There's never been a Mario game quite like Super Mario Odyssey. Though it adopts the open, non-linear level design of Mario 64 and adapts it into grandiose environments akin to Super Mario Galaxy, this is as fresh as the series has felt in years, and much like Breath of the Wild it is evidence of Nintendo's regained confidence in its Switch era of games. As a huge fan of the series for over two decades, I can safely say that it's in contention for the best Mario game to date.
Super Mario Odyssey begins in typical fashion, albeit with small twists that escalate as the game progresses. Bowser has once again kidnapped Peach, though his motives are more clear than simply wanting to hold her hostage for an inexplicable reason — this time around, he wants to marry her. However, the tiara he has enforced onto her head is actually the spouse of Cappy, a sentient hat that aids Mario on his mission to rescue the princess by way of allowing him to possess and control enemies and other creatures he comes into contact with. Cappy is the lone power-up in the game, though it grants Mario access to a vastly increased number of abilities than in previous games.
Like Mario 64 and its stars, Super Mario Odyssey requires players to collect Power Moons, sources of energy that help power the Odyssey and allow Mario to continue on his journey. These Power Moons can be earned in many different ways, from completing outlined objectives in kingdoms and defeating bosses, through to obtaining them in hidden areas or by completing mini-games. There are a surplus to be found in each kingdom, and using Cappy to work out how to get your hands on each one fills the game with a great deal of variety, with you switching from breaking down barriers in a tank the one minute to hurtling through lava as a Bullet Bill the next. Whereas obtaining the various collectibles in previous Mario games devolved into you looking for high ledges and then working out how to scale them, in Super Mario Odyssey not are you figuring out how to get Power Moons, you're also figuring out which enemies will help you do so.
Something old, something new
The foundations on which Super Mario Odyssey is built are familiar, though Nintendo has added improvements and innovations every step of the way. For instance, unlike previous 3D Mario games there's no designated hub world, with Mario instead venturing to its various kingdoms via the titular spaceship, the Odyssey. However, Nintendo replicates the feel of the hub world — a brief moment of respite in the midst of an adventure filled with peril — within each new land you visit. In Metro Kingdom's New Donk City you'll still be earning your Power Moons by way of completing tasks and exploring every nook and cranny tucked away between its towering skyscrapers, but you'll also be able to converse with the local city dwellers or help Mayor Pauline out with her festival. You can play a game of jump rope in the town square, climbing the online leaderboards reserved for Super Mario Odyssey's various mini-games, or decide to see what happens when you clamber up the city's tallest building. You can also visit each world's store, which allow you to trade in gold or purple coins in exchange for a variety of new costumes or decorative items for your trip. The balance between action and exploration is nigh-on perfect.
Each new world you venture to is imbued with a sense of community that makes it feel distinct from the last, with it populated by unique races and enemies that make them individually memorable. Each kingdom has its own Bowser-related issue, with King Koopa leaving a trail of destruction behind him as Mario chases his airship from location to location, and whether it's a giant pot of stew blocking a volcano or an upturned pyramid blocking the sun, it's Mario's job to solve it.
Mario Odyssey is called that for a reason — this game feels like Mario's most expansive adventure yet, aided by the staggering amount of variety offered in each new world both in terms of theme and level design. New Donk City may well have been the biggest talking point when the game was formally announced, but that's not the only world here that is unlike anything else Mario has ventured to before. Though the incongruous realism of Metro Kingdom is certainly a highlight, certain stages in the latter-half of the game show Nintendo at its very best, throwing oddball ideas at the wall and then watching as each of them stick without fail. Super Mario Odyssey doesn't simply conclude with a lava level and a happy ending — Mario's journey continues to ascend beyond expectations even within its final hour, throwing various twists at the player that will delight long-time fans of the series, and even throwing curveballs at the Mario canon. It's fan service at its best, with Nintendo neither resting on their laurels nor overlooking the 32 years of history preceding Odyssey.
Twists in the tale
Though to describe several of the decisions Nintendo has made throughout Super Mario Odyssey would be to effectively spoil the game, suffice to say there were several moments during my playthrough where I found myself genuinely surprised at what Nintendo had me doing. Some of the game's boss fights in particular are a treat, with one battle in a sunshine-laden kingdom being a fast-paced thrill ride from beginning to end, while an encounter towards the end of the game will surely usurp Mario 64's eel as the most genuinely scary moment in a Mario game to date. Seriously, if you've got kids who will want to play this, prepare to have yourself some shook-up offspring by the end.
But even outside of these twists and turns, Nintendo has improved the fundamentals of a Mario game to such a degree that it breezes past most other games in its genre. Mario has long jumps, triple jumps, somersaults, wall grabs, wall shimmies, spinning jumps and much more all at his disposal, with motion control also implemented in a manner that actively contributes to the game, rather than detracting from it. You'll shake the Joy-Con to perform a homing attack with Cappy, and you'll build up momentum while climbing by vigorously waggling your arms. I've never been a fan of motion controls in the past, even when they've ostensibly been implemented well, but here they don't diminish the experience and instead provide satisfying extra actions that help to speed up Mario's movement and attacks.
Holding the two Joy-Cons separately is the preferred controller method, as outlined in the game itself, though there's also support for the Switch's Pro Controller and it can be played in portable mode, too. While it feels fantastic to play a true 3D Mario game while on the go, there's no substitute for playing Super Mario Odyssey on a big screen given how good the game both looks and sounds. As evidenced by Breath of the Wild, the Switch doesn't need to be a powerhouse when Nintendo knows how to nail a visual style so well its games blow their ultra-realistic peers out of the water anyway. The unique direction of each new kingdom gives every new location a distinct personality, and while one particular food-focused world overdoes it a little with its primary colors, all-in-all this is one of the best-looking games Nintendo has ever produced. Then to top it all off there's its score, which continues on from the precedent set by Super Mario Galaxy with an epic orchestral backing, complemented by the upbeat pop of its catchy theme. Much like the game itself, there's never a dull moment with its soundtrack.
Comparing Super Mario Odyssey to over thirty years' worth of Mario games is difficult, because it's impossible to remove the affects of nostalgia from a series that started my love of video games in the first place. But while I may be far removed from the days spent playing Super Mario World as a kid, completing it for the umpteenth time and still finding new secrets with each playthrough, experiencing Super Mario Odyssey transported me back to that same sense of wonder I felt when I first discovered the Star World, or when I used my cape to accidentally stumble upon a secret key that opened up a brand new level. Nintendo has delivered everything I could want in a Mario game, before adding things that I didn't even know I wanted. The end result of their efforts is a true modern masterpiece.
Disclosure: Copy provided early by retailer.