Few pop culture icons can match the name recognition of Mario. From racing go-karts, to playing various sports, to pretending to be a doctor, Nintendo’s mustachioed mascot has had a career path that extends far beyond his signature running and jumping. In a certain sense, this remains true for “Super Mario Odyssey” on Nintendo Switch, which blends traditional Mario platforming with various different character transformations, reaffirming that Mario is truly a man of many hats.
The premise is about as outlandish as one would have come to expect from a Mario game. The game begins with Bowser abducting Princess Peach yet again. This time around, he has enlisted the aid of a family of villainous rabbits to help him procure supplies for an involuntary wedding ceremony between Peach and himself. Naturally, it’s up to everyone’s favorite Italian plumber to avert this disaster. This time around, though, Mario is assisted by Cappy, a hat-shaped ghost that has possessed Mario’s hat.
It’s a premise that sounds pretty ridiculous, with or without context. However, it works well enough as an excuse to let the core gameplay play out. “Super Mario Odyssey” is another 3D platformer with large, expansive levels (“kingdoms”) to wander through. You are searching for “Power Moons,” basically just Stars by another name. These are used as fuel for Mario’s new airship, “The Odyssey,” used to travel between levels.
The big change here pertains to how the player is kept going all the way though. In “Mario Odyssey,” grabbing a Power Moon doesn’t kick Mario back to his starting point, in contrast to previous games. Here, he just continues his business. As it turns out, it does wonders for maintaining immersion during exploration by minimizing unneeded backtracking.
Additionally, Nintendo has used this truncated gameplay loop as an excuse to fill the game with more Moons than you could shake a controller at. Across the ~16 kingdoms in the game, there are 999 Power Moons to collect — that’s a Moon count that would make “Super Mario 64” blush. While some people might see the inflated Moon count as something that diminishes each Moon’s value, I’m tempted to argue that it works well as a way to further encourage exploration. In fact, there are so many Moons per level that the main story missions can often be avoided entirely while still finding enough Moons to beat the main game.
Aside from the level design, Cappy adds a whole other dimension to the 3D Mario formula. Having found a comfortable home inside of Mario’s hat, Cappy grants Mario a brand new ability in the form of the “capture” mechanic, where Mario can throw his hat at other characters to possess them and gain full control of their unique skills. Can’t jump high enough to reach a ledge? Capture a nearby frog to jump to new heights. Can’t get past a row of large stone blocks? Capturing a T-Rex would reduce them to mere stepping stones. In spite of the absurdity of this idea, the mechanic turns out to be rather ingenious in practice. With such a wide assortment of characters with different abilities, you barely notice the absence of any traditional Mario power-ups.
On top of that, “Odyssey” introduced another big change to this long-running series: the removal of the 1-Up Mushroom. Unlike previous Mario platformers dating back to the 1980s, “Odyssey” doesn’t maintain a decreasing “life counter” that results in a Game Over screen after too many deaths. Here, a miscalculated jump or finishing blow will simply cost you ten gold coins, following which Mario returns to your last checkpoint marker, ready to jump back into action. In spite of how weird it is to never see a bright green mushroom in a Mario game, I feel like this works out for the best. Besides, there are plenty of Power Moons to collect in their place.
Nonetheless, those who yearn for the 2D Mario games of yore aren’t left out in the cold here. “Odyssey” features an assortment of 8-bit 2D sections located within the walls of various stages, complete with 8-bit remixes of the current background music. These sequences are a great way to break up the pacing, and serve as an amusing homage to Mario’s early days.
Of course, I couldn’t talk about homages without touching on New Donk City. While the quality and variety of the various kingdoms in the game are largely brilliant, one of the biggest standouts can be seen in the Metro Kingdom locale of New Donk City. In essence, it’s an alternate reality version of Manhattan where the damsel-in-distress from the original “Donkey Kong” is the mayor. Naturally, this sounds like a really weird concept for a level in a Mario game. It gets even weirder when you realize that the human inhabitants of this city all look a lot more “realistic” (in terms of art direction) than Mario and company.
Nonetheless, I soon realized that the level was a fantastic sandbox for jumping around in and exploring, with endless secrets hidden high and low. Between the multitude of mini-games on the city streets, the peppy soundtrack and the late-kingdom stage that made me grin like a fool the whole time, the “city that never leaps” gave me more fun moments than I could have hoped for (and yes, that’s the canonical nickname for this city; needless to say, Mario didn’t get the “no leaping” memo upon arrival).
With “Super Mario Odyssey,” Nintendo demonstrates yet again just how far ahead of the curve they are relative to practically everyone else that makes 3D platformers. Be it the precision and versatility of Mario’s controls, the intricate level design that refrains from complacency or the teeming sense of joy that has kept its hold on me well into the post-game stages, Mario’s latest has rightfully earned a spot among the best games of 2017. For a new console just nine months into its lifespan, it’s truly a feather in the Switch’s cap.