There’s a moment in Nintendo’s latest Mario game - the hero's first proper outing on the Switch - that perfectly sums up its joyous tone. During a vaunt through a metropolis called New Donk City, a rooftop party’s in full swing, with Pauline - formerly the damsel in distress from Donkey Kong, now mayor - belting out a show-stopping tune called Jump Up, Super Star. As fireworks splash across the sky, Mario bounces and jumps through a network of 2D and 3D environments that read like a compendium of games past. Super Mario Odyssey is, in short, a title that takes in everything from Mario’s earliest exploits to the present - and adds more than a few new ideas of its own into the mix.
Super Mario Odyssey is the next centerpiece Mario title, the latest in a lineage that includes the NES originals and Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and the Super Mario Galaxy games. Despite the constant proliferation of Mario spinoffs and adjuncts, the endless stream of unassociated games with Mario’s name and face splashed all over them, the series of so-called “core” Mario releases remains the most consistently great (and, thus, venerated) series in games. Odyssey isn’t just the latest in that line, but quite possibly the best. That means it might be the most purely fun videogame ever made.
“Fun” isn’t a bad word. Some editors tell writers to avoid it in reviews because it doesn’t have a concrete meaning. Your idea of fun might be entirely different than mine. (Like, you might enjoy golf, for some reason.) Still, we’re all familiar with the concept of fun, even if we can’t agree on a definition. That gives it value. And there’s almost nothing in any medium that more deserves the word, and more lives up to all the many meanings it might take, than a Super Mario game.
Here’s the math, boiled down to its basics: Mario equals fun. The word might be nebulous but from the beginning Nintendo has prioritized the pursuit of pure pleasure with its mainline Mario games. Forget story, forget subtext, forget commentary—forget everything but the simple elation of guiding this brave little man through the beautiful and multifaceted series of worlds found in his every adventure. Almost every main Mario game is a whimsical masterpiece of perfectly calibrated play and adorable art design, a glorious living cartoon that synthesizes the various multimedia strands that make up a videogame more seamlessly and holistically than anything else in the artform. Perfection is an impractical goal in any artistic pursuit, but other than a few hiccups with the camera (that most persistent of videogame vexations), the best Mario games are as close to perfect as anything ever released on a cartridge or disc. Super Mario Odyssey might be the best of them all.
This might read like overkill, like an exaggeration built on hype and nostalgia. And maybe it is! Maybe, when you play Odyssey, you won’t feel the constant, overwhelming warmth that I felt, the joy buzzing around instead my brain as I schlepped through every kingdom and hunted down hundreds of power moons. (Yeah, you collect things. It’s-a Mario game.) It’s possible it won’t resonate with you as powerfully as it did with me. Maybe, just maybe, my version of fun doesn’t line up with yours. That’s cool. No worries. Let’s dig into why this thing is so fun, though, and why I think it’ll be hard for people who approach Odyssey in good faith to not embrace it similarly.
Like Breath Of The Wild, Super Mario Odyssey feels like a game that looks outwards as well as inwards. Beneath the cute window-dressing, Mario’s new side-kick, a sentient hat called Cappy, introduces a mechanic not dissimilar from the possession ability in Dishonored: by throwing his hat at certain enemies, Mario can take control of them and make use of their special abilities. Those old hapless Goombas, for example, have the advantage of having non-slip feet (perfect for traversing icy ground), and with well timed jumps, you can stack one Goomba on top of the other to reach high platforms. Take control of a Bullet Bill, and you can fly across dangerous stretches of lava; take on a Koopa, and you’ll be able to bounce around and throw projectiles. This is nothing less than Super Mario Bros: The Possession.
It might sound like a minor twist on the established Tanooki suits and Bee suits of old in theory, but in practice, Cappy gives Odyssey an entirely different feel. Far from mere power-ups, the “capture” mechanic (as Nintendo calls it) is vital for beating certain areas: you’ll need to possess a Cheep Cheep - those oddly named fish - to swim to certain parts of the map. You won’t be able to smash through a wall without taking on the charging ability of a Chargin’ Chuck. Mastering these abilities is also key to Odyssey’s main attraction: exploring and collecting trinkets.
Sure, Odyssey has a central campaign and a story to see through to the end, and it’s shop-worn stuff. Bowser’s kidnapped Princess Peach (again), this time with the intention of forcibly taking her hand in marriage. Moving from location to location in his ship, the Odyssey, it’s Mario’s job to collect the Power Moons that keep his craft in the sky. Once he’s got enough of those, it’s off to the next kingdom, each one bringing him a bit closer to Bowser and Princess Peach.
Unlike Homer’s Odyssey, which just drifts on and on, there’s no wasted time in this world. Every decision you make or direction you head in will lead you to a useful discovery, assuming you haven’t already cleared that area out. Instead of a series of objectives with optional side business you can pursue, every kingdom is a large puzzle made up of dozens of smaller puzzles that you can tackle in any order and at any moment. Some are easy to solve, others will take thought and effort to crack. Together they make up a game that’s overflowing with possibilities but that never feels overstuffed. You can head in any direction on any of its kingdoms, and unless you’ve already been there and wiped it clean, you’ll stumble into something that you’re looking for. There is always something to do or collect in Odyssey but it never feels like busy work, and you never feel like you’re pressured into doing any of it at any single moment.
Despite how that sounds, it’s not a true open world game, though. In the Mario tradition, it’s split up into a number of different levels, called kingdoms, each one of which is designed with a specific theme in mind. Instead of a large sandbox, Super Mario Odyssey is a series of small, distinct sandboxes that can be revisited at any point and in any order as you unlock them. This structure prevents the kind of aimlessness that can creep into other open world games, when it’s not clear where you need to go or what you need to do to proceed. Also, like most of the “core” Mario games, this one is built on classic Mario mechanics that are bolstered by significant new additions. Running, jumping and stomping are still Mario’s forte, but this time he can use his new anthropomorphic hat friend Cappy to commandeer the bodies of a variety of creatures. This gives Mario dozens of new skills that will come in handy at specific moments, like the ability to jump higher, to swim without needing oxygen, or to just fly and blow stuff up because oh hey Mario can become a living bomb now. Instead of just donning a suit that resembles, say, a frog, or a Bullet Bill, Mario adapts to their forms; they look the way they also do, but immediately grow a mustache and don Mario’s signature red cap. That’s completely adorable pretty much every time it happens. After decades of ducking Cheep Cheeps and squashing Goombas, there’s an undeniable appeal to finally taking control of them and bopping your way through deadly parallel dimensions built around cooking or a 1930s Hollywood version of New York City. This is a crucial touch that gives Odyssey a unique hook within the annals of the series.
You know what’s also fun? Fashion. And Odyssey is basically a Mario fashion show, with him collecting multiple new outfits on every kingdom he visits. Most of them are purely aesthetic, but on most levels there will be one area Mario can’t access without wearing the local style. Mixing and matching hats and threads can lead to some absurd combinations, which makes an already cute game almost criminally adorable. There are some missteps here—the sombrero and poncho get-up in the bizarre Mexican-themed planet is a bit cavalier towards that culture. You might think Mario or the Desert Kingdom’s odd skeleton people look cute in those clothes, but it’s a little too uncomfortably close to outdated racial stereotypes. That’s a real country with real people and a real culture, not a cartoon. The vast majority of costume options don’t flirt with bad taste like that, offering another playful opportunity in a game already overloaded with playfulness.
That’s really what Odyssey boils down to: extreme, unrelenting playfulness. Everything in the game exists solely to entertain. It’s a flawless little diamond of good cheer, a straight shot of undiluted fun as pure as any we’ve seen before in videogames. Again: It’s a Mario game.
Boss battles, which largely take in a rabble of giant, angry rabbits in hats called the Broodals, are inventive and fun - one encounter, involving a huge wood-and-iron mecha, is a joy - but far less taxing than some of the ones we recall from, say, Super Mario Galaxy or its 2010 sequel. We found that, once we figured out their movement patterns, we were able to beat them within a couple of goes. Even the tricker ones in the very latest kingdoms will provide a bit of additional help for players that need it: die a few times, and a seller will appear to offer a Life-Up Heart, which doubles the number of hits Mario can take from three to six. Assuming you’re willing to hand over 50 coins for the boost, it’s a handy way for younger or less experienced players to make those boss battles just a little easier.
By collecting the minimum of Power Moons, it’s possible to blitz through to the end credits within about eight hours. To do so inevitably misses the point of what Nintendo has attempted to create with Odyssey: a game where discovery itself is the challenge. Through a mix of Mario’s acrobatics and Cappy’s abilities, it’s possible to take all kinds of detours around each kingdom, and spending a few extra minutes trying to reach a distant hill or hard-to-reach platform will reliably reward your effort. Rockets will whisk you off to hidden challenge courses. Pipes will open up areas that playfully mix the two- and three-dimensional. Every kingdom is packed with tiny moments designed to engage and raise a smile.
To the traditional stage themes of fire, ice and lush pasture, Odyssey adds some bold new designs for its kingdoms. The game’s centrepiece is New Donk City, an urban sprawl that feels like Nintendo thumbing its nose to developers like Rockstar and Rocksteady; there’s a moment early on where Mario takes control of a tank on a moonlit street, and it immediately reminded us of Batman: Arkham Knight.Bouncing around on taxis, hunting down jazz musicians or collecting coins on a rooftop, and we started having flashbacks to the superb Lego City Undercover. Opinions may well be divided over Odyssey’s clash of aesthetics: the squat, cartoony Mario looks somewhat odd against the stiff, normally-proportioned humans in New Donk City, who look a bit like refugees from an early Sims game. Others may look askance at one brief scenario where it looks as though Mario’s landed in a stage from Dark Souls.
Again, it’s hard to argue with the invention beneath this surreal mix of design choices. The huge, scaly T-rex roaming around in more than one kingdom may look unlike anything you’ve seen in a Mario game before, but wait until you see how Nintendo employs the thing. One grin-inducing sequence involves one of these lumbering dinosaurs, a trash-strewn alleyway and a scooter. It’s weird, a bit nightmarish, but quite brilliant.Above all, Odyssey feels like the product of a company growing in confidence with the Switch behind it. Whether played on a big screen or as a handheld game, this latest Mario opus feels perfectly at home; you can use the Joy-Con’s motion controls to throw Cappy if you wish, though we felt more comfortable simply using the traditional buttons and twin sticks, especially in trickier areas with narrow platforms and one-touch deaths. What’s immediately apparent, though, is how well Nintendo has struck a balance between the accessibility of a handheld game and the depth of something you’d expect to enjoy on a console. The plentiful supply of checkpoints, the maps and other markers mean you can dip in and out of the game and always find something to do, even if you have a few spare minutes on a commute or on the loo.
Without spoiling things, the game only continues to build after the end credits have rolled. Far from just expecting you to revisit existing worlds - though you can do that, of course - Odyssey also provides new missions, an extra hub world, and lots more besides. Nintendo’s made some bold choices in Super Mario Odyssey, some of which will no doubt spark a fair bit of debate. Is it a little too lacking challenge for the most seasoned players? Are its shifts in style from grimy realism to jaunty worlds of marshmallows and candy apples a little too jarring? Beyond those choices, there’s Nintendo’s seemingly boundless wealth of ideas, which seep from every pixel here: once again, this is a Mario title that has the confidence to introduce an inventive mechanic - the kind of thing a lesser developer would spin out for an entire game - and opts to abandon it for something else a few seconds later. Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t always have the visual coherence of Galaxy, but what it does have is a restless, fidgety charm and energy. It’s a tribute to Mario’s contribution to videogame history, sure, but also modern-feeling and vital. Along with Breath Of The Wild, it’s another essential title for what is fast becoming Nintendo’s finest console in years.
The key to games is what they do in response to our actions. We put ourselves into these things through button presses and the decisions that we make, and how we feel about them is dictated by what we receive in return. Ideally, that receipt will be something we can classify as fun, no matter how vague that term is. Like so many Nintendo games, fun is definitely the primary product of Super Mario Odyssey, and the sole reason it exists. Cool: The Mario game is good.