Odyssey looks like a straight successor to the Mario 64 and Sunshine line of sandbox 3D Marios, but it is much more than that. Naturally, it evokes, honors, and is sometimes directly inspired by the games that came before it in its characters, music, and mechanics. But it also has new things to say as well, like fusing classic-style 2D gameplay with the 3D world and using a completely new possession mechanic to add constant variety to Mario’s abilities and exploits.
That possession power, embodied by Mario’s new sidekick/headwear Cappy, is Odyssey’s big new idea. In keeping with Nintendo’s decades-long tradition of charmingly nonsensical storylines, he’s a hat with a soul, and he’s teamed up with Mario in order to rescue his sister Tiara who… wait for it… has been kidnapped by Bowser along with Princess Peach. (I said it was charming, not original.) Cappy’s power allows you to possess many other characters by throwing Mario’s hat at them, which bizarrely slurps Mario’s physical body inside of the enemy and gives you full control over their powers. Cappy’s also used as a jumping pad and a weapon, sparing Mario’s tuchus from an untold number of butt-stomps this time around (though you can still do that, if you wish).
Many of the cleverest and most smile-inducing possessions are best left to be discovered for yourself, but whether it was thrashing about as a huge, realistic-looking T-rex in the prehistoric-themed Cascade Kingdom or becoming a lowly Goomba but then making a stack of Goombas 10-tall to win over a hard-to-impress Lady Goomba, Odyssey mixes up the gameplay in surprising ways in each of its 16-plus worlds. Throughout the entire campaign, you’re using new creatures in new, game-changing ways on a regular basis.
Odyssey’s inspired integration of 2D gameplay – complete with Super Mario Bros.-era 8-bit art – deserves special mention. Entering into a pixelated pipe in the 3D space transports you to a side-scrolling 2D challenge that takes place on the surface of an object in the world, almost like Link’s 2D transformation in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Most of these sequences aren’t too long – I wished they were longer, in fact – but each blends pure, weapons-grade retro gameplay with numerous other callbacks while still mixing things up in ways they never appeared in those original games, such as flipping gravity or wrapping the 2D scene around the corner of a 3D object. They bend the rules so far they go beyond even the most ambitious creations we saw in Super Mario Maker.
It’s also super fun seeing Mario’s new costumes get translated into the old 8-bit art style. My favorites include the aviator suit and the retro-colored builder outfit, for no other reason than them being fun looks for the veteran plumber, but you can also mix and match hats and outfits to your heart’s content.
Of all the disparate lands Mario visits in his Odyssey, the urban-themed Metro Kingdom is my favorite. We’ve never seen anything like its semi-realistic look of New Donk City in a Mario game before. Not only do its urban obstacles allow for some kinetic platforming – bouncing off of the hoods of cars and flinging yourself off of city poles, for instance – but tucked-away minigames like an RC car race and a jump-rope challenge are great diversions. All the while, the sheer artistic contrast between the city and Mario’s consistently cartoony look and proportions have already generated interesting discussions about who – or more specifically what – Mario actually is. (Was “plumber” just a euphemism for some kind of goblin all along?) The end of the New Donk City portion might, in fact, be the very peak of the pleasure that Odyssey delivers on a consistent basis. Its conclusion is a literal celebration that doubles as a figurative one; Odyssey is pure joy that seems to understand and relish that about itself.
On that note, I strongly recommend playing on a TV whenever possible. It’s not that it plays poorly in handheld mode – it runs perfectly smoothly at 60 frames per second in either mode, although there are no touchscreen controls even in minigames where they’d have made sense. The drawback to playing on the go is that the tiny screen doesn’t do nearly as good a job of showing off the scope and detail of the characters and worlds, such as the funny faces Mario makes when performing certain actions and the tiny 8-bit icons hidden on some walls. (Toss Cappy at them to get a quick gold-coin reward!). Of course, it’s every bit as good a game in handheld mode.
I expected to be able to continue playing even after the plot had been resolved, given Odyssey’s 3D sandbox structure, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much there is to do after it’s “over.” In fact, some of its finest moments follow the credits, from new unlockables that nod lovingly toward the past, to a clever new implementation of an old friend, to entire new worlds. I’m still not ready to put Odyssey down, nor do I expect to be for quite some time.
That said, like internal Nintendo studio EAD’s other top-shelf Mario games – and unlike the “adapt and survive, or die trying” philosophy of Nintendo’s other 2017 masterpiece, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Odyssey isn’t particularly difficult. Most boss fights are over a bit quicker and easier than their gorgeous designs would suggest, and when you do fail, deaths tax you an almost meaningless 10 gold coins to try again from liberally distributed checkpoints. As such, you rarely lose much progress.
Instead, its challenge lies in exploration. There are hundreds and hundreds of Power Moon collectibles to discover, and you’ll want to gather them because they are the keys that unlock new worlds – including the aforementioned post-credits locales! Many Moons are quite difficult to track down, and even once you’ve located them, it’s enjoyably challenging to try and suss out how to get your white-gloved mitts on them. Some are behind classic invisible walls, others are tucked away in linear areas that try to fool you into thinking there’s only one Moon inside of. Each is a fun mini-puzzle to solve – particularly the ones that newly dot the landscape after the story mode ends. I did my best to search thoroughly on my first pass through the campaign, but only ended up with a little more than 200, or less than a quarter of the total complement of collectible celestials.
While Odyssey does a great job of thinking outside of the 3D platformer box, it doesn’t invent a way to slay all of the genre’s demons. The camera, for instance still causes trouble sometimes, leading you to whiff on a jump or get the wrong angle to see a boss attack coming.
On a logistical note: despite the fact that Nintendo recommends playing with separated Joy-Con controllers when you first start Odyssey up, you can play with whatever you like and not miss a beat in the gameplay. In fact, I felt much more comfortable with the fantastic Pro Controller, which lets you do most of the same motion-based gestures by waving the gamepad. It also supplies all of the same HD Rumble feedback the Joy-Con do.
Mario’s games have been around for almost as long as game consoles have been a thing, but thankfully, he’s always evolving. We rarely get the same Mario twice. Super Mario Odyssey delivers on that ongoing promise of originality and innovation: It distills the venerable series’ joyful, irreverent world and characters and best-in-class platforming action, and introduces a steady stream of new and unexpected mechanics. It’s all spun together into a generational masterpiece.