Super Mario Odyssey feels like a reinvention.
Like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild before it, Mario's big Nintendo Switch debut brilliantly mixes together elements of previous games into something that feels both familiar and strikingly modern. It's shaping up to be the biggest, most open-ended Mario yet.
I spent 20 minutes with two of Odyssey's open worlds at Nintendo's E3 booth, and the first thing that struck me was just how huge they both were. Whether I was scaling the castles of the South American-inspired Sand Kingdom or bouncing off taxis and skyscrapers in New Donk City, I found myself overwhelmed with the amount of characters, objects and enemies I could interact with.
I was pleasantly surprised to find elements of modern open-world games in Odyssey, namely the living, breathing towns that were filled with characters that you can talk to and get missions from. You can now pull up a map and instantly travel back to previous checkpoints, which is the kind of intuitive feature that's standard for the likes of Assassin's Creed and Shadow of Mordor, but not necessarily a Nintendo game.
Odyssey's gameplay feels like classic 3D Mario with a big twist: your hat, affectionately known as Cappy, is its own character that grants Mario special powers. You can toss Cappy at enemies, use it as a platform to reach new heights and even use it to take control of (or "cap-ture") other enemies and objects throughout the world.
In one section, I used Cappy to possess a Bullet Bill and fly myself over a gap that would have been near impossible to clear otherwise. In another instance, I tossed Cappy at the railings of a tall building in order to quickly get to the top of it. Cappy is at the core of Odyssey's gameplay, and a big part of the fun is seeing what happens when you throw it at different parts of the world.
Classic Mario moves like wall jumping and butt-stomping are still here, though there are also lots of fun new Cappy-powered techniques to master. For example, once Cappy was suspended in air, I was able to perform motion gestures with the Joy-Cons to send the hat flying in different directions. My favorite move was a spin attack that sent cappy spiraling around Mario, knocking down all of the Goombas in my path.
As intuitive as the motion controls were, however, I do have concerns about how heavily the game will rely on them. I couldn't get a clear answer from Nintendo about whether you'll be able to perform all of Cappy's moves with standard button presses, which, as someone who primarily uses their Switch on the go, is how I prefer to play. However, considering the fact that Nintendo titles such as Arms and Splatoon 2 do a good job accommodating both standard and motion-based play-styles, I can't imagine things being much different for the Switch's next flagship game.
2D meets 3D
While Cappy's new moves are great, my favorite new twist to Odyssey's gameplay is how brilliantly it blends 2D and 3D Mario. Certain sections of the Sand Kingdom allowed me to warp into the wall (a la Zelda: A Link Between Worlds), which set off a joyfully nostalgic sequence that let me control a pixelated Mario on a 2D plane. It's the kind of gameplay innovation that feels distinctly Nintendo, and one that I couldn't help but smile at.
Odyssey seems impressively deep when it comes to collectibles and customization. The main gameplay hook revolves around collecting moons, which power your ship, the Odyssey, and allow Mario to explore new worlds.
On top of your usual gold coins, each world has its own unique currency that you can collect and spend on special items. At one point, I visited a clothing store in New Donk City and bought Mario some new duds, including a fancy black suit and the yellow construction hat from Super Mario Maker. No word yet on if these outfits grant special abilities, but I sure had fun making Mario look as silly as possible.
Speaking of looks, Super Mario Odyssey is an absolute stunner. The two worlds I played in were dripping with that signature Nintendo sheen, with beautiful, bright colors and a level of detail that allowed me to pick out the individual strands of hair on Mario's head.
Playing in New Donk City was especially delightful, as I often stopped to take in its breathtaking, blatant recreation of New York City — all the way down to landmarks like the Chrysler Building. One of my favorite moments was running into Mayor Pauline, a character that old school Nintendo fans will recognize as the original damsel in distress from the first Donkey Kong game.
After a far-too-short 20 minutes in two of Mario Odyssey's worlds, I'm aching to explore more. The plump plumber's latest outing feels like the biggest evolution to the formula since 2007's Super Mario Galaxy, taking the tight platforming that makes Mario so special and setting it in beautiful, dynamic open worlds. The cool hat doesn't hurt either.
We look forward to spending more time in New Donk City and performing a whole bunch of creepy hat-possessions when Super Mario Odyssey hits the Switch on Oct. 27.
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Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.