Super Mario Odyssey review

It's everything you'd expect of a 3D Mario game, right up until it isn't.

King Bowser is back at it again. Princess Peach has been kidnapped and it's up to the most super of Marios to save her. He'll have to jump, run, roll, and collect his way across several ecologically diverse zones to do so. It is, in other words, business as usual in the Mushroom Kingdom. So much so that Super Mario Odyssey, Nintendo's first big 3D Mario game in about four years, skips any kind of preamble and goes right to the fire-breathing lizard carting her majesty off into the sky.

In the process, Bowser uncharacteristically gets one over on Mario long enough to send him to a sort of headwear-based purgatory. There he meets a hat-ghost hybrid called Cappy, who teams up with our hero to help rescue Peach and Cappy's equally kidnapped sister. Oh, and the undead headwear gives Mario the power of bodily possession, letting him "borrow" enemy and civilian abilities for the duration.

Thanks to Cappy, Super Mario Odyssey is an ultra-traditional 3D Mario game right up until it isn't. You jump and collect things, yes, but you do so in places like New Donk City—apparently the setting of the original Donkey Kong, where former proto-damsel Pauline is now mayor and a part-time lounge singer. There, the normal rules of Mario only apply until you dominate some gormless dad and use his RC car to solve a puzzle, or transform into electricity to travel over power lines at light speed.

Other times, Odyssey is a saccharine fever dream played as straight as its leading man. Mario can dress up like Luigi (better known as Green Mario, of course) while mentally dominating a 50-yard stack of Goombas, and stroll past a village of talking forks whose prongs bend like arms in cartoonish body horror, just to flirt with a lovestruck lady Goomba in exchange for spaceship fuel.

Odyssey's ongoing charm is derived from that kind of oddness—the innate "wrongness" of stuffy old Nintendo letting their most precious straight man unwind, if not for the first time ever, then certainly in the character's most high-profile way in some time.

But the gag only works if Nintendo doesn't let the facade slip too much. If Mario goes full fourth wall goofball, then there's no more juxtaposition between his charmless self and the lovely, splashy worlds around him. If that were to happen, what sets Odyssey apart from every other game in the Mario lineage goes away—and it really is just another 3D Mario game.

So sure, our favorite Italian plumber can hijack sapient beings' bodies and abilities, and yes, it's the most entertaining kind of nightmare, but there are limits. You can't possess any old New Donker, for instance; only Nintendo Approved-and-Authorized Puzzle Solution Citizens™. Almost every interaction is painstakingly funneled into gameplay-relevant content, with precious little room for self-expression through possession.  

If there's a Power Moon (rocket fuel for Mario's ship, the Odyssey) or some purple coins (used for buying level-specific costumes) stashed nearby, you can bet there's something authorized to be mind controlled nearby doubling as both hint and solution.

 If there's not something worth collecting, then the game arbitrarily decides whatever's around you can't be interacted with at all. Goombas will be yellow instead of brown, indicating they're immune to Cappy's possession power. Pedestrians will have protective hats that can't be knocked off... as opposed to the many NPCs with hats that can or even must be knocked off elsewhere. It's a toss-up.

This is also inconsistent across the game. I was genuinely awed in the opening level, after Cappy is first introduced, to be able to throw my magical hat at anything and expect a result. Fence posts were yoinked out of the ground. Dim streetlamps would reignite. Frogs became my preferred means of personal transport. I was less impressed by the Cascade Kingdom, where you can possess a T-Rex for an impressive but strict setpiece. At this point, I still figured Odyssey was just easing me into more fluid, freer action later on. By the time I reached the chef-themed Luncheon Kingdom—full of those wonderfully rendered anthropomorphic forks and slathered in hot pink magma, but almost completely immutable—I realized the game really was that confining.

On the other hand, Odyssey is so filled to burst with custom puzzles and obstacle courses that you probably don't need the freedom to poke at the world in ways Nintendo never planned for. 99% of the ground you'd cover is filled with Power Moons and Purple Coins anyway. Most of those have some handmade activity to go with them, or are found on side paths branching off of side paths. Those might be a race against Koopas, a short climb up a tree, or a lengthy dungeon full of traps and enemies.

Nearly all of these are bite-sized, polished entertainment in their own right—whether that's the fun of sussing out a hidden jewel, or the satisfaction of tackling a tough jumping section. It's just a strict kind of fun that strains within the game's own don't-give-a-damn veneer.

The best parts of Odyssey are when you can't see those artificial walls around you at all. Which is admittedly very frequently, thanks to some tremendously subtle hints. You might not see a Power Moon out in the open, for instance, but you will notice a giant pot of bubbling stew that needs heating. You could commandeer a hopping fireball to guide into the goop, but there's a series of platforms that will extinguish you on contact... if not for the piping hot tomato monsters rolling between the stepping stones. Trial and error reveals hitting those will keep your flame lit long enough to reach the stew. Then voila! You've suddenly got one less collectible to worry about, out of literally thousands.

Using Cappy to find the right key for a given lock, like the fireball and the stew, makes up the meat of Odyssey's puzzles. I wasn't bothered by the fact that I couldn't think up my own unique workaround, because the right answer wasn't obvious until I used a bit of critical thinking anyway. It's "my" solution just as long as the game doesn't tip its hand too much.

With 999 Power Moons, plus Purple Coins and a few other goodies, there's plenty of miniature moments of satisfaction to go around. Even when Odyssey's credits roll for the first time, it's just a signal for the game to add even more challenges and zones. The game just doesn't end—sometimes to its detriment. A number of puzzle solutions repeat often enough that you can't miss the guiding hand of the developers, showing you what must be done.

But, for the most part, Super Mario Odyssey is a heap of bite-sized triumphs that could keep you going for months. It comes with the caveat of being the most boring creature in a world of wonders, and never being free enough to remedy that. The game keeps a stiff chokehold on what is and isn't appropriate to enjoy, but you'll almost certainly enjoy what it selects for you regardless.

Verdict: Yes