This Mario Game Was Super. What an Odyssey.

I have a bit of a strange history with Super Mario Odyssey. I got it the day it came out, left work early to play it, and spent my entire afternoon and evening playing it, exploring the mechanics and getting invested in the story. Then I set it down for the night and didn’t pick it up again until last month, at which point I played it for an entire weekend before setting it down and not picking it up again until this past weekend. Which I only did because my roommate started playing it and I wanted to grab a few more power moons since I had fifteen minutes to kill.

This game is simultaneously a ton of fun to play but difficult to pick up. Odyssey takes me┬áback to one of my first major gaming memories, when I tried to get all one hundred twenty power stars in Super Mario 64 on my own, but it feels even more rewarding now since there is no real interruption when going from one power moon to the next. In 64, you got brought out of the level after every power star (except for the 100 coin stars), but Odyssey lets you flow from one power moon to the next with only a small “got moon” cut-scene. The only exception is when you’re altering the map as a result of pursuing one of the ongoing plot points (such as causing an upside-down pyramid to rise into the sky, exposing a sinkhole or beating a mini-boss and returning to the level following the storm that was the backdrop for your battle. The fluidity of the gameplay is important because there are power moons EVERYWHERE, with a wide-range of difficulties associated with them. Some or simply sitting on the top of a tower you need to climb, while others are buried behind quizzes and mini-games or secret doors that are only revealed if you notice every tiny little detail or spend your time attacking literally everything. If there was even the relatively short “get sun” cutscene from collecting a Shine Sprite in Super Mario Sunshine after getting each power moon, it’d be a real drag to collect them since your gameplay would constantly be interrupted.

Mario’s moveset has grown again, which is part of what has made this huge variety of difficulties possible. In addition to his classic air-dives, long jumps, spins, wall-jumping, this game introduces a companion, Cappy, a hat-spirit that replaces Mario’s destroyed hat and gives him all kinds of new abilities a whole range of attacks based around throwing Cappy, like a mid-air jump (by throwing Cappy out and then landing on him), and the ability to take over the bodies of various enemies. This lets you do thinks like turn into a T-Rex, a tank, a Hammer Bro, or do crazy things like create a tower of Goombas that stretches into the sky (my current max stack is 20), all of which is often a requirement to find hidden power moons or progress through the level. In addition to these powers, Mario can also roll around (for the first time in a 3D game) if you hold the crouch button while running, which so far seems like a great way to pick up a little extra speed when going down a hill. It’s a bit silly at times, but it can be super convenient despite the difficulty of steering Mario when he’s on a roll.

These abilities, combined with levels designed as somewhat “open-world,” means that it is entirely possibly to string together move-combos that entirely by-pass the mini-games that allow you to access secret areas or let you avoid lots of obstacles by moving over open-air that you probably shouldn’t be able to cross. If you spend any amount of time looking, you can find tons of creative solutions to the puzzles in the games that bypass using the intended mechanics for something either much faster or something incredibly and ridiculously over-complicated. The inventiveness required to get some of the power moons in the earlier levels does an excellent job challenging the player to think outside of the box when it comes to the usual linear approach to collecting power whatevers in a Mario game. It leads the player to consider the wide variety of options available when it comes to moving through space and then, after the second or third level, just starts dropping power moons everywhere and letting you figure out how you want to get them. The range of difficulties in the puzzles also means that less experienced players can find enough power moons to move the story along while still providing challenges to the more experienced players. It also cleverly helps newer or less exacting players find the more difficult moons by incorporating a hint system and a coin-based system to help you figure out the puzzles. With enough time, any player can find all the power moons.

The biggest downside to me, and the sole reason this game isn’t easy for me to pick up and play is that it almost requires you to play with the Switch on the TV and the two JoyCon in your hands. Because of the huge variety of moves available to Mario, there aren’t enough buttons or button combinations to let the player control Mario with button inputs alone. Some of the moves require specific motions to be made with one or both of the JoyCon. These moves can be reproduced using only inputs, but they are almost always incredibly complicated strings of inputs that combine other moves together to produce a move that can be done by simply shaking the JoyCon. They can also be done using the Pro Controller or the Switch in Handheld mode, but they become incredibly clunky (and create a significant risk of accidentally dropping the controller or system) because the JoyCon are meant to move independently. As someone who primarily uses the Switch as a handheld device, I’m super afraid of trying to perform one of the “controller twist” moves and accidentally flinging the Switch at the wall or the ground, so I only play this game when I’m feeling like lounging on my couch, in front of the TV.

That’s pretty much the only fault of the game, though, and is more on Nintendo for, once again, pushing a frustrating gimmick (I mean, most new games for the 3DS don’t even pretend to have a “3D mode” anymore…). I’d definitely recommend this game to everyone if it was easier to play without the JoyCon separated from the Switch, but I’m only going to recommend it to the TV players. The game is fun, but it’s not so fun that I’m willing to play it with a super frustrating control mechanic.