For Mario, 3D used to mean freedom. In 1996, Super Mario unleashed 64 Nintendo's mascots to run in a straight line and let the player choose his own path. But for some time now – no matter how 3D the graphics were – Mario's adventures have been going in a straight line again. With Super Mario Odyssey that changes again and it's a wonderful thing.
It's not easy to go back and play Mario's previous free roaming adventures. Mario 64 is of course great fun, but it's also old enough to drink and feel it every year. Super Mario Sunshine, provided you still have a GameCube, starts well, but turns into a frustrating blue coin hunt. These are brilliant games, but they asked for a modern interpretation. Odyssey, released on Nintendo Switch on Friday, fits perfectly. It is not a slavish replica of old Mario, but a fresh version that feels like no other game in the series.
What changes the feel of the game so dramatically is not the fact that you can throw your hat and have a man's brain. It's an easier choice: you won't be booted from a level every time you collect a Power Moon, Odyssey’s version of Stars or Shines. Previous games kept putting you back in the game's hub world after getting one of these tokens that marked the end of a challenge.
There is no end to Odyssey: as soon as you enter a level, you can shoot moons to your heart's content. Moons drive the title-giving odyssey, a hat-shaped spaceship. So you need to load a minimal amount of it on the ship to have enough juice to fly to the next part of the world. In addition, you're chasing Bowser around the world as he – with a sigh – kidnapped Princess Peach again, the part of this game that stubbornly feels stuck in the past. You cannot leave a world until you have driven out the Koopa King's minions, even if you have collected a number of different moons.
Moons are hiding everywhere.
Without a handful of smaller secret locations, there are over 10 full-fledged worlds, each with dozens of moons. These are distributed like Halloween candy in a rich neighborhood. While some end up with longer, more complex challenges, the vast majority are fairly easy to achieve with a few minutes or seconds of work. They could be hidden around corners, kicked off the ground, or fetched from a variety of clever 8-bit style 2D action sequences in which Mario transforms into his pixelated self.
Except for the last small part of the area, Odyssey's levels are breathtakingly beautiful, lavishly designed and extremely varied. Whether you're swimming on a cliff beach and the reefs below, crawling through the dark undergrowth of a forest where a realistically rendered Tyrannosaurus Rex sneaks through the trees, or jumping through a vast desert of rust-red sand, the plains are seductive. Come here, they say. See what's around this corner. Don't go to bed. It is not 2 a.m. I had to play Odyssey on a very tight schedule for this review, but I think my game sessions would have been marathons even if I hadn't been on the deadline.
Mario doesn't make this trip alone. His travel companion is a living hat called Cappy. The basic action that makes this possible is the ability to throw Cappy a short distance, like a deadly cross between a frisbee and a boomerang. The easiest way is to smash things – to defeat an enemy, to blow up a box. You can also throw Cappy, hold the Y button to hang him in space, and then jump for extra height and distance.
Mario himself has always been blessed with a variety of sporting maneuvers, and Odyssey's iteration is no different. You kicked your butt. The long jump, always accompanied by a woo-hoo in the upper octave. And more. The game's menu contains a full action guide that reminds you of all of Mario's movements, many of which are out there.
This is on the second level.
Cappy further complicates the complex control scheme of this game, as it can "capture" certain enemies, friends, and inanimate objects, and transforms Mario's soul into these new forms, each with a different style of play and set of controls (discussed below) ) at the bottom of the screen). In one minute you may jump up with a frog, the next turn into a fork that is on the side of a wall and pull the stick back to move higher and higher. I would go into some of my other favorites, but they would be considered massive spoilers. Only discovering what you can do is part of the joy.
In a game full of varied play styles, grasping things gets even more upside down. Odyssey is a playground for action game types, an endless buffet with the good kind of Sizzler, the one with the chicken wings and the cheese toast. You cannot rely too much on a number of trains, as another is often available nearby.
Most detection situations involve some form of motion control. For example, if you shake the controller while holding a Goomba or a frog, you can do a high jump. These are not optional and cannot be switched off. I spent a lot of time with Mario Odyssey using the three main control schemes: Pro Controller, Split Joy-Cons and Handheld Mode.
Split Joy-Cons is how the game specifically encourages you to play; This gives you more precise control over how Mario Cappy throws and makes it easier to subtract motion control movements in general. If you are like me and your Joy-Con (L) is constantly desynchronized, this can of course be impossible.
There are many of them.
Pro controller is a good half thing, even if shaking and moving the controller is much more difficult and tiring to do the movement. Handheld mode is probably the most annoying: do you really want to shake the crap out of your entire switch? The game is still playable in any situation, but there is a clear hierarchy of convenience. (I would still like to see Nintendo patch the game so you can turn it off.)
You can even play co-op if you want, with one player controlling Mario and another Cappy independently. This is playfully advantageous because the player who controls the hat can whirl it around to take out enemies, catch things from any distance, or do all kinds of cool moves that I haven't even thought of. Of course, as a team, you have to work pretty well for this to work.
To come back to hats, dressing is a big feature of Odyssey. Coins are actually used here as a means of payment, not just 1/100 of a 1up mushroom (which no longer exists; you only lose 10 coins when you die). You can exchange your money for dozens of new hats and outfits. These are generally pretty cute and / or fun, especially since I think this is the first Mario game you can walk around in a wedding dress or underwear, but they don't change Mario's skills. (I'm not complaining, I'm just managing your expectations.)
If you think Mario could jump high …
In addition to the standard coins, each major tier has a limited amount of money that can only be used at that destination to buy costumes and decorations for the Odyssey ship. These purple coins are placed in locations that are slightly out of reach as a reward for thoroughly exploring each card.
And then there are the moons. The only thing that seems a little inelegant about the game design is that a moon is a moon, no matter how you came across it. The moon you get to finally figure out how to navigate a difficult set of moving platforms over a pit without a floor is worth as much as the moon you get for any number of random simple actions. If you end a boss fight or other massive storyline sequence, you will occasionally get a multi-moon worth three moons, but there are only a few of them. It would have been nice to get a bigger reward for choosing to do more difficult optional tasks.
You need a certain number of moons to get to the next level, but otherwise after many hours I started wondering what to do with the gonzo pool of extra moons that I had collected through careful trading. Surely I would be able to access something amazing at some point, yes? In my opinion, no. There is a good reward for defeating Bowser and freeing Peach. But then the game also dangled two major milestones in collecting moon and promised that if I literally collected hundreds more moons, the odyssey could continue to travel. Once I did that, my ultimate "reward" was …
… hey, I'm going to spoil a surprise at the end of the game. Scroll over the picture of Mario's bare chest if you want to skip it.
… a tiny new world that contains nothing but a brutal, lengthy, checkpoint-free Mario murder machine. I playfully put in a few hours to work my way through slowly until I came to what I thought was the end. I just went down a pipe and discovered a massive new pain glove. I died immediately, was sent back to the beginning, and bounced hard off. Don't get me wrong: I don't mind that this level exists for this type of player, but I was pretty amazed that the reward for collecting moon was just a whip and not a carrot.
As disappointing as this prize was, I should point out that the actual endgame sequence itself, from the discovery of Bowser's hidden keep to the final fight to what comes afterwards, was amazingly good – including the exceptional music that was important Highlight the entire game.
This was just one of many similar sequences in Odyssey in which each element gelled so well that I was simply amazed by the beauty of the whole experience. In that sense, what you end up finding may not be as rewarding as the trip.
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