Late Stage Cappytalism
Copy purchased by the reviewer.
For a company widely predicted to be on its way out of relevancy, Nintendo certainly launched into 2017 with guns ablaze.
Unable to compete with the same raw power-focused game that industry contemporaries Sony and Microsoft are currently playing, Nintendo did what it does best and flipped the table. With the Switch, a revolutionary handheld/home console hybrid, Nintendo redefined their own narrative to thunderous applause. Launching with the outstanding reinvention of The Legend of Zelda, the open world adventure Breath of the Wild, audiences were champing at the bit to see what such a bold, confident Nintendo would do next with its most iconic franchise, Super Mario. The answer, as it turns out, is less about reinvention and more about refinement.
Super Mario Odyssey may not be the leap it could have been, even taking steps away from the pre-established core of a Mario title, but it certainly knows how to make you feel good, if only in the moment.
The premise should be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever played a Mario game before, for better or worse. Compelled by what we can only assume at this point to be a crippling case of loneliness paired with a neurotic commitment to repeating mistakes, the doofus king Bowser once again has kidnapped Princess Peach. In an attempt to stage the perfect wedding, he and his newly recruited Grooble minions are kingdom-hopping to collect the best possible trimmings for the ceremony.
Nintendo waste little time in kicking things off, as the game opens with the indomitable plumber mid-battle with his long-time foe aboard an extravagant airship. The sky-high battle ultimately proves to be too much, ending with Mario being utterly decimated and tossed overboard as his iconic red cap is torn to shreds, and Bowser makes his getaway. The whole thing feels oddly cinematic for a Nintendo game, with a touch of the ‘hurry up and get to the game’ self-awareness found throughout Odyssey’s sister game Breath of the Wild.
The now jarringly hatless Mario is rescued by Cappy, an inhabitant of the bizarre Cap Kingdom, a shadowy underworld occupied by hybridisations of top hats and Boo ghosts that possess the ability to, well, possess things. While Nintendo has been rampantly trying to quell concerns that these creatures are basically hijacking other living beings by claiming it’s all just a cheeky ‘capture’ state, the game starting with a mechanic this wild only serves to prepare you for the fever dream you’re about to experience. Infusing himself with the tattered remains of Mario’s cap, the two set out to rescue Peach (and Cappy’s sister, the stolen Wedding tiara) from Bowser and his nefarious wedding planners, the Grubals.
The ensuing pursuit spans the globe as Mario and Cappy visit over a dozen kingdoms, with a couple more awarded to players post-credits. The kingdoms ping-pong wildly in variety, shifting rapidly between Mario mainstays like deserts and beaches to the more radically different New York inspired city world and a painfully short trip to a level lifted straight out of Dark Souls. Each kingdom is as polished as you could hope for, with platforming challenges and secrets layered into each, though there are noticeable dips in design quality. Highlights like the surrealistically fun New Donk City or the paradoxically freezing Sand Kingdom Toastarena only serve to shine a harsher light on the less enjoyable outings. Many of these lesser kingdoms are dropped in between their larger cousins and display a disappointing lack of imagination, whether that be the shockingly dull Snow and Lake Kingdoms or the noticeable absences of anything half as enjoyable as Mario 64 or Sunshine’s more inventive levels.
Fortunately, no matter the quality of the kingdom you’re exploring, maneuvering Mario through them has never felt so effortlessly refined. The mechanics of 3D Mario titles have undergone decades of iteration and tuning, resulting in Odyssey’s robust set of moves which are easy to learn and daringly possible to master. Those familiar with previous outings will immediately recognise series’ staples (the three-tiered jump and wall bounces), but Mario can now tuck into a ball and roll around for speed, and for the first time, his cap is an integral element of the platforming and combat. Tossing Cappy in front of you allows Mario to extend his jump, almost infinitely if thrown with finesse, allowing for unprecedented freedom of exploration. This mechanic has already led to a plethora of what would appear to be level breaking shenanigans, using Cappy and some well-timed jumps to bypass platforming challenges or reach unreasonably high places, only to discover a large deposit of coins in those same places. Nintendo wants unfettered exploration and will almost always reward you for trying to get there.
The ethically dubious Capture mechanic also reworks the moment-to-moment Mario gameplay, even if the joy of it all is somewhat fleeting. Cappy and Mario are able to possess a wide variety of different creatures and objects in each kingdom, constantly changing how you’re able to interact with the world around you. Most of these transformations are brilliantly crafted little morsels of fun to play with; shooting down an evil robot as a tank, gliding above glistening sands as a giant flying lizard or even wooing a lady Goomba. No matter what each kingdom asks you to do, you’re bound to end up having a grand ole time doing it. Very few of these captures are continued across kingdoms though, which can leave you feeling a little rushed through it all, with barely any time to truly sink into a mechanic before being pushed along to the next one.
Fortunately there are some brief respites from this loop as warp pipes make a triumphant return to shake up the pacing, transporting Mario into a 2D realm that utilises 8-Bit style and platforming to craft some of the games hardest, and most pleasing, moments (the New Donk City Festival is probably the best piece of fan service Nintendo have ever committed to screen). Though these sections are not completely immune from the casual difficulty found in the rest of the game they are often the perfect synergy of Odyssey‘s best aesthetics and gameplay.
Again though much of this is fleeting as the hurried gameplay loop is an unforced error Odyssey seems to revel in, with reminder prompts of its technically optional motion control scheme accosting you at its every convenience. Shaking the Joy-Cons like its 2006 allows Mario to use Cappy in a wide variety of ways, none of which are necessary to complete the game, but all of which are still cool moves unfairly held back behind a method of control most players would rather leave in the past. These motions also run afoul of the Switch’s handheld premise; I wasn’t game enough to shake my console to try and flip Cappy into the air. The options menu allows for deactivation of these options but that doesn’t stop the game prompting you with instructions every time you possess a new thing.
The primary goal of the game is the collection of Power Moons, of which there are over 900 placed throughout the kingdoms, both meticulously and haphazardly. Acquiring these moons is often a joy, whether it be through platforming, mini-games or rewarded for thorough exploration. Just as often, though, you’ll find a moon just hovering on a bridge or a tree, which is to say that challenge and restraint isn’t always Odyssey’s focus, to mixed effect. This is in part due to just how many moons Nintendo are cramming into these kingdoms; the sheer number alone is an indicator of which way the design team leaned between quantity and quality, but for a series known for its excellent collecathon core, you can’t help but wonder what a more focused, if smaller scale, moon hunt would have been like.
Odyssey prioritises large-scale exploration above all else, the end product winds up jettisoning the satisfying challenges and frustrations of previous entries. How you react to this shift in core focus will greatly dictate how much you take away from Odyssey, but this redefining of the moment-to-moment gameplay will undoubtedly leave some feeling deflated. Engaging with the game in its current state isn’t wholly unsatisfying, especially so for younger audiences and those susceptible to fan service, but players expecting another captivating romp through perfectly designed platforming stages may find themselves underwhelmed.
It’s not that Odyssey shies away from difficulty all of the time — an entire section of the end game is dedicated solely to busting balls through remixed levels — but the ‘campaign’ and subsequent moon hunting can often feel a little too cruisy. Additionally, Hidden away in each kingdom are discrete 3D platforming sections, which always provided a healthy dose of old-school Mario challenge, but they are a relatively small element of the game compared to the amount of time you spend casually exploring large open spaces. The game seldom asks for deeper exploration or mastery of many of its mechanics either; you’ll be doing the same things in the first kingdom as the last, in the same ways and with the same reward.
Odyssey’s greatest strength is its presentation, even if the individual elements of each kingdom cause some major artistic clashes. Animations are fluid and brimming with life and charm, with denizens of the land often imbued with such an overwhelming amount of cute that you can’t help but love even a fork with eyes. The soundtrack has been treated to the same love and care as the visuals, the end product a wildly inventive and memorable ride through past tunes and brand new classics. There is also a built-in photo mode with camera manipulation and filters, which is a welcome addition to a game that often feels like a holiday around the world. Heck, even the menu animations brought a smile to my face. These small touches add up to show just how much love Nintendo have managed to infuse into every corner of Odyssey.
The precise work found throughout the game’s aesthetics and mechanics make the underlying problems with cohesion even more garish. Taken individually, the kingdoms are mostly beautiful but place them in a larger context of each other (like a globe) and it stretches even Mario logic to a breaking point. Super Mario 64 largely sidestepped this by having each of its worlds contained within other realms, while Super Mario Sunshine maintained a distinct beachy art style throughout most of its playgrounds. Odyssey, however, in its quest for variety sacrifices any semblance of world building, instead opting for an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ style that ultimately weakens the game’s identity.
Nintendo has always had a deeply functional understanding of the nostalgic clout they have with their fan base, and Odyssey flagrantly indulges in it. The game feels in many ways like a legacy film; the recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens being the best example of such a product in our time. A remix of iconic imagery and shiny new elements, Odyssey aims to appeal to fans of old while enticing newcomers into the fold. It’s a neat trick and a brilliant means of reintroducing 3D Mario after a lengthy absence. However, much like The Force Awakens, Odyssey lacks any real staying power; in the moment the experience is a whirlwind of fun, but when it’s not in front of you, it slips through your fingers. This doesn’t detract from the enjoyment you experience while playing it, but upon reflection, the game is oddly light on memorable content, whether that be the lackluster kingdom designs, repetitive moon collection or absence of challenge, bar a few notable exceptions.
Odyssey is unambiguously a good game, even a great one at times, but the threads between its ideas are a little too loose to be entirely satisfying. The pedigree of Nintendo is on full display here, but only on the surface, providing players with a game that exudes a lighthearted confidence in many ways, except where it truly counts. The actual act of playing the game is just shy of perfect, to the point where I’d be surprised if using Mario’s cap isn’t incorporated into the next outing, but diving a little deeper reveals some uncharacteristic shortcomings for the series. The absurd amount of moons to collect leads to slapdash disbursement of them, and the satisfaction of collection suffers greatly from it. A handful of the game’s kingdoms are wonderful playgrounds, with secrets and pockets of joy littered throughout, but even more are merely passable. The capture mechanics are fun but disregarded far too quickly, while the exploration focus makes for an overly smooth experience that seems entirely unwilling to challenge you, except in very small doses. Odyssey deservedly skirts many of these issues throughout its journey, as none of these gripes ever derail its fantastical momentum, but once the good ship Odyssey docks and you reflect on your journey, you may find you didn’t come as far as you thought.
You’ll undoubtedly have a blast playing Odyssey, but whether or not you’ll remember it fondly in a decade remains to be seen.
My money is on “not.”