Super Mario Odyssey starts off with the same level of story present in every Mario game of recent years. Princess Peach has been stolen by Bowser (this time he intends to marry her) and it’s up to Mario, the plumber with a far too long resume, to save her. Much like how super Mario Sunshine featured F.L.U.D.D as Mario’s companion. Super Mario Odyssey features Cappy, who adds not only new powers to your hat but also the ability to control enemies.
Controlling enemies plays a central role in Super Mario Odyssey and feels like a natural extension of both Mario and the levels themselves. Whenever capturable-enemies are present, the level design is right there to accommodate and take advantage of them. Crossing a gap is a straightforward task when your playing as Mario, but when doing so as a tall stack of captured Goombas, it’s a bit more challenging and thus, will most likely be rewarded with a Power Moon (the replacement for stars) at the end. Each capturable enemy features unique abilities, for example, Cheap Cheaps can be used to remove your breath meter underwater, Chain Chomps act as slings to break blocks, and Bullet Bills can let you fly right into targets. While there are many other enemies that can be captured, it shows the variety that is present in each and every one of them. All add their own specific ability in your effort to explore each level, and with their own set of drawbacks, changing how the player plays Super Mario Odyssey in that given moment.
Level design in Super Mario Odyssey is clearly inspired but Super Mario 64, but expands the exploration aspect to a new plane. Where before each level had multiple stars that were remixed levels for each new goal, Super Mario Odyssey makes this much more fluid by fundamentally changing that design. Instead, Power Moons are present in the dozens throughout the level, sometimes within eyesight of a previous one. This is both too the game’s strength and too its weakness. Super Mario Odyssey shifts the traditional focus on platforming that we have seen in nearly every Mario title and moves it into the realm of an adventure of collectathon game. This is not to say platforming isn’t present, its just no longer the main attraction in Super Mario Odyssey and serves as a method to explore. With Power Moons placed nearly everywhere in an effort to create a dense level design, many Power Moons become less about overcoming a challenge and more about finding them.
In the first true world that you visit, there is an area where Mario becomes flush with the wall and must perform some extremely short platforming to reach a Power Moon. Upon reaching the Power Moon, there is another—with a slightly off screen hint—hidden right above it. Without seeing that hint you would miss the Power Moon that is present right beside another. When the name of the game is to collect Power Moons, and many are simply asking the player to look around the corner or into some slightly suspicious area, it can create a tiresome affair. Having to constantly be on the lookout for some little oddity simply doesn’t feel what a platformer should be about. Couple this with the sheer plentiful amount of Power Moons, not only can this become tiresome, but it greatly removes the sense of accomplishment found when discovering one.
This is perhaps the biggest flaw when it comes to Super Mario Odyssey, the lack of accomplishment in finding Power Moons. In previous Mario titles, the Star served as the end goal, your reward for completing the level. In Super Mario Odyssey no such end goal exists and it feels less rewarding because of it. The game attempts to compensate for this by offering Multi-Moons (offering 3 Power Moons instead) for some quasi-end-level goals but with the plentiful nature of Power Moons, it simply doesn’t equate to earning a Star in older Mario titles, it just cheapens the experience.
While the platforming aspect of Mario suffers in Super Mario Odyssey and to an extent, collecting Power Moons. The act of exploring each world is truly enjoyable. Mario performs near flawlessly (with swimming lacking intuitive controls), there is never a scenario that you encounter that you feel the ill-equipped to handle or hard to perform what the game is asking of you. Each world takes these skill sets and run them through the ringer by creating new themes on how Mario must perform. Every world has a distinct look and feel and serves as a way to constantly keep the game fresh, ranging from prehistoric worlds to one where everything is based on food. All have a distinct feel and exemplify Mario’s move set.
Super Mario Odyssey, in the end, feels more like the evolution of titles like Spyro or Ratchet and Clank rather than Mario. The shift in focus from platforming to exploration while not entirely outside of the Mario franchises wheelhouse feels as though the series is moving into a new direction, one that I cannot entirely agree with. While the level design and controls of Super Mario Odyssey are superb, its impossible to shake this nagging feeling that it’s no longer about platforming, just exploring.