I’m a lifelong, bleeding-heart, own-all-the-merch, Nintendo fan. I firmly believe that in a fair and just society arguments are settled in 1-v-1 races on Mario Kart 64 (Mirror Mode on Yoshi Valley because justice is a harsh and cruel mistress) and nothing will match the console-controller-games triumvirate of perfection that was the Gamecube. Mario, Link, Samus, Kirby, Fox – those were the pillars upon which my pasty-white childhood was constructed. In short: I bloody well love me a good Nintendo game.
There hasn’t been a fully-fledged 3D Mario platformer since the the superlative Mario Galaxy series, still the creative zenith of all things mascots and jumping, and following it up was always going to be an exceptionally hard task. Fortunately, however, Nintendo have made their lives considerably easier by publishing an entire generation of largely uninspired, creatively “safe” Mario titles under the “New” banner among others.
So when the trailer for Mario Odyssey dropped alongside the Nintendo Switch reveal I dropped all my cynicism at the door and bounded gleefully aboard the hype train. The characters, the worlds, the colours – it was all of my Mario 64, Sunshine (shut up, it’s a great game), and Galaxy dreams realised at once. So when the opportunity arose to get my hands on it, you better believe I activated the Bullet Bill I keep in my pocket for emergencies, and shot straight over there.
He’s done it all, has Mario – mastered every possible sport, travelled all over the universe, collected all of the things – but now he’s going where no cartoon plumber has gone before: an awkwardly realised “real-life” human city. New Donk City to be exact, and it was hard to shake the feeling that it looked a little, well… off.
The style just wasn’t there – the big, brash, colourful style so synonymous with Nintendo first-party titles and, more specifically, all things “Mushroom Kingdom.”
There’s a choice of 2 worlds: the Sand Kingdom, a Mexico-themed desert world that seemed much more traditionally Mario-y; and the Metro Kingdom, aka New Donk City. The Sand Kingdom had the bright colours, kooky characters, and obvious gameplay gimmicks you come to expect from a Mario title (including fantastic looking 2D-platforming sections that melded seamlessly with the 3D world) but I was more interested in having a hands-on with New Donk City, not only because of its outstanding name, but also because it looked so weird. And not in a good way. The dominant colour is grey (grey! In a Mario game!) and the “real-world” setting, complete with overly bland fedora-wearing city-folk, jars visually and thematically with Mario’s triple-jumping, wahoo-ing presence.
However, I’m very pleased to say that most of these doubts evaporated like the eviscerated remains of a stomped Goomba when I actually started playing. It controls like a dream and for every way the world seems bland from a distance it comes roaring to life when you’re in it yourself. Mario’s jumping repertoire is present and accounted for (triple-jump, ground-pound, back-flip et al) and they’re an absolute joy to execute with the – ahem – Joy-Cons. Everything is positioned intuitively, although the motion controls are a major point of contention. There’s no sprint button (for shame!) – instead you can make Mario roll at speed by holding 2 buttons down and waggling the remotes which just feels clunky, unnecessary, and the epitome of the worst aspects of motion control gaming. Fingers crossed they can be turned off,because they only serve to pull you out of a game world so dynamic and responsive you just want to run wild – like this particularly enthusiastic dude:
Joining the toybox in Odyssey is Cappy, a sentient cap that Mario can use to fight enemies by flinging it like a boomerang, turning it into platforms for jumping, and taking control of objects both alive and inanimate… kinda like a headcrab (let’s just be glad Cappy’s on our side). Like F.L.U.D.D. before it, Cappy is a well-realised gimmick tool with a crazy amount of gameplay potential. There are rockets to activate, power cables to ride, girders to climb, rooftops to traverse, musicians to find, public property to destroy (fire hydrants, taxis, bollards etc), actual humans to harass, creatures to stomp, and, of course, collectables to hoard.
True to form, Odyssey goes out of its way to tempt the insatiable kleptomaniac that lives deep down in each of us, offering different kinds of coins that act as world-specific currency. In the demo-build I had access to, the only use for coins I could find (it was a big demo and I definitely didn’t see everything) was to buy power-ups and clothing for Mario, though I expect the full game will come with more options. So yeah, you can now dress up Mario to your heart’s content. While some players will inevitably see this as (further) sacrilegious casualisation of a beloved series (you can’t “Game Over” or take fall damage in Odyssey either) it seems like an entirely harmless and fun addition to the game. So everyone chill.
More than in previous flagship Mario titles, Odyssey goes out of its way to continually reward you. Rather than Stars or Shine Sprites (i.e. suns) we have Moons this time around (what’s next, Nintendo – black holes?) and they are much easier to find than their lustrous predecessors. One of the main quest lines in New Donk City is finding a troupe of musicians for Mayor Pauline (oh yeah, she’s back by the way, Mario’s original leading lady in “Donkey Kong” from way back at the dawn of time in 1981) and you get a Moon for each musician you find – 5 in total – whereas in previous games you may have expected just the one for fully completing the quest.
Considering that one of the musical men is literally standing outside the building where you start the quest and the others are standing around in largely accessible places, it might seem that Odyssey has undercut the fine-tuned platforming difficulty from yesteryear.
Fear not however, as trickier puzzle and jumping sections are very much present too, including an excellent challenge that asks you to wall-jump up construction-site scaffolding. It seems Odyssey may have found the balance between accessibility and challenge. Unlike in previous titles, you aren’t sucked out of the level after acquiring one of the game’s shiny MacGuffins and are instead left to continue freely exploring the sandbox, giving the game a free-flowing, seamless sense of exploration which marks a definite improvement over previous titles. So while some tasks are much easier to complete than others, the overall balance of challenge and reward seems pretty solid. In the 20 minutes or so people had to play, most ended with 3-5 Moons and I ended with 6 #NotSoHumbleBrag.
From the moment I knew Mario Odyssey was a thing, I had it pegged as a system seller (I already had Breath of the Wild on the Wii-U – goodnight, sweet prince) and my main takeaway from actually playing the game is that my gut was absolutely right.
There’s a distinct sense that this game is big in every way – full of ideas, stuffed with charm, brimming with things to do and innocent creatures to by turns murder and brainwash. As a fan of all things Mario I’m incredibly excited for Odyssey – no wait, scratch that: as a fan of all things fun I’m excited for Odyssey. And you should be too.