The Perfect Level: Super Mario Odyssey’s Mushroom Kingdom is Nostalgia Done Right

This feature contains spoilers for Super Mario Odyssey.

As our mopey planet steadfastly hurtles towards its miserable demise, it is no surprise that nostalgia is the biggest box office hit right now. Star Wars continues to wheel out the characters you loved from your childhood for more adventures; Strangers Things and IT pulled the ’80s up out of the grave; game remasters and remakes are more popular than ever. We love it when we’re reminded of happy memories from better days, and there is no single entity in the gaming industry that achieves this with greater gusto than Nintendo. This is best exemplified in Super Mario Odyssey‘s own Perfect Level, the Mushroom Kingdom.

For many, the Mushroom Kingdom was their entry point into 3D gaming. Super Mario 64‘s hub world held players’ hands through this new 3D plane, giving them an open area to explore without the threat of danger, allowing them to practice their triple-jumping and fiddle with the analog sticks before heading into one of its various levels. Nintendo even softened the introduction of the camera, by way of explaining that players were actually taking control of Lakitu as he followed Mario throughout the game.

Nintendo may routinely place itself on the frontline of innovation, but it does so within a space that its audience is comfortable with. It’s why it has maintained more-or-less the same roster of characters from the ’90s, with it opting to attach new ideas to old faces rather than vice versa. Instead of wheeling out new IP after new IP, Nintendo flexes its creativity within the boundaries of existing franchises, leading to Link flying the flag for a new wave of open-world survival games in Breath of the Wild, or 3D platforming being redefined by Super Mario Galaxy.

How Super Mario Odyssey Plays With Your Expectations

super mario odyssey mushroom kingdom

Super Mario Odyssey returned to the collectible-laden nature of Super Mario 64, with Nintendo placing a greater emphasis on Mario’s movement rather than focusing on the game’s setting. This time Mario can utilize Cappy in order to pull off combo jumps, with players throwing their hat companion out ahead of them to reach greater heights than any previous Mario game. These new moves at Mario’s disposal give Odyssey an unprecedented amount of verticality for a Mario game, with players able to reach seemingly inaccessible areas by way of clever movement.

Never one to leave a stone unturned, Nintendo recognized that players would reach these areas and left little surprises for them if they managed to do so. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Mushroom Kingdom, in which Mario 64‘s peaceful hub becomes a treasure trove of hidden goodies and secrets, rewarding players for both their explorative instincts and their memories of the 1996 classic.

Super Mario Odyssey‘s Mushroom Kingdom sees Nintendo taking what players expect to see, and then subverting expectations with twists that take advantage of Mario’s new toolset. You know that Yoshi is going to be waiting for you atop Peach’s Castle, though rather than him delivering a message from the Nintendo team like in Mario 64, you instead control him with Cappy and can freely explore the Kingdom as everyone’s favorite green dinosaur. If you don the old-school Mario 64 cap and dungarees, you can enter a previously locked door and hop into location lifted straight from the N64 game. If you look up towards the skylight in the castle, a Power Star will drop down. Everything about the Mushroom Kingdom embodies the spirit of Super Mario Odyssey, boldly merging our memories of Nintendo’s past with their developers’ vision for the future.

Something Old, Something New

Oftentimes when we’re asked to take a trip down memory lane, it devolves into a creator showing us things that we used to love and asking us to applaud them again. To return to the Star Wars reference, in The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams guided viewers through a Disneyland tour of all their old favorites — look, there’s the Millenium Falcon! C-3P0 is back! There’s a new Death Star (kinda)! The film was described as “weaponized nostalgia,” which is the perfect summary of Abrams’ focus on reintroducing us to Star Wars by reminding us of why we loved it in the first place. I enjoyed it because I’m a Star Wars fan and those unsubtle nods appealed to me on a very base level, but in hindsight, it was a little like having your face repeatedly slammed against the window of a toy store until you became a child again.

Super Mario Odyssey is similarly a celebration of the old while introducing us to the new, but it does so with a great deal more care than other nostalgia vehicles. The return to the Mushroom Kingdom happens at the tail-end of a crescendo of fan service, with players taking control of Bowser in a mad dash through a crumbling building, leaping between 2D and 3D sections in nods to the series’ humble beginnings. The game concludes with Mario blissfully taking a nap atop a grassy knoll overlooking Peach’s Castle, the Odyssey in view and a world of adventure still lying ahead of the player.

When I’m offered post-game activities to take part in, I typically overlook them. I’m not a completionist, and I don’t get any sense of reward out of collecting 100 of these whatchamacallits or 3,000 of those thingamajigs, but there’s something so inviting about Odyssey‘s Mushroom Kingdom that it’s impossible to not be sucked back in. If this magical place was hiding away from me all this time, then what else is there to discover? Are there other locations hidden away from me? The existence of the Mushroom Kingdom is the perfect way to outline to the player that Super Mario Odyssey isn’t quite finished with them yet, demanding that they take a look around and go out on the hunt for more Power Moons in order to see what else lies in store.

The Talk of the Playground

Since Super Mario 64, the internet has made it much more difficult for us to ever truly be surprised. If you’re planning to watch a film, TV show, or complete a game, then you’re going to need to do so alongside the hivemind in order to ensure that you won’t stumble upon any spoilers. Mario 64 existed in a time when its various secrets remained hidden for years for some people, allowing various playground myths to do the rounds. Remember how everyone was certain that Luigi was in the game or that strange assertion that a “Ninja Mario” power-up was hidden in it? You’re not going to get that kind of rampant speculation these days, as some guy on Twitter with an anime avatar would be there to immediately shut your theorizing down.

Without this secrecy, Super Mario Odyssey instead packed out the game with collectibles and hard-to-reach milestones, inviting players to give it a go just one more time until before long they were sitting on 999 Power Moons and had lost a month of their lives. While Odyssey may have technically begun with Mario chasing down Bowser once again, the real game starts when you’re overlooking the Mushroom Kingdom, its familiar blue skies encouraging you to go back and explore in case there were other hidden Kingdoms.

Even months after its release, some were still convinced that Super Mario Sunshine‘s Isle Delfino was in the game, all thanks to the Mushroom Kingdom making this a possibility. Much like its introduction in Super Mario 64, the Mushroom Kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey serves as a launching pad for your imagination, not only giving you a lot of things to see and do within its confines, but also making you wonder what other wonderful things are out there in Mario world. It transforms Super Mario Odyssey from an adventure into a puzzle that you feel compelled to solve, and is as close to reliving that excited ’90s playground chatter as we’re likely to get these days.