nintendo’s odyssey into the unknown
Nintendo can’t help but switch things up. Look at its recent console history: The Wii, the first console to properly implement motion controls, was a commercial hit that bore no similarities in shape or design to its predecessor, Gamecube. The Wii U, a console that included a clunky, awkwardly sized gamepad necessary for playing, was similar to the Wii in name only and unfortunately differed massively in commercial performance. And now the company has released the Nintendo Switch, a console that can be plugged into your television and can also be taken with you on the go.
But even though its consoles are always different, only in recent years has Nintendo seemed to begin upending the rules for some of its most beloved franchises. Pokemon Sun and Moon, released at the end of last year, featured no gym battles and no HMs; in their stead was a compelling storyline, a more challenging game, and literal alien Pokemon. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, released this year for the Switch and the Wii U, is barely even a Zelda game; it takes place in a massive open world where players must fight through hordes of enemies to get to the destination. There are no traditional dungeons for Link to find or explore, and instead, Link has the ability to scale mountains, swim up waterfalls, and jump his way across harrowing cliffs—quite a step up from previous installments, where he couldn’t even jump on command.
Super Mario Odyssey, Nintendo’s latest installment of the Mario series, similarly does away with the past to create something entirely new and exciting. There are no lives—which are an outdated concept from the arcade era anyway—and there are no powerups. Instead, Mario has the ability to take control of certain enemies and objects simply by throwing his hat on them, after which they will sport Mario’s hat and a lovely, bushy mustache. You can become traditional Mario enemies like a Bullet Bill or a Goomba, and the capturing mechanic becomes hilarious when you, for instance, possess a massive slab of meat and press “A” to twitch it about. While weird in concept, this mechanic is refreshing and also deceptively complex: If you throw your hat on the frog, you become the frog. But what can you manage to do as the frog?
The core components of the Mario franchise remain in Odyssey, but they still feel new. Peach has been captured by Bowser who plans to marry her, and so you must save her. You explore vastly different worlds, called kingdoms, which are all uniquely crafted areas much like in Super Mario 64 or in Super Mario Sunshine. Each kingdom has its own theme and is designed like a tourist destination with a travel brochure for a map and cute souvenirs to purchase. These kingdoms have all been pillaged by Bowser in some way; one kingdom themed after food has had its stew taken by Bowser to be served to his wedding guests. Another kingdom has had a beautiful wedding gown stolen. Another has lost a massive engagement ring that’s larger than Peach herself. In exploring these kingdoms, your overarching goal becomes not just to save the damsel in distress, but also to help these kingdoms retrieve what has been stolen from them.
These kingdoms are, for all intents and purposes, rather small. Most of them are smaller than the areas from Super Mario 64, which was released over 20 years ago. But these smaller maps make for more engaging gameplay because you don’t need to run to the other side of the kingdom to get to the interesting part if the entire kingdom is interesting. You’re encouraged to explore every part of the kingdom by being constantly rewarded for poking around.
The overall objective of the game is to collect energy sources called Power Moons, and there are a whopping 880 of them crammed into the game. They densely saturate every map, and just a casual perusal through the level will grant the player enough Moons to at least progress forward with the game. The process is undeniably fun: It feels good to, say, capture a fish and uncover a Power Moon in a crevice, or compete in a footrace and earn a Power Moon for getting first place. To collect all of the Moons, however, requires an absurd amount of exploration and a willingness to think outside of the box; one particular Power Moon can only be found if the player takes control of a pair of mechanical binoculars, looks up into the sky, and stares at a taxicab flying through the clouds. Somehow, inexplicably, that produces a power moon that you can grab.
The sheer number of moons means that the player is always rewarded for investigating every nook and cranny of the map. There’s a parallel here to Breath of the Wild, which features 120 shrines—short, puzzle-based rooms—and hundreds of other collectibles a player can optionally obtain if they wish to make Link stronger. Both games ride on the principle that exploring is fun, so these games should feel like massive explorations. The principle stands; running around the map is indeed fun, and being rewarded for doing so makes for a good game. But while in Breath of the Wild, you spend 30 minutes running from one end of the map to another hoping to find a shrine along the way, in Odyssey you spend 30 minutes running around the same condensed area looking for more secrets to uproot.
There are a lot of other aspects of Odyssey that I could go over, which are a mix of old and new trends. You can customize Mario’s outfit, whether it be a flowing dress or just his boxer shorts. There are numerous sections where you can play as a 2D 8-bit Mario, presumably just to satisfy the nostalgia of older players. But the core gameplay of Odyssey is its most exciting aspect.