Arts

‘Super Mario Odyssey’ proves joyfully addicting

"Super Mario Odyssey" was released for the Nintendo Switch on Oct. 27.

Image By: Image Courtesy of DualShockers

When Mario was first introduced as Jumpman in 1981’s “Donkey Kong,” video games were in a much different landscape. Arcades were thriving, but the Video Game Crash of 1983 had nearly put an end to consoles. If not for a Japanese company that formerly dabbled with playing cards and other niche markets, it most certainly would have.

This company had released the Family Computer (“Famicom” for short) the year of the crash, and it would later ship to the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System. The console was a massive success, and its flagship title, “Super Mario Bros.,” was one of the main reasons why. Where other companies like Atari were shelling out shovelware by the dozen, Nintendo had separated itself by producing games with unmatched quality.

This past generation, Nintendo had gone from being arbiter of the industry to the butt of all jokes, as the now-discontinued Wii U was a commercial and critical disaster. With poor sales and a lack of third-party support, it seemed as if Nintendo had lost a sense of what the fans wanted.

This skepticism grew to the point where some thought Nintendo’s only move would be to pull a SEGA, a company which stopped developing hardware after the DreamCast had economic results similar to the Wii U. However, the company returned this year with a sharpened sense of direction and salience, as the Nintendo Switch’s release has put the company back on track.

Just as “Super Mario Bros.” played a role in reviving an entire industry, “Super Mario Odyssey” is the game (along with “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”) that saved Nintendo from joining the buried copies of Atari’s “E.T.”

The character of Mario has been around for decades, and yet the mustachioed plumber has still managed to learn new tricks in each generation he enters. In “Odyssey,” this acquired skillset comes from the animated hat, Cappy, Mario’s coin-collecting partner-in-crime.

The premiere of this character is unusual in the same way that the “Uncharted” series took nine years to introduce us to Nathan Drake’s brother. Just like PlayStation’s treasure-hunting mascot, Mario has been doing fine in his solo outings, so why was the addition necessary? This question is answered the moment you pick up the controller (or console if you prefer the Switch’s handheld mode), as the new companion opens up an array of gameplay innovations that Luigi or Yoshi could never pull off.

Throwing Cappy at an object or enemy allows you to capture them, and with over fifty potential captures, one can imagine the number of possibilities. Fortunately, this mechanic avoids encroaching on gimmick territory, as controlling certain enemies makes navigating areas easier and less repetitive. There’s also a co-op mode where the second player has complete control of Cappy.

Some levels have you taking over classic foes like Goombas and Koopas, while other captures are more bizarre. For example, I possessed a giant slab of meat to attract the Luncheon Kingdom’s gluttonous boss, and the Lake Kingdom had me transform into zippers to reach otherwise inaccessible areas (note that zippers have nothing to do with the kingdom’s lake theme).

The player now has the option to change Mario’s iconic plumber outfit into more distinctive apparel. By using the coins you collect in each kingdom, you’re able to unlock new hats and costumes using two types of currency: golden coins are universal in their use, while purple coins can only be spent in the kingdom they’re found.

It’s great being able to personalize Mario’s look to your liking, but other than unlocking specific areas barred by dress codes, the outfits are merely cosmetic (after realizing this, I shamelessly played through the Snow Kingdom with my Mario wearing nothing but boxer shorts). A lot of what’s in “Odyssey” doesn’t make sense, but as has always been the case with Mario games, making sense isn’t important.

Also unimportant is an emphasis on story, as what we get is another plot centered around rescuing Princess Peach from Bowser. The game slightly deviates from past titles by adding a wedding theme to its conflict, confirming that Bowser would make the worst husband imaginable. There isn’t any exceptional dialogue or voice acting to be heard (most characters speak in Simlish-esque gibberish), and the tried-and-true narrative didn’t keep me guessing.

Rather, what compelled me to complete the story was the pure fun of “Odyssey,” as its surprises come from the time spent in control of Mario. The game is filled with unexpected moments that go beyond controlling zippers and meat slabs. Secret doorways and green tunnels transport you to hidden areas that may not always line up thematically with their respective kingdoms, but defying logic is what gives “Odyssey” an uncanny charm.

Better yet are the sections where Nintendo shifts from a 3D perspective to a side-scrolling 2D plane, as the game has platforming reminiscent of “Super Mario Bros.” The fantastic soundtrack also breaks into 8-bit audio during these segments, making for a game that appeals to Mario fans old and new. This gameplay hybridity can also be found in its art style, which refuses to settle for any one tone.

Areas like the Seaside Kingdom are vibrant and familiar to the game’s playful predecessors, while other levels like the Metro Kingdom are more realistic in their visual approach. Bowser’s Kingdom also adapts a new look, as the castle’s design is coated with culturally-infused architecture. In any other game, this diversity would clash with itself, but Nintendo used a deft hand to carefully craft a title with so many palettes. The developers are well aware of their achievement, as you’re able to take the game out of motion (which happens to run at a steady 60 frames per second) to edit and capture shots using the Photo Mode.

While exploring the nooks and crannies of these kingdoms, players will be scavenging for the game’s main collectible: Power Moons. The Moons are treated as fuel, and collecting enough allows you to use Mario’s [appropriately] hat-shaped Odyssey ship to reach new locations. Having collected about 200 Moons, I was able to beat the game in around 12 hours. For the sake of perspective, that’s only a quarter of the game’s overall count, as defeating Bowser opens up new areas filled with additional Moons.

The game is open-world in that you’re free to explore each kingdom as you please, but the levels aren’t interconnected. That being said, they’re filled to the brim with things to do, whether that’s hunting for more Power Moons or free-running against Koopas. Completionists will love that the game tracks each collectible gained, but unlike more recent sandbox games — Ubisoft-developed titles come to mind — these side outings don’t feel like collecting for the sole purpose of statistical progress.

Discovery in “Super Mario Odyssey” is joyfully addicting in its own right. As someone who grew up on “Crash Bandicoot” and, well, Mario, this is platforming at its finest. Admittedly, the camera can sometimes make jumps hard to judge, to the point where I died more often from falling than an enemy stealing my last heart. These miscalculated jumps were far from frustrating, as the game has generous checkpoints and only penalizes death with a small loss of gold coins.

The only other gripe worth mentioning is the game’s reliance on motion controls. “Odyssey” encourages you to play with the Switch’s Joy Con controllers detached, and it was a playstyle I quickly felt comfortable sticking with. However, a few select moves in the game lack button inputs, meaning that motion controls are required to execute them. This isn’t a problem when playing on the big screen, but I wouldn’t want to be caught flailing my Switch around in public just so Mario can climb faster up a flagpole.

“Super Mario Odyssey” is an odd amalgamation of gameplay mechanics and visual aesthetics, its melting pot of a design complementing the globetrotting adventure nicely. As a PlayStation 4 owner spoiled by the narrative-rich experiences of this generation and the last, “Odyssey” uses expertly-designed gameplay to make entertainment and enjoyment the focal points, something I found refreshing.

As much as I adore story-driven titles that can compete with novels and films, video games are, at their core, rooted in fun. To land a jump you didn’t think you could make, to beat a boss when you were down to the last sliver of health — these are moments other mediums can invoke, but never make interactive.

Even though the credits have rolled, “Odyssey” is a title I want to keep going back to, as I’m motivated by the promise of having more of these moments unfold. With so many games today riddled with loot boxes and microtransactions, the complete experience found here is a welcome reversion to past conventions. Traditional in this sense and unusual in almost every other, “Super Mario Odyssey” is the culmination of vastly-varied inspirations. What does it all amount to?

Pure, unequivocal fun.

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