Nintendo’s console releases have followed kind of a pattern, at least since the world beating and utterly deathless SNES, their last release of its kind to be both the most powerful and successful on the market, an honor that has gone to either Sony and/or Microsoft ever since. The N64’s outdated cartridge based media and ahead of its time controller doomed it to second place behind Sony’s cheaper and more versatile PlayStation, though the same phenomena that kept it a very close second, the fact that it’s best games (save for a handful of first party gems, of course) were licensed titles from companies that no longer exist (Midway’s racers, Rare’s shooters, and especially THQ’s WCW and WWF games) also tarnishes its legacy as something Nintendo cannot officially retroactively profit from. The GameCube and WiiU, well-built consoles with deep rosters of great games, are considered out and out failures, sandwiched as they were in between the zeitgeist capturing mainstream must own Wii.
Which brings us to the Switch. Just like the N64 and Wii before it, the Switch has mysteriously tapped into the mainstream gaming market to a degree as to be considered a critical and financial success, an occurrence that I find just as confounding as the GameCube and WiiU’s relative arch unpopularity, and no less so now that I finally have my hands on one. I just kind of still don’t get it. The fragility of the screen and joy cons, the flimsiness of the included controller, the lack of D Pad? Yeah, I’m not a fan. I had the switch in portable mode for about 10 minutes while I set the thing up, docked the screen, tossed the included joy cons in a drawer, plugged in my pro controller and will probably never disconnect it from the dock again, especially since I’ve recently grabbed a New 2DS XL for all my portable Nintendo needs and am enjoying its small but not too small size and amazing durability much more than any of the previous models, or any portable system at all since the glory days of the Game Boy Advance SP, really. Sorry Nintendo, I’m not in this for your revolution and I’m not in it for you.
What I am in this for, is Mario. Ever since the N64 I’ve always picked up the current Nintendo console (even portables) whenever Nintendo has seen fit to drop the new Super Mario for it. Super Mario 64 on N64, Super Mario Sunshine for GameCube, New Super Mario Bros for DS, Super Mario Galaxy for Wii, Super Mario 3D Land for 3DS and 3D World for WiiU. I did, however, wait a bit before picking up a Switch and Super Mario Odyssey, which released at the end of October. Mario games are supposed to come out at the end of November, damn it! And doing so any earlier felt just as wrong as Star Wars movies coming out around Christmas and not Memorial Day still does. So I prepared, ready for my late November Mario tradition. And sure enough, with a turkey hangover strong enough to kill a god, I woke up on Black Friday ready to tackle the latest in Miyamoto’s endless mushroom kingdom canon, despite my reservations about its method of delivery.
Though I’ll go to bat for the WiiU and GameCube as good systems with great libraries, I’ll admit to the weakness of their mainline Mario efforts. Super Mario Sunshine’s goofball charm of steel drums and gigantic dim witted villagers (not to mention the birth of Bowser Jr.) may be a personal favorite but I can definitely appreciate its Majora’s Mask-esque status as the red headed stepchild of the series, and Super Mario 3D World, while great in its own right, pales in comparison to it’s much more innovative 3DS successor. The less said about the New Super Mario Bros games the better, a series that definitely went to the well one too many times and earned their reputation as kusoge. As opposed to the Wii exclusive Super Mario Galaxy games, which of course separately but equally deserve their status as sterling examples of 3D platforming perfection, gimmicky Wii motion controls and a slight over-reliance on the crux of their main anti-gravity hook be damned.
I subject you, dear reader, to this history of the great, the good and the okay of plumber platformers because believe it or not, Odyssey bests them all. For better or worse, Nintendo never technically released a legitimate follow up to Super Mario 64, until now that is, because that spirit of raw innovation and genuine technical achievement permeates every pure and joyful second of Super Mario Odyssey. If anything were to be branded a “gimmick” in the vein of, again, Sunshine’s FLUDD or Galaxy’s anti-grav shenanigans, it would be Cappy, Mario’s new shape shifting, boomeranging, creature possessing hat friend. But Mario’s Cappy based abilities in Odyssey are so carefully and seamlessly integrated in 3D Mario’s overall gameplay milieu that it feels like the diminutive chapeau has been there from the very beginning.
Aside from being a deadly projectile and opening up some truly gnarly platforming possibilities, Cappy’s main function is to CAPture (get it?) other characters that Mario then enters the body of to perform the majority of the game’s heavy lifting when it comes to puzzle solving, traversal and enemy encounters. In the interest of balance (and not having the game feel like five pounds of shit in a ten pound bag), these abilities take to place of the traditional fire flowers, cape and the like. But for all the Internet snark that followed the initial footage of Mario possessing mustachioed T Rexes, what Cappy brings to the table isn’t that far of a cry from the hammer brother and tanooki suits that have been staples of the series since forever. Not content to simply provide an aimless playground for the player to test these new powers, each and every gameplay challenge, from side quests to the game’s biggest and best story based objectives, are tied cleverly and intuitively to the CAPture mechanics in ways that transform the sometimes initially inscrutable to the extremely satisfying, each task building off of the next organically, even ones tackled out of sequence or without the intended skill set.
The game’s greatest showcase for its overall design aesthetic is definitely the boss fights, as numerous and varied here as they historically haven’t been in past 3D Mario Titles. Each world that Cappy and Mario travel to in pursuit of Bowser and Peach (the villain here trying to force the Princess to marry him, and charting their course to the altar based on what kingdoms he can steal their nuptial essentials from: dress, ring, food, etc.), feature multiple encounters both against Bowser’s band of wedding planning evil rabbits The Broodals (don’t ask) and gigantic indigenous bosses exclusive to each environment. Even hot on the heels of the similarly innovative and excellent The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I can say without a doubt that these are the most brilliantly plotted set pieces I’ve ever encountered in any game. Period.
And while Breath of the Wild almost completely reinvented the Zelda template based on a myriad of more contemporary and streamlined action/RPG influences, Mario Odyssey doubles down on Mario, and is all the better for it. Stage progression is an almost even mix of each 3D Mario that’s come before it, polished and optimized to near perfection. Super Mario 64’s wide open playfields, Galaxy’s ship based travel from level to level, the devious small scale platforming challenges born in Sunshine and perfected in 3D Land, it’s all here, all sequenced and balanced to provide the most unadulterated and complete Mario experience, some would say, ever. But what about 2D platforming you ask? That’s the best part.
Rather than simply pulling out to a pseudo 2.5D framing device and using the rest of the game’s assets (a’la 3D Land and World), Odyssey transfers Mario completely into a new graphics engine mimicking that of the first Super Mario Bros., and often these 2D environments inhabit and overlay with the existing 3D levels in a way that is just as inventive as it is seamless. Yes it feels a little weird controlling this 2D Mario with the analog thumb stick (shades of Metroid: Samus Returns), but I eventually got used to it, and grew to anticipate these sequences more so than any other, even as their late game tendency to have Mario platform from 2D to 3D in the same short, disorienting section made them some of the game’s most diabolical.
And this being a first party Nintendo game, of course it looks beautiful and runs flawlessly, graphical effects and fidelity putting to shame anything on either Sony or Microsoft’s latest $500 Call of Duty garbage box on what is essentially a handheld. Mario and friends are just as charmingly reverential as ever, even on this somewhat newfound, self-deprecating, tongue in cheek crusade not to take themselves too seriously (New Donk City is every bit as hilarious as the pre-release footage made it seem, and there’s post game content that’s even better). Sound design takes the Breath of the Wild approach, with plenty of re-imagined classic tracks and all new compositions in a bev6 of styles, and also like BotW, the game itself is an absolute beast, with literally hundreds of hours under the hood, and, as previously mentioned, its biggest, best, most rewarding content revealed after the main game is completed.
So while I may not be drinking the Switch kool aid, I’m definitely converted when it comes to Super Mario Odyssey, and have no problem with having coughed up the $400+ barrier to entry to enjoy the latest Nintendo masterpiece now that I’ve seen almost all it has to offer. The proprietary nature and baffling popularity of Nintendo’s latest console bodes well for a video game landscape the constantly seems to be on the precipice of a cheap, colorless, personality devoid, phone and tablet dominated future. Maybe not exactly literally but at least figuratively, leave it to Nintendo to save the industry. Again.