Perhaps you’ve heard the news: Mario’s not a plumber anymore.
I assure you that after playing his latest adventure, Super Mario Odyssey, the unexpected career pivot of Nintendo’s most iconic character makes a lot of sense. Of course Mario isn’t a plumber, or at least not just a plumber. Because professionally speaking, Mario wears many hats.
He’s a doctor. He’s the lead in a mariachi band. He’s a building inspector. He’s eager to fill whatever role the occasion calls for. Super Mario Odyssey expands on Mario’s chameleon-esque nature by giving him a new, all-encompassing ability: the power to take over and control other characters and enemies by tossing his hat upon their noggin.
So now, with the zip of his cap, Mario is also a Goomba. Or a Bullet Bill. Or a strange woodland creature that can extend its legs to reach untold heights. Or a stylish statue with the ability to see invisible platforms.
That’s the pitch, the hook to Super Mario Odyssey: that Mario can be whatever you need him to be. But that’s really just a reiteration of what Mario has always been to both Nintendo and his fans (he’s previously been a pro golfer, kart racer, time traveler and much more), and perhaps that’s why the new cap-slinging mechanic feels like such a natural fit. Super Mario Odyssey is an extended riff on the legacy of its hero, a mustachioed man who began life as a humble plumber before becoming a bona-fide expert in practically everything.
And so what initially seems like an oddball centerpiece (the ghoulish ability to possess the world around him) comes to feel like a totally obvious and essential addition to this historic canon.
This is a two-person review. Polygon reviews editor Phil Kollar and deputy news editor Allegra Frank both spent the last week playing as much Mario as they could cram into every waking hour.
I know this is going to make me sound ancient by Allegra standards, but many of my earliest gaming memories involve the original Super Mario Bros. for NES — a game that, I always like to point out, was released on or just before the day I was born. Thanks, Nintendo!
Those memories of Super Mario Bros. are tinged with a profound sense of possibility. Obviously this was an early 2D platformer, and it’s very basic by today’s standards. But as a child, I remember being filled with awe as I discovered each new thing I could accomplish with the game’s limited move set. I remember getting my first fire flower and actually leaping from my seat in celebration of my newfound flame-spitting powers.
The most recent time a Mario game captured that same feeling of discovery was when Super Mario 64 first took the series into 3D. Then this week, once again, I felt that surprise and joy with Super Mario Odyssey. There is so much in this game; Mario himself has so many moves and abilities, and then on top of that over a dozen different enemies or allies can be taken over with Cappy, his new ghostly hat companion. Each of these “captures” has new moves of their own.
The whole game is basically structured like a massive playground. Spend as much time as you want messing around; chances are you’ll be rewarded for it. And, just like I remember from my formative years, this emphasis on exploration and discovery serves as a bottomless well from which to draw buckets of good feelings. I can say with confidence that there hasn’t been another game this year that has so consistently had me grinning.
So Allegra, as someone without my old-man fondness for the Mario series, how have you liked Super Mario Odyssey?
My relationship with Mario started from a more unconventional place: I learned to love the Mushroom Kingdom through Mario’s side adventures. By the time I first checked out the series, Mario was already a kart racing champ, big-time partier and tennis star. Eventually I got around to the core Mario games, and while I loved adventuring around kingdoms and islands and galaxies as Mario, I still credit his expansive list of extracurriculars with maintaining my endearment to his quirky crew.
Even as I’ve always known Mario to hold a variety of jobs, one thing remained the same: He was still Mario. Cappy may once again give Mario a new hat to wear, but the core difference here is that with those hats comes a rediscovery of how both the game and Mario himself work — he’s still punching blocks and ground-pounding, but he's not physically the Mario we’re used to. Rediscovering how Mario works is a major part of what makes Odyssey a pleasure, as well as something special.
I will say that the radical departure from Mario’s typical skill set does still take some serious getting used to, though. Did you find anything to be disappointing or even frustrating with how much the gameplay deviates from the traditional Mario style? Or did you wish it went even further?
I had one single and minor frustration: the controls. Let me be clear here that the controls aren’t bad by any means, but given the sheer number of possible moves at Mario’s disposal, there’s, uh, a lot to learn. Certain complex moves can require eventually holding down three or more buttons, all pressed with perfect timing, or letting go of buttons at the right time. And most annoyingly, a few options require the use of motion controls.
If you’re playing with the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers, the motion control moves are pretty easy. But as someone who still regularly experiences desyncing problems with the Joy-Cons, I preferred using the Pro Controller or playing in handheld mode. While motion controls still work with both of those setups, they’re awkward as hell to pull off.
I cannot stress enough, however, that this is a minor quibble. There are a limited number of points throughout the game that require motion control; even spots that seem like they need it often have a workaround if you’re really desperate to not waggle your controller. That freedom is really Super Mario Odyssey’s greatest strength, too.
We’ve talked a lot about how the game allows Mario to step into the shoes of all these different creatures, but we haven’t yet explained how the game puts all of those options to work.
Where other Mario games have levels or worlds for our hero to explore, Super Mario Odyssey has kingdoms, each one defined by a central theme and unified by a narrative thread. There’s the Woodland Kingdom, which is all pastoral and lush; the Snow Kingdom, in which Mario shivers if he stands still for too long; and, of course, New Donk City, aka the Metro Kingdom, among others.
For as bare-bones as Odyssey’s storyline is, it’s still clear how and why each of these worlds fits into it. Mario and Cappy are both on quests to rescue the most important women in their lives — Princess Peach and Tiara, respectively — who have been kidnapped and thrown into Bowser’s absurd wedding plot. The pair boards the good ship Odyssey to travel from kingdom to kingdom, chasing after Bowser and his pack of rabbit wedding planners while also looking for moons, collectible objects that power their vessel.
The Odyssey takes the place of a central hub world, which is a bit disappointing; it's a small ship, its cramped interior seemingly designed to make us want to go back outside and run around. That’s fine, because each kingdom is rich with things to do and places to explore. Every kingdom features a new set of enemies with wildly varying powers, and it’s a pleasure to learn the patterns of each new kingdom and solve varied puzzles, unlock secrets, and take down enemies with a different, easy-to-learn set of abilities.
Claims that Super Mario Odyssey is a modern, open-world entry in the series (like what The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was for Zelda) are overstated, but when I say that this game has really, really, really big levels, I mean it. Although I appreciate how the main campaign keeps Mario on a linear track, I’m more inspired by how much the game invited me to explore where and how I wanted.
Yeah, I’m 100 percent in agreement with you that Super Mario Odyssey is not an “open-world” game in any traditional sense. What it shares most with Breath of the Wild is not the size of its worlds, but the density of them. Moons are less like the precious stars of Mario games past and more comparable to Breath of the Wild’s abundant korok seeds. There are hundreds of them, rewarded liberally for tasks both major and minor, whether it’s completing a platforming challenge, answering riddles for a sphinx or finding a deviously hidden area in a retro 2D sequence.
The more moons you gather, the further a trip the Odyssey will be able to take, opening up more and more kingdoms as you go. It’s a satisfying loop, one that constantly motivated me to keep exploring.
Nintendo is also brilliant at urging players to revisit already-explored kingdoms. On your first trip through a kingdom, before you’ve solved whatever major storyline conundrum is aggravating its people, you’re only able to access a fraction of the total number of moons available. When you go back to the kingdom, new areas and challenges will have opened up, and dozens more moons along with them. And then, after you “complete” the game and watch the credits, you can unlock even more moons in every kingdom, prompting a worthy return tour of the the whole game.
Especially nice is that for every obvious way of completing a puzzle or collecting a moon, there are other hidden solutions (and abilities) to tinker with as the game expands. This makes what can sometimes feel like a formulaic adventure — travel to a kingdom, collect moons, beat a boss; repeat — stay fresh and, as you said, free.
Yeah, there’s just so much to do here. If you’re aiming to get every moon in the game — all 800-plus of them — it can easily fill up 50 hours or more, which well exceeds my expectations from a Mario game. To accomplish all of that without any of the content coming across as filler is pretty astounding, but Nintendo has pulled it off. And it’s pulled it off with an amazing amount of character.
I think what you’re referring to here — this pervasive sense of self-assured style — is my favorite facet of the game. It drips all over the kingdoms; it’s intrinsic to the Cappy mechanic, as each captured being immediately infuses Mario with its own special flavor. Small details like classic Mario character sigils stamped around the worlds are lovely surprises.
There’s also plenty of style in the boss battles, although perhaps to less winning effect. Boss battles feel natural and specific to the worlds in which they exist; of course it makes sense that a gigantic octopus monster, for example, would be fought using Mario’s newly inhabited super jet stream consciousness.
The battles do sometimes interrupt the more free-flowing nature of the game's collectible-hunting segments. While it’s novel to see Mario’s new powers tested on a grand scale, challenging a boss usually feels less satisfying than finding all of those many, many moons — like a necessary evil that’s getting in the way of the greater good.
For what it’s worth, I think the bosses are wildly successful, and wouldn’t describe any of them as dragging on — up to perhaps the optional post-credits boss rush, which completely destroyed me many times over. The thing I love about Mario bosses in general, and these bosses in particular, is that Nintendo is so good at signposting what you need to do to succeed.
I never felt like I entered a boss encounter set up to fail, or like I had to die once or twice just to figure out patterns. For example, when I went up against a giant stone head with massive fists, it only took a quick glance at the battlefield to realize that there were small pockets of ice set up all over. By getting the monstrous opponent to smash his fists into the ice, I was able to swing my cap onto the hands and rocket them back into my enemy’s face. If I was paying attention and playing well enough, I was able to beat every boss in the game on my first try.
Those boss encounters are also aided by some of Super Mario Odyssey’s most frantic music tracks. For a series known for its iconic tunes, one of the best parts of Odyssey is how it takes chances with its soundtrack. From the jazzy riffs of the Woodland Kingdom to this weirdly catchy lounge song with actual lyrics, the music is just as full of little surprises as everything else in the game.
And while we’re talking about aesthetic elements, I’ve got to note something that’s obvious if you’ve ever watched a trailer for this game: Super Mario Odyssey is utterly gorgeous. For whatever people might think about the Switch’s relatively underpowered hardware, it doesn’t show for a second here. Whether playing on my 4K-capable 65-inch TV or enjoying the game in handheld mode on the Switch’s screen, I am constantly impressed by how crisp and colorful its worlds are. In a lot of modern games, I find it easy for visuals and music to sort of fade into the background; in Super Mario Odyssey, they play nearly as important a starring role as Nintendo’s mascot himself.
For a character nearing 40 years old, it’s amazing that Mario has remained not only a beloved character but one whose games are generally expected to be great. From that perspective, it’s no surprise that Super Mario Odyssey is, yes, a great game. But more than that, it’s a fantastic, even fundamental addition to Mario’s legacy. From a plumber to a doctor to a tennis star to, uh, a Goomba, Mario has endured. No, this will not be the last Mario game, but it is almost certain to be lauded as one of his best.
Super Mario Odyssey was reviewed using final “retail” Nintendo Switch download codes provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.