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Super Mario Odyssey is fun to learn and pointless to master

The creative director of What Remains of Edith Finch on Super Mario Odyssey

Old-school design says a good game is easy to learn and difficult to master. Super Mario Odyssey takes a different approach: It’s fun to learn and pointless to master. Instead of challenge, the game is about the thrill of discovery and the joy of playful interactions.

Games used to be satisfying to finish in the same way a mountain was satisfying to climb: because you had completed a challenge. Games like Super Mario Odyssey are more like finishing a book: satisfying because of the experience you’ve had. This roughly matches the changes in who’s playing games now. Who likes climbing mountains? Mostly young men with time on their hands. Who reads books? All sorts of people.

My problem with Super Mario Odyssey is that it’s not actually satisfying to finish. It’s a letdown. This is not to say it isn’t worth playing; it absolutely is. I just don’t think it’s worth finishing. It’s full of wonderfully inventive moments, but it’s missing a sense of cohesion. It’s a game I really like but do not love.

I spent the last five years making a game, What Remains of Edith Finch, in which you experience the final moments in the lives of each member of a cursed family. That doesn’t sound a lot like Super Mario Odyssey, but both games are about becoming different characters. Edith Finch does it by reading stories. Mario does it by throwing his hat on anything he sees. Both also introduce lots of new gameplay with no instructions, and ask you to learn by playing.

Super Mario Odyssey - Mario jumping off skyscraper Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

After working on What Remains of Edith Finch, I can appreciate the challenges of creating Super Mario Odyssey and why you’d want to. I can also see some of the pitfalls, which I want to talk about here.

For me, Super Mario Odyssey is a garden of many short paths that don’t go anywhere. In gardens, and in games, it’s a lot more satisfying when paths connect. This never used to be a problem in games, because challenge provided enough connective tissue. Previous Mario titles also benefited from mechanical themes (gravity in Super Mario Galaxy) or continuity in spatial progression (exploring a castle in the overworld of Super Mario 64). Super Mario Odyssey bravely embarks on a more free-form, open-world approach. But without a discernible direction, there's nowhere for the game to go. It’s just a series of starts and stops until it’s over.

Even the game’s title is meaningless. The story involves Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach and then stealing various treasures for their wedding ceremony, while Mario and his new friend, a talking hat, transform into many different creatures to help rescue the princess. This is a game about weddings, and hats, and transformations — all rich areas that suggest any number of words, none of which are “Odyssey.”

Super Mario Odyssey - Chef Mario talking to forks in Luncheon Kingdom Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

The story isn't bad, but the pieces don’t connect. The tone bounces between the cartoony but workable — “You’re too late. We’re off to our wedding ceremony on the moon!” — and a more knowing, pragmatic Bowser, who whines, “Don’t you know how stressful it is planning a wedding?” Sometimes Bowser’s a villain. Sometimes he’s a predator.

Super Mario Odyssey’s worlds are similarly haphazard. Except for the stunning Metro Kingdom, with its riff on 1950s New York staples like jazz, checkered taxis and businesspeople with hats, and the Sand Kingdom, with its pyramids and sombreros, the worlds lack cohesion. The final area, the Moon, reduces gravity in a delightful way but for its last sequence inexplicably returns gravity to normal and throws in a bunch of lava, ignoring the already interesting elements available.

So much of the game feels muddled like this. Like an evolutionary process where all versions survived, not just the fittest.

As someone who made a game with 12 very different stories in it, I don’t think you have to choose between variety and coherence. All you have to do is pick a subject (like family histories, or weddings, or hats) and keep referencing it. You can look at anything, as long as you’re seeing it through the same lens.

Super Mario Odyssey - Mario and Cappy looking out of a window on the good ship Odyssey Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

Super Mario Odyssey and What Remains of Edith Finch are both intentionally a little disorienting. They’re games about discovery, so the temptation as creators is to constantly throw new things at players, which tends to fight any sense of cohesion.

A painful and surprising lesson we learned making Edith Finch is that you can’t ignore continuity. Players bring it with them. We had wanted our short stories to stand apart, but players kept looking for the connections between them. Players intuitively see games as contiguous experiences. I don’t know why.

Luckily, it doesn’t take much. With just a few shared references, players create their own connections. A game doesn’t need a profound statement — it just needs to create a space that encourages players to think about something long enough to reach their own conclusions.

Super Mario Odyssey is a game of many wonderful little ideas and no big one. Nintendo is famous for polishing the small details, but nobody seems to be thinking much, yet, about what those details could add up to.

None of this ruins the fun of finding new playable creatures or new obstacles to traverse. But it does mean that when you reach the end, those fragments are all you’re left with: Some nice moments but no feeling that this odyssey actually led somewhere.

Ian Dallas is the creative director of Giant Sparrow, the game studio that made What Remains of Edith Finch and The Unfinished Swan.

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