It’s been a good year for fans of 3D platformers, all things considered. It’s like waiting for a bus – you get criminally underappreciated by the gaming industry for years and then three turn up at once.
I personally think Yooka-Laylee is being underrated quite badly by mainstream review outlets lately – It’s not perfect, but a lot of what are being highlighted as flaws are more like problems with the genre as a whole. Nonetheless, with its release, Playtonic Games (mostly ex-Rare employees, industry experts – the Banjo-Kazooie guys) set the stage for a true revival of the platformer. A Hat In Time was a superbly charming and charmingly superb adventure held back only by its length – like those tiny delicious meals at fancy froufrou restaurants. (I presume, I’m probably way too common for that sort of thing.) By comparison, Super Mario Odyssey is Christmas dinner at your Gran’s – a banquet that’ll leave you full for hours, eating leftovers for two weeks and dealing with the biscuit surplus for months. And it all tastes so gooood.
You may have noticed I’m stalling. Reviewing Odyssey is kind of a big deal for me, it’s like telling your Dad how to dress; sure, you’re probably qualified to do it, but they spent so long dressing you that there’s still something off about it. Likewise, so much of my gaming sensibility is informed by the 3D platformers of my childhood – Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Banjo-Kazooie (obviously), but most of all Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario 64 – that critiquing this game means taking those games down from the pedestal I’ve put them on. Though I guess it’s a major compliment I’m even comparing Odyssey to those nostalgia-tinted classics.
Let’s start with the basics. Nintendo has put a cheeky new spin on their classic institution of “Turtle Steals Princess Because Of Reasons,” and the plot of Super Mario Odyssey centres on “Turtle Wants to Marry Princess… Because Of Reasons.” Obviously the plot of a Mario game matters less than the sell-by date on wine, but it’s nice that this time around you’re actively chasing Bowser down, rather than him sitting around in some castle a thousand miles away waiting for you; it gives some relevancy to the “main quest,” if you could even call it that. The game also skips the actual “stealing” part of Nintendo’s six word mantra, and the game opens with Mario already confronting Bowser, dressed in a spiffy white suit like some Colonel Sanders-wannabe, aboard his airship. (And by the way I’m not okay with Bowser in a suit, if just because it implies he knows he’s naked the rest of the time, which is just… ew.) Bowser promptly beats Mario with his fancy new getup (literally) and sends him flying to the world’s largest Carpet-right, also known as Bonneton. Here he meets Cappy, who is first of all ADORABLE, and secondly breaks this game wide open. It transpires that Bowser has kidnapped Cappy’s sister, Tiara (who is a tiara), and is proceeding to steal wedding-themed paraphernalia from all the kingdoms of the land. All the kingdoms of the land are pretty miffed about this, understandably, so Mario and Cappy set off to set him straight. Victims of hat-penstance, if you will.
As suggested, Cappy is what makes this game quite so wildly entertaining. As well as providing Mario with a basic ranged attack, throwing him while jumping first gives Mario a little boost to help with precision platforming, and moreover provides a platform for some really serious technical distance jumps. That’s part of the reason this game its quite such a joy to play; Nintendo has worked their magic and taken the Super Mario 64 inspiration seriously; Mario is more fun to just control than ever – and while the game can be beaten with simple running and jumping, utilising the chunky plumber’s acrobatics to get around is hugely entertaining. Cappy is also the conduit for this game’s main “gimmick;” Cap-turing. On hitting any creature (or Bullet Bill, or taxi, or anything really, Mario isn’t choosy) unfortunate enough to not be rocking some headwear, plumber and poltergeist possess the poor thing and gain full control of it. This replaces the traditional power-up system and is, frankly, genius. Instead of simply adding to Mario’s move set, each “capture” controls uniquely, and has their own set of challenges to overcome: goombas are slow but have non-slip feet, and can be stacked, primarily to impress lady-goombas who are very much of the mindset that size matters. Hammer Bros are powerful, but constantly jump around like they’re at a rave on several different illegal substances. Any one of these captures could reasonably fill out their own platformers, but Odyssey throws them all at you and keeps the game feeling fresh and interesting.
That’s just as well too, because there’s a lot of game here. Each kingdom is bursting with “Moons,” the token Mario Collectible McGuffin™, with some having over 100 of the shiny little blighters hidden – as well as purple coins, which serve as a region-specific currency. These are primarily spent on costumes full of neat little references to Mario’s often-obscure past – perfect for seeing Mario run around dressed like a Mexican, a scientist, in his boxers or fulfilling your sordid desires for a Super Waluigi Odyssey. Lots of sources are citing different numbers for total number of moons, with estimates ranging from 880 to 999; in around 40 hours of gameplay (don’t judge me) I’ve found just over 700, with largely the more time-consuming ones left to go. This completely blows away the sort of time-frame any other 3D platformer, even previous Mario games, could boast, and the way Odyssey is filled to the brim with content is one of its strongest features.
Just as strong is the presentation. Along with a couple of new protégés, long-time Mario composer and general legend Koji Kondo has returned and really outdone himself with the soundtrack. Just like the levels, the music has a real variety of influences – every track fits perfectly, from relaxing beach tracks, to jazzy upbeat big-band style music, to classic poppy Mario goodness. The graphics, too, are pristine – it honestly takes a moment to realise it’s a Mario game that’s looking this good. Too good even, Mario’s moustache having individually modelled hairs and his nose having realistic jiggle-physics is uncanny on a level that takes a little getting used to. Colours palettes, stylistic choices, particle effects, all are tuned just so to make everything “pop.” It’s a real masterclass.
So at this point you’re probably asking “is this game perfect? Should we throw down our tools and rise from our desks, and congregate and worship Super Mario Odyssey as the one true god?” Well… almost. The frame-rate can have a few very little hiccups occasionally, particularly in very detailed areas like New Donk City. If you’re used to N64 classics like me, where the frame rate used to chug like a frat boy on St. Patrick’s Day, it won’t bother you at all, but it’s something to consider. The main game is perhaps a little too easy – but the post-game gets difficulty spot on, and as mentioned makes up the majority of the game, so that’s not too bad either. Some of Mario’s more advanced moves can be just a little fiddly, but again, they’re optional, and, in a case of art mirroring reality, a lot of the late-game rewards are just a little too expensive, to the point of feeling like a grind. None of these really impacts what is an incredible, borderline-perfect package, but I would be remiss not to mention them.
Super Mario Odyssey is a return to form for Mario you didn’t even know he needed. It’s bursting with new ideas, and old ones, too – there’s some really genuinely heartfelt fan-service in the postgame that shows Nintendo appreciates their Mario fans a whole lot (that I shan’t spoil). If you own a Switch or even if you don’t, this is a gaming experience any gamer can’t afford to miss – and with the thunderous head of steam Nintendo has built up this year, the real adventure will be where they go from here. I can’t wait to see what hat-pens next.