I’m still left baffled by how a tubby, mustachioed Italian plumber has managed to continue dazzling us for well over 30 years now.
Both in his 2D and 3D outings, Super Mario has remained king of the classic platformer, largely due to his willingness to innovate and inspire with every iteration. Super Mario Odyssey is just the latest in a long line of entries that reinforces this tendency, being yet another essential purchase in a year when Nintendo has made a point of reinventing its tentpole franchises for its new console, the Switch.
Though very much cut from the same cloth as 64 and Sunshine, categorising Super Mario Odyssey as just another exploration-based, semi-open Mario game would be doing it a true disservice. Whereas prior games saw you return to a familiar hub area – be it Peach’s castle or Isle Delfino – Odyssey is a hope-filled adventure that constantly pushes you forward. There’s plenty to see in all of Odyssey’s worlds, and not knowing what lies ahead before you makes this discovery constantly exciting. Thanks to Mario’s latest conceit, an airship called The Odyssey, these thrills never need to let up.
Super Mario Odyssey’s insistence to surprise is a sentiment just as applicable to its various worlds as it is to the various secrets and easter eggs that nest within them. It's its greatest asset. I don't want to give away any spoilers within this review, but just know that heading in, Odyssey is a game that masterfully blends together the nostalgic and the new. Whether it's the story, visuals, or gameplay, every element is a perfect summation of everything Mario ought to be.
So, let’s start with the new. Joining you on your mission to once again prevent the Peach-obsessed Bowser aboard the eponymous airship is Cappy, a shapeshifting hat that is the primary reason for making Super Mario Odyssey appropriately madcap. And it really is hats off to Nintendo for fully committing to the promise of letting you adopt almost anything bareheaded.
Throw Cappy at a Goomba and you’ll have the ability to stack up with several more. Do the same with a T-rex, and there’s no boulder on earth that can withstand your rampage. Any fear that Super Mario Odyssey’s core hat-possession mechanic will be gimmicky is done away with instantly, with the capture power being responsible for some of the best puzzles ever seen in a Mario game.
With 50-something creatures just waiting to be overcome, gathering the various moons needed to power up the Odyssey is eclectic without feeling overwhelming. The same can be said for each of Super Mario Odyssey’s locales. While most marketing material released beforehand seemed to pitch Odyssey as some kind of “Grand Theft Mario”, the destinations you’ll visit are much more contained than the sprawling world of GTA. Don't let that be a limitation to put you off, however; the size of each area within Super Mario Odyssey is perfectly proportioned, and every one is just as welcoming as the next.
Whether it’s an alternative take on 1920's New York (New Donk City), a frozen-over ice landmass (Shiveria), or a restaurant-inspired isle (Mount Volbono), Super Mario Odyssey’s kingdoms are a classic case of quality over quantity. Each one varies greatly in shape, size and layout, giving players a great excuse to unearth their many mysteries and challenges long after the credits roll. Though it won’t take long for you to be greeted by each area's outer edges, what lies within those borders is almost always worth seeking out. “Wide as an Ocean, shallow as a puddle” this is not; quite the opposite.
In addition to the constant sense of the fresh and unexpected, certain Super Mario mainstays are never too far away. The way Nintendo’s squat little plumber runs and jumps feels just as responsive as ever, and his fetish for gold coins is still in full effect. The catch is that nearly everything that's familiar is given more depth and a greater purpose than in previous entries. In particular, Odyssey’s approach to currency makes for a level of character customisation that easily rivals this year’s Breath of the Wild.
Super Mario Odyssey’s unabashed sense of whimsy and charm is all too welcome in today’s modern video game climate. Whereas other titles feel the need to overbear you with endless things to do, people to kill and towers to climb, Mario’s latest globe-trotting adventure is all too happy to keep things simple — and in the most imaginative way possible. Super Mario Odyssey is the type of game that I'd probably have taken for granted as a kid, but as an adult, I'll cherish it for decades.