Already among the most positively received games of all time, Super Mario Odyssey expands upon the open, flexible design philosophy of Super Mario 64 while incorporating contemporary design sensibilities and twenty years worth of polish. And like its watershed grandfather, Odyssey is sure to carve its own special niche of influence and esteem in the gaming pantheon. But is it truly the near-perfect experience many believe it to be, or might a deeper inspection reveal some telling blemishes? As I already have with Super Mario 64, I will examine each of Super Mario Odyssey’s kingdoms in an attempt to glean insight into their stumbles and successes. In this entry, I will be taking a look at the game’s first course — Cap Kingdom.
Super Mario Odyssey opens with a quarrel between Mario and Bowser atop one of Bowser’s airships. Once again, Bowser has kidnapped Peach — this time with nuptial intentions. After being smacked by Bowser’s boomeranging hat, Mario careens off the airship to fall into the Cap Kingdom, shredded-hat-in-hand.
Cap Kingdom is a mostly monochromatic world inhabited by top-hat-shaped ghosts called Bonneters. Bonneton, the portion of Cap Kingdom that Mario lands in, is a small hub that houses Bonneton’s aircraft armada recently destroyed by Bowser’s henchmen. It is comprised of three small interconnected outdoor areas, a surrounding dense blanket of fog, and the interior of Top-Hat Tower. A large yellow moon hangs over the black-and-white town shrouded in fog, and the backdrop is littered with eerie blurred high-rises. In its urbane drowsiness populated by prim and pale residents, Bonneton channels an otherworldly London with a hat fixation (after all, the bonnets of the town’s namesake are classically Western headgear and the -ton suffix is a common town suffix in the UK used to connote a homestead or estate).
On the whole, Cap Kingdom acts as Super Mario Odyssey’s bare-bones tutorial, teaching the player the most essential moves necessary to controlling Mario and Cappy throughout their journey. The field where the player gains control of Mario is used to acquaint the player with Mario’s basic movement, while the small second region acts as an arena for the player to experiment with Cappy by interacting with the crates, posters, poles, and dilapidated airships strewn around. Afterward, the player confronts a trio of micro-goombas and a boss battle against Topper, a member of the anthropomorphic wedding planning rabbit group called the Broodals, that teach the basics of combat. Yet none of these regions actively “teach” the player so much as to give them the space and opportunity to learn, thereby attempting to walk the thin line between total openness and the infamously overwrought Nintendo tutorials of yore.
In between Topper and the Micro-Goombas, the player is introduced to the game’s capture mechanic, which allows Mario to possess certain creatures. Notably, a frog acts as the game’s first capture — a particularly deft selection that not only demonstrates the capture mechanic at its most straightforward and user-friendly (the frog can only run, jump, and high jump), but also acts as a natural extension of Mario’s own greatest canonical strength, evidencing the situational need for capturing other creatures.
While the frog capture allows the player to traverse the inside of Top-Hat Tower and snatch two moons hanging over Bonneton in the post-game, the paragoomba capture is equally essential to exploring Cap Kingdom. It allows the player to fly laterally indefinitely, thereby granting access to several moons scattered around Bonneton’s outskirts. Although using the paragoomba to traverse the fog can grow tiresome, the focused design of a secret room in which waves of poison roll toward the player show the capture’s true potential, having the player make the most of their limited vertical movement while traversing horizontally to grab puzzle pieces. In a different secret room, the player can also capture a spark pylon that allows Mario to quickly travel through wires. Perhaps the most omnipresent capture of the game, it is less essential to Bonneton than the frog or paragoomba (and the secret room containing it feels markedly out-of-place) but is used in an empowering and fairly robust fashion.
Outside of acting as the tutorial, Cap Kingdom is designed around several explicit motifs: monochrome, fog, ghosts, and hats. None of these play a significant role in the game’s opening minutes, but their centrality (or lack thereof) to the course’s design becomes clearer in subsequent visits. The monochromatic color scheme allows for visual clarity, a pallid backdrop against which coins and moons are especially visible. Meanwhile, the fog could work against that clarity in its ability to conceal, but it is instead strategically employed to deliberately hide specific portions of the stage. This is a clever work-around for a course too tiny and straightforward to hide all of its secrets in architectural nooks and crannies the way many subsequent levels do. Although the combination of monochrome and fog creates an atmosphere antithetical to the colorful warmth of most Mario openers, it helps siphon the player’s focus in a game that can sometimes feel overwhelming in its density.
Hats and ghosts, meanwhile, are of secondary importance. Although Top-Hat Tower takes some advantage of the architecture of a top hat, it feels like more could have been done to play with this theme. Circling around the brim, for example, could have been an opportunity to subtly teach three-dimensional movement and camera control. Or secret rooms could have been based on zany applications of the hat theme instead of the jarringly misplaced art styles they currently employ. But ghosts represent an even more significant missed opportunity. Between the brain-bending Ghost Houses of Super Mario World to Super Mario 64’s iconic Big Boo’s Haunt, Bonneton’s ghostly setting is an arbitrary letdown, especially since this is the one kingdom that remotely dabbles in this quintessential Mario setting.
Cap Kingdom’s moons further underscore its lack of a fully-fleshed identity. Serving as little more than a tutorial space in the main playthrough, the tiny, tidy, drab Bonneton has little space or gusto for stage-specific moons. Indeed, nine of its 31 moons recur across multiple other stages (such as spotting a taxi in the sky using binoculars, locating Peach, and catching a rabbit) while another nine require little effort or critical thinking, acting as rewards for merely happening upon them. Of these stumble-across moons, the only notable one is “Under the Big One’s Brim,” which is placed and named to encourage discovery through critical thinking rather than blind happenstance.
Furthermore, only 13 of Cap Kingdom’s moons are designed around significant stage-specific content. And since two of those are timer challenges and eight are located in secret rooms that feel disconnected from Bonneton, only three are uniquely designed around Bonneton proper. Of those three, two require the player to capture a frog and jump to a moon floating high overhead, and the other has the player follow Cappy’s directions to locate a moon he previously buried. While I appreciate the care put into the buried moon, none of the moons in Bonneton tie into the course’s central themes in any deeply considered way. There are essentially no puzzles, battles, or obstacles that take advantage of Cap Kingdom’s hats, ghosts, or fog in any more than a skin-deep manner. This detracts from the unique sense of place Cap Kingdom’s aesthetics try to establish. Instead, the level design often comes off as blasse, in part because its moons feel shoehorned into it.
On the whole, Cap Kingdom starts Super Mario Odyssey off with an atypical barebones tutorial area that methodically does its job but lacks the diversity, depth, and identity of a strong stand-alone course. Although I appreciate the course’s striking change of pace and tone for a Mario opening act, it quickly grows as monotone as it is monochrome. Attempting to fill the gap between the open hub world entrance like Peach’s Castle Courtyard and a fully-featured first course like Bob-Omb Battlefield, Cap Kingdom occupies an awkward middle-ground, unsure of its role after the player’s first brief visit. Still, its focus on clarity and a superb first capture balance out its overall wantonness and slew of freebie moons to form a decent course that does its duty but falls far short of its potential.