'Super Mario Odyssey': Hands-On With The Photo Mode, The Flipping Forks, The Hats

Mario manages to balance story with play perfectly

'Super Mario Odyssey': Hands-On With The Photo Mode, The Flipping Forks, The Hats

I'm not entirely sure why someone decided to stack three cans atop one another to form a small pyramid where they did. Just as I'm not certain why I felt so compelled to kicked those cans, that I maneuvered Mario, who was running at full speed toward his next likely goal, completely out of his way. I suspect, though, the two have something to do with one another.

That's the sort of game Super Mario Odyssey is: The sort that seems as obsessed with packing its colorful worlds with nonsensical interactions as some players may feel obsessed with messing around with them.  Super Mario Odyssey is a game of worlds, of seemingly endless play, long adventures, hours upon hours of seeking and transforming and interacting. And those mainstay creations are artfully crafted, imbued with meticulously perfected mechanics, colorful art, crafty puzzles. But Super Mario Odyssey is also the sort of game that peppers a world with beans you can kick. Just because. Or cans you can knock over. Or pictures you can take.

In spending a bit more than an hour with Super Mario Odyssey at a recent Nintendo event in New York City, I found myself just as delighted - sometimes more so - with the distractions as I was with the objectives.

Luncheon Kingdom
Nintendo has some pretty strict rules about what you can and can't capture in video form, but I am able to still discuss much of what I played, which started out with the Super Mario Odyssey's intro. Mario finds himself teaming up with an intelligent, transforming hat, after a not-unexpected kerfuffle with Bowser over Princess Peach. These early bits of the game, which introduce you to the basic mechanics of Mario and his talking hat, all take place on the planet where these hats come from. 

Next off, I was moved to a save further along in the game, specifically into the world of the Luncheon Kingdom where the inhabitants appear to be speaking utensils. Solving puzzles and getting around in this game almost always entails Mario tossing his hat at something and possessing that thing. When he does this, whatever he happens to take control of instantly grows a mustache and their eyes become blue. Then you can use your new form to do what you need to do. 

While controlling new characters, you typically gain some new abilities. That can mean, for instance, the ability to swim in lava, or not have to worry about breathing underwater, or being able to stack up, four high, with your buddies. In the Luncheon Kingdom, I found myself possessing forks as I flicked my way up sheer cliff faces.

In this first visited world, I mostly focused on trying to get to the purple moon objectives that are marked on the map. In the case of the Luncheon Kingdom, that meant solving some pretty basic puzzles involving figuring out ways to navigate through lava and up mountains. The world seemed a mix of traditional platforming and puzzle solving made a bit more difficult with the game's 3D design and controllable camera. 

Storytelling Versus Play
The point of the game, though, seems perfectly balanced between getting through the world, finding what you're searching for and simply running around, taking charge of characters and having fun. As the sort of player who can get so distracted playing a Far Cry game or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild he never actually finishes (or does more than simply start) the intricately designed fetch questing of a campaign, I found this game to be surprisingly well balanced.

Yes, the first thing I did once I could in the Luncheon Kingdom was run into a shop to check out the outfits and hats I could buy. And sure, I spent so much time running around kicking the beans laying all over the level that a Nintendo handler remarked on my growing obsession. But I still found myself heading toward the end goal of the level. And it wasn't out of boredom or some sense of false purpose, but rather, I just sort of showed up on its doorstep and thought "Why not?"

This is Nintendo at its best, using its seemingly limitless skills to gently coax a player through the distractions without them realizing they're being prodded into and along with the flow of the story. After discovering that the only way I could ascend a mountain was to possess a fork, then flick my hat off of it with a thumbstick move and possess the next one up, I found myself within striking distance of a goal and so ambled over to check it out.

While Breath of the Wild remains a fascination to me, it still hasn't managed to push me that much into its story. Perhaps, that's beside the point, but it shouldn't be. As more and more games lean into open, ever expanding worlds, it's important their creators understand the art of enticing, not forcing, a player through a story to discover all a game has to offer.

There are boss battles and mini-boss battles as well, each requiring the player to figure out how to survive while taking down their more powerful opponent. 

After spending 45 minutes or so rambling around this one area of the one world, I was untethered from the television to try my hand playing the game on a smaller screen and in a different world. It's an odd thing: Making the move from television to the much smaller screen of the Switch didn't phase me. I didn't really notice any major graphic fidelity change. But later, when I moved back to the television I was impressed with how much better it looked.

Now, playing with the Switch resting with its kickstand at a slight angle on a conference table, I was moved to another save, this one in a place called Seaside. You may remember this location from the videos shown. Specifically, you might recall this is where we first catch a glimpse of Mario's nipples. Despite pestering those present from Nintendo with questions about the nipples, I couldn't find out anything new like, "Why does he have them now?" or "Does he have a belly button?"

Fortunately, (perhaps more for Nintendo then for me) the area had plenty to do and I had little time to waste asking questions.

Where the Luncheon Kingdom was peopled by talking utensils, Seaside was a lovely beach getaway with azure oceans teeming with life waiting to be possessed. Nintendo's version of the goldfish - the Cheep Cheeps, were the best vehicle for exploration in this level, allowing you to swim around the vast waterways much faster and without having to worry about air. 

You're able to possess most things, but not all enemies can be captured with your cap. In my time with the game, I couldn't find a hard and fast rule about what could and couldn't be captured. But a quick attempt always answered the question. So floating around on the sea bottom as a Cheep Cheep, I soon found that the living, electrocuting kelp hanging in some underwater caves can't be possessed, but that the squid-like Bloopers can.

I didn't have as much time in Seaside as I had in Luncheon Kingdom, and that was exaserbated by the fact that is just so much to do. At one point, for instance, I discovered a Sphinx laying at the bottom of a deep hole underwater, waiting to ask a riddle of me. I also soon chanced upon what appears to be one of many mini-games in the game: In this case, a clever 2D Mario platformer inspired by the original Mario games. 

Camera Mode
And it was in Seaside that I started experimenting with the game's built-in camera mode. At any point in the game, a player can freeze the action, freely move around the camera, apply filters and stickers and then save the image. Because this can be done at any point, the result is often pictures of Mario making absurd faces. Capturing all of those looks and artfully filtering them to share online is certainly going to become a thing once the game is out.

There are still objectives to be met, bosses to fight, in this area, but frankly, I became so distracted by the 2D level, the camera and just swimming around, that I didn't spend much time in pursuit of those goals.

Super Mario Odyssey is a wonderful return to the explorative, 3D-powered sensibilities of some great (and not so great) Mario games. Sure, there were times when I struggled a bit with the camera or missed a jump or thump because of shifting perspective, but in general I found those moments to be rare and only slightly annoying. Instead, I remember my time with the game as a chance to delve into a colorful world of fantastic creations, smartly crafted puzzles and deft mechanics. Key to the experience is the sense of wonder when you stumble upon a new chance to take charge of another character, granting Mario new ways to interact with world around him and shifting the play of the entire experience.