is Nintendo competing against itself for the best game of 2017, but it is also arguably competing against itself for standings among the best games of all time.