'Super Mario Odyssey' Review: Charming, Fun, But No Revolution

Nintendo's latest Switch game doesn't rewrite the rules, but does have its own surprises in store

Mario as seen through a filter in the game's photo mode Credit: Nintendo

Nintendo launched its hybrid portable/TV-based Switch console in March with a shot heard round the gaming world and beyond, courtesy of a radical redefinition of The Legend of Zelda. Breath of the Wild felt like a revelation, a complete recontextualization of what Zelda can be. Stripped of more than a decade of hat-in-hand, tutorial-chained cruft introduced as the series and the medium of video games awkwardly transitioned from two dimensions to three, Breath of the Wild became a 2017 watermark three months into the year.

Super Mario Odyssey was revealed for the Switch in January, with some surprising settings and a brand new character thrown into the mix to help Mario on his umpteenth quest to save Princess Peach. It would be easy to walk into Odyssey after Zelda's meteoric rise and expect a similar revolution from Nintendo's most important, most beloved character. But that's not what Mario Odyssey is bringing to the table.

In what's maybe the most explicitly creepy setup for a Mario game in as long as I can remember, Super Mario Odyssey opens as series-villain Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach with a very specific agenda in mind: to marry her.

Mario is determined to stop the wedding, and he's got new help in the form of a strange hat-shaped … alien … thing, named Cappy. Cappy's kingdom – the Cap Kingdom, because of course – was overrun by Bowser and his new enforcer thugs, a quartet of Hot Topic Easter Goth bunnies named the Broodals. Cappy's sister was also kidnapped by Bowser because … you know, I'm not really sure.

There's a lot about Super Mario Odyssey's story that doesn't make sense or isn't fleshed out, which is fine. The point is, Cappy has a functioning spaceship and wants to help Mario, so off they go, chasing Bowser and company across the world. That's not the only help Cappy provides. Cappy also gives Mario a host of new abilities, from throwing Cappy like a weapon, to providing a platform for Mario to bounce off of, to allowing Mario to take over the bodies of some creatures and even people in the world of Super Mario Odyssey. .

In many ways, Super Mario Odyssey is the weirdest that Mario has been in years. The game takes place across more than a dozen Kingdoms, many of which feature some of the sorts of themes you might expect from a Mario title – ice and lava, forests and spooky levels full of darkness. But there are also people, in a city. Human-sized, proportioned, and appearance'd people, and cars, and streetlights, and it's truly bizarre seeing Mario interact in that kind of environment. And you will be interacting in those open spaces, arguably more than in any previous Mario platformer. You'll find performers to be part of a band, or herd sheep, or find seeds for a garden, and a lot more.

There's more stuff to do because each kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey is an open-ish world. Super Mario Odyssey does have some more standard levels, stages you can enter discretely, complete, and then exit. But the bulk of the game is spent exploring the larger worlds, first to defeat bosses, then to collect enough Power Moons to upgrade Cappy's ship, the Odyssey, so that the pair can continue to chase Bowser.

The more open-world design elements of Super Mario Odyssey range from mildly amusing to chore-like. I found myself exasperated running around to places in a level I'd already been because I hadn't yet been given a quest to get that thing yet. It's a fine line dividing busywork from a game with a lot to do, and occasionally, Odyssey steps over to the wrong side of it.

There were other elements of Super Mario Odyssey I also found puzzling. The game is insistent about its ostensibly optional motion controls, presenting prompts regularly reminding players they exist. They're not required, exactly, which is good, given that the Switch is both a home console and a portable device. I didn't try shaking my switch in handheld mode to do things faster, but I can't imagine that's a particularly good user experience.

These motion controls feels like a vestigial remainder from the last Mario games like this, the big, expansive 3D worlds found in Super Mario Galaxy, games that are now more than seven years old. And there are other underdeveloped things that tug at Odyssey, like a camera that both isn't very good and is a real pain to move around when you're in the heat of the moment – you jump/interact with the same thumb you'd use to move the camera. The environments here are so much more sophisticated, and it just doesn't feel like the camera has caught up.

These issues stick out in part because of how good, how refined the rest of Super Mario Odyssey is. Kingdoms are open, but eventually herd you toward more platforming-oriented spaces, and this is where Super Mario Odyssey begins to shine.

3D platforming revolving around precise jumps is a tough nut to crack, and Odyssey smartly sidesteps much of that burden through the possession mechanic. Most levels are at least partly built around the enemies you can possess. A stage with the cannon-fired Bullet Bills present might turn into a game of tight mazes to be navigated while avoiding other enemies. Taking over new enemies like the tank or old staples like the lava bubble podoboos allows for a kind of iteration and experience that previous games haven't mined, and there's almost always at least one or two surprises per world, thrusting you into a new pair of shoes to understand and get to know.

Super Mario Odyssey's cleverness isn't limited to possession. It experiments with frequent, actual 2D segments as well, where Mario enters a warp pipe and enters a world that precisely recreates the 8-bit Super Mario Bros' mechanics and visual style. These spaces play with the conventions of that game in fun, surprising ways, often using visual gags based around their two-dimensional spaces wrapping around three-dimensional architecture. Some of these spaces are the hardest the game has to offer as well, in quick, bite-sized bursts.

Difficulty in Super Mario Odyssey is a complicated thing. There's a constant back and forth between education and challenge as the game teaches its mechanics. At first, discovery is the game's reward to you – then challenge becomes its own reward as Odyssey tests that discovery. This is what Mario has done for 30 years more effectively than almost any other franchise or idea, and it's just as successful in Odyssey. It's present in the platforming sections, which avoid the mistakes of other games deftly (most of the time), but the purest articulations of that philosophy are in Odyssey's boss fights.

Odyssey's boss fights break about down the middle between Broodals and more level specific enemies, each with a different philosophy. Broodals require Mario and Cappy to use their base skillset to succeed, which are great tests of more classic Mario action-platforming. The level specific event bosses, on the other hand, make heavy use of the possession mechanic. These are the parts of Super Mario Odyssey that feel truly different from what's come before, at least in other Mario games. Using a tank or a podoboo in a boss fight makes Mario Odyssey feel, even if only for a little bit, like a different game.

When Super Mario Odyssey moved just far enough from teaching me to asking more of me, that's when I had the most fun with the game, and it does a pretty great job of maintaining that balance over the duration of its primary duration. Once you've finished the 12 to 15 hours or so of "story," there's an enormous amount left to do, even if you made your way through the game diligently prior to the ending – a host of new Power Moons and challenges are added to already-visited levels. I tell you this in part to save you from my frustration at scouring some levels only to realize I'd have to go back and scour that much harder after I "beat" Super Mario Odyssey.

Super Mario Odyssey is more familiar a game than I expected. For whatever reason, I was expecting a more radical departure, something that felt less familiar less often.

Of course, Zelda was in sore need of that reboot amid accusations that it was treading water. Mario hasn't needed that kind of reboot, and it's unlikely that Mario Odyssey will convince anyone Nintendo is anything but humming along, doing the things it's always done. But someday, leaning so heavily on doing what Mario has always done may not be enough – and there's just a bit of that kind of fatigue showing here. For now, as a Mario game that continues the Switch's moves to blur the line between the portable and the home-based console, Super Mario Odyssey is a beautiful, rewarding example of what Nintendo has in store for the system.