It seems like the day a new Mario game comes out is its own holiday. A celebration of carefree amusement and colorful adventure, each game’s release is a reminder of enjoying fun for fun’s sake. Super Mario Odyssey’s arrival on the Switch has been no different, and this time Nintendo has really outdone themselves. Simply put, Odyssey is a triumph, a charming romp around the world with everyone’s favorite plumber.
Much like Nintendo did with Zelda: Breath of the Wild early this year, Super Mario Odyssey aims to give the player as much freedom as possible within an open-world of sandbox-style exploration. Super Mario players haven’t really seen this level of freedom since the pioneering days of Super Mario 64. And wow, have the developers ever pulled it off in dramatic fashion!
By way comparison, the lauded Super Mario Galaxy games boasted genius spherical planetoid-hopping, gravity-based gameplay, but they actually had very linear levels that had to be played through in one way. A few secrets were sprinkled here and there, but there was almost no branching paths and very little freedom in where you chose to roam. Odyssey, on the other hand, offers tons of free-roaming exploration, which makes its world feel much larger and grander, even though Galaxy literally took Mario into space! The open-ended levels here feel like direct descendants of Super Mario 64 and Sunshine in a way that Galaxy’s stages never did.
Levels in Odyssey are generally large areas called Kingdoms, following the game’s globetrotting premise. These areas vary wildly, though Mario veterans will probably notice some of the archetypal level styles of old, like Desert land, Water land, Ice land, and Lava land. Interestingly, the big Lava level in this game is actually a food-themed, with a boiling sea of vegetable stew standing in for the usual fiery molten death. While there is a main path and boss fight laid out in each Kingdom, players are free to explore as much as they want along the way. There are secret collectibles and hidden paths to find throughout each area, and once the boss is defeated, the levels open up even more! Players can let curiosity be their guide and they run, jump, climb, flip, wall jump, long jump, dive, and roll all over the place, and Odyssey does a great job of rewarding players for the extra effort.
Most kingdoms are inhabited by their own unique race of townsfolk, meaning Mario will cross paths with a variety of quirky characters. There’s the eerily ghostlike hat people, Día de Muertos skeleton people, mermaids, gardening robots, and anthropomorphized fork people, just name a few. In the Metro Kingdom’s New Donk City—a clear homage to New York City, but jampacked with Donkey Kong references—the residents are extremely normal-looking, regularly proportioned human beings. This kind of begs the question: Is Mario even human? Is he actually a native of the Mushroom Kingdom? Might that account for his cartoonishly squat frame?
Hidden throughout Odyssey’s 17 kingdoms are an absolutely ridiculous amount collectables for you to discover, though finding most of these are purely optional. Some of the kingdoms are also bigger and more fleshed out than others, with a couple of them amounting to little more than a boss fight arena. That said, there are a ton of things to find here, just way, way, WAY more than Mario 64’s 120 stars. And beyond the main collectible macguffins, there are various outfits to dress Mario in, as well as stickers and nicknacks used to decorate your airship, which are purchasable through each kingdom's unique currency.
Instead of the Power Stars (or Shines) seen in previous 3D Mario titles, this time it’s Power Moons you collect. Random as the whole “moon” element might seem, it actually fits the game thematically fairly well. For one thing, the main story builds up to a climactic showdown on the moon. Along the way, several areas feature boss fights with rabbit characters from Bowser’s band of wedding planners, called the “Broodals”. Post-story, the Dark Side of the Moon is unlocked, an area thickly inhabited with rabbits where Mario can face the Broodals yet again. This moon-rabbit connection actually harkens back to Japanese folklore, which describes a rabbit on the moon who pounds rice to make mochi. Much like the tanuki references in Mario Bros 3 and elsewhere, it is arbitrary, but actually makes more sense within Japanese culture.
The element I most worried about going into Super Mario Odyssey was the game’s cute sidekick/guide character, Cappy. One of ghostlike, top hat-shaped residents of the Cap Kingdom, Cappy transforms himself in a copy of Mario’s trademark red cap and accompanies our mustachioed hero on his adventure. Guide characters in Mario games don’t quite have the infamous reputation that Zelda guide characters do, but I’m not overly fond of them either. Luckily, Cappy is relatively unobtrusive and generally only interjects comments when the situation legitimately warrants it. And considering the game’s overwhelming focus on hats, his presence is bizarrely appropriate.
Tossing Mario’s cap is the new gameplay twist in Odyssey, replacing punches & kicks from Mario 64 and the spin from Galaxy, as Mario’s new primary attack. It also gets used in tricky jump combinations as Mario can bounce off his cap while it's spinning in midair. Nintendo didn’t stop the hat trick there, however, as most enemies—and even innocent bystanders—can be “captured” by Mario’s haunted headwear if they are not already wearing a hat.
Toss your cap at someone who’s head is uncovered and Cappy will snap atop their crown, instantly Mario will be pulled inside their mind, and literally take possession of their body. It’s actually pretty messed up if you think about it too hard, but existential moral quandaries aside, the capture mechanic unlocks a world of gameplay possibilities. Possessing Goombas and Cheep Cheeps is good fun, but possessing Hammer Bros and Banzai Bills is better. The main story even manages to save its best captures for last.
Odyssey has multiple control options, including playing in portable mode or using the Pro Controller, and the game actually recommends using the Joy-cons detached for a freewheeling Wiimote-esque vibe in order to utilize motion controls. As someone who really doesn’t care for motion controls, I consistently ignored the game’s advice.
As it turns out however, using motion controls gives Mario’s moves added potency. Special cap throws, for example, can only be performed with motion controls. Additionally waggling the Joy-cons gets you higher frog jumps, and you’re able to fly faster and farther with bullet bills. Similarly, Glydon can sail much, much further when motion controllers are used than with with standard inputs. So motion controls are essentially mandatory, at least in rare circumstances, which is pretty lame in this player’s opinion. Please Nintendo, stop trying to make motion controls happen.
Much to the delight of diehard Mario fans, Odyssey is packed to the gills with clever callbacks and references to earlier Mario titles. There is a staggering number of alternate costumes to dress Mario in, including the outfits of other characters like Luigi and Wario, even Princess Peach’s wedding dress. Pretty much the entirety of New Donk City is made of Donkey Kong references, and there’s a festival level that really drives home the old-school arcade nostalgia. There’s even a Kingdom that unlocks after the story is completed that’s just one big love letter to a classic Mario game.
But perhaps my favorite callbacks are the special areas that transition into the classic 2D gameplay style of the original Super Mario Bros., complete with a pixelated Mario sprite—matching whatever outfit he’s currently wearing—and stage music seamlessly turning 8-bit in order to emulate the audio limitations of the NES. The transition itself is execute so well that the jump into and out of 2D gameplay feels perfectly in place within Odyssey’s world.
Ultimately, I think it’s that masterful blend of new and old at the core of what makes Super Mario Odyssey such a profoundly satisfying experience. It harkens back to Mario’s greatest adventures to date, but also eclipses their scale with a new huge open-ended journey. It overtly pays homage to its series history, but is still its own unique stand-alone experience.
So if you've enjoyed recent Mario outings, but felt a little too bound by the "reach the flagpole" style of level design that Nintendo's been leaning heavily on, you're going to be delighted by Super Mario Odyssey. This is the true successor to Super Mario 64 and Sunshine.