Nintendo often gets flack, deservedly so, for rehashing the same characters again and again. Splatoon is the first original franchise from Nintendo since 2001’s Pikmin and Animal Crossing. Oftentimes, however, Nintendo manages to turn this weakness into a company strength. With the Super Mario games in particular, little time or energy is spent on establishing the rules of the world (jump on things and they die) or plot (Peach gets kidnapped #whyweneedfeminism). That sturdy foundation gives the developers much more room to play with ideas that would be risky without the Red Cap of approval. It let them give Mario a companion with dubious egg-related physiology, make a platformer in three dimensions, and create elaborate gravity puzzles with Le Petit Prince-sized planetoids.
The main conceit of Odyssey is that Mario’s iconic cap is now alive and gives him the ability to break the free will of his enemies and turn them to his purpose, often to their demise. For kids! The mechanic sounds too gimmicky, even for Nintendo. But it just works. Each enemy creature Mario conquers has unique means of locomotion and attack, which are put to task in cleverly designed open maps and self-contained levels. This starts out predictably enough, using paragoombas to fly short distances, or cheep cheeps to swim without worrying about pesky air. But Odyssey quickly shows its true creativity with Easter Island heads that reveal hidden paths, onion creatures that can quickly reach high but transient platforms, and birds that use their pointed beaks to scale walls. Each one is intuitive, even if the execution isn’t always so simple. One thing lacking is multi-stage puzzle platforms that require several different creatures to execute. Most of the puzzles center instead around one of the many single-tricked ponies the game provides for you to use and discard at your tyrannical whim.
After the massive open world sandbox of Breath of the Wild, some speculated that this would be a sandbox Mario game. It kind of is, but not really. One could argue that each area is essentially a self-contained small sandbox, but they’re very small indeed. A better comparison would be to Super Mario 64, with several — frankly, an alarming number — of objectives (moons this time, not stars!) in each themed world. Adding to the immersion are outfits unique to each world. Two distinct benefits come from this: First, it brought me childlike glee to see our well-worn hero sporting such ridiculous outfits, both when he blended seamlessly into the world and when he was hilariously mismatched. Second, it’s good to give coins, which are used to purchase the costumes, a purpose now that the outdated lives system has been mercifully sent up to a farm in Hokkaido.
I appreciated how self-aware Odyssey is of the age of its franchise, and its potential audience. You can be tutored in controls as much or little as you’d like — I personally opted for the “fuck off and let me play” model, and the game was perfectly fine with that. It’s also heavy on the nostalgia, most notably in the frequent 8-bit sequences, which I greeted with an eye-roll and a smile. The self-congratulatory nature of those levels is more than offset by the creativity and rewarding challenge they provide. And while the game stays accessible to new, younger players, the post-game hunt for all of the moons is daunting, and features some challenges that require some real skill and persistence.
It also looks great, but that’s not why you’re playing this game. I’d have enjoyed it just as much with GameCube graphics, although that’s probably as far back as I’d be willing to slide. The Switch’s glory is in being able to pick it up and go. It looks and plays great on the small screen, although I’ll admit to some hand cramp during longer sessions.
In essence, Nintendo has done it again: giving us completely new experiences introduced by an old friend. Every second of Odyssey has one goal: to give you the same goofy grin Mario perennially wears. If you have a Switch, this is a must-buy, and if you don’t have a Switch, the combo of Odyssey and Breath of the Wild will give you plenty of reasons to make the leap.