Super Mario Odyssey is all about that sense of discovery

10 months ago by Dylan Bishop

Mario has crossed many a gameplay genre, but the core games usually focus on platforming, not puzzles. That's what makes Odyssey so different.

Many of us, as we age, find the magic of games a little harder to come by. They may still enchant us, but it’s rare that a game is able to replicate the same experiences from our childhoods. I know that I’m no different. Though I expected Super Mario Odyssey to be a Game of the Year contender, I approached it with skepticism. I tend to enjoy Mario games, but I wouldn’t consider them my favorite titles by any means. Odyssey, I thought, would be predictable—another Mario game.

Yet now that I’ve sunk my teeth into it, Odyssey completely subverts my expectations. Where I search for complex, old-school platforming challenges, I find new, intriguing environmental puzzles. I’m perplexed by its hints and irregular architecture. I am surprised.

Mario’s original endeavor into the third dimension was Super Mario 64. There, the player’s main objective was to collect Stars, most of which were rewarded after some dexterous platforming feat. Many “missions” required multiple attempts, due to the mechanical mastery needed for victory. These Stars were presented in relatively open worlds, though recent Mario games with similar objectives, like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D World, had more linear levels.

The experience is a playable math problem -- just solve for 'Power Moon' instead of 'x.'

Despite Nintendo’s insistence that Odyssey is a return to Super Mario 64’s design philosophy, it actually focuses heavily on critical thinking and puzzle-solving. The minute-to-minute gameplay consists not of tricky jumps, but pausing and analyzing the environment. I can see that Power Moon up there, shimmering in the distance. But how do I fetch it?

Super Mario Odyssey often jumbles these puzzle pieces into seemingly random order. Sometimes I may see a Moon, but not the tools with which to retrieve it. Other times, I may have an appropriate item or technique, but have no idea where the Moon itself is. Other times the game gives me neither: it’s up to me to find the path myself. The experience is a playable math problem—just solve for “Power Moon” instead of “x.”

For example, in the Seaside Kingdom of Bubblaine, I climbed to the top of a lighthouse and spotted a Moon on the horizon, submerged in a tank of water. But something nearby caught my attention: the top of a flagpole was glowing. I hopped on top of the staff, which didn’t seem to do anything. Jumping off, I tossed my cap onto it, which triggered a small jingle. I threw my hat again, this time holding the button to keep the hat spinning in place. Round and round it twirled, stuck to the top of the pole, and suddenly... a Power Moon popped out! This may’ve been one of Odyssey’s simpler puzzles, but it was also easy to overlook, glowing flagpole or no. Odyssey is crammed full with an abundance of objects and characters like this, little details inviting thoughtful interaction.

That concept, in and of itself, catches me off-guard. Mario’s other 3D antics have been built mostly around difficult maneuvers and masterful controls. Why would I have expected the “successor” of Super Mario 64 to be a puzzle game? It all revolves around Odyssey’s main gameplay hook: the Capture mechanic.

From Paragoombas to Wigglers, most possessable enemies serve as another variable in the larger adventure. However, the game loves to leave a few puzzle pieces hidden up its sleeve, for instance holding several end-game enemies in reserve as Easter eggs. More importantly, it’s hard to predict the context with which these familiar faces will be used. A good deal of Odyssey’s fun comes from discovering the unique ways these tools interact with the world around them.

Uproots, for example, are seed-like enemies with extendable legs. These foes are obviously useful to reach high ledges. But as I quickly discovered, Uproots stretch upward with incredible force, and destroy anything in their vertical ascent. Despite their small size, Uproots can obliterate blocks and foes alike. With just this one enemy, every suspicious ledge or out-of-place block in Odyssey’s world becomes a potential key to the next Power Moon.

It’s hard to resist sharing these discoveries in real time, especially with the Switch’s screenshot feature. While a lot of Mario games turn into a showcase for platforming prowess (think of how many speedrun and “perfect game” videos you’ve watched), I can’t think of many instances in the franchise where the itch you feel is all about sharing discoveries. Compare this with, say, Pokémon, where finding little nooks and crannies or super rare monsters are among the main draws. Each title in the series has a plethora of creatures to unearth, and a lot of places in which they’re hidden. Trading secrets with friends is half the fun, as you chip away at the magic hidden in the game. That isn’t usually the experience out of Mario, at least not in a main series entry.

It's the living embodiment of an exciting Christmas morning.

Each time my hat-shaped ship hopped off to a new land in Odyssey, I rushed to social media to discuss the latest find with my friends. New Kingdoms, new outfits, and new Moon puzzles elicit astonishment and instant retweets so consistently, I just have to assume this is exactly how Nintendo hoped its players would react. Not only is it great word of mouth, it feels nostalgic, reminiscent of those times spent swapping tips at recess.

“Did you get the awesome secret Moon in that last world?” “What’s your favorite Kingdom?”  “THERE’S NO WAY THIS PLACE IS REAL!” “Oh man, I just found the best outfit ever. GOTY for sure.”

I guarantee you that conversations like this are happening on playgrounds all over the world right now. But more than that, it’s happening with adult fans too. I thought this form of raw, tickled joy was gone forever, yet here it is. Odyssey’s puzzle design and Power Moons always seem to turn up where I least expect them. It uses enemies and tools in ways that totally catch me off-guard. It’s the living embodiment of an exciting Christmas morning, where every present is “the best thing ever.” By unexpectedly shedding some of its longstanding traditions, Super Mario Odyssey is genuinely surprising, and I deeply suspect that’s part of why it’s captured people’s hearts as much as it has.