(The following includes spoilers for Super Mario Odyssey and Super Mario 3D World)
Super Mario Odyssey is a grandiose vacation from what has made the main series an innovative success the past 35-years. But, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
One has to preface criticism against Super Mario Odyssey by stating the obvious: yeah, of course, it’s a fun game. Mainline Super Mario games have never, in my life, failed me on that simple concept of “fun”.
My first ever experience with a Mario game was Super Mario Bros. on the original NES, and it has been insane seeing the franchise grow and evolve, as well as evolve the medium of video games with it, all the while remaining generally “fun.”
However, for games to grow up and walk away from their corner at Chuck E. Cheese, one has to evaluate the value of that “fun” and what the gaming experience (whether you want to call it an art form or not is beside the point) is capable of achieving, especially since we’re now over 35 years into Mario’s lifespan.
So, while, yes, Odyssey is a “fun” game, I find it to pale in comparison to Mario’s last big 3D outings on consoles, Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Mario 3D World. I think the comparison with these two specific games is important, as both tried to do something different with 3D Mario, and both represent different directions 3D Mario was taken into successfully.
Super Short Attention Span
Odyssey is a game that excels at making you smile or laugh at a new gameplay mechanic once, but then moves on to the next gimmick or joke in-store almost immediately.
Short bursts of these are great at putting you in a good mood, but if you want anything meaningful out of your gameplay, you’re out of luck here. The hat gimmick (i.e. throw a hat at “anything” not wearing a hat to control it) fails to ever manifest itself as anything with any kind of depth.
Brilliant gameplay ideas, when they do come about, such as the gameplay segments which have you take control of Uproots, accordion-ish Tropical Wigglers and Hawaiian sun-glass statue dudes, are mostly a once-and-done thing. You throw your hat, do the thing the on-screen prompt usually tells you to do, maybe take a picture and share it on social media (#SuperMarioOdyssey), and move on.
I mention Uproots specifically because the short segments that involved controlling those awesome things were probably some of the most fun I saw myself possibly having, had the idea been brought even close to its potential outside of being a throwaway mini-game. Plus, it was early enough in the game for me to notice the pattern throughout the rest of my playthrough.
These few ideas could have been further explored, and even could have had the entire game based on them with enough focus. This missing depth made me long for all the crazy spins to established gameplay norms Super Mario 3D World was able to pull over the player (and 3D World isn’t a game I liked initially, and I still dislike a lot of its design choices), or the insane off-the-wall platforming you’d be doing by the end of Galaxy 2.
Notably, 3D World took on the idea of a 2D Mario game in 3D, but also took advantage of modern technology and the third dimension in very meaningful ways. What I call the “flagpole incident” was something groundbreaking for me, akin to the Angry Sun attacking you in Super Mario Bros. 3 for the first time, or perhaps more similarly, the jumping brick block Micro-Goombas, as it was a previously long-accepted stage element in Super Mario games, turning the tables on the unsuspecting player.
If controlling an Uproot had been an element in 3D World or Galaxy 2, you know you would’ve had a handful of memorable stages based solely on that idea, taking it further and further, realized as much as possible.
Odyssey has none of this kind of meaningful wonderment or surprise to it, outside of the very brief 3D World-esque warp rooms hidden throughout the game, which only made me wish for a sequel to 3D World. But even if the intention of Odyssey was to be a new, different kind of Mario game, it fails at that beyond being different in a very shallow way.
Super Geeky Mario Reference
Odyssey is an example of how being too self-aware can sometimes get in the way of a game. Little nods and such are great when directly communicating a legacy character’s history and place in the video game industry, but there comes a point where it’s all a little too much. Odyssey falls victim to patting its own back a bit too hard, without much gameplay substance to it outside of “hey, hey, remember that?”
The 2D segments, for example, are too few and far in-between to feel like a natural part of the game, but at the same time, plentiful enough to break away from the main experience in a jarring way. To have a full-on Donkey Kong referential segment — with a cringe-y video game referencing song as a backdrop — is a bit like watching Big Bang Theory; (which, reflecting on the whole of it, reminds me of one of those YouTube videos where the laugh track has been removed).
Yeah, it’s cute for a second to experience the little nod to Mario’s origins, but it never really means anything outside of its references.
This isn’t where the overdone references start or end in Odyssey, but it’s certainly where they show their worst outcome. These aspects of the game are something I’ve come to notice in a lot of modern games, where Easter Eggs have become full-on, immersion-breaking game design elements.
Don’t get me wrong; Super Mario games have always referenced past games — it’s what the entire franchise is built upon. The issue here is that those references don’t evolve beyond a one-off, skin-deep joke when implemented into the gameplay. There is no growth — only empty celebration. There is no “you can now grab a shell and throw at things” evolution that happens to the gameplay here, something that takes established references and builds on them. It’s just a victory lap, and that’s more than a bit lazy.
The Legend of Zelda series took a huge U-turn and reinvented itself within a new genre with Breath of the Wild, but it actually made those changes by looking back at what made the original Zelda game work from a philosophical game design POV.
Odyssey could’ve benefited from that kind of an introspective look, especially following 3D World and something that really went back to analyzing the core of Mario: Super Mario Maker. Sadly, it seems all that was learned from Mario Maker is that fans love it when you make Mario references, and that benefits neither the series nor the audience.
Super Mario works the best when it’s looking back as a stepping stone to see where to take the series in the future. But if the future of Mario games involves learning nothing from the past, just playing the greatest hits and hoping it all works out, then the series is in some serious trouble.