Movie Sleuth Gaming: Super Mario Odyssey - Reviewed

The reveal of Super Mario Odyssey surprised and intrigued me. Quickly showing off a brand new mechanic involving Mario possessing objects and classic series enemies was a totally wild thing in my mind. The series has a penchant for gimmicks (a la Mario Sunshine’s water pack) but something specifically about actually controlling a goomba, the original and most iconic of Mario’s foes, broke my brain a bit. I was nonetheless excited and faithful in the game that I have been waiting for years to get my hands on, especially coming off the hype of Breath of the Wild. I can’t in good faith put this game quite on the Breath of the Wild masterpiece level, but it is still an achievement in open-world platforming design and easily one of the finest games Nintendo has released in the recent past.

As if anyone didn't already know, Mario has quite the pedigree. I was late to the game on Mario 64 as my youth enabled limited control over family game console purchases, but it is clearly a strong influence in Odyssey’s design. Odyssey returns to the well of its more open-world style format but modernized in a way that, up until 2017, I would not have expected from Nintendo. It works, and it’s fun in a way I wasn’t expecting despite being someone who really appreciates the structure of individual levels and worlds. I liked the 3D Land and 3D World titles more than many critics, some of which went as far as to consider them ‘not mainline Mario games’, but I loved them, and I wasn’t sure what to expect coming out of the stirrings around Super Mario Odyssey’s openness.

What I found was joyous; a visually-brilliant game that strikes a perfect balance between openness and guided experiences, fueled by constant player reward. And when I say constant, I mean constant. Moons, Odyssey’s equivalent to stars or shines in previous titles, are not rewards in the same way the stars once were, instead, they are anywhere and everywhere. Following the suggested flow of gameplay will net you many, but you are even more rewarded for venturing off the beaten path, exploring, and experimenting. I found unexpected dozens from even just screwing around trying to get to cool places to take screenshots in photo mode, something I almost never do in games. I lost count how many times I said to myself ‘that part looks a little off or different, I wonder if there is a moon there?’ and the answer to my self-imposed quandary was almost always a satisfying ‘yes’. 

Everything wears hats in Odyssey, even the helpful doggos

Even after dozens of hours in the game, I couldn’t believe how much I actually ended up enjoying all of the moon collecting. I have been vehement in my vocal distaste for ‘collect-a-thon’ gameplay in the past. I still believe it’s often a cheap way to extend gameplay hours by preying on human the tendency towards completeness but, that feeling of malevolence never came. The density of moons in each kingdom made each of them feel like their own little hand-crafted experience with their own tiny satisfying conclusion. As I approached the late-game, after seeing the credits and returning for further exploration, I eventually got a twinge of “I'm sick of this”, but it was unfounded. Nintendo smartly combatted this by added hundreds of extra moons, a few extra worlds and, more importantly, extra-challenging platforming sections to counteract the often-simple parts of the early game.

It is correct that I did not feel like a large portion of the game was particularly challenging, but that didn't take away from my personal enjoyment for the most part. If I had finished this game as it was my first go at the last boss without further exploration, I would have still considered it a delight, but I wished for some extra challenge. Between harder sections late game and the more advanced movement abilities with the hat, my wish was granted in spades. The ability to throw the hat and mix up the movement with jumps, dives, and dashes made for a platforming experience with some real movement technology. I never really mastered it, but with experience from other 3D Mario titles, I was able to pick up the basics quickly and even get a little fancy with it myself. I can’t wait for the next 'Games Done Quick' charity event to see what the talented folks of the speed-running community can do with it. 

The recurring mini-boss rabbits, The Broodals, were definitely not a high-point in Odyssey

The unfortunate side of the hat mechanics is that they are plagued by a tragic flaw: motion controls. What brought about the resurgence of Nintendo in the mid-2000s is working against them in Odyssey. Nintendo’s insistence on the continued use of motion controls baffles me. During the Switch reveal and following E3 there was a lot of unease regarding Nintendo’s reveal that motion control would be integrated directly into the joycons and pro controllers, and until now it was something I had mostly forgotten about. Most games don't include it, and the ones that do make it easy to turn off. Odyssey eschews this convention for seemingly no benefit, and subsequently a lot of frustration. 

Mario has always been a game of just a few buttons, and Nintendo is talented in finding a myriad of ways to craft platforming mechanics while keeping the basics very simple. Even in a world of 14-button controllers, Odyssey manages to be effectively a three button game with a joystick. Where it all goes sideways is the ability to do different types of hat throws that are directional requiring specific directional moves and shakes of the joycon. Some of them can be done with other awkward ability combinations, for example, the spinning hat attack can be done by doing Mario’s spin move from twirling the joystick but more importantly, these abilities cannot be turned off. Get spooked by your cat jumping into your lap? That's right, you’re gonna throw your hat straight up. Twitch out of frustration during a complicated jumping puzzle, guess you meant to throw your hat there didn't you. It was a rare occasion that anything bad really came out of this, but every time it happened it just reminded me of the poor decision-making that tarnished an otherwise near-perfect game.

I don’t think there will ever be a truly ‘perfect’ game, but if anyone is going to make it in the video game world, my best guess would be Nintendo working on a first party game. They maximize the use of their platforms, and I am still reeling from how impressed I was with the visual style, even if the aesthetic would get a little off the wall for Mario at times. The game is fantastic, and Nintendo’s games continue to be riding high alongside Switch sales numbers and their stock price. In an era where late-stage capitalism has been rearing its ugly head in the games industry more than usual lately, it’s nice to see some companies are still just trying to make great games first, and seeing the numbers and money follow. I don’t think it matters who you are or what kind of games you like, everyone can find something to smile at or enjoy in Super Mario Odyssey. 


Justin Wicker