Super Mario Odyssey is the bridge that connects Mario’s past to his future.
Super Mario Odyssey for Nintendo Switch is dressed in so much nostalgia, it’s easy to overlook how much the game tweaks a franchise that’s traditionally loyal to its decades old formula.
Gone are the super mushrooms and fire flowers and tanooki suits that gave Mario temporary super powers. Now Mario inhabits the bodies of his enemies while traveling far outside the the familiar confines of the Mushroom Kingdom.
Super Mario Odyssey puts players in kingdoms that often clash with the Mario aesthetic that Nintendo has honed over dozens of games. The most obvious example of that is the Metro Kingdom, aka New Donk City. Nintendo drops Mario into a world with almost no enemies, that is also populated with actual human characters. Mario looks so out of place here, mingling with New Donkers twice his size. If you’ve ever wondered what Mario would look like alongside humans on Earth (but refused to watch Super Mario Bros. The Movie) this is your chance.
But the world is dressed up in comforting Mario callbacks — the city’s plastered in Donkey Kong references — that the player is lulled into a sense that our Mushroom Kingdom ex-pat belongs in this alternate reality New York City. Nintendo demoed New Donk City months before the game’s release. No wonder; it takes some getting used to seeing Mario among the humans and Nintendo knows that we had to come to grips with that jarring visual.
Mario has only made these kinds of hard shifts into sandbox-style 3D platforming a couple times before, with the groundbreaking Super Mario 64 and the contentious Super Mario Sunshine. Those games gave the player freedoms they weren’t familiar with. These games also did away with all the power-imbuing suits that Mario can wear. Instead, they honed in on Mario’s ability to explore — not just 3D spaces, but new worlds unlike the locales that make up most of the Marion canon.
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For Game of the Year 2017, Polygon will be counting down our top 10 each weekday, beginning on Dec. 4. On Dec. 18, we'll reveal our favorite 50 of 2017. And throughout the month, we'll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises! Previously: #4 - Nier: Automata
Super Mario Odyssey is simply a celebration of all things Mario, sure. From his wardrobe, which lets Mario dress up in outfits that reference games as obscure as NES Open Tournament Golf and Qix for Game Boy, to Odyssey’s mid-game musical number paired with a recreation of Donkey Kong, Nintendo won’t let players forget about Mario’s past. Odyssey often reminds us what it’s like to play as Mario in a 2D space, with the occasional NES-inspired 8-bit level.
And it’s certainly no mistake that the game’s unlockable Mushroom Kingdom level, a throwback to Super Mario 64’s hub world, is tucked away at the very beginning of Odyssey’s kingdom map once players unlock it. Nintendo revels in Mario nostalgia, making sure the player is comfortable in Mario’s new playspace.
But what’s special about Super Mario Odyssey is the acknowledgement that the franchise must move forward and expand outward.