Super Mario Odyssey can be summed up in a few words: fun, delight, inventiveness. It earned a rare perfect 10 in the WIRED review, and it seems players have agreed on its merits – it’s instantly become the fastest-selling Super Mario game in Europe, ever.
To really understand what makes the game such a joy though – and as an excuse to use some of the captures we’ve taken using Odyssey’s addictive photo mode – requires examining some of the most impressive, charming, and heartfelt moments Nintendo has worked into this modern masterpiece.
If you’re still working your way through Mario’s globe-trotting adventure with his new pal Cappy, be warned though – spoilers lay ahead!
Looking back to go forwards
Super Mario Odyssey may be a trek around Mario’s world, but it’s also a journey through his past. The game is packed with nods and references to previous games, sometimes even remixing elements. For instance, graffiti of Cat Mario and Cat Peach from Super Mario 3D World can be found dotted around the worlds, but rendered in pixel art form representative of Mario’s earliest 8bit outings. His 2D roots get a regular homage too, in the form of sections where warp pipes can lead to flat platforming sections built into the very walls of the 3D world. A particularly nice touch is seeing these 2D retro-style Marios all rendered in whatever costume you may have Mario wearing in 3D
Nowhere is Mario’s heritage more evident than in New Donk City, the central area of the Metro Kingdom. Not only is the city run by Mayor Pauline – Mario’s first girlfriend, from his barrel-hopping, giant ape-stomping days – but the end of that area’s local storyline culminates in a festival reimagining the original Donky Kong game as a sprawling, gravity flipping mega-level wrapped around the three-dimensional buildings of New Donk. With Pauline and her band belting out Jump Up, Superstar, the signature song of Super Mario Odyssey, it’s a joyous experience that never fails to bring a smile to your face.
One of the most surprising aspects of Odyssey is how it flirts with reality in a way the series has never really done before. New Donk City itself really brings this home, a sprawling metropolis full of realistic buildings and cabs, populated by humans without exaggerated proportions, all wearing formal business attire. It gives the whole place a sort of 1940s vibe, completely at odds with the colourful worlds Mario usually visits, but in doing so delivers something entirely new. My personal theory is that New Donk City is, decades later, Nintendo’s gentle rebuttal to the (dreadful) Super Mario Bros. movie, showing how the realistic and the animated can co-exist.
Perhaps realism is the wrong term though, and it’s Odyssey’s level of detail, and the juxtaposition it creates against Mario’s cartoonish frame, that really makes the game pop. A battle with a gargantuan lightning dragon in a kingdom that looks like a Dark Souls side project is hardly ‘realistic’, after all. Yet with the dragon’s individually detailed scales rain-slick and glistening from the storm you fight under, and its malevolent eyes that follow you around even after you’ve defeated it, it creates an experience unrivalled in other Super Mario games, and one all the more striking for its contrast.
If there’s one criticism that can be levelled at Super Mario Odyssey, it’s that it’s a bit too easy. While none of its bosses will prove particularly challenging, that doesn’t take away from their sheer inventiveness. From defeating giant Aztec-styled godhead Knucklotec by capturing his own rocket-propelled stone fists and punching him in the face to swimming up Cookatiel’s streams of pink lava-vomit as a living fireball, each fight brings a new way of thinking about the game and its mechanics.
One of the best examples is the final (story-driven, at least) battle against Bowser’s new rabbitoid minions, the Broodals. Having pestered you throughout the game one-on-one, they eventually team up to pilot a giant Broodal Bot. Unfortunately, they built it out of wood, and Mario can possess Pokio – a sort of woodpecker that can use its long beak as a pole to fling itself up wooden surfaces. It’s one of the trickier battles too, making it a nice test of players skills while offering a unique solution.
Super Mario Dogessey
There are tons of dogs flitting about Odyssey’s kingdoms, even in the most unlikely places. Just like Mario, these adorable Shiba Inu puppers roam around wearing a variety of hats. They think they’re people! Canine sartorial choices are adorable enough, but one of the game’s best elements is that you can play with these dogs, mostly for no greater reason than “just because”.
Some will go digging, tracking down buried Power Moons for you to ground pound to the surface, but they’ll also just follow you around being playful. You can even play fetch with them, throwing Cappy for them to bring back. The doggos are the sort of added detail that Nintendo does so well – no real impact on gameplay, totally missable if you’re not looking, but a real delight if you take the time to stop and notice them.
You’ll first encounter one of Super Mario Odyssey’s disturbingly realistic Tyrannosaurus Rexes in the Cascade Kingdom, taking a nap in the sun and primed for you to take control of with Cappy – with a satisfying roar of power the first time you do. A more sinister encounter awaits in the Wooded Kingdom, where one lurks in the murky depths of the dense forest, attacking unsuspecting travellers. Any time you cross paths with one of these mighty beasts is a thrill, and Nintendo gets the balance just right – common enough encounters to please, not so many you become bored.
By far the best use of the terrible lizard king though comes in a Power Moon mission in the Metro Kingdom. Riding a scooter, Mario has to outrun a ferocious T-rex, swerving out of its hungry, snarling jaws, all while making daredevil bike jumps to collect coins along the way. Of course, just as the residents of New Donk City are decked out in 1940s era attire, so to is the T-rex dressed for the setting – with a pair of oversized period aviator goggles, of course. Why pilot attire for the famously stubby-armed dinosaurs? No idea, but it’s a brilliantly surreal touch to one of the best Power Moon challenges in the game.
Buds with Bowser
Are Mario and Bowser really arch enemies? Sure, Mario and Cappy spend the majority of Odyssey chasing the Koopa king after he kidnaps Peach and tries to force a wedding on her, but in the end, there are some hints the pair have a begrudging friendship. After their climactic throwdown, everything is literally falling apart. Mario could have left Bowser behind as he makes an escape with Peach but instead captures Bowser, using his immense physical power to escort all three of them to safety.
Later, when Peach rejects a marriage proposal from both Mario and Bowser – simultaneously adding credence to the long-running fan theory that she’s actually dating both of them – Mario even consoles a despondent Bowser. Terrifying, fire-breathing turtle demons covered in spikes have hearts to break, and Mario is there for him. Mario, Bowser – let the healing begin.
Along Mario and Cappy’s journey, you’ll find paintings hidden around the kingdoms. Not just another nod to the Super Mario series’ history – reminiscent of the paintings in Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64, which lead to each level – in Odyssey they serve as links between realms. Each one leads to a remote area in another kingdom, with a Power Moon reward waiting for having found them.
One is truly special though. Without any indication through the majority of the game that the Mushroom Kingdom was ever going to be featured – much of Odyssey takes after Super Mario Sunshine, with new locations and creatures to uncover – you can find a painting portal in the Luncheon Kingdom that leads you there early. You can’t explore at this point, with the portal popping you out on a remote island (home to a certain other dinosaur-type creature in Mario’s life) but it’s a tantalising peek at what awaits you in the end-game content.
When you finally get to the Mushroom Kingdom proper, another treat awaits. Sat in an egg on top of Peach’s Castle awaits Yoshi. In gameplay terms, Yoshi’s there to gobble up apples, earning you another three Power Moons, but Nintendo went the extra mile with the character’s inclusion, letting you capture and control the friendly dino.
As Mario-Yoshi, you have access to the familiar flutter-jump, as well as a new way of climbing walls and trees using Yoshi’s extendable tongue. Just running aroung the Mushroom Kingdom like this is a joy, but also helps grab a few more Power Moons by using Yoshi’s specific skills to complete some trickier platforming challenges. A lovely nod to a fan-favourite character.
No end in sight
Best of all, Super Mario Odyssey keeps on giving. After taking you around the world and beyond, delivering a bevy of incredible experiences along the way, there’s still more to do once you’ve interrupted Bowser and Peach’s wedding. Even after Mario delivers a heart-melting “Thank you for playing my game!” at story’s end, there are friends to revisit and new challenges to complete. Even Better, with Bowser’s threat once again (temporarily) contained, all the weird and wonderful people you’ve met along the way start visiting each other’s kingdoms, leading to wonderful moments like the one above.
The pinnacle may just be reaching the Darker Side of the moon, where almost everyone you’ve met is having a party in space, praising your efforts and urging you on to greater challenges still hidden. With Pauline and her band rocking out again, it’s a beautiful coda to the game – and possibly not even the last secret it holds.