I wasn’t excited for Super Mario Odyssey until the day before it came out. There are a lot of reasons. Mario oversaturated the market so much in the late 00s that all my enthusiasm for the franchise disappeared. I wanted a new 3D Mario because everyone else did, but when it actually rolled around, I never kept up with it. When everyone started calling Odyssey the best in the series, I had to get my hands on it. Soon, I started to see what everyone was raving about.
3D Mario never spoke to me much. I grew up playing the All-Stars pack, like the original, Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3, and Mario World. I also played New Super Mario Bros. Wii a lot. I never played 64 or Sunshine. The only one I finished was Galaxy, which is obviously much different but goes by a similar formula. Up until now, people praised Galaxy as the best one, and…I didn’t see it.
Despite the opinions of my many friends who say Galaxy is one of their favorite games of all time, I don’t remember it very well. I will admit, the presentation is absolutely gorgeous. The musical score is fully orchestrated, tailored to each specific environment, and the background music changes depending on the player’s actions. The cinematic thrill of flying through space between planetoids is magical. A few actual gameplay moments that stood out are clever Wii pointer challenges, and a few tricky platforming challenges based around gravity. I have to hand it to Galaxy, it achieved a lot with the limited resources of the Wii.
My problem is, the vast, open experience of Galaxy that everyone else remembers was lost on me. I just remember a series of tasks in the same galaxies to get stars, and going into each world to do something specific, but never being quite sure what it was. Power-ups opened up more of the world, but they were also mostly case-specific, and some only lasted a short time. The result was that the game felt a lot more linear than it looked, and although the individual challenges were well-made, they were more compartmentalized. I never felt as motivated to complete the whole game as I thought I could.
But then along came Odyssey. This game made huge waves, and for good reason. Every inch shows off its immense polish and innovation. More importantly, it also had that different structure that I was hoping for. Instead of having lots of small galaxies with different themes, it has about a dozen “kingdoms” with tons of collectible moons and purple coins in each. Everything is laid out at once, and most of the fun is finding every challenge in each overworld. Many are in plain sight, some are extremely well-hidden. There are so many small tasks that you find naturally, and it feels more like genuine exploration, a theme Nintendo also went for with Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Plus, exploring new worlds and buying new outfits gives you access to content in worlds you’ve already been to, thus adding replayability.
Movement in Odyssey is also a major step up — the dynamic movement that 3D Mario is known for gets a whole new upgrade with the addition of Mario’s hat, Cappy, who opens up the possibility for tons of shortcuts and growth in skill. You can use Cappy to bounce, dive, and give yourself much more reach if you use the right moves. Imagine something like the F.L.U.D.D in Super Mario Sunshine, but built more around specific timing than precise platforming. That, and the added possession mechanic adds tons of depth by making you use different creatures to solve different scenarios and reach new areas. These creatures serve the double purpose of being good obstacles and being fun to control when you need to. Just about every object and enemy in the game is there for a reason, and I never felt the need to jump through hoops to do everything.
Compared to games like Galaxy and 3D World, I think Super Mario Odyssey achieves what every 3D Mario has been looking to do since the beginning. It’s a series of uninhibited sandboxes that keep on giving, there for the player to enjoy at any time. It’s also full of heart, with references to the best of the franchise hidden all over the place. All of the other games excelled in their time, and were great games in their own right, but the world of wonder presented by Odyssey definitely struck a new chord with me. As I make the journey to get all the moons and traverse its many challenges, I’m sure that all the quirky goodness Nintendo put in this little cartridge will last a very long time.