The first true Mario game for the Nintendo Switch is finally here, and we get a chance to review Super Mario Odyssey in all its glory. After all, a Nintendo console would not be a Nintendo console without a Mario game to go with it. Got your overalls on? Then let’s jump straight into the review.
Super Mario Odyssey starts starts in media res, with Princess Peach having been kidnapped once again by Bowser, that red-haired turtle dragon. Somehow, Bowser has also kidnapped a sentient tiara named…Tiara. Mario is brutally and woefully defeated in his effort to defeat Bowser and retrieve the kidnapped princess, and his iconic red cap is shredded. Cappy, a sentient top hat and the beloved of Tiara, rescues Mario, and takes the place of his red cap. The pair start their adventure across the various kingdoms to save Peach and Tiara, and restore peace in the wake of Bowser’s wedding preparations.
From the trailers, it was beginning to look as if Super Mario Odyssey was an open-world Mario game, in a similar vein to Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but in practice this is not quite the case. Certainly, Super Mario Odyssey is less single-mindedly goal oriented than the previous games, and there’s no single flagpole or Super Star to reach at the end of each stage. Nor are there the sequential platform levels to be run through, either. Instead, what you’re given is a grand Kingdom across which is scattered a whole bunch of Power Moons. In the main story, your objective is to obtain a specified number of Power Moons before you can proceed to the next Kingdom. These moons are at the same time everywhere and nowhere. Sometimes they’re just lying about, there for the taking, and at other times you have to jump through literal hoops to figure out how to get them.
To aid with this, Cappy has one singularly useful skill: the ability to allow Mario to possess other creatures across the kingdoms (this is called “cap-turing”, get it?), and use their skills. For instance, in the first world, the Cap Kingdom, you’re able to possess a frog and use its ability to jump higher than normal. Or you can capture a Paragooma and use its ability to fly around. Larger creatures, such as the T-Rex, have a time limit on how long they can be captured for. It was fun trying to figure out what can and can’t be caught, and then what to do with something once you had captured it.
The game itself is a fairly standard platformer in the style of Mario games, but with a more free-roaming, open-ended gameplay. More Super Mario Sunshine and less Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario 3D World, even though Super Mario Odyssey espouses features of all of these. In fact, if you’d played a recent Super Mario platformer in a 3D style, you’ll be right at home, since the control mechanisms are almost identical. That being said, you’ll also feel right at home in certain sections of the game if you’re a veteran of the 2D platformer games, since there are large sections of the game that are played in an 8-bit, 2D style on a standard 3D surface. These sections are usually used to get from a low region to a high one, but often contain many secrets in the 3D expressions of the 2D world. One of my favourites is the pillar you have to ascend in the desert kingdom, Tostarena. The entire pillar is a 2D Mario course, but naturally you have to work your way around it to get up the pillar. It’s so crazy that it actually works.
The Kingdoms themselves are an imaginative mix of things, ranging from the Jurassic-style setting of the Cascade Kingdom, to the cityscape of New Donk City in the Metro Kingdom, to a setting that would look more at home in a Final Fantasy game. Each region looks so vastly different to the next that it’s easy to tell where you are just by looking. What I personally love about how the world and Kingdoms here work is that it goes a long way toward unifying the world of Super Mario, and explains how he could have been Jumpman more than 30 years ago, amongst other things. The Kingdoms also vary in size and content by quite a bit. Cloud Kingdom, for example, is simply a place for a boss battle when you first encounter it (although there is more stuff to do here later on), while the Desert Kingdom is absolutely massive, and so full of stuff that you can spend literal hours here just poking around.
The graphical style is absolutely gorgeous, but I personally found this weird mix of graphical styles a bit…unsettling? I mean, Mario himself is freakishly proportioned to start with, but putting him next to realistically-proportioned people just emphasises how freakish his stature actually is. Still, it’s a beautiful game, no matter which Kingdom you’re in, and the little details in the most unexpected of places is where the delight comes in. In fact, it’s the same “little things” design ethos that delighted us in Breath of the Wild that comes through in Super Mario Odyssey. It’s that, and the sheer number of things to do and see, whether it be finding secret paintings hidden around the Kingdoms, or racing around Tostarena on a Jaxi, or participating in a free-run from the top of Cap Kingdom to the bottom, or just hunting down those hidden doors and regions where you can gather more Moons.
Speaking of the Hat Doors (a door emblazoned with a hat symbol, which you open by throwing Cappy), the regions that these doors lead to are more reminiscent of those crazy standalone levels in Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario 3D Land than anything else, but are just as much fun to play and explore in as the outside Kingdom. The goal in these rooms is far clearer: get the one or two Power Moons at the end. The design aesthetic here is as wondrous as always, and often as frustrating and puzzling as before. I felt right at home.
We need to talk about controls for a bit. Super Mario Odyssey can be controlled in a number of ways, although the game recommends detached Joy-Cons. I tried all the methods, and found I actually did prefer the detached Joy-Con mode, simply because some of the attacks are impossible to pull off without waggling the controllers around. There’s nothing wrong with it, of course, and as a Super Mario Galaxy native, I was quite at home with the motion controls. Most of the attacks and moves can also be done with the Joy-Cons in the dock, but it’s far harder to pull off.
Nintendo, being Nintendo, added a two player mode as well, and I have to say it’s miles and away better than the paltry offering we had in Super Mario Galaxy, but also inferior to the multiplayer mode in Super Mario 3D World. Player two takes control of Cappy independently from Mario, and this has several ramifications. The first is that you have to be continually communicating with each other about where you’re going and what you’re aiming for. The second is that the camera naturally follows Mario around, not Cappy. I played this mode with a number of people to see how they accommodated it, and I played as both Mario and Cappy. It’s actually great fun both ways, and you don’t feel like you’re relegated to just an attachment. For what it’s worth, Nintendo got it right within the bounds of the game, and the ability to simply hand one Joy-Con to the other player makes it even better (although two sets of Joy-Cons is even betterer).
You’ll likely blaze through the story in Super Mario Odyssey, but funnily enough, the meat of the game is actually after the story is complete. I won’t spoil it more than that, but just know that “The End” is far from the end. While the story itself is Paper-Mario thin, the gameplay is about as solid as it’s ever going to be. Mario, Peach, and Bowser are archetypes; they do what they do, no matter what hat they’re wearing. If you want character depth, you’re better off looking at Mario’s brother, Luigi. On the other hand, although the main story might be short, it doesn’t have to be–you can take as much time as you like in each Kingdom.
As it stands, though, Super Mario Odyssey is easily the Nintendo Switch’s best platforming title, and the first serious Mario title for the console. I love that with a Mario game, you are never really out of your depth, and you know almost exactly what to expect: a heck of a lot of fun in a small, red package.