One feeling kept washing over me as I played Super Mario Odyssey: joy. This title is, without a doubt, one of the most joyous, exuberant, delightful games I've played this year, if not in the last five or even 10.
The game is a celebration — of Nintendo's mascot, of the Switch and even of gaming itself. This title has an uncanny ability to bring a smile to your face, as if it knows just how much value escape can bring.
Odyssey is the latest platformer in a long line of Mario games, and its story is fairly straightforward in the context of this series. The evil Bowser has stolen Princess Peach from the Mushroom Kingdom, and this time, he intends to make her his bride. As Mario, you chase Bowser through kingdoms around the world, attempting to stop the King Koopa as he steals everything he needs for a lavish wedding.
In the process, Mario loses his famous red hat. But that's when he meets Cappy, a steward of the Cap Kingdom (yes, a kingdom of hats), whose sister has been stolen to serve as Peach's wedding tiara. Cappy replaces Mario's trademark hat and is far more useful. Mario can throw Cappy around like a boomerang, and when the hat lands on an enemy or unsuspecting bystander, Cappy can take over that character's body. Forget, for a moment, how creepy that would be in real life, because it's awesome (and often hilarious) in Odyssey.
Cappy also happens to be the owner of a top-hat-shaped airship, the Odyssey, that you power using the game's collectible moons and use to navigate the world and its levels.
Hat Tricks and "Open" Worlds
Each level has its own mix of baddies, architecture and bystanders that can be controlled to solve puzzles and navigate the kingdom. Not everything can be controlled, but the game gives a pretty decent signal for what can be manipulated: If it's wearing a hat already, you can't throw Mario's cap on that character. With bad guys, hats will often fall off, and a second hit will give you control. But the gist of this is that there's a bunch of adorable animals running around with hats in each level, and it never stops being funny.
The range of things Mario can commandeer is impressive, including classic Mario enemies like Chain Chomps, brand-new ones like birds that can stick their beaks in walls to climb and even a giant hunk of raw meat (it's a long story).
That big piece of meat is part of Super Mario Odyssey's Luncheon Kingdom, Mount Volbano. It's part of a wide variety of kingdoms, which all have their own individual themes. Mario adventures through deserts, tundras, the Cap Kingdom and even a Nintendo version of New York called New Donk City. Each one is more creative than the last, with memorable characters and unique special events. (I won't spoil too much, but one had a full, 4-minute musical number with vocals that nearly brought happy tears to my eyes.)
The worlds are sprawling by Mario standards, but I wouldn't call the game open-world. Sure, you can go through challenges as you choose, but ultimately, your path is quite linear. Still, I appreciated some touches that Nintendo put in, like fast travel, so you don't have to run all over the large levels (though, honestly, it's quite a bit of fun to explore if you want to take the scenic route).
I wish Nintendo had put those same touches on the controls. In general, the controls are fine and exactly what you'd expect in a Mario game. There's even a helpful guide to the smorgasbord of moves you can perform, and you'll be reminded, perhaps too often, of which controls can help you in certain situations. The issue is that some moves are bound exclusively to the Joy-Cons' motion controls.
In that regard, it feels like a throwback to the Wii, and while the Joy-Cons are generally accurate, they are anathema to the way the Switch works. When the game loads, it recommends playing with the Joy-Cons separated. It's really the only way you can play the game if you want to perform all of the gestures, like spinning Cappy in a circle, rolling the hat on the ground or tossing it high in the air. But my preferences are to play in handheld mode, cuddled up on the couch, or with the grip so it feels more like a traditional console. And good luck if you have a Pro controller.
You can perform those gestures in handheld mode or with the controller in a grip, but it means you're shaking the entire console or gamepad, which is uncomfortable, to say the least. On the bright side, you don't strictly need those moves to complete the game, though they may help you if you're a completionist looking to collect all of the game's moons.
The game's only other issue — and it's a slight one — is the camera. In general, it's pretty good, and you can use a shoulder button to home in on Mario, but I found myself occasionally being pushed too close to the hero, getting pulled too far away, or having to view him as a silhouette through trees or landscapes.
At least those landscapes and trees are beautiful. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Odyssey is the best-looking Mario game ever. Each level is a mishmash of colors and patterns; there's texture in Mario’s hair and clothes, and even though the series maintains its cartoony looks, it's sharper and clearer than ever. Additionally, all of Mario’s new costumes, a mix of new ones and throwbacks to old games, look amazing, and you'll want to collect all of them.
The Escape We Need
Odyssey is a capstone to 2017, the Switch's first year. While a few more games will release in 2017, none will be as potent or have more hype than this game. It's a must-buy for any Switch owner, and if you've been waiting to buy the console, now is the time to take the plunge.
While I had a few issues with the game's controls, Super Mario Odyssey is perfection when it comes to video games as escapism. When I played over a rainy weekend, I felt as if I were surrounded by sunshine. On the train, I had to make sure I wasn't so engrossed I missed my stop. This game is truly medicine for the stressful times we live in, and gamers of all ages will fall in complete and utter love with it. It's a definitive part of the Mario canon and absolute proof of what Nintendo can offer on the Switch.