'Super Mario Odyssey' is a Fever Dream of Creativity and Pure Joy
It feels like the sequel 'Mario 64' fans have been waiting for since 1996.
Image courtesy of Nintendo
272 moons later, I've "beaten" Super Mario Odyssey, but it feels like I've only scratched the surface of Mario's latest, a breathlessly creative adventure equal parts surprising and bewildering—in a good way. Every moon, a reward for completing one of hundreds of obstacles, is a step towards something new. You don't need many to see the credits, but you'll want to collect more. At 250 moons, a new world unlocks. At 500 moons, something happens, the game promises, with a wink and a smile. Beyond that, who knows? But it's clear I'll be playing Odyssey for months, as I try to mine every secret, wracking my brain to find out what the designers have hidden behind yet another seemingly innocuous corner.
Though Mario is the ostensible star of Odyssey, its inhabitants are the ones that matter; what distinguishes Odyssey from any other Mario is that he's basically Kirby. Now, you can adopt the powers of various creatures in every stage, and because each one functions differently, entering a new world isn't just a simple art change. It means you're playing differently, too.
Once again, Bowser's kidnapped Princess Peach, and Mario has to save her. This time Bowser's goal is getting married. Each of the worlds contain an object Bowser desires for the nuptials, which sometimes explains their theming (a food world for a cake) and often doesn't matter (a water world for a dress). It's a setup worthy of an eyeroll, but outside of the RPG spin-offs, Mario's never been about plot. It's a reason for yet another set of platforms to jump on. Of course, it'd be nice for Peach to get some agency. Heck, turn her into the villain because she's tired of being treated like a MacGuffin! The game does humorously poke at Peach's trope-y and stagnant role in the series towards the end, but I'll let you find that on your own.
Since Super Mario 64 introduced Mario to 3D, the series has changed approaches every few years. In Mario 64, players explored dozens of tiny worlds, completing objectives to collect stars. To reach new areas, you needed more stars. Each time you entered the world, however, you had a pretty good idea what you were after: collecting red coins, defeating a boss, winning a race, etc. Nintendo riffed on this template with Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy. With Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World, Nintendo tried and succeeded at bringing the linear, straightforward level structure of old school Mario into a playful 3D space. (Both are deeply underrated and deserving of re-releases on Switch.)
"In Odyssey, everything is hiding in plain sight. Using the game's myriad tools, your goal is to unmask complexity behind simplicity."
Odyssey is far more like Mario 64 and Galaxy, and in many respects, feels like the direct sequel to Mario 64 many have been asking for since 1996. Other than the delightful novelty controlling Mario in another set of spacial dimensions, Mario 64's genius was assigning specific objectives. It explicitly shifted what was being asked of the player, and they had re-imagine their place in the world. It was more than a tricky set of platforms. Sunshine, Galaxy, 3D Land, and 3D World followed the same path, none as successfully as Odyssey.
I don't know how Odyssey was developed, but it feels as though Nintendo's designers had a game jam, where they came up with wild and unexpected ways of interacting with a 3D Mario game. Instead of picking and choosing a few, though, they tossed all of them into a single game, coming up with a clever connective tissue—a hat capable of inhabiting objects and enemies, granting new powers—to justify their existence in the same creative stew.
In Odyssey, everything is hiding in plain sight. Using the game's myriad tools, your goal is to unmask complexity behind simplicity. It might be as simple as turning the camera in the right direction, revealing a hidden path, or a series of special coins at the top of a tree. It might require you taking a leap of faith and fall off the edge of a cliff, betting something is waiting at the bottom. Often, you'll just bumble into solutions, the result of chaotic experimentation. The sheer amount of moons for players to gather means every idea is on the table, and any corner of the map might be part of a larger puzzle, just one that you haven't put together yet.
One of your primary tools is the goofy (and very much alive) hat on Mario's head, whose primary function is allowing you to, in the words of the game, "capture" things around you, imbuing whatever's "captured" with Mario, as well. More importantly, you're granted access to some of their abilities. It's not always clear what and who you can interact with, though the game often tips its hand by placing a hat on top of what you should be experimenting with. The charm of Odyssey is a mixture of amazement and confusion at what you've become, and it always means the player suddenly new ways to push and pull at the world.
Suddenly, those coins that were hidden over a pit of toxic gunk are accessible.
Now, those ledges far above Mario's jumping height are within reach.
"Oh, I can do that?"
The game worlds are surprisingly small by the standards of today's video games, whose expansive spaces can often be measured in miles. At first, this proved worrying; I was speeding through worlds at a pace that suggested a short, if undeniably enjoyable, game. You quickly learn to stop and look around. It's at that moment that you become completely overwhelmed by possibility. What's deceptive about Odyssey is how much is trapped beneath the surface. Playing Odyssey is akin to peeling an onion. Your first pass through a world means very little; it's about getting a lay of the land, racking up checkpoints (which act as fast travel markers), and formulating ideas on what the game isn't explicitly telling you.
You're a detective on the hunt for clues, and once you've gathered enough data, it's time to see where those leads take you. More often than not, it's something cool and interesting. "Oh, I bet there's something over there." "Hmm, I wonder what'd happen if I tried this." I started taking notes on my phone, worried I'd forget about some tiny detail, inevitably distracted by another one. It's a game of tiny details endlessly stacked on each other, and after you've spent a few hours in a single world, convinced you've exhausted everything it has to hide, a character will suddenly reveal there are a dozen other moons to be found.
Thankfully, the game is good at helping you track everything. A map of the whole area is a button away, where checkpoints are transformed into helpful fast travel options. Furthermore, by paying 50 coins to a certain character, the map will fill up with the general locations of new moons. Don't think of this as cheating, either. Many of the moons are so deeply hidden in the world that without a hint, you would never have a chance of finding them—it's just a way of pointing you in the right direction. Importantly, you aren't told specifics like elevation, which means you can be standing right on top of a spot where a moon is "supposed" to be, yet have no immediate idea how you're actually supposed to get it. That's part of the fun.
A few weeks ago, Danielle described Odyssey as an adventure game, a description that proved more apt the longer I spent with it. Platforming is merely a vehicle for its puzzles. It's a game that ultimately taxes your brain more than your fingers, which might come as a disappointment to those interested in hardcore platforming. You're unlikely to die, and when you do, there's no real punishment, outside of losing a few coins. (Coins are mostly used to purchase adorable new outfits for Mario.) Removing any consequence for death isn't a big deal, but at times, I found myself itching for a reason to really push my understanding of Mario physics to the test, the way Sunshine's secret stages existed solely to crush your fingers into oblivion. Such chances come few and far between, though friends who've seen more of Odyssey's secrets have informed me the endgame has more of what I'm looking for.
While I didn't spend much of Odyssey screaming, I experienced another emotion: happiness. 2016 was a rough year, and 2017 has managed to be even worse. The change in tone has been reflected in most of our media, too. Odyssey is the rare outlet of uncompromising, utterly pure joy. It's about being good. Whether it's feeling smart after figuring out a tricky section, or solving the problems of the game's many oddball characters, Odyssey is always trying to give a hug. Sometimes, that hug comes by simply bringing flowers into the world:
We could use more games that give us a hug.
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