The “2016 is awful!” memes got old about a day in, but the fact of the matter is that it was often a rough year for video games. Street Fighter V launched in a comically unfinished state, Mighty No. 9 proved that I was right all along about Kickstarter and No Man’s Sky was…yeah. That’s also saying nothing of the many lesser disappointments that occurred throughout the year, including Mafia 3 and Homefront: The Revolution. 2017 has been the polar opposite, with hit after hit releasing on a near-weekly basis.
And thanks to the Switch we’ve seen Nintendo responsible for a fair number of those hits. Breath of the Wild was a showstopper, of course, and now their mustachioed mascot headlines another Nintendo’s heavy-hitter with Super Mario Odyssey. Mamma Mia!
Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser yet again! He’s out to marry her as he so often is, and he’s serious this time, too – he’s got a fancy airship, a dapper hat and suit and a whole new set of minions who are out to steal the best wedding finery from all over the world. It’s up to Mario to stop him, but the unhappy couple’s got a head start, so the intrepid plumber-doctor will need to take a ship of his own, the Odyssey, to try and catch up. He’s not alone, either; Mario teams up with Cappy of the Cap Kingdom, a talking hat whose sister Tiara had also been kidnapped by Bowser, and the two work together to find Power Moons to fuel the Odyssey and stop the wedding.
If that concept sounds familiar, it’s not surprising – Mario Odyssey would very much like to be the new Super Mario 64, though it’ll settle for Sunshine if it can’t reach those lofty heights. There’s an interesting divergence in how it goes about the collectathon formula compared to its predecessors, though. 64 and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Sunshine made a point of having your “big” collectibles feel like an Event. You’ve done something big and now you’ve got a Star or Shine for your trouble. That’s the central loop of this sort of game. It’s been refined for decades now.
Odyssey throws a sizeable amount of that out of the window and takes the opposite tack: you’ve done…pretty much anything and now you’ve got a Moon for your trouble. Some Moons are clearly bigger deals than others, resulting in a glamour shot of Mario and Cappy, and some are the biggest deals of all, offering you several Moons at once. The vast majority, though, are obtained via relatively minor acts and given little fanfare, barely even registering as a press on the Skinner box button. It’s an unusual approach, one that even more recent nostalgia-bait collectathons like Yooka-Laylee and A Hat in Time haven’t gone with, and I’m not sure how to feel about it. There’s a greater sense of incremental progress in Odyssey, which might be considered a plus, but to some degree your victories feel a little less substantial because of how often you’ll earn them. Completion-focused gamers are unlikely to mind, in any case, as the growing scarcity of Moons as you start to clear the levels out makes every win feel fantastic.
The means by which Mario will explore the various Kingdoms and search for Moons have been shaken up quite a bit since recent Mario outings as well. Mario’s got his usual array of jumps as well as a new roll that allows you to get around quickly, but the real change is that he’s got Cappy with him. Mario can throw Cappy like a boomerang to take out enemies, break blocks and collect items or use him as a step for jumps; Mario always having access to a ranged attack option is another way that Odyssey recalls Sunshine.
Perhaps the most significant thing Cappy can do, though, is Capturing enemies, allowing Mario to possess them and use their abilities for himself. The possibilities here are numerous and varied, ranging from using a plant with extendable roots for super-high jumps to taking over a squid that can spray water to fly around and get things wet. Capturing provides a new dimension to the standard Mario gameplay by incorporating different playstyles directly into the game; it’s a fantastic idea that helps broaden Odyssey’s horizons significantly.
None of this would mean much, of course, without Nintendo’s trademark masterwork level design heading everything up. Exploring the many Kingdoms that the duo will journey through is a delight, and as mentioned there’s a reward behind pretty much every corner just waiting for you to find it. There’s a fair amount of variety between Kingdoms as well, with the game touching on most every Mario trope (you’ve got your forest, your snow level and not one, but two water levels) and introducing some new ideas, including the Metro Kingdom, a New York-esque city that represents the game’s peak moment. The flavor of each Kingdom is emphasized by the ability to dress Mario up in various new outfits purchasable for Coins in stores throughout the world, with each Kingdom having their own offerings.
One way or the other, the constant influx of Moons means that you’ll rarely be in one place for long before you’re off to a new land with new challenges, perhaps returning later to seek more goodies if you’re after that coveted completed save file. There’s a ton to do in each and every Kingdom; the name of the game here is variety, as one of the perks of having such a large number of micro-rewards is the huge number of things the game can encourage you do to do earn them. Use the Joy-cons as radar to find buried Moons? Sure! Capture someone so you can drive an RC car for them? Why not, let’s not consider the metaphysical implications of that! Switch over to a side-scrolling mode reminiscent of NES Mario and do some classic platforming? Absolutely; Odyssey particularly loves that one.
The usual gushing about first-party Nintendo games, particularly headliner franchises like Mario, looking great applies here, and the usual gushing about how it still looks great when you’ve got the Switch in handheld mode applies as well. Sound effects and music are great as well, and I’m sure by now you’re familiar with the game’s toe-tapping theme song – which is one hell of an earwig. It’s a Mario game. You know what to expect and precisely that has been delivered. It’s hard to ask for more.
Bottom line: Super Mario Odyssey is Mario; it’s gaming’s Oscar bait. Nintendo knows what to do with Mario and they’ve done just that again, resulting in a fantastic game that only isn’t a shoo-in for Game of the Year because 2017 has been an improbably great year for video games. Hell, there’s some talk about how this might be one of the best games ever made. I’m not going to get into that brawl, though, and instead say that this is a must-own for Switch owners. Add it to the pile of high-quality Switch games, in other words. If you don’t have a Switch yet, well…I’m not sure what you’re waiting for, but it’s time to add it to your Christmas list.