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Super Mario Odyssey never punishes the player

It’s quite the design trick

Super Mario Odyssey
Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey is a game that’s reluctant to punish the player, and that’s one of the best things about its design.

It’s also the reason the game feels so welcoming and warm, two things that are often in short supply in our pop culture. You can fail at Super Mario Odyssey, and some of the game’s moons are challenging enough to earn that you’ll fail often, but the game never punishes you for that failure.

There are no lives to lose, since dying only takes away a small number of coins. There is no progress to lose, since a useful auto-save system makes sure the game always knows exactly where you are and the Switch itself can always just be put into sleep mode if you need to take a break. You can’t get lost, because every kingdom comes with a map and is liberally sprinkled with flags that allow you to fast travel from section to section.

Consider one area where you have to take control of a flying creature that’s high up on a tower. You can see a moon from its perch, and that moon is resting on an even smaller column. It’s clear that you need to glide down and land on the column to collect it. I failed on my first attempt; the flight isn’t easy.

So that’s the failure. But there’s no punishment. Other games in the series might force you to climb back to the top of the tower, and that repetitive journey would be its own punishment. It would get frustrating to miss and then repeat the journey back up, which raises the stakes for each attempt.

Super Mario Odyssey allows you to fast travel to the flag that’s conveniently located at the top of the tower. It’s not interested in raising the stakes or introducing any friction. The goal is to teach you how to fly with the animal, not make you feel bad while you’re learning the skill. The potential reward is the moon, along with a new skill in your repertoire. But there is no punishment for failure.

There is no reason not to explore, because there is no real danger to be found. While you need to find a certain number of moons to move onto the next kingdom, the total number of moons available throughout the game means that you can skip just about any challenge that you find too taxing. The only thing you’ll miss is the thrill of finally figuring out what you need to do or the act of getting better at the game. You can’t run out of lives or continues, you won’t be asked to repeat sections of the game and there aren’t any sudden difficulty spikes to gate the game from players who haven’t earned their way forward.

The game’s near-perfect reviews suggest that the lack of stakes doesn’t hurt our enjoyment of the experience. You don’t have to avoid a punishment for a reward to be sweet, and it’s OK to make the addition of new skills its own reward for choosing a more difficult path over an easy one.

Someone else using the game’s useful Assist Mode doesn’t make your own accomplishments in Odyssey any less worthy of respect, and Nintendo is very much aware of how the high the skill ceiling can go. It doesn’t hold back your ability to master its mechanics, nor will it beat you up if you find something more frustrating than fun. It wants you to play in this world, not feel frustrated by it.

That celebration of growth, exploration and welcoming challenge is why the game feels so good to play. The result is a game that never needs to rub your face in your failures to make you feel better when you finally learn how to do something.

It’s the sort of design that looks easy on its surface, but it’s telling that Nintendo is one of the few companies willing to see how far you can go by motivating players purely through reward. The results speak for themselves.

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