Games Review: Super Mario Odyssey (Switch, 2017): The good and pure game we need right now

Super Mario Odyssey is the good and pure video game that this awful world needs right now. It is the kind of game that gives you hope for the form. It reminds you that AAA games can still be more than pretty window dressing for a microtransaction storefront. That they can actually still be fun. It’s a reminder of one the gaming industry’s longest-held tenets — that few do it better than Nintendo.

Let’s begin the review by getting my lone complaint out of the way. Super Mario Odyssey begins in the same fashion that most Super Mario games do — with Peach being abducted by Bowser and her being bafflingly defeatist about the whole thing. Bowser’s latest plan is to marry Peach and presumably inherit all the powers that come with being Mushroom Kingdom royalty. Mario isn’t down with this and teams up with a sentient spirit hat called Cappy whose own girlfriend was also stolen away by Bowser. Together, Mario and Cappy embark on a globetrotting adventure to crash the video game wedding of the century and set the ladies free. The story itself is probably the most disappointing part of Super Mario Odyssey, but by the same token I wasn’t really expecting anything else. “Rescue the girlfriend” as a storytelling conceit its both trite and a relic of a bygone era in game design. On the other hand, I don’t know what else Nintendo would ever consider doing. To them, this is how Super Mario games work. It’s how they’ve always worked.

So, there you go. If I can reasonably critique Super Mario Odyssey on anything, it’s that. With all of this said, let’s talk about how glorious every other aspect of the game really is.

Each of Odyssey‘s worlds recall the expansive nature of Super Mario Sunshine, broad and diverse level layouts made up of many smaller, discrete areas that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Each one rewards thorough exploration, hiding treasures and pick ups throughout.

They are also filled with creative ways to use Cappy. Cappy is Super Mario Odyssey‘s secret weapon. The whole game is built around finding ways for Cappy to interact with the world. He can possess (or “Capture,” as the game prefers) various enemies and NPC’s, allowing Mario to pilot them around and use their skill sets to his advantage. He can remove obstacles in your path, he can be thrown like a boomerang to damage enemies and he can be used to reveal secrets or hidden portions of each map.

As I blasted through the game’s campaign, Odyssey surprised me over and over with the number of things it had found for Cappy to do. At one point I captured a gliding gecko man and swooped around a lava level. At another I captured a squid and used its water shooting abilities to propel myself around the level. There’s hundreds of these little instances throughout the game and every time you think you’ve seen it all, Nintendo seems to have something else up its sleeve.

These transformations allow Odyssey‘s art team to run wild. Every creature is full of life and personality, their animations and expressions perfectly reflecting the absurdity of having a plumber suddenly seize control of their body. Character animations, particularly for Mario and his many different forms, regularly made me laugh out of loud. And the clothes! You can buy Mario clothes, and every outfit is spectacular in its own right. He’ll even react accordingly if his clothes don’t fit the level — wearing a snowsuit on the beach? Mario will pant and sweat in the heat. Running around in your undies in the snow? He’ll turn blue. The environment designs, similarly, are art works in their own right. Nintendo have never been the sort to shy away from colour and every level in Odyssey is a riot of it. Everywhere has its own distinct vibe, from soupy volcanoes to the gothic, almost Dark Souls inspired look of one of the later levels. There are levels in Super Mario Odyssey that we’ve never seen in Mario games before. Case in point, the now well-known New Donk City.

New Donk City is a great example of how Super Mario Odyssey plays with its own formula and experiments with its mechanics. When you first enter the level, it is grimy and gothic and in the middle of a torrential downpour. It’s straight out of hardboiled film noir. Once it opens up and the sun comes out, the level takes on a vibe that reminded me of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? You have Mario, a cartoon human being with bizarre special powers, running around a world filled with regular, city-dwelling human beings.

Between New Donk City and the later Dark Souls vibey level, I actually started to wonder if Super Mario Odyssey was some sort of coded, heavily Japanese critique of the state the games industry finds itself in. Mario touring some of the most popular video game locales of the modern era and improving them by his very presence is worth a piece of its own (and maybe I’ll put it together once I’m done with this, I certainly feel like I have a lot more I could say about timing of Super Mario Odyssey‘s arrival, both intended and unintended).

Mechanically, for anyone who has played the mainline titles in the series from Super Mario 64 onward, you will find an awful lot about Odyssey that is familiar. There is a balance to controlling Mario, his movements have been fine-tuned and it translates into being able to navigate many of the game’s worlds at a speed and with a precision that you may not have known you were capable of. What’s also interesting about the game’s controls is the different methods for play. The game itself insists every time you boot it up that you try playing with one Joy-Con in each hand to better take advantage of the motion controls on offer. It doesn’t really seem to matter though — I played the bulk of the game with my Switch Pro Controller and had a flawless experience.

If there’s anything you can take away from Super Mario Odyssey, it should be the this: it is old-school, get-what-you-paid-for, fun-first design. This is a game whose sole preoccupation is showing the player a good time. It actually made me realise just how long it had been since I’d played a AAA title that felt like fun was its first priority. So much of AAA today is about revenue first and gameplay second. With the possible exception of their mobile titles, Nintendo don’t really seem to hold to that.

Ninty gets tagged a lot for being a hardware laggard, the lack of comparative grunt in their consoles seen as a drawback. The truth is, Nintendo’s machines do only what Nintendo wants them to do. The same philosophy runs through their first-party games. All Super Mario Odyssey wants you to do is enjoy yourself. It’s not concerned with anything beyond that.

It is uplifting to know that Nintendo is still bringing that particular school of design to the table, and it is a deeply depressing commentary on the industry at large that such a thing feels so refreshing.

Score: 9.5 out of 10
Highlights: Joyful; Fun; Masterful design; Finally taught me how to spell “Odyssey” properly
Lowlights: You can do better than “Bowser kidnapped Peach again,” Nintendo. I believe in you.
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Available: October 27, 2017

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.