The Good and (Maybe) Bad of Super Mario Odyssey

Breaking down Nintendo's very weird new take on Mario.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

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Nintendo seems determined to upend their classical formulas this generation. With their attempts to reinvent Zelda being a great success, they've now moved on to Super Mario Bros.; and to be honest, I don't quite know how I feel so far.

I suppose you could say that it's a bit of a throwback. Mario has always been weird, but its conventions are so ingrained that we forget how strange it really is. We just take it for granted that Mario shoots fireballs at turtles, or that he can grow tall and powerful with the help of a mushroom.

In that way, Super Mario Odyssey seems calculated to remind us that, yes, Mario is in fact supposed to be weird and off-kilter. By putting him next to real people, we're reminded that Mario is not normal. Not by a long shot.

In some ways, this new approach really works. In others... I'm not so sure. So let me try and break it down a little.

The Good

Nintendo showed two different worlds in Super Mario Odyssey: Sand Kingdom and Metro Kingdom. Of the two, I found Sand Kingdom by far the most enjoyable. I'll get to my thoughts on Metro Kingdom (or "New Donk City") in a bit.

So if I'm understanding Nintendo's approach correctly, Super Mario Odyssey is in some ways a bit like Breath of the Wild. You're dumped into a large sandbox rather than a discrete level, and are basically encouraged to explore. Caves and pipes function a little like Breath of the Wild's Shrines: They're bite-sized platforming experiences that are mindful of Mario's classic approach but are over rather quickly.

The rest of the Sand Kingdom is like a much-expanded level in Super Mario 64. Much of the fun is in trying to figure out how to reach moons—replacements for Mario's familiar stars—which can be used to open up new areas.

Key to Super Mario Odyssey's traversal puzzles is Mario's hat, which can be used to take control of creatures and devices. Take control of one creature and you can run across acid (though controlling it is a little tricky, as you have to brake hard to change direction). Throw your hat at a power node and you will become a bolt of electricity that races up and down a wire to new locations.

As you explore, there are some cool easter eggs to be found. If you go down the right pipe in the Sand Kingdom, for instance, the perspective will suddenly shift to something resembling the original 8-bit Super Mario Bros. Classic Mario runs across the wall like a living painting collecting coins then, poof, returns to 3D Mario upon exiting the pipe. It's stuff like this that makes Mario so much fun.

As always, it was smartly designed and fun to play, and I didn't have the same trouble with the controls that other people did (I was playing with the two JoyCons). If the rest of the levels build on what I saw in the Sand Kingdom, it should be fun to play.

That said...

The... Uncertain?

Alright, let's talk a little about New Donk City.

It begins promisingly enough. Everything is this weird, funhouse version of what the "real world" might look like. The proportions are weird and there are coin blocks everywhere. It superficially resembles New York; but outside of the somewhat realistically proportioned citizens, it might as well be another part of the Mushroom Kingdom. I kind of like it actually—it's all very "Mario."

The actual gameplay, though, is not. Upon meeting up with Mayor Pauline, you're asked to go and recruit some musicians so that she can put on a party. The first one is waiting right outside: you talk to him and he agrees to go play. The rest of the musicians are found by wandering around, racing up buildings through electric wires with your hat powers, and checking rooftops.

It's a slow-paced and frankly kind of boring process, and it's compounded by Pauline's request that you address some power troubles before the party starts. To do that, you have to collect enough coins to buy an inspector's hat and overalls to post as a city inspector. I suppose that's where you spend more time wandering around and maybe finding some levels to explore, but it didn't feel like there was much to do in the city itself.

I guess I'll come right out and say it: It fell kind of flat for me.

Is this indicative of what the final product will be? I'm not sure, to be honest. From the look of it, Super Mario Odyssey will incorporate a lot of different gameplay elements, some of it quite experimental. It's easy to complain that it doesn't really feel like a "Mario" game, i.e., it's very light on the traditional platforming elements, but that doesn't feel quite right. The spirit of openness and exploration is certainly there, if not necessarily the execution.

What I will say is that it's kind of cool to see Nintendo experiment to heavily with its classical franchises. They could have made something resembling Super Mario Galaxy 3 and been endlessly praised for it, but instead they're striking out in some peculiar directions. It makes me wonder what else they have up their sleeves with Super Mario Odyssey. Whatever it is, I'm sure it'll be extremely weird. I mean, we've already seen Mario possess a T-Rex, so it kind of feels like anything is possible with this game.

But as for the demo that was shown at E3, I came away feeling a little mixed. The Sand Kingdom was kind of interesting, but Pauline's quest really didn't do anything for me at all. Hopefully the rest of the game is more like the former than the latter.

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Comments 17

  • Avatar for Wellman2nd #1 Wellman2nd 10 days ago
    So wait... Mario has to buy clothes to pose as an inspector to help out an ex?

    Hmm sounds like the city life is not doing much for Mario's already loose morals.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #2 SatelliteOfLove 10 days ago

    Mario came from the pipes, he can hack it in the streets.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #3 NiceGuyNeon 10 days ago
    I don't know how I feel about the open nature of the game, keeping in mind that I haven't played it yet of course.

    The thing is, I do love Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, and this, in many ways, feels like it's striking back towards those a bit and is maybe the successor to Sunshine we never received. The moons replacing the shine sprites is another indicator. The cap powers also started in 64 and then never really came back for the series, so it feels like another throwback there.

    The thing is, Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 are, in my opinion, not just the greatest 3D platformers of all time, but the greatest platformers of all time. And their success comes from a tight focus on platforming. Mario's games post-2002 have all been linear affairs whether it's GBA remakes of the classics, the four New Super Mario Bros games, the two Galaxy games and 3D Land/World. None of them were really about exploration.

    Maybe transitioning back to that point will let them show off just what they're capable of after leaving it alone for 15 years. I will say I love Super Mario 64 (replayed it recently last year) and I beat Super Mario Sunshine maybe 4 times. But the primary issue I had with both 64 and Sunshine is the collectathon nature of the games. With Super Mario 64 I did reach 120 stars, but not on my recent replay, I couldn't be bothered. And with Sunshine having to find 240 blue coins to be able to reach 120 shine sprites was a ridiculous chore. Reading that you have to collect coins to spend as currency in Odyssey just feels backwards. Hopefully it's not mandatory and players like me looking for pure platforming can have it.

    I will follow up by saying, while the Galaxy games also featured coin collection, it was only annoying in the first. It was so scaled back and even compelling at times in Galaxy 2 that it never felt like a bother, and those coins were often tied to individual power stars. But I do get annoyed.

    I'll add one more thing, even though this is getting lengthy, I also get a Banjo 1 and 2 vibe from this game. Collecting moons apparently doesn't boot you from the world to then return and attempt another challenge. That was very Banjo-Kazooie/Tooie with larger levels you still stayed in to solve with more collectibles and mini-challenges as well as returning later once you had more abilities, etc.

    It definitely seems like more of a throwback to me, but who knows. I'm still going to buy it just to see what they did to my favorite platformer. If it's a success then it'll be good to break up the 15 years of linearity we've seen.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #4 brionfoulke91 10 days ago
    It's definitely experimental and a bit risky, but I honestly think this is the perfect direction to take Mario. Another Mario Galaxy game would have been a bit too samey, and Mario has sort of felt like he's been stuck in a rut with maybe one too many New Super Mario Bros games.

    This game honestly does what it needs to do: it feels fresh and new. In the same way that 64 and Galaxy did. Whether they end up executing it well is another matter (it's Nintendo so I have full confidence in them.) But I love everything I've seen about Odyssey so far!
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #5 LBD_Nytetrayn 10 days ago
    I only got to play for about 10-15 minutes, and my stage of choice was New Dino City. My verdict?

    I loved it! I honestly wasn't bored at all, as there was so much to see and explore, and as I'd come to see, I only barely scratched the surface.

    At this point in time, I see the difference between the Sand Kingdom and Metro Kingdom as a good thing. The art styles from kingdom to kingdom already vary greatly, and if the gameplay feels as varied across them as these two seem to each other, then that should go far in the end.
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #6 hiptanaka 10 days ago
    @NiceGuyNeon "Reading that you have to collect coins to spend as currency in Odyssey just feels backwards. Hopefully it's not mandatory and players like me looking for pure platforming can have it."

    Hopefully the collecting of coins require increasingly difficult platforming, so that collecting everything and doing platforming are one and the same.
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  • Avatar for docexe #7 docexe 10 days ago
    @Wellman2nd When you describe it like that, it actually sounds like the plot for a sitcom episode.
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  • Avatar for docexe #8 docexe 9 days ago
    The Galaxy games are my favorite 3D Mario games, in part because of how well they replicated the feeling of the old-school 2D Mario games. That being said, I welcome the return of the series to more open spaces and the focus on explorationof Super Mario 64, especially after watching the Treehouse livestreams.

    The idea of every kingdom being its own expansive sandbox just looks interesting and the game seems packed with fun things to find and do (even if admittedly some of them are pretty strange for a Mario game).
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #9 riderkicker 9 days ago
    Mushrooms are a helluva drug.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #10 metalangel 9 days ago
    I'd still like to know how a fat Italian plumber from New York ended up in the Mushroom Kingdom (and not the movie's explanation)... espsecially when he now returns to the real world and appears to be a cartoon character next to "normal" people. This transition feels even more awkward than Sonic's similar journey in Sonic Adventure.
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #11 mattcom26 9 days ago
    I wonder if they ever considered having Mario do some actual plumbing in New Donk City. I mean, he's a plumber right? He's not always going to be rescuing "people". He's got to keep the business going.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #12 Kuni-Nino 9 days ago
    As is always the case with games of this scale, the more time you spend with it the more you'll get out of it. I think everyone who has played it has come away with mixed feelings about it and a lot of them acknowledge that it's the fact that they didn't have time to get acclimated.

    The key thing about Mario 64 and Sunshine was that there was just as much emphasis on finding secrets as there was platforming. There was a LOT of downtime in those games and the streams of Oddyssey have pretty much confirmed to me as such. It's a new interpretation of those older games.

    For people who have been weaned on the traditional linear nature of the past Mario games, I expect them to be a little rattled. I suspect that won't be the case as they get more time with the game.

    I wouldn't worry. Nintendo Tokyo knows what they're doing. When have they ever released a bad game or even a middling one?
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #13 NiceGuyNeon 9 days ago
    @hiptanaka that would be an ideal scenario for sure!
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  • Avatar for fstim82 #14 fstim82 9 days ago
    People had problems with Mario controls??? What world are we living in???
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  • Avatar for photoboy #15 photoboy 9 days ago
    Putting Mario next to real world people is my one reservation with this. It reminds me a lot of Sonic 2005 which is never a good thing.

    For quite a while now I've wanted a Mario game that goes back to Mario's roots as a plumber in New York, these days it almost seems like Mario is considered to be someone from the Mushroom Kingdom rather than a Brooklyn plumber who fell down the wrong pipe. I'd have liked New Donk City to actually be New York and have all the people look like the old school designs of characters Nintendo used back in the old Game & Watch and Donkey Kong days.
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  • Avatar for secularsage #16 secularsage 8 days ago
    Watching the gameplay demos, I've grown concerned this game will be style over substance. Since New Donk City was revealed, many have made the obvious comparison to Sonic Adventure - a game that took the Sonic series in a new direction, but one that wasn't necessarily loved by all its fans.

    Since limitations have always been a core design philosophy of Mario games (timers, concrete objectives, limited power-ups, and so forth), it'll be interesting to see how removing some of them changes the feel of the game. What I've seen reminds me a lot of Super Mario Sunshine, and while folks are nostalgic for that game now, it was pretty jarring when it came out.
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  • Avatar for secularsage #17 secularsage 8 days ago
    @photoboy You know, it's interesting; most of what gamers outside Japan know about Mario as a character comes from non-canonical works (like the Super Mario Bros. Super Show and the movie) rather than the games. I don't think any of the Famicom Japanese games even referred to Mario as a plumber (here's the manual for Super Mario Bros in both Japanese and English.), and the idea that Mario came from Brooklyn, while certainly prevalent, isn't ever mentioned in the games (unless it's been tossed in as a joke in one of the RPG-style adventures; I'm not sure).

    In fact, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island seems to imply Mario was born in the Mushroom Kingdom (since he's being delivered by a stork). Most of the later games treat him like he belongs there, and Odyssey seems to support that (since the citizens of New Donk City have more realistic proportions).

    The most persistent idea about Mario is that he's a plumber when the reality is that he seems to be more of a handyman who moonlights in other professions. He's a carpenter in Donkey Kong, fixing pipes in Mario Bros., and appears in many early Famicom/NES games in all sorts of different roles, including as the titular Dr. Mario. Shigeru Miyamoto has explained that Mario's profession really relies on the scenario here, which is supported by the fact that whenever Mario puts on a costume, he gains special powers.
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