Super Mario Odyssey Review

The soul of Super Mario 64 is alive and well in the plumber's surreal and stunning new adventure.

At this year’s E3, Nintendo surprised many with a Super Mario Odyssey trailer that seemed insane even by Mario standards. He inhabited frogs by throwing a ghost hat at them. He strolled through a city alongside human figures with realistic proportions. Pauline from Donkey Kong is suddenly back, and is now a mayor and the lead singer of a swing band. Everything looked set to be Mario’s most surreal adventure yet.

Is Cappy just a boo under there?
Is Cappy just a boo under there?

Make no mistake about it, Super Mario Odyssey is a weird game. It’s wrapped around a concept featuring sentient hats, enemy possession, and Bowser making wedding preparations, but actually playing the game feels very familiar. Gone are the polarizing FLUDD from Super Mario Sunshine and the gravity-warping planetoids from the Galaxy games. While Mario may be able to occupy the bodies of numerous baddies and inanimate objects this time around, the experience feels more like Super Mario 64 than any of his other adventures.

Super Mario Odyssey’s worlds are to credit for most of this. Large and open, they encourage exploration more than any entry in series history. Areas in previous 3D Mario titles usually featured ten or less objectives to complete. Most kingdoms in Odyssey feature dozens. Completing these objectives grants you moons, which act as the fuel that powers your hat-shaped spaceship (named the Odyssey) and allows you to access new areas.

Completing larger objectives will net you a bigger reward.
Completing larger objectives will net you a bigger reward.

Collecting moons takes on many forms. Each area typically has a basic quest line, usually involving reaching a specific area and taking on a boss character. Like in Mario 64, these larger objectives are highlighted by the camera upon entering the stage. I’d typically finish these as soon as possible. These follow the trail of Bowser as he prepares for his wedding. He goes from kingdom to kingdom collecting items for the ceremony, and usually leaves a boss or two in his wake for you to deal with. Some of these areas are left in disrepair, like the frozen-over sand kingdom. Taking down Bowser's minions and completing the story missions restores the area to its natural state and opens up new objectives in the process.

As fun and creative as these story objectives are, Super Mario Odyssey’s greatest joy lies in the exploration. Moons are everywhere in this game. Yet somehow, it manages to never feel like a collectathon. You’re not hopping around and collecting dozens of floating icons devoid of context. Moons can be hidden behind puzzles, given as rewards for foot races, discovered by a friendly dog, or gifted to you by a lonely man on a bench that’s thankful for your company. You can get them by recommending the perfect music track to a Toad, herding sheep, using binoculars to spot something interesting in the sky, or crashing through a stone wall as a T-Rex.

He still needs to show off whenever he climbs something.
He still needs to show off whenever he climbs something.

Oh yeah, and you also get a lot of them by jumping on a lot of platforms with speed and precision. Odyssey can at times feel like an action-adventure game with all of its unique puzzles, but it’s still very much a platformer at its core. Mario’s platforming has always been the best in the genre, and it feels better than ever this time. Tons of abilities are available using relatively few buttons. It’s a fun challenge to figure out what combination of a standard jump, triple jump, side flip, backflip, dive, wall jump, and hat throw is optimal for a given situation. Even after collecting hundreds of moons, I still found myself learning new tricks by noticing how a Koopa Troopa beat me in a race.

Mario can do plenty when he’s in his standard form, but Odyssey’s biggest change to the formula comes via his new hat named Cappy. By throwing Cappy, you can possess over fifty enemies, allies, and objects. Some of these are one-offs like a cactus or tree with little to do but scoot them around. Others are critical to certain stretches of the game. You can swim underwater without air as a Cheep Cheep, scale walls as a Pokio, destroy obstacles as a Hammer Bro, or traverse through lava as a fireball.

You're not always possessing something. Sometimes you're just an oil tycoon nut hoarder.
You're not always possessing something. Sometimes you're just an oil tycoon nut hoarder.

Don’t worry about spending a Mario game playing as everything but Mario, however. You’ll have to possess these creatures and objects to satisfy many objectives, but the large majority of your time with the game will be spent as the plumber himself. Mechanically, many of these objectives are no different than when you’d have to get a cape in Super Mario World to access a specific part of the level. In Odyssey, you’ll hop into a Bullet Bill, use it to cross a chasm, and then hop back out. Becoming a frog will help you get up to that tall platform, but you’ll be back on Mario’s two feet right afterwards. Occasional moons will have you inhabiting something for a longer stretch than normal (good luck getting down that river of lava as anything other than a fireball), but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

Sometimes these possessions only serve to make something easier. At times I’d notice gaps and obstacles that were clearly designed with a specific capture ability in mind. When I’d see these, I’d occasionally test if I could bypass them with some creative usage of Mario’s core abilities. Sure, it’d be easier to get into that high-up alcove if I inhabited a huge stack of Goombas and then hopped out the top, but what if I did a triple jump into a wall jump, then did a 180 in mid-air, threw my hat and dove onto it? These unnecessarily complex maneuvers would frequently do the job. I wouldn’t recommend making every situation tougher on yourself than it needs to be, but it’s cool that the game is flexible enough to allow for some creative approaches.

Purple coins are your key to the heights of fashion.
Purple coins are your key to the heights of fashion.

Wandering around the worlds yields almost nonstop opportunities for discovery. Even with these large, detailed kingdoms, it feels like everything was placed where it is for a reason. I got into the habit of rotating the camera around every structure before I left an area, as there was almost always more to find than whatever moon brought me there in the first place. If it wasn’t another moon or two, it’d be a hidden stash of kingdom-specific purple coins.

These purple coins can be spent at an in-game store called Crazy Cap. Each kingdom features themed outfits (cowboy attire in the desert, an explorer outfit in the jungle, etc.) as well as stickers and items that you can decorate your ship with. It’s fun to see the inside and outside of the Odyssey gradually become covered and filled with mementos from your journey.

Some of Mario's activities are considerably less dangerous than others.
Some of Mario's activities are considerably less dangerous than others.

Mario’s unlockable outfits feature many great callbacks to his prolific past. From the obscure (a safari suit from the Japan-only Picross 2) to the recent (the builder outfit from Super Mario Maker), it’s all here. Changing your outfit almost never affects anything outside of aesthetics. You’ll occasionally run into a locked door or a character that requires the use of a specific costume, but these are few and far between. Since you won’t have to worry about it affecting gameplay, you’re free to wear whatever you want wherever you want. Mario may shiver uncontrollably if you make him race in the snow in his underpants, but you can do it nonetheless.

Traditional yellow coins are much easier to find than their rare purple counterparts. In a move that feels long overdue and extremely welcome, coins finally mean something and “lives” are a thing of the past. Having a finite supply of lives always seemed odd once the series moved to 3D. Now, your only penalty upon dying is a 10-coin fee and being sent back to your most recent checkpoint. You shouldn’t ever have to worry about running out of coins, as they’re everywhere and I wasn’t able to reach any kind of upper limit to how many you can hold. Outside of paying your death fee, these can also be used to purchase power-ups and additional costumes from a general store.

As we’ve discovered ever since the Wii U debuted, Mario’s world looks stunning in HD. This is the best it’s ever looked by a long shot. Each world is visually distinct and brimming with activity, and there’s a fun mix of the traditional Mario look alongside weirdly realistic T-Rex models and humans that in no way resemble the plumber’s art style. You'll visit a kingdom based on lunch items, a beach that prides itself on its carbonated water, a forest inhabited by talking garden machinery, and plenty more. Mario becomes covered in soot after walking past a chimney or standing too close to an explosion. He shivers and becomes covered in frost after plunging into icy waters. His bulbous nose even has physics, bouncing and swaying slightly as he runs around.

Photo mode is great.
Photo mode is great.

A built-in photo mode is fantastic for capturing interesting scenes. With a quick press of the d-pad, you can pan and zoom around Mario and easily snag great shots with the Switch’s capture button. I’ve never been one to spend much time with these modes in other games, but the expressiveness of Mario’s face and level of detail in the worlds made me really enjoy building out my photo album.

No matter which of the varied worlds you’re exploring, you’ll be accompanied by one of the franchise's best soundtracks. It features catchy tunes that would fit in with previous titles, alongside some great takes on swing, surf rock, low-key piano covers of Mario classics, and more. When Mario enters a pipe and emerges on a 2D plane with the visual style of the original Super Mario Bros., the currently playing track seamlessly transitions into an 8-bit version. On a couple of occasions, the soundtrack even features vocals. One song marks the closest the Mario series has ever come to resembling a post-Dreamcast Sonic game, and that's not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Two of Odyssey’s elements that I’m not fond of are almost entirely avoidable. One is a two-player mode that somehow feels even more useless than the “point the Wii remote to pick up star bits” feature from the Galaxy games. The second player can control Cappy, which means they’re confined to moving a spinning hat around the screen. It’s distracting for whoever is playing as Mario and no fun whatsoever for the person controlling Cappy.

Sometimes it's easier to just ride a thing than possess it.
Sometimes it's easier to just ride a thing than possess it.

My other complaint shouldn’t be surprising for anyone who’s owned a Nintendo console past the GameCube. If the hardware has a gimmick, Nintendo is sure as hell gonna try to shoehorn it in. That’s the case with the motion controls in the Joy-Con as well as the pro controller. In Odyssey, motion is usually used to give a slight speed boost to an action like climbing a vine or travelling across an electric wire. A couple of optional Cappy abilities are tied to motion, as well. This is where things can get a little annoying, as I’d love to use the cap’s slight homing ability or the circular throw with a button instead of an inconsistent jerking motion. Considering that the control scheme leaves several buttons unused or duplicated, there’s no reason the player shouldn’t be able to opt for a more traditional method for these actions. Thankfully, I rarely felt the need to use these actions unless I was trying to hit quick-moving creatures like birds and rabbits.

Like many Mario games, seeing the credits roll in no way means that you’re done with the game. This has never been more true than with Odyssey. I “beat” the game in less than fifteen hours, but spent dozens more collecting hundreds upon hundreds of additional moons until I had them all. This doesn’t feel like busywork or mindless completionism, as you’re often presented with new challenges, costumes, and surprising turns as your number climbs.

Super Mario Odyssey is everything I wanted out of a new Mario game. It’s bigger and better than any 3D entry in the series. Even with nearly a thousand tasks, I always felt like the game was throwing unique and fun challenges at me. It’s a great Switch game, as the number of smaller objectives made it easy to hop in and knock out a few moons on my commute. Meaningful fan service is plentiful, ranging from the subtle to the extremely overt.

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Unlike Breath of the Wild, this is not a complete reinvention of what an iconic Nintendo franchise is capable of. Super Mario Odyssey is very much a 3D Mario game with its roots set in Super Mario 64’s exploration and sense of discovery. Its surprises are less about the overarching format and more about the nooks and crannies carved into each and every world. Each kingdom is absolutely packed with charm, clever objectives, gorgeous visuals, a stellar soundtrack, and a huge variety of ways to have fun. One moon would have me leaping across tiny platforms with pinpoint precision, and the next would have me cheering up a businessman by dressing like a clown. At no point did I feel like I was checking boxes just to up my completion percentage. Even now that I've collected every moon and purple coin in the game, I still want to play more of it. It’s one of the most joyous and entertaining gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time, and it stands tall among the all-time great Mario games.