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October 30, 2017

How it Feels to Play Super Mario Odyssey.

Oh, come on.  Of course it’s good. 

It’s Mario.  It’s a first-party Nintendo game.  It’s a continuation of the momentum the company has built up over the past year or so, given the release of Breath of the Wild back in March.  I feel like I shouldn’t even have to say it at this point (for fear of it becoming utterly pointless lip service), but here we go again.  Even if this is another Mario game, it’s one that manages to break the mold while staying familiar -- adding twists to the established formula so that it takes on its own character.  As it should.  So for that reason alone, I’m confident in saying that Super Mario Odyssey is a good game.

But you know me by now, I hope.  It’s not enough to say it’s good.  We need to cut through the surface and figure out why it’s good.  That’s where the real meat lies.  Well, either that, or a few pints of blood that are bound to spray all over our collective faces.  

But let’s keep this E-rated for now, eh?

Well, Bowser’s really outdone himself this time around.  The game opens with him cradling Princess Peach atop his airship, and Mario is there to save the day.  Except everyone’s favorite plumber fails; a toss of Bowser’s top hat sends Mario flying like a rocket, so that the Koopa king is free to cart Peach across the globe, gathering sacred artifacts as props for his wedding (no matter how much damage he does in the process) and vandalizing whatever’s in his path to advertise the big day. 

Meanwhile, Mario’s down but not out.  Bowser’s assault made him crash-land in the middle of a ravaged kingdom of hat-ghosts; one of them, Cappy, partners up with Mr. Jumpman so that the two of them can save their respective damsels -- a little sister and the princess, respectively.  So begins a chase around the planet in the titular Odyssey; Mario and Cappy have to work together to collect ship-propelling Power Moons from strange and sprawling worlds, all while cleaning up the messes left by the Koopa cabal.

Also Pauline is back, which raises…multiple questions about the canon.  So first off: is she Mario’s old flame and the spark of love remains despite his attachment to Peach? 

Well, anyway.  At a base level -- even though I haven’t put a huge amount of time into the game -- I have a sort of insight into Odyssey.  Is it a good game?  Hell yes.  But it’s a good game because -- perhaps more than any other Mario I’ve ever played -- it’s a fascinating game.  I don’t want to belabor the point, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that it’s been heavily inspired by Breath of the Wild.  The areas are much larger in scale than what we’ve gotten in other titles, and while they’re still segmented by a stage select screen to keep it from being one continuous world, it’ll still take minutes on end to run from one end of a kingdom (read: stage) to the next.  At least that’s the case with the first full-fledged level, but I doubt the others will lag far behind.

The simplest way to put it is that the limiters have been taken off for this game.  Mario 64 and Sunshine featured large worlds (for their time) with objectives to complete as symbolized by Power Stars and Shine Sprites, respectively.  Sunshine’s flow with its levels leaned more toward an episodic format, so that each successive Sprite unlocked more of a level’s “story” (like cleaning up Noki Bay, for example).  64 made it so that you could possibly get different Stars even if you chose different objectives at the outset, but the structure was still --

What kind of life do you suppose Pauline went through to become the mayor of New Donk City?  As far as I know, she’s only been shown as a damsel in distress and a love interest to Mario and/or Donkey Kong.  When and how did she climb the political ladder?  I’m not saying it’s implausible; I just want to know what happened.

So anyway, the Galaxy games had their own structure in both gameplay flow and level design.  While it had a strong lean towards Sunshine’s style of episodes (albeit with reduced storytelling), its levels were less about those massive sprawls and more about strings of themed, synchronized challenges.  That wasn’t true of every stage, I know, but you should have a sense of what I mean: progression was tied to how well you could have Mario blast off from planet to planet, made possible once you cleared a specific task.  3D World -- and similarly, the New SMB games -- took a hard stance in favor of structure and linearity.  You could collect trinkets along the way to make sure you unblocked the gates to the next stage, but the expansiveness of earlier titles was lost in favor of a classical experience.  (Let’s not question if that approach was the best for now, because that’s a debate and a half.)

So where does Odyssey lie on the spectrum?  Near as I can tell, it’s a refutation of the earlier games.  It doesn’t seem as if there’s a hub world like 64, Sunshine, or Galaxy.  The linearity is gone (at least on the macro level; in the early goings you’re still getting enough Power Moons to access the next stage).  Crucially, the episodic separation via MacGuffins is virtually nonexistent.  Instead of going to a stage and choosing which Star/episode you want to go after -- one out of three, six, eight, or whatever -- now even one of the earliest stages can have more than three dozen Power Moons.  Find one in a level, grab it, get a little dance and jingle, and carry on about your business.  It’s very --

No, but seriously though.  What’s the biology behind Pauline here?  She’s the size of a normal human, but Mario’s apparently a dwarf or something?  Or is he actually a normal (if cartoonish) person, and Pauline is some kind of titan in a slinky dress?  Actually hold on -- if there’s a step between realistic human and cartoon human, then does that mean Pauline is some kind of half-breed between two separate but equal species?  I am confused.

The key point about Odyssey is that it incentivizes exploration in a way Mario games generally haven’t.  3D World touched on it with the Green Stars as a means of progression, but between the linear nature of stages and the time limit pushing you to clear first and search later, it was somewhat hamstrung in that sense.  In Odyssey, you’re given full command and ownership of your exploration.  You have to meet a certain quota if you want to power up your ship, but you’ll clear that fairly easily as you traverse the levels.  And even when you do, there’s still so much left to explore that you won’t want to leave -- least of all because the level might change thanks to some event you triggered.

It’s a given that Mario Odyssey will have you running, jumping, and more to snatch up whatever trinkets you can get your hands on.  As always, it’s a blast to go through -- simple but satisfying gameplay, built on the thrills of making a gravity-defying leap.  Still, my favorite part of the game thus far is the ability to explore.  You’re dropped into a massive world, given a general mission (get those Moons, idiot!), and there’s nothing in the way.  You can do what you want, when you want.  There are pillars of light that guide you toward the next major objective -- i.e. stuff that’ll let you face a boss or resolve a conflict, like thawing out a desert -- but it’s both liberating and satisfying to know that as soon as you touch down, you can say “nah, son” and head to the far right edge of a stage because that cactus over there looked funny.  It’s as if --

How effective of a mayor is Pauline?  Do the rules in our world apply to her, or is her status no different from that of, say, Princess Peach?  If so, then what kind of platforms has she chosen to pursue?  Given how much emphasis she puts on a festival for New Donk City, she clearly has an appreciation of the arts and culture, which is certainly something.  But given how modern it is, does that mean she’s a fervent supporter of technology and industry -- which, ostensibly, is what Bowser has pursued for ages?  Is there an uneasy alliance between the mayor and the king?  And what does that mean for relations with the Mushroom Kingdom, if any?

It’s as if Odyssey’s knickknacks are a means to an end -- a reason for you to explore, but in the end just a suggestion.  In a first for the franchise, you can find coins that let you buy new hats and outfits for Mario to wear.  So on a base level, you do what you do because of the game’s appeal to greed and vanity -- the assumption that all gamers really want is to put Mario in a sombrero and cowboy boots.  Honestly, though, I can’t say I care about costumes too much at this point; I’m happy with the default look, and grabbing coins is just a formality (save for instances where wearing the right costume will let you into unique doorways).   What really gets me going is the chance to see these worlds for myself, interacting with them as best I can.

And to that end, there’s the brand new Capture mechanic.  Throw your hat (read: Cappy) at certain enemies and objects, and Mario will take control of them so that their powers become his.  Each transformation gives our red-clad hero altered means of traversal, which means that exploring levels becomes much more in-depth.  Capture a Bullet Bill, and you can briefly fly.  Capture a frog, and you can get insane vertical leaps.  Capture an Easter Island head, and you can put on sunglasses to reveal hidden paths.  I know everybody went nuts over the T-rex -- and Nintendo knew in advance, given that you access it within the first hour or so -- but I’m personally thankful for the grand debut of Tank Mario.  It reminds me of the good old days when I would play Advance Wars and --

How powerful of a political entity is New Donk City?  Like, is it really just a city or is that just a name and it’s actually on the same scale as a kingdom?  The stage’s background implies that it’s a massive urban sprawl, so maybe it’s more than capable of rivaling the Mushroom and Koopa Kingdoms?  Does it have a standing army?  Given that the Koopas are consistent warmongers, what’s Pauline’s approach to foreign policy when violent turtles come knocking? 

It really says a lot this game when my biggest complaint so far -- again, at this very early juncture -- is that it seems like the sort of thing that would induce a panic attack.  So much ground to cover!  So many Power Moons to find!  So many coins (of two varieties, no less) to collect!  So many transformations!  So many secrets!  So many things to throw your cap at and interact with!  Is that a thing?  Is that a thing?  Is that a thing?  And then you’ve got all these minor details to keep up with, because if you don’t you might as well have wasted sixty bucks because you should enjoy every last painstaking detail you foolish fool!

Bizarrely, Odyssey feels like both a game you can pick up and play on the go and an endeavor to be dissected over the course of dozens of hours in your room of choice.  Grab a couple of Moons, and you can end your session right there if you want.  Or you can do what I did and fuse with your chair, refusing to move until sated by the girth of your trinket collection.  Both are viable options.  I wouldn’t have expected as much, but it seems like Nintendo is doing its best to make the Switch’s versatility more than just a gimmick.  The key point, though: much like the console itself, Super Mario Odyssey is the real deal.

And it feels.



And that’ll do it for now.  See you next --

Wait, hold on.  What’s Pauline’s last name?

In summation, Super Mario Odyssey is a piece of trash because it doesn’t tell you enough about Pauline.  0/10.  Do not buy.

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