There’s perhaps no better example of Nintendo’s creativity in game design than the Super Mario Bros. franchise. At a glance, the company’s mascot seems like an unchanging, static figure. In reality, every game he stars in tweaks the Mario formula ever so slightly — adding new power-ups in Super Mario Bros. 3, rethinking level design in Super Mario World or the introduction of exploration in Super Mario 64. If the E3 demo of the newest game in the franchise is any indication, our favorite plumber’s latest adventure is no different: Super Mario Odyssey is a creative, joyously fun remix on a formula the company has been tweaking for decades.
Specifically, Odyssey is an evolution on the now classic open-exploration platforming of Sunshine and Mario 64. Just like in those games, the player has free reign to wander around myriad unique and interesting worlds, choosing if and when they want to continue the game’s story by hunting down collectibles and completing challenges. The difference here lies in the worlds Mario explores. They are much, much more vast — and often wildly different in style to each other.
At first, this is almost jarring. In New Donk City, a sprawling metropolis, Mario’s short, squat body looks noticeably out of place. Enough so to make me turn to the presenters at Nintendo’s E3 booth and ask a weird question — is Mario even human? The spokesperson on hand said the company’s official line for that particular query was to say that he was a native son of the Mushroom Kingdom.
It’s a surprisingly revealing answer. In Super Mario Odyssey, each “world” you visit is referred to as a “Kingdom.” Alternate, perhaps, to the land the game’s titular character hails from. Exploring the idea may dive too deep into Mario’s extremely limited lore, but it gives an interesting reason for why Mario looks a little out of place in some of Odyssey’s worlds — they’re intentionally, strikingly foreign. Knowing this doesn’t make the plumber’s cartoonish design look any more fitting in the big city.
If you can get past how weird Mario looks in some of these settings, however, it sets an interesting precedent. Super Mario Odyssey could potentially take the character anywhere — even to venues that don’t match the traditional Nintendo themes or aesthetics.
Visual style aside, however, Odyssey is very much a Mario game. The skyscrapers of New Donk City are designed to be climbed and explored and are the perfect playground for 3D platforming. As I wall-jumped between scaffolds, climbed up telephone poles and stood on the rooftops of the city, I stopped caring that Mario was shorter than the other people in Donk. I was focused on collecting coins, finding the “moon” items needed to power the Odyssey (Mario’s airship), and learning how to use Mario’s new abilities to defeat enemies and find new secrets.
And naturally, that’s where the experience comes together — the gameplay. Odyssey is built on top of classic Mario platforming rules, but he also has a few new abilities. Sure, he can run, jump and bounce across the game’s landscape — but his hat now serves as a do-it-all weapon. Mario can throw his cap to defeat enemies or collect coins, and holding down the throw button allows you to lock it in place for long enough to jump off of it, creating an impromptu platform that can save you from falls or help you get to out of reach ledges.
Mario’s hat can be used to “capture” enemies too, allowing the player to possess them and take control of their body. This seems to be the game’s take on traditional power-ups. Instead of equipping Mario with a Bullet-bill themed costume, he simply takes control of a Bullet-bill to fly across portions of a level. This hat trick works on objects, too. See a springy pole in the big city? Throw your hat on it, and use it to fling Mario across the world.
For all that’s new in Super Mario Odyssey, the core DNA of the franchise persists. Heck, some sections of the game flatten Mario out to his familiar 8-bit NES sprite for completely traditional 2D platforming. Super Mario Odyssey is creative and weird but may be the first step towards moving the franchise into a more realistic setting. The game’s Metro Kingdom (home of New Donk City) and its Forest Kingdom shown in other trailers are lush and detailed — but the game’s Sand Kingdom is as cartoony as anything we saw in Super Mario Sunshine.
There’s still a lot of this game we haven’t seen, but if E3 convinced us of anything, we want to see a lot more of it. It’s a wonderfully creative, genuinely fun exploration game that just might fill the shoes of some of the franchise’s greatest platformers. It just looks a little weird at first.
Super Mario Odyssey will be available on Nintendo Switch on October 27th.
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