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 back 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.

Platformers Never Fall Flat

As you might have guessed from yesterday’s review, I’m a fan of platformers. When they’re well-made, they can be some of the most rewarding single-player games out there, in my opinion. They provide the opportunity to tell wonderful stories through the visuals and the interactions between characters in the game without getting bogged down by complex levels or difficult controls. For some platformers, the whole point of the game is the controls, telling a passive story as you move through levels expanding your ability to explore as you go. There’s so much variety out there that I can’t cover them all.

While most of my favorite games are not platformers, it is easy to say that it is my favorite genre of game. Ever since I played Math Blaster as a kid, I have enjoyed working my way through levels by solving simple puzzles and jumping from one bit of safe ground to another. The various Super Mario Bros games, most of the Game Boy games I enjoyed that aren’t Pokemon, tons of great indie games now, and so many easter eggs in bigger-budget games.

Platformers have been in the news a bit more than usual lately. With the advent of Super Mario Maker and games like Cuphead, platformers are getting a lot of attention as a result of their often higher-than-average difficulty. In a lot of games the difficulty is adjustable, making the enemies tougher or weaker, or by giving you more or less information for solving the puzzles. Platformers, though, don’t always have adjustable difficulty. Celeste, for example, did not. There are levels you can unlock, though, that are basically more difficult versions of each level.

For a lot of platformers, the difficulty is set by the precision with which you must control your character. There are Mario Maker levels that require you to pretty much get your timing and movement down to the pixel in order to succeed.  Cuphead is notorious for difficult fights due to the shifting nature of the boss battles, which require you to constantly stay on your toes. Celeste requires you to repeat the puzzles until you succeed, trying to navigate around barriers and use the various game rules and moves to figure out how to move through the stage. This includes adding in a few false-leads that require you to fully consider your actions before you take them. Even replaying levels doesn’t necessarily make them easier because knowing what you need to do doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to do it. I ran into that a lot. I’d get 90% of the way through a screen, die, and then struggle to get past the 50% mark all over again.

I really enjoy platformers because of this. I get frustrated, sure, but it feels super rewarding to be able to zip through a screen by nailing every move perfectly. I’m not terribly discouraged by failure, so it is easy for me to sit there and attempt to pull of the same sequence of moves for five or more minutes if I encounter a particularly difficult puzzle. My main problem with most platformers is that they’re often on the computer and I don’t really enjoy playing them on the computer. Getting Celeste for the Switch instead of my PC was the best decision I made in the last month. Being able to pick it up for only five minutes and then being able to put it down without worrying about accidentally closing the game is invaluable. I own a bunch of PC platformers that I’d probably re-buy in an instant if they made a version for the Switch.

I’m no platformer god. I’m persistent and I learn by doing, which means I tend to think better by making split-second decisions without too much time to analyze. This gives me an advantage because that’s what platformers, especially ones based on momentum, need most of the time. Only a few times has Celeste given me the opportunity to look ahead so I can determine what I need to do and it is the only platformer I’ve ever played that lets me do that. I enjoy the challenge of momentum-based games, even if I often flub the ending of individual challenges because I continuously forget to watch where I land instead of the difficult bit I’ve just navigated. I’m pretty sure this habit of mine accounts for at least half of my deaths in Celeste.