For the second time this year, a Nintendo title has dominated the video game zeitgeist, and for good reason. Super Mario Odyssey is a great game, and a must-own title for the Switch.
But for the Nintendo fans who have been clamoring for a new 3-D Mario title, I think the hype has understandably blinded them from recognizing a few of Odyssey’s flaws. They’re not crippling, but they certainly exist.
It’s easy to get swept away by the charm of New Donk City, but to already crown it the run-away Game of the Year does a disservice to all of the other spectacular games we were given this year. This is why a critical look at Odyssey is necessary. While I like the game, this isn’t a review, so I’ll be primarily focusing on the things I don’t enjoy about Odyssey and how it feel short of its grandiose expectations.
My biggest mark against Mario Odyssey is that it is far, far too short. It takes a mere 8-10 hours to defeat Bowser and see the credits roll, and while there’s decent incentive to keep collecting the hundreds of moons you’ll still have left in the worlds, the game feels effectively over after you save Peach.
Compared to other 3-D platformers, this Mario feels totally uneven. Most players won’t start hunting moons until after they’re no longer restricted by the narrative and can freely play around in each of the worlds. But by that point, the story is over, and you stop working towards a concrete goal. The closest thing I could compare Odyssey’s gameplay loop to is actually TT Games’ LEGO franchise. So much of the game feels like it takes place after the criminally short story, and most of the collectibles only offer a shallow sense of accomplishment as you cross them off an arbitrary checklist. It’s the same type of design that people criticize Ubisoft games for having: meaningless flags, feathers and diary pages that are randomly scattered across the map for no other reason but to be collected.
By contrast, when you play a classic collect-a-thon like Banjo-Kazooie, every jiggy feels special. They’re tied to the environment, so when you defeat that giant monster that’s been terrorizing the town or reroute a clogged waterway to supply a village with water, you can visually recognize that the level has changed. It positively reinforces players’ curiosity and makes them feel like they’re having a tangible effect on the world around them. Now compare that to Mario Odyssey, where you’re given a moon for doing almost anything, and only a handful of them affect the environment in any way. That grind of doing the same tasks in world after world to collect moons with no kind of feedback becomes draining, especially when a small but noticeable number of Mario Odyssey’s 15 kingdoms are complete throwaways.
The Stain of Cloud Kingdom
To me, the highlights of Mario Odyssey are the Sand Kingdom and Metro Kingdom. Although a bit over-saturated with moons, these areas have enough personality and surprises to make scrounging for collectibles a joy. But these are the exception, not the rule.
Cloud Kingdom, for example, is the complete antithesis of those levels. This drab, nebulous void offers nothing, and exists only to add on to Odyssey’s inordinate list of collectibles.
In Cloud Kingdom, there are only nine moons, none of which affect the world in any way. Some of them are just warp pipes that take you to completely separate areas, while two particularly shitty ones come from an ungodly, baffling mini-game that makes you recreate Mario’s face on a disappearing canvas.
Sure, it’s fair to say that Cloud Kingdom is one of the game’s weakest worlds, but it embodies one of Mario Odyssey’s most important problems: there is way too much filler content. Dumb mini-games, uncreative 2-D retro levels, and pedestrian butt-stomp challenges make tracking down the game’s 800+ moons a repetitive chore no matter what level you’re in.
“Who uses handheld anyway…?”
With Super Mario Odyssey being a flagship title for Nintendo’s multimodal console, I’m at a loss for why playing the game in Handheld mode is made such a pain in the ass.
Presumably to show off the Switch’s motion controls, Odyssey incentives using them at every turn. Most captures are more effective if you waggle the joy-cons, and Cappy (whose accuracy is inconsistent at best when using a button) locks on to targets when you shake the controller. And although playing with the detached joy-cons feels great, playing in Handheld can be extremely awkward. The Switch does a poor job of recognizing when you shake the screen, and even when it does work, it just doesn’t feel right.
Take this story for example. One afternoon, I was riding home on the bus after work during rush hour. I was lucky enough to grab a seat, but I was packed in shoulder-to-shoulder with other commuters. To pass the time, I pulled out my Switch to play Mario, and as I’m bouncing around as a frog, I came to a moon at the end of a series of platforms that was just out of reach for my normal leap. I knew I had to use motion controls to jump higher, but what were my options? I either had to keep shaking my Switch to get to the moon, elbowing everyone beside me, ignore the moon and try to remember where it was later on, or I had to just put the game away and wait to play it later.
It’s completely ridiculous that players can’t turn off those controls and play the game on their own terms. Gimmicky, tacked-on motion controls are understandable for a launch title, but given how the Switch was marketed, one of its most anticipated titles should feel just as great in every mode.
To Cap Off A Critique
While I was let down with how Super Mario Odyssey came together, I still had a great time playing it. The game is charming, and its best levels are bursting with personality. There are some amazing set pieces, particularly the dragon boss fight and the final showdown with Bowser. Even with its disappointingly short length, playing through the main story is overwhelmingly joyful.
Yet still, it’s important to emphasize that Mario Odyssey is not the pristine gem it’s been labeled as by fans and critics. It can certainly hold its own against some of the other major releases this year, but pacing issues, shotty motion controls and an excessive, unnecessary amount of content hold back this would-be classic.