I’ve talked before on this blog about how Mario played a big part in my early gaming days – playing Super Mario 64 with my parents and exploring the cosmos with Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel. There was however, a dark time in Nintendo history, when I completely fell out of love with the plumber’s games. In the days of the WiiU, I fell hard out of love with Nintendo. My time with the console started optimistically – my family ordered one for my Christmas present and I played a lot of NintendoLand and Darksiders II. In truth, the WiiU was really my introduction to the adult world of video games – my first experiences with Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed all came from the WiiU. I have a lot to thank that console for. However, it did manage to all but kill my interest in Nintendo games for a good few years. The UI was slow and it felt like it took forever to actually get into the games. Then there were the games themselves. I remember feeling that there was a distinct lack of ambition from Nintendo during this generation. A few popular franchises saw new releases on the console, but in relatively gimped or lackluster forms when compared to their previous entries on 3DS or Wii. One big example of this was, in my book, Super Mario 3D World.
The predecessor to 3D World, the similarly titled 3D Land was released on the 3DS as a somewhat interesting cross between the 2D Mario games and his 3D line. I wasn’t overwhelmingly in love with the idea, but as a handheld game, I didn’t really mind its smaller scale. When this continued over to the WiiU however, I was massively disappointed. Here we were, on the backs of the Galaxy games, and we were being offered… A sequel to 3D Land? No thank you. I have to admit, I might have been hasty in my judgement, especially seeing the response the game has had online in the wake of its release and port to the Nintendo Switch, but I just couldn’t get excited about it in the way that I wanted to. I started to dread that my time with the mistachioed red plumber had come to an end.
Then, boom. The arrival of the Nintendo Switch, and the reveal of its games lineup. Nintendo revealed Super Mario Odyssey, a new game in the series that would move the 3D side of the franchise back to its roots, more in line with the open world settings of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. I was sold. It wasn’t just Mario – Nintendo as a whole seemed to be back for blood, their ambition higher than ever before. It’s almost impossible to overstate how brilliant Nintendo’s 2017 release calendar was: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Xenoblade Chronicles 2… Finally, the Nintendo I’d grown up with was back. I pre-ordered Mario as soon as I got back to the UK from my study abroad, and eagerly awaited release.
I remember waking up early in the morning and rushing down to the Oxford city centre to pick up my copy, then legging it back home to bang it into my Switch. I sat down to play it, and really started to enjoy the journey. The first two worlds – one ghostly hat world and the other a prehistoric land – were a tantalising taste of what was to come. In those first couple if days, I really enjoyed my time with Odyssey, but I have to admit that I wasn’t quite in love with it. It wasn’t until I played the game in handheld mode in my friend’s apartment that it really clicked for me. Something about exploring these worlds on the Switch’s little screen, away from my TV really made me appreciate it in a different way. This was a full, 3D Mario, but portable. Some switch in my brain was hit, and I became somewhat obsessed with the game.
I think that one of the great things about Odyssey was the variety of ways it could be played. For many people, progressing through the story will give them a chance to see each world and explore a little, gathering up the required number of Power Moons to move on to the next area. The end of the story gives the journey a satisfying end and a chance for people to put the game down and move on should they wish. For people who want to play more, however, finishing the game will unlock a whole new set of extra Power Moons in each world, allowing for further exploration and increased challenge. This of course eventually leads to unlocking the final level in the game, the brilliant Darker Side of the Moon. I really love how Odyssey handles progression, and I think that it might offer a few lessons for open world gaming as a whole. One of the most jarring things for me in games such as Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed is that gap between story and gameplay. In the cutscenes, you’ll be told that something is going to happen urgently, then you’ll stumble across umpteen sidequests on your way there which will slow your progress. When the world is about to end or a terrorist attack is on the horizon, do we really need to take time to help the local old lady with her fish? Odyssey’s method of opening up the game further after the story is complete might allow players to feel comfortable spending more time exploring at a leisurely pace than they otherwise would, and allow them to see the story in its entirety. Definitely something to think about.
Back to the topic at hand though, Odyssey shines for myriad reasons, that progression system being just one. Here, Mario’s movements are more fluid than ever before, allowing players to pull off all sorts of tricks which then get shared endlessly on YouTube and the Odyssey subreddit. The cap mechanic, in which Mario can possess enemies by throwing his hat onto them, is truly marvelous, and frees up the worlds to exploration in a whole new way. It’s almost hard to imagine where Mario goes from here – I certainly can’t imagine a future without Cappy in it. For maybe the first time since Mario made the jump to 3D, Nintendo have added something to the gameplay that feels truly essential and game-changing. I’m not sure what will happen with Mario’s games in the future, and while I’m sure Nintendo have plenty of ideas, I really hope that they find a way to include Cappy’s mechanics again.
Super Mario Odyssey is a brilliant game, one that managed to reignite my love for the franchise. I spent hours in it; collecting every moon, purple coin and outfit. I even spent a decent chunk of time in the balloon game, both hunting down others’ balloons and trying to hide my own. Odyssey really feels like a playground in which Nintendo have set the plumber free, and I would strongly recommend it to anybody who owns a Switch and hasn’t yet taken the dive.