We'll be talking about Super Mario Odyssey's New Donk City Festival for years to come
Videogames are a self-referential medium. Every new game stands on the shoulders of the games that came before it. Even a revolutionary game that breaks the mold is defined in opposition to that mold; there is no escaping history. And the best developers pay tribute to that history in small, subtle ways.
The latest Hitman game, for example, features two familiar plumbers skulking the sewers beneath Sapienza:
Guacamelee! is also filled with iconic statues resembling the Chozo bird people from Metroid. Both of these references (and there are many more) reveal Nintendo’s lasting influence on games; the company changed the established pop culture of the mid-80's, and then, improbably, it survived long enough to become the establishment. Like Disney and Coca Cola, Nintendo is so prevalent, so all-encompassing, that it is no longer an influence on pop culture. It is pop culture; wherever Nintendo heads, the industry follows.
And if other developers are adept at making allusions to Nintendo, Nintendo itself is a master at it. Super Mario Odyssey has a level entirely dedicated to pushing its players' nostalgia buttons. It's the New Donk City Festival, and it occurs, appropriately, at the exact midpoint of the game. If Odyssey were a plot pyramid, the New Donk City Festival would be its emotional climax.
Up until this point, the game’s kingdoms have followed a predictable pattern. You land in a world that is overrun by Bowser's henchmen, beat them, restore peace, and move on to the next level.
But in Metro Kingdom’s New Donk City, you're given a secondary objective after beating the main villain and restoring peace. Mayor Pauline—the damsel in distress from the original Donkey Kong—wants to throw a festival in the city's honor, but she needs musical accompaniment in order to pull it off. So she enlists Mario to gather up musicians who are scattered throughout the city. And once you've done this, you can begin the festival, a specialized sequence that stands apart from the rest of the game’s open world.
It is an unabashed celebration of Mario. You navigate a Donkey Kong-inspired level in Mario's 8-bit sprite form, and you finish the level by taking down a massive 8-bit Donkey Kong. You then join Pauline on stage and boogie. And it’s clear, from the way it’s framed and presented, that the designers want to elevate it above typical fan service.
The sequence is deliberately easy.
Right before to this level, you fight a massive "Mechawiggler," which is a cute euphemism for Giant Robot Centipede of Death. The Mechawiggler comes at the end of hours of increasingly difficult challenges, after which the game throws you this bone.
The New Donk City Festival is easy by any metric. The only reason you might die in this level is if you're paying too much attention to the scenery (which is entirely possible!). There are no challenging jumps and the barrels roll towards you at steady, consistent clip.
Even if you fall into the oil fire, it's not an instant death sentence like you might expect. It's worth a single hit, the exact same as if you bumped into a barrel. In case you do get careless, there are plenty of health pickups. And when I tried to jump off the side of the building? The game wouldn't let me do it; I got picked up via bubble and placed back on solid ground.
That’s because the point of this sequence is not to challenge. It's to celebrate the player for making it this far, and also to celebrate the franchise's longevity. It accomplishes this with a juxtaposition of old and new. You see the 3D rendered construction beams and barrels right next to the 8-bit construction beams and barrels. And because the New Donk City Festival is so non-threatening, you have the leisure of taking in these visuals and enjoying them rather than worrying about what's ahead.
The realistic humans enhance the storytelling.
When you first meet the residents of New Donk City, they're a bit offputting. They fall into that creepy uncanny valley, out of place compared to Mario's rounded, cartoon world. They clash with everything else in the game that is drawn to be deliberately fanciful.
But during the Festival, these NPCs become relatable stand-ins for us, the players. It's as though we're the ones cheering Mario from the rooftops as he takes his victory lap. The New Donk City residents at the beginning of the level are particularly enthusiastic; they all have speaking lines, and one of them yells, "Jump, man, jump!", an allusion to Mario's original Donkey Kong moniker.
The level design is a commentary on Nintendo's values.
The New Donk City Festival starts off as a conventional platformer. You're dodging barrels, negotiating pits and collecting coins. But then, halfway through, you enter a loop that turns you upside down. And for the next couple of minutes, you get the weird sensation of jumping towards the floor; When you get to an upside-down pipe, you have to jump and press Down to get sucked "up" into it.
As the citizens tell you at the very beginning of the run, this level is a celebration of Mario's history. And even though it doesn't stray too far from the original Donkey Kong iconography, the actual gameplay captures Nintendo's ethos—of taking something basic and fundamental, and turning it figuratively "upside-down"— creatively remixing the past and making old things new.
That song. Wow.
The level's background song is "Jump Up, Super Star!," which was composed by Naoto Kubo and sung by Kate Higgins, performing to English lyrics by Rob Tunstall. It's big, brassy jazz song, which was the perfect choice. A more modern arrangement might have easily dated itself. But by placing the song in a "timeless" genre—one that recalls a romanticized time in 20th century history—the game places Mario in that realm of importance and ubiquity.
The song is available for purchase on the iTunes store—an unprecedented move that shows how aware Nintendo is of the song's appeal. Could additional iTunes offerings be far behind? Remixes and arrangements of classic songs? Exclusive previews of new themes? The possibilities are numerous.
There are Mario moments that are stuck in our collective conscience. The Infinite 1-Up trick in Super Mario Bros. The Koopa Clown Copter Fight in Super Mario World. The Dry Bowser resurrection in New Super Mario Bros. The first Dino Piranha brawl in Super Mario Galaxy. And years from now, long after the Nintendo Switch is history, this level is what we'll remember about Super Mario Odyssey. It stakes a claim to Mario's historical importance. And most importantly, it does that not through some pre-rendered sequence, but through gameplay. Odyssey presents itself as its own best argument.