It’s a-him! Marrr-io! You know, that lovable little Italian stereotype that a Japanese company built an industry on? As you may have heard, Nintendo has a new system kicking around called the Switch.
That means Mario gets a big ol’ new adventure to match the console. That’s how it works. Nintendo does this every generation. As always, the game suits the console. Super Mario Bros. brought an arcade game to your living room on the NES; Super Mario Land brought a portable Mario to your hands for the Game Boy. Super Mario World provided the best Mario game for the best Nintendo system. Super Mario 64 thrust Mario into the world of 3D platforming once the N64 made that possible. Super Mario Galaxy introduced motion controls and experimentation to the Wii, where Nintendo did some groundbreaking experimenting. Plus, ya know, Super Mario 3D World and Super Mario Sunshine were confusing disappointments for confusing and disappointing consoles.
Now Super Mario Odyssey comes to the Switch. How does it define the system? Well, the game is nostalgic and fresh; combining everything that Mario has done well in the past into a new package filled with surprises. Just like how the Switch has done the same thing for Nintendo. Somehow, the company has made another Mario masterpiece. It really shouldn’t be possible after all these years and all those Mario games. Yet here we are. This game is incredible and guaranteed to put a smile on the face of anyone who enjoys video games and is capable of experiencing joy.
So plot—well, this is going to really surprise you—the game starts with Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach and taking her away on a flying battleship. I know, so different, right? Well, this time Bowser has a matching white wedding suit and dress for himself and Peach. From there, Mario ends up in Cap Kingdom, Bonnetown. It’s a place with sentient flying hats, and Mario quickly befriends one. He replaces Mario’s classic hat that allows Mario to flick enemies with his hat, leap off his hat for extended jumps, and use the hat to possess a variety of creatures and objects throughout his latest adventure. You know, that old story. Obviously, it’s a bit silly and simple, but that’s how Mario goes. These games aren’t about deep narratives or resonant character arcs. They are about pure platforming and puzzle solving joy, along with a surrealistic fantasy romp just imaginative enough for children and playful enough for grownups.
Yep, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a new Mario game as well as something completely out of left field and fresh. That’s how Mario works: formula and innovation. Super Mario Odyssey is a particularly potent example of that Mario brand recipe. At one point or another in the game, seemingly every classic in the franchise gets a tip of that hat visually or through gameplay. Super Mario 64 is the biggest touchstone. Every world you visit in a robust open space. There’s no clear line to follow, and exploration is key since secrets are everywhere. Bosses appear—usually one of the oddball Bunny’s known as “Da Broodals” subbing in for Bowser’s typical koopa kiddies—and prove to be satisfyingly daunting while still conforming to the “three hits = dead” Mario formula.
But for the most part you roam free through the beautifully designed worlds to uncover all the hidden delights lovingly laid in by the designers. The 2D Mario classics get a moment to shine in each world with lovingly designed 8-bit tasks that bend perspective in pleasingly queasy ways. Mario Galaxy comes through in the surprisingly effective joycon motion controls used to toss Mario’s hat buddy about—though there are multiple and equally satisfying control options for those who don’t like to flail their arms—as well as a few moments of gravity defying magic too good to spoil in a review. Whether it’s a fully playable moment, a returning character or more subtle shout out, pretty much every game in Mario’s decades long history appears. The barrage of homage is enough to please old fans, yet the game remains intuitive enough to attract a new generation of Mario sycophants.
As always, the most impressive achievement in Nintendo’s latest Mario outing is how intuitively simple and robustly deep the game feels. Anyone could pick up this game and figure it out—there’s a handy Assist Mode that offers extra health and a guided path of objectives that toggled on and off from the pause menu at any time for those young or inexperienced enough to need a helping hand—while the hardcore crowd will find themselves sinking a few dozen hours collecting every moon and coin to max out Mario Odyssey to completion. Merely finishing the story takes around 15 or so hours. From there, so many other secrets and additional worlds appear that it’ll likely be months before it’s all even documented. This game is as simple or deep as any particular player wants it to be. Obviously Nintendo has done this in Mario game before, but Odyssey feels particularly robust, filled with surprises and controller smashing challenges that’ll stretch on for ages.
Visually, the game is absolutely beautiful. The previous gold standard of Mario artistry in Galaxy has been topped. All the familiar worlds pop up, while new ones like the urban sprawl of New Donk City feel at one with the goofy universe while pushing things further through environmental and lighting effects never before possible with Nintendo’s previous hardware. The orchestral score is gorgeous and it’s even possible for players to mix and match their own soundtrack should they choose. The sheer volume of costumes available for players to purchase for Mario is ridiculous, all cutely hilarious—my favourite being either the Caveman or the Samurai armour just because of how much they make me giggle—and often tied directly to gameplay. The various creatures that you can embody as Mario are all smartly chosen—with a healthy mix of classic villains and new attractions—and constantly surprise. Even that T-Rex teased in the trailer appears within the first half hour of gameplay, so if you think you know what’s coming you really don’t.
In fact, the element of surprise is likely the most consistent joy of Mario Odyssey. From the Tim Burton-esque opening world to the wild and epic ride of the final Bowser battle—Whoops, spoiler alert! Yep, you fight Bowser at the end. Apologies if you didn’t know—the folks behind Mario Odyssey have gone out of their way to ensure that the game confounds expectations at every turn, while still providing the core Mario experience that players have loved since the 80s. This is a magnificent video game. One as primal in its gaming pleasure as the original turtle-stomping Mario adventures and as robust and varied in its design as only a contemporary game could offer. It’s hard to find anything to complain about, other than possibly the tacked on two player mode that lets a couch co-op buddy flail around fairly fruitlessly as the hat, but even that is an undeniable improvement on the similar yet even less satisfying two player mode in Mario Galaxy. So Nintendo somehow even wins in the worst aspect of Mario Odyssey. Well done.
Simply put, Mario Odyssey is a game to be cherished. It’s proof that Nintendo will always find ways to make Mario titles exciting and relevant and a hell of a unit shifter for the Switch that looks gorgeous on an HDTV and plays just as well on-the-go. Nintendo has done it again, y’all. Mario Odyssey is here to live up to all of the hype and keep you glued to your Switch with surprises for hours. The only downside is that we’ll likely have to wait until Nintendo’s next hardware to see how they can top this Mario adventure. That’s a shame because even after 20 some odd hours glued to the game, I still want more. Then again, even after over 30 years of Mario I still want more. Somehow the gaming geniuses at Nintendo keep pulling off that magic trick, and may they never stop.