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Plays it a little too safe for my liking, but the fun and the charm offered by Mario Odyssey is hard to resist

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    Super Mario Odyssey

    Rating: 3.5 – Good

    Plays it a little too safe for my liking, but the fun and the charm offered by Mario Odyssey is hard to resist

    Super Mario Odyssey is a game that I thought I’d like much more than I did, and it’s puzzling, because I enjoyed my time with it quite a bit. For all that it has, and it has a lot, it feels somehow empty, and the experience, though memorable in its own right, was one I finished with fairly mixed feelings. This has been a tough review to write, in part because of the excellent quality and the high level of polish that Mario’s latest adventure brims with at every turn. The eagerly-anticipated return of the Mario series to an open world, sandbox-style game is something I greatly appreciated, and there’s absolutely no denying that 3D Mario controls as excellently as ever and that there’s no shortage of fun to be had. I guess I just expected it to be more memorable. I thought it would push the envelope more for the Mario series than it does, that it would evolve its storytelling, that the various kingdoms would be larger, that they’d feel more connected to each other than via a static map, that the bosses would present just a bit more of a challenge¡­ that the game would be just a little bit more daring.

    But let’s step back for a second and take a look at how the Mario series has gotten to this point.

    Though Super Mario 64 arguably helped to invent what we now know of as open world gaming, the Mario games shied away from this approach as time went on. Super Mario Sunshine kept its open world aspects fairly intact, but then Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii and its sequel came along. Both were incredible games, but both were unmistakably designed more along the lines of the quickly-paced ¡°start-to-finish¡± level style of Mario’s 2D incarnations. This served as a major contrast to the more exploration-driven 3D series up until that point. Galaxy 2 went as far as to eliminate the idea of an explorable 3D hub world almost entirely, a direction more or less maintained by the similarly linear Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U.

    The return of exploration to Super Mario Odyssey was much-celebrated, though it doesn’t entirely manage to re-create the scope of 64 and Sunshine, mainly because its world is broken up into various smaller ¡°kingdoms¡± which are separated by a repeating cutscene/load time after being selected off of a 2D map. The locations themselves are of course fully explorable, but the disconnect between them takes away from the feeling that this is a singular world to play around in. There’s an attempt to connect the kingdoms through hidden paintings that warp you from one to a secret area on another; an incredibly cool concept that unfortunately plays only a small role in the game. Similarly, characters from some kingdoms make appearances in others, which is another great idea, but these both feel more like window-dressing than a solid force that pulls together what’s otherwise a fairly fragmented world. None of these fragments are quite as impactful as Super Mario 64’s Peach’s Castle, in large part because it was a singular, seamless world, which Odyssey’s simply isn’t.

    The strangest thing for me in retrospect is that Mario Odyssey arguably peaks with one of the game’s earliest kingdoms. It surprisingly isn’t the Metro Kingdom, whose New Donk City was predominantly featured in the game’s marketing, but rather the Sand Kingdom, the first you get to explore after two small tutorialized ones. Whether it’s the little village of Tostarena, surrounded by expansive sand dunes and underground worlds, modes of transportation including zipping through electric wires and riding on creatures called Jaxis, or a story-driven change to a beautiful, haunting night time reminiscent of Breath of the Wild, the first major world you get to sink your teeth into is truly amazing and sets a high standard for the rest of the game. it’s a mark that the following kingdoms don’t seem quite able to meet. They all have their own story missions to complete, their little NPC areas, their unique features and currencies. But none match the expansive scope and true sense of adventure felt in Mario Odyssey’s first couple hours in the Sand Kingdom, the only one for me which captures the adventurous spirit that Mario Odyssey seems aiming to deliver. Though to be fair, a couple of the others do come close.

    it’s initially a bummer, but thankfully the incredible level of personality and amount of sheer invention and sense of detail throughout Mario Odyssey helps to lessen the disappointment. The Metro Kingdom has a jazzy, vibrant feel to it, with a bustling sense of activity and vibe that I certainly don’t remember having seen in a Mario game before, while sunset in Bublaine of the Seaside Kingdom is something truly beautiful and relaxing to boot. The many kingdoms that you get to explore across the world of Mario Odyssey brim with such a sense of life that I couldn’t help but wish more had been done with them. The story mission that takes place in each one is over rather quickly, and due to the incredibly small role that the NPC characters in each world play in the proceedings, little seems to be truly at stake despite the dire circumstance each kingdom finds itself in. it’s here that the Mario series’ historic focus on minimal storytelling proves to be a hindrance; in an imaginative world filled with charming characters and excellent bits of dialogue, it’s simply a missed opportunity that none are given the chance to leave a mark. Even your companion Cappy, who’s relegated mainly to repeating gameplay hints to you when traveling from one kingdom to the other, has little to say or offer beyond the game’s opening hours. The main story meanwhile can’t wait to let you travel to the next kingdom, and though you’re welcome to hang back and continue exploring and collecting Moons, (Odyssey’s version of Stars or Shines) it made me wonder what the game’s hurry was, and why it couldn’t give us a more substantial story to experience on each world before telling us to rush off to the next one.

    That said, the benefit of an exploration-driven Mario game is that you can play it how you want. As was mentioned, you’re able to hang around and continue exploring and collecting Moons, and while many of the kingdoms aren’t as large as I’d have liked, they almost all have no shortage of secrets and tons to interact with. Mario Odyssey’s platforming itself, with takes place in either 2D or 3D, is for the most part self-contained, separated through a warp function from the exploration. As far as 3D Mario is concerned, the platforming sections don’t have quite the same magic of those featured in the Galaxy series, or even 3D World, with Odyssey focusing more on its exploring and collecting. I think a better balance was there to be had, but it’s nevertheless always fun to stumble across a hidden platforming section, and the game does a pretty good job of letting you know if there are still Moons or currency to collect within them, or whether you’ve already found all there is to find, which is helpful.

    Visually, Mario Odyssey is often quite gorgeous. The kingdoms you explore have incredibly distinct visual styles, and the game handles itself well at 60FPS (save for some understandable stuttering in the bustling New Donk City) which is a pretty great accomplishment given the speed and fluidity in which Mario can move through the non-linear level design. As with much of the rest of the game, I wished its art direction took a few more risks in places (an equally derivative food kingdom replaces the standard fire kingdom,) but when Mario Odyssey does try something new, such as a massive dragon boss that’s very much out of the realm of what you’d expect from a Mario game, it pays off. I just wish there was more of it. The music similarly doesn’t break down any walls, but it’s often pleasant and atmospheric, and, on rare occasions such as a quiet night in the Sand Kingdom or the jazziness of New Donk City, manages to stand out.

    I’d like to end by repeating the point that Super Mario Odyssey is a lot of fun. I don’t want my disappointment with it to turn you away from giving it a shot yourselves, especially if you’re excited about it. As a showing of the Switch’s capabilities, in providing a charming world with endless hours of gameplay and content to access, including an incredibly lengthy post-game, and in delivering a quality title that fans would expect from Nintendo’s main mascot, Mario Odyssey certainly does its job.

    it’s possible that Breath of the Wild, which came out in the same year that this game did, took some of the wind from its sails, as it did for many of its fellow open world-style games. I tried my best while playing not to compare the two, because they’re of course very different experiences, but it was hard not to wish that the spirit of some of that game’s more daring innovations made it across to Odyssey’s development, especially as its opening hours seemed to indicate that it might have. Doing my best to remove the latest Zelda game from the equation, however, Mario Odyssey still plays it a little too safe for my liking. The idea of an epic, world-traversing Mario game had many possibilities, but the decision to keep its characters and narrative aspects firmly in the background, and the decision to break its world up into many smaller-than-expected pieces goes against these possibilities and leaves us with a fun and polished, albeit a somewhat predictable, experience, and as a result one just not as adventurous as I’d have hoped for.

    An enjoyable game and a fun way to try out your brand new Switch, just don’t expect it to do much to innovate or to really take this series to places it hasn’t gone before, despite the huge possibilities its concept offered to do so.

    Rating:   3.5 – Good

    Product Release: Super Mario Odyssey (US, 10/27/17)

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