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Why ‘Super Mario Odyssey’ Might Be the Best Mario Game Ever

The ‘Achievement Oriented’ hosts discuss the addictive joy of hunting Power Moons in Nintendo’s amazing new platformer

Nintendo/Ringer Illustration

Nintendo’s latest instant classic, Super Mario Odyssey, arrived late last month on the Switch, marking Mario’s first full-fledged adventure since 2013’s Super Mario 3D World. Below, Achievement Oriented hosts and lifelong Nintendo devotees Ben Lindbergh and Jason Concepcion discuss their impressions after completing the ex-plumber’s triumphant return (which took them much more than a single sitting).

Ben Lindbergh: Jason, I “finished” Super Mario Odyssey 10 days ago, but despite a subsequent detour or two into other holiday titles, I haven’t stopped playing. I have hundreds of Power Moons (Odyssey’s primary collectible item, akin to the Power Stars or Shine Sprites of previous 3-D Mario releases), but my thirst for the rest is so strong that I’ve stooped to buying them 10 at a time from the store just to quiet the cravings. A store-bought methadone Moon doesn’t deliver the same satisfaction as one that’s earned by completing a puzzle or platforming sequence, but Odyssey’s 16 kingdoms are still stuffed with the latter type even after the dozens of hours I’ve spent searching for them. Although Odyssey lacks the massive scope of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the other Nintendo tentpole with which it’s tied atop the 2017 Metacritic rankings (side note: Nintendo has been Reaganing ever since the Switch came out in March), it’s equally adept at producing the sense that there’s always something worth seeing that’s just out of sight.

Let me backflip a bit: Odyssey is the 18th game (and seventh original 3-D entry) in the Super Mario series, and the first 3-D sandbox-style installment since 2002’s Super Mario Sunshine. That means that rather than sprinting and hopping through linear levels that test your timing, memory, and pattern recognition, you’ll be paying visits to a series of sprawling kingdoms, each of which contains a set number of Power Moons that must be assembled in order to upgrade Mario’s eponymous airship for the trip to his next destination. Unlike previous 3-D Mario games, Odyssey doesn’t kick the player back to a central starting point upon obtaining a Moon. Instead, Moons are littered throughout levels that the player can roam freely, which shifts the emphasis from timed challenges to open-ended exploration. The absence of countdown clocks in most of the maps, coupled with a forgiving difficulty curve (instead of subtracting limited lives, deaths cost only coins, which are plentiful), makes this a much more leisurely experience than most Mario titles.

As always, Mario is trying to rescue Princess Peach, who’s been abducted by Bowser in a manner that seems even ickier than usual given the harassment stories that have dominated the public discourse in the weeks before and after Odyssey’s arrival. Although the endgame redeems the regressive Peach part of the story to a certain extent, Odyssey’s main claim to innovation comes from a capture ability granted by a sentient cap not-so-creatively called Cappy, who’s also pursuing a kidnapped counterpart. Tossing Cappy at selected objects and creatures allows Mario to take control of them, granting him powers he lacks while he’s just in his usual overalls. (It’s best not to think about what happens to the minds that Cappy possesses.) Neither the capture mechanic nor the revamped mission structure makes Odyssey as drastic an overhaul of its franchise’s formula as Breath of the Wild was, but it’s new enough for me. I’m not sure Mario needed a shake-up the way Zelda did.

Jason Concepcion: I’m glad you mentioned Breath of the Wild, Ben, because that game feels like the yin to Odyssey’s yang. But where Breath is about exploring outward—scaling every mountain range, traversing every forest—Mario is, as ever, about exploring inner spaces. Odyssey is dressed up as an open-world game, but, at its core, it’s a true platformer. Collecting those sweet, sweet Power Moons entails jumping Mario from ledge to ledge, platform to platform, across the various individual kingdoms that make up the game world. Each structure is threaded through with hidden passages and those trademark Mario-world sewer pipes leading to boss battles in weird pocket realities or 2-D excursions into the game’s 1980s 8-bit origins. The Mario series has always been strangely avant-garde in that way—it’s a game about alternate dimensions and worlds within worlds where coins and other sundry items are hidden inside bricks and bushes or buried underground or placed high atop a tower. Accessing those areas, and finding those Moons, has never been more fun. You’re right to call the quest for Power Moons addictive; Odyssey is the crack cocaine of platformers.

An example: I was exploring a town in the Sand Kingdom when I found a notch cut out of the side of a house. A few coins glittered just inside. I had Mario crouch and sent him in. He grabbed the coins—each one dropping into his virtual purse with a pleasing sound effect—and kept on going, crawling out into a space behind the counter of the shop where the player buys clothes and powerups. Hidden there was a Power Moon. The thrill of discovering it—truly a surprise!—was absolutely pure. This is the basic loop of what makes a Mario game fun—focusing on a small detail until you find something unexpected and spacious within. Super Mario Odyssey is full of little interactions like that. And the revamped mechanics—losing the countdown clocks and deaths costing only coins—keeps the player playing the game. All of which adds to that feeling of addictiveness. Is this the best Mario game ever, Ben?

Lindbergh: While I was waiting for your response, I snorted several more Power Moons. I may have a problem.

[Painfully pries each finger off of sweaty Switch Pro Controller.]

You asked if this is the best Mario ever. I think that depends on your definition. It’s not the most revolutionary; that honor goes either to the trailblazing titles that established the series (and, in the process, platforming templates that are still standard today), or to Super Mario 64, which taught a generation of game-makers what to do with 3-D. We might have to wait until Super Mario VR launches alongside the Super Switch for another Mario game to take an elemental leap like that.

Nor is Odyssey the most viscerally thrilling Mario from moment to moment; if I have any complaint about the game, it’s that the ease of obtaining most of the Moons—which makes Odyssey extremely friendly to players of all ages and skill levels—leads to less of the quick-twitch, white-knuckle action and adrenaline-induced exultation that were staples of the Galaxy games. But Odyssey’s distinctive and varied environments are second to none, and through its Easter eggs, audio cues, and 2-D DNA, the game channels the legacies of past classics without being beholden to them (most notably in New Donk City, a realistically rendered cityscape that stands out from everything else in the Mario universe but still owes a debt to the character’s Donkey Kong debut). I also appreciate its fine-tuned checkpoint and autosave systems, which strip out any potential for lost progress. You’ll never play Odyssey for more than a minute without accomplishing something.

In other words, I wouldn’t argue with anyone who puts Odyssey at the top of the pile. Frankly, it’s a testament to Nintendo that we’re even asking the “best ever” question about Zelda and Mario in 2017. These are the industry’s most famous franchises: Both are inextricably tied to the childhoods of every adult player, and we know how nostalgia can color our opinions of previous games. It’s always tempting to say that the first one—or the fifth or 15th—was better, if only because it came out at a more formative time. Somehow Nintendo has sidestepped that tendency to pedestal the past. Whereas some creators get stuck in a rut and run out of ideas the more they mine their cash cows, Nintendo manages to make each new entry in its cornerstone series feel like the culmination of more than three decades of development, an intoxicating medley of familiar and fresh.

Speaking of which: Odyssey forces players to learn right up to the end of its last level. Many Mario games are about mastering a move set and applying it to progressively stiffer challenges. Odyssey is about entering unfamiliar territory and working with whatever tools and conditions the environment provides. As soon as you start to feel comfortable, Odyssey mixes in a slippery surface, or alters gravity, or introduces an object or adversary for Cappy to possess that handles differently from everything else you’ve encountered. This game is a continuing education course.

Concepcion: Great point! Here’s a question: Is this game too easy? I primarily play my Switch in handheld format. It’s quick-to-hand and satisfying—the best way to realize the console’s play-anywhere design. Very rarely, I will dock the Switch and play on my television. Very, very, very rarely, bordering on never (except for my brief flirtation with Arms), I play with the Joy-Cons detached from the screen. This means I have yet to experiment with the game’s robust system of motion-control moves! I’m truly torn by this, Ben. I want to unlock everything this game has to offer! Some Moons can be found only by using these controls and many of the cap throws seem quite useful!

There’s the homing throw, which creates a boomerang effect, triggered by shaking the Joy-Cons after throwing the cap. There’s the upward throw, akin to Mario celebrating graduating from plumber school, triggered by shaking the Joy-Con upward. I spent about 45 minutes trying to hit a glowing eagle by synchronizing Mario’s cap throw and jump. I probably could’ve accomplished this in seconds using the upward throw. The spin throw causes the cap to orbit Mario and seems particularly useful when surrounded by ravenous Goombas. (Have I mentioned that I am embarrassingly bad at landing jump attacks on Goombas? I’m very bad at it.) And these are only a few of the possibilities.

So—is Odyssey too forgiving? Are the coins too plentiful? Are the deaths too painless? Though the motion controls theoretically might’ve saved me some time here and there, I never needed them (as-of-yet undiscovered Power Moons notwithstanding). Progressing through Super Mario Odyssey with only my sub-average leaping-to-keep-me-alive ability is delightful and challenging enough, but never truly difficult. Is that a mistake?

I understand the logic. Odyssey is a crucial title on a new(ish) console. Nintendo is shooting for maximum accessibility, both in form and function. There’s just enough weaponized nostalgia to make old-school Mario heads feel appreciated. But not so much that newcomers to the series feel as if they’re playing something dated. Old-timers can control the game in a way that feels traditional and the adventurous can feel free to swing their arms (use those Joy-Con straps!) with shameless abandon. Don’t get me wrong—Odyssey is a triumph. I just can’t help feeling that the best version of this game is a ruthless one.

Lindbergh: In my mind, Odyssey is three games in one. On the low end of the difficulty scale, there’s the super-handholdy “assist mode,” which tells the player what to do at all times. Sticking an objective arrow on the screen removes much of the joy of exploring Odyssey’s open-ended, densely packed worlds, but it also gives gamers who haven’t taken their training wheels off a low-pressure, frustration-free taste of Mario magic. I can’t begrudge them that.

Then there’s the core campaign, which skews easy but not by so much that I ever felt like Odyssey was insulting my modest skill. I do wish there were more of a Moon hierarchy; boss fights (all of which belong to the “hit the head three times” tradition) net three Moons at a time, but otherwise, the most and least elusive Moons all yield the same prize. It can be a bit deflating to spend an hour throwing yourself at a particularly torturous platforming sequence, only to gain the same single crescent that the game gives you for gimme Moons that are hardly hidden at all.

Even though there’s an excess of simplistic puzzles that make me think, “You gave me a Moon for that?,” Odyssey can get tough when it wants to, especially after you finish the story and unlock additional maps and Moons that are more tailored toward seasoned players. Yes, you have to hunt for the real ruthlessness, but the players who want to test and punish themselves won’t mind putting in the time to find the most sadistic stuff. For a company that’s in the business of selling Switches, the big-tent, three-pronged approach to difficulty is a sound financial strategy, but Odyssey’s inclusive ethos probably benefits the rest of the industry, too. This is a gateway game that will create many more lifelong players than it turns away.

I share your angst about the motion controls: Even though I’m tethered to the TV more often than you are, I could do without the wrist strain and the gestures that don’t always work. I’m generally anti-motion controls that can’t be turned off, and I resent the boot screen’s insistence on playing with Joy-Con for the optimal Mario experience. (I resent even having to call controllers “Joy-Con.”) Odyssey deserves at least a partial pass because most of the motion controls are optional or come with workarounds, and also because there might be too many moves to map them all to buttons and joysticks in non-awkward ways. Like you, I’m embarrassingly bad at stomping Goombas without calling on Cappy, but I think that’s by design. Hopping is passé; Odyssey wants players to possess enemies, and I’ve never felt more impotent in a platformer than I did during a short sequence when Mario loses his hat and has to fall back on his basic attacks.

The best thing about Odyssey is that it feels both perfectly polished and as weird as Katamari Damacy. I never expected to savor a game that made me control a cactus, a dinosaur, and a slab of uncooked meat. Actually, I’m still underselling it: Make that a slab of uncooked meat with a mustache.

Concepcion: I love my Switch, Ben. Have I mentioned that before? I love it. Some of the buttons, even for my dainty digits, are too small. The battery life is in the three-hour range. I’m almost completely out on motion controls. But I CAN PLAY SUPER MARIO ODYSSEY ANYWHERE I AM. Same with Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart. I’m waiting with breath that is bated for Metroid Prime 4. Super Mario Odyssey on this console is a technical and artistic celebration of gaming. It is an incredible experience. I want to play it right now.