Super Mario Odyssey is a remarkable new entry to an all-time classic series. How far has Mario come since his first 3D appearance in Super Mario 64?
Mario has been gracing home video game consoles since 1985 on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), or, Famicom in Japan. But, in the Summer of 1996, the Jumpman leaped headfirst into the third dimension, changing the course of video games forever. The game would come bundled with Nintendo 64 consoles for years to come and change the lives of millions of players, including my own, still more than two decades later. Today, Nintendo and Super Mario are poised to do it again.
Super Mario Odyssey for the Nintendo Switch is the first true return to the style of Super Mario 64 since 2010’s masterful Super Mario Galaxy 2 for the Nintendo Wii. Several full-fledged Mario games have graced home consoles since then, but their styles more closely followed the styles of Mario’s other successful adventures in 2D platforming. Super Mario Odyssey follows in the tradition of Super Mario 64 by offering a fully open formatted adventure through colorful and creative worlds to save his beloved Princess Peach from being forcibly wed to Bowser. There is only a semi-linear path to success, as the player must unlock each new world as they go, but is free to hop between them as they please to explore them again and again.
The Path To Saving The Princess
While the fully open format nature has remained true throughout the course of Mario’s 3D adventures, the linearity to them has taken different forms over time. In Super Mario 64, the more Power Stars unlocked, the more worlds would become available. Each new star acted like a new level in the world. Some could be earned out of order, but others required a certain configuration of the map triggered by trying for a certain star from the onset. Subsequent Super Mario games would see different variations on this theme. The Gamecube’s Super Mario Sunshine sported a similar layout while the Super Mario Galaxy titles were slightly more linear with each star available only when selected, making each star its own individual level with a few bonus starts available out of order. The worlds in these titles are still traversable out of order once unlocked. A prominent feature in Super Mario 64 is that it can be beaten without ever having played entire levels.
Super Mario Odyssey seems at first to take a path somewhat similar to Super Mario 64. There is a trove of worlds to explore, each unlocked after collecting a certain number of Power Moons. The most remarkable difference, however, is that save for the Power Moons that’s collection serve the main plot of the game, there is no distinct levels within these worlds or order the moons must be collected in at all. Rather, the worlds are filled with moons to collect by all sorts of means. There are different amounts of moons in each level and they are all completely hidden with no initial name given to them like in Super Mario 64 to give a hint as to how to obtain them.
Unlike in his past adventures rather than exiting the world after collecting a moon, Mario simply continues on to find the next one. In fact, there is no hub world to return to at all, unlike each previous 3D Super Mario titles. The worlds still have more than one configuration though. Every new world is afflicted by the invasion of Bowser in some unique way. Upon thwarting Bowser’s scheme and defeating his henchman in the main plot, the world will reset and be changed either slightly or drastically, creating access to more Power Moons than before and either sending Mario off to a new world or on a subsequent adventure in the same one. Of course, the player does not have to progress until they are ready and can attempt to find as many of the world’s moons as they would like before moving forward.
Old Mario, New Tricks
While Super Mario games may only maintain an illusion of choice, Super Mario Odyssey has the most free will the series has ever offered. This is not the only aspect to make tweaks to the original formula. The entire user interface has received a beautiful upgrade. Super Mario 64 sported a simple HUD that indicated how many lives the player had remaining, their coin count when in levels, the number of Power Stars they have total, and an indicator for what camera mode was active. The pause menu in the hub world would allow players to cycle through each world to count how many stars they had collected there and what their coin high score was. In Super Mario Odyssey, the HUD is virtually the same, although the total moon count is replaced with a count of the number of moons collected on the current run. What is overhauled is the Power Moon tracker, having been replaced with a list that corresponds with a world map and various useful icons. The map itself is also bordered with travel brochure images in information to add an extra touch to the experience.
Ultimately, Super Mario Odyssey is a game about a man and a ghost that has embodied his hat who become fast friends and travel the world together on their wacky flying machine The Odyssey while trying to save the people they love. This underlying theme adds not only a companion to Mario’s every step and pitfall but more opportunity for innovative variation on old themes. And that is not just the musical themes that are a splendid mix of new and remixed classics. This Mario game has done away entirely with lives. Instead, the primary incentive not to die in the game has been shifted to the collection of coins. Coins have always been a staple in Mario games, 100 of them leading to a 1-up and in Super Mario 64, a Power Star in each world. In Super Mario Odyssey, the currency is actually currency and can be used to unlock new clothes, posters and trinkets for The Odyssey, and even Power Moons. They are not essential to victory like lives once were, but a strong incentive nonetheless.
Super Mario 64 was the standard bearer for 3D platforming maneuvering. The ways in which the character traversed obstacles and his environment in that game became the model for countless other characters from then on. Mario continues to be an expert in those same platforming tricks while also honing new skills in Super Mario Odyssey, such as a rolling move and a ground pound jump. These add slight extra nuances to the platforming in the game.
New Mario… Old Tricks?
None of these tweaks to the Super Mario 64 formula compare to the central new component of Super Mario Odyssey, Cappy. Cappy is Mario’s new friend from the Cap Kingdom, a ghostly hat with big black eyes who can not only inhabit any hat Mario wears but also provides Mario himself the ability to “capture” various enemies and objects throughout the game. This provides a smorgasbord of new ways to explore worlds and try to find all of the Power Moons.
Super Mario 64 needed no gimmick. Its 3D, polygonal rendering an entirely new concept for video games was all the gimmick it needed to be fresh and original. Since then, however, ever 3D Super Mario has utilized some type of gimmick to base the gameplay off of. Super Mario Sunshine featured F.L.O.O.D. the sentient water gun backpack while the Galaxy games had their fun with gravity as a platforming gimmick. For Super Mario Odyssey, Cappy and his capturing ability is the new gimmick.
Gimmicks have a negative connotation, earned by the fact that such ploys are often uninspired or cheap means of turning a game otherwise generic into something slightly less generic. Could Super Mario Odyssey have prevailed without the use of a gimmick? Perhaps. The worlds and other gameplay innovation alone carry a lot of weight. But, perhaps the trouble is not in the implementation of a gimmick in the game but the use of the word gimmick to describe what Super Mario Odyssey is touting.
Recent releases such as Middle-Earth: Shadow of War and Cuphead have components that could likewise be considered gimmicks: the complex nemesis system of the former and the jovial 30’s cartoon style of the latter. But, neither of those games are platformers or games that keep a younger audience in mind. Their “gimmicks” are instead chalked up to something more palpable and subsequently revered. Cappy and his capturing ways may be a bit silly, but it is far from trite and is the product of a company that is expected to innovate constantly and has pushed what is considered standard for decades. The gimmick may separate Super Mario Odyssey from the simplicity of Super Mario 64, but it also makes it into its own unique game and not merely an attempt to recreate its magic.
The Art of Creating Art
Video games are a form of art. Like any art form, there is a certain set of tools the artist relies on that have already been established for them. This allows a game to be consumed to its fullest without being abandoned before its full value has been achieved, whatever the individual interpretation of that value may be. When games like Super Mario 64 was made, there was little if any foundation to build their art on. They had to pioneer the genre and set the precedent that games and gamers alike could utilize in the future. Nothing was obvious to the designers or the players then. Nobody knew that bosses would generally take three hits to defeat or that falling a great distance might cause damage. Everything had to be learned from scratch.
Super Mario Odyssey strives to both utilize the toolbox its predecessor played out and forge its own. Bosses still take three hits in general and have weak points that can be exploited. Waterfalls still have secrets hidden behind them and are accessed in a way standard to 3D platforming. Yet, not every Power Moon is obvious or even easy to obtain. Some are straightforward and borrow straight from the classic playbook. But many more rely on new types of intuition never possible in previous renditions of the genre because those games didn’t utilize the same moves, the same assets, the same gimmicks, or the same outright creativity that Odyssey possesses. The game makes the player feel both comfortably at home with gameplay that can be leaped into seamlessly, and mystified by the new experiences that feel akin to the feelings of first discovery that Super Mario 64 players could enjoy.
A Game For Everyone
Super Mario Odyssey joins an important trend in video games. It began for Nintendo in its triple-A titles with 2011’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. Super Mario Odyssey provides an entire mode for players to play in that is designed to provide hints and keep the player on the main path towards saving Peach. It is entirely optional and never has to be activated by players who do not want it. But, it is an excellent option for players who are new to gaming and is a means of keeping players in-game for help and not utilizing online guides and other resources that may ruin the experience in the eyes of the developers.
The game also offers myriad in-game hint and help options of varying specificity for finding hidden Power Moons. They range from free tips to coin expenditures to real-world costs via Amiibo. There is even a two-player mode that allows a second player to take control of Cappy in a more engaging player-two version of what Super Mario Galaxy allowed. This player can help collect coins and perform captures while leaving the more difficult platforming to another player. This is a wonderful means of including another less experienced player in a meaningful way and not just as a tag-along.
Together, these features provide ultimate accessibility to players who may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of items to be collected in this game. Super Mario 64 players would simply be locked out of progressing if they could not crack the meanings and challenges behind Power Star names before running out of lives. Super Mario Odyssey players will have the opportunity from the onset to enjoy the entirety of the game should that be their priority, while still retaining the option to challenge themselves completely should their priority lay there. No matter what, the game is for everyone.
The Replay Factor
One of the absolute most salient components of video game design is the replayability factor. No matter how fun, how innovative, how accessible a game is, will players continue playing it again and again for weeks, months, and even years after they finish it the first time? Super Mario 64 mastered this component of the art. No matter how many times the game has been beaten or even completed, it is always fun to make a return the Princess Peach’s Castle for a quick run through Bob-omb Battlefield to defeat King Bob-omb again. The game is the same every time. But winning requires more than just memory, it requires playing the game and being skillful at it.
Super Mario Odyssey has a type of replayability for certain. Each world is intended to be revisited repeatedly to find all of the numerous Power Moons hidden within them. Some games never inspire players to make a return journey to a beaten area, but Mario games have encouraged this through their playstyle since Super Mario 64. The advantage that Super Mario Odyssey has built itself is that it has so many Power Moons to collect that not only will players be drawn back to it repeatedly for all of its appeals, but when they are, they will not retain the location of every single moon with as much as they may have in Super Mario 64. Thus, Odyssey provides the ultimate in replay factor: challenge with every try and the opportunity to rediscover again and again.
Only time will tell whether players will be as drawn to replay Super Mario Odyssey as they have been Super Mario 64 for more than 20 years. With the amount of content the game offers, it may be some time before players even finish their first experiences with the game to warrant considering replaying it.
The Odyssey of Mario
From Super Mario 64 until Super Mario Odyssey, Mario has been a staple in the industry and in the lives of millions. The journey from the leap to the third dimension until now has been met with many changes, some big and some small, but all valuable and each are components of games that forge valuable memories for their players. As Mario embarks on the next adventure in his odyssey, so too will countless players, old and new. Each will have a unique experience that would not be possible had it not been for Super Mario 64 and its willingness to venture into territory unkown to video games. Whether that contribution is by the player’s own experience with the original game or simply the impact its existence had, every enjoyer of Supr Mario Odyssey has Super Mario 64 to thank.
Hundreds of hours have been lovingly poured into Super Mario 64 over 15 years and approximately 7 into Super Mario Odyssey for this article. Super Mario 64 is available for purchase from the Nintendo eShop for Wii U. Super Mario Odyssey is available only on Nintendo Switch.
Jason is a graduate student at Binghamton University studying public administration. His mission is to find the universal values in the fictional worlds we love so we can make our real world better and more full. When not writing, Jason works on food justice and sharing music with communities throughout the region. Or he’s unlocking Xbox achievements.