Picking out a game of the year is a painful and thankless task. There are always so many options, and everyone has different criteria. For some, diving into an open world universe that sucked up the bulk of their life for weeks at a time is the only video game experience to be celebrated. For others, bang-bang shoot em’ ups and carpal tunnel-inducing fighting beat em’ ups are the height of the medium. Many gamers refuse to acknowledge anything other than arty indies as the height of the art form. And of course, there are those who demand that some sort of “woke” message be part of any game that they are willing to consider great.
Me? Hey, I’m a simple man of simple pleasures. For my game of the year, I need something that sucks me in through “easy to learn, difficult to master” gameplay and plasters big dumb smiles across my face from start to finish. I’m unapologetically nostalgic. I loved Nintendo even through their least successful console cycles (yeah, I bought a Virtual Boy and you best believe I treasured it). I also just straight up love Mario. He’s an adorable guy and it never ceases to amaze me how Nintendo is able to come up with new ways to use their Italian stereotype mascot. I was predisposed to love Super Mario Odyssey before I even picked up a controller to try it for the first time. However, I didn’t expect it to be my favourite videogame experience of the year. That was gravy.
Nintendo had a big year in 2017 with the release of The Switch, an ingeniously designed bit of hardware that bridged the gap between handheld and home consoles. They launched with an amazing Zelda title that brought such freedom and depth to a familiar franchise that it was enshrined an instant classic. Most will be dubbing Breath of the Wild Game of the Year if they decide to give that honour to Nintendo at all. I get it. That’s a beautiful game filled with ingenious design choices. The thing is that I just happen to find Super Mario Odyssey equally beautiful and ambitious, just in a less pretentious way.
There are few gaming franchises less pretentious than Mario. Most of the time the designers can’t even be bothered to include or story or remotely alter it from the familiar “monster kidnaps princess, plumber saves princess” trope. Obviously that’s here. It’s a Mario game, how could it not be?! But the designers behind Super Mario Odyssey were flippant and subversive with how they played it out. They know it’s silly, if required. So they mocked the plot with some winks and let it play out as quickly and painlessly as possible before letting the meat of the game take over.
Mario games are all about experience and gameplay. That’s what you sign up for and Super Mario Odyssey is no different. On the surface, the game is similar to many previous Mario titles. There’s a sandbox exploration element from Mario 64, familiar landscapes from titles dating back to the NES days, the almost psychedelic surrealism from Mario Galaxy, and all the other familiar tropes. The major new addition was Mario’s now living hat (aka Cappy, my buddy) which allowed for new platforming techniques, new attacks, and the ability to take control of villains both familiar and fresh. It was a simple new dynamic that opened up so many new platforming possibilities. Beyond that, Super Mario Odyssey offered a sense of freedom beyond what previous Mario games delivered. It was a game that could be explored at your own pace with few guidelines. Yet at the same time, it was tough to get stuck or lost. The experience feels so intuitive that you’re always acutely aware of what you need to do next without tutorials or story to guide you. My game of the year is a game that unfolds purely in the language of videogames. Nintendo is so brilliant at guiding those experiences at this point and Mario is so familiar to players that you can simply pick it up and know exactly what to do while still being surprised and challenged at every turn.
Playing Super Mario Odyssey was like reuniting with an old friend, enjoying all the familiar pleasures, and then learning that your old friend has changed in so many ways that they are now your new favourite person. There’s so much to explore. So much to discover. So many surprises. So much originality. So much nostalgia. So much Mario. It was an endless barrage of video game pleasures, some founded by Mario and some not. There was something for every player to fall in love with, from palm-sweat challenges to goofy dress up costumes. Old players could geek out in 8-bit nostalgia levels. New players could discover all the old tropes while also getting to control a giant T-rex, because why not? It was a game of endless delights. No moment in any game this year thrilled me more than playing through the New Donk City finale, feeling like I was dabbling in original Donkey Kong, discovering the new game’s connection to the past, geeking out on a hilarious Mario-themed big band number (“run with me, grab coins with me”), marveling at the gorgeous design, and feeling elated by the firework celebration all around me. It was pure gaming pleasure on so many levels, executed by the company that got me hooked on this gaming stuff in the first place.
Super Mario Odyssey was both a celebration of Nintendo’s past and a promise to the future. Proof that the company can tickle our old pleasure centers while still providing rich and deep new gaming experiences that can match other AAA titles. My game of the year is a game that I’m still playing months later, either to find pesky stars and secrets hidden throughout or simply to re-experience moments that delighted me to no end the first time. It’s a masterpiece. Something that seems so simple that you can fall into it, yet is so deceptively massive that it rewards endless replay. Simply put, it’s hard to imagine a better Mario game. This is one title that I actually anxiously await DLC for and I know I’m not alone.
Somehow Nintendo made us all fall in love with their ancient mascot once again while proving that they have an eye on gaming’s future. That’s a special achievement. Sure, Breath of the Wild accomplished many of the same things, but not within a design that both the smallest child with no gaming experience and the most experienced aging Nintendo fan can enjoy equally. Some might dismiss Super Mario Odyssey as puffy populist nonsense and they have a point. The thing is that making any work of art that actually achieves universal appeal is a near impossible task, especially when consuming it has to conceal all that effort. This is a game to be cherished and one that promises Nintendo will have plenty of new surprises in store for us throughout The Switch’s life cycle. Sign me up for more. I’m ready.
A retail version of the game discussed was provided by the publisher for a previously published review. You can find additional information about CGMagazine’s ethics and review policies and procedures here.