Few characters are as recognizable as Mario, and few series have maintained a level of quality as high as Super Mario Bros. Since the original Nintendo Entertainment System classic took the world by storm in 1985, Mario has run and jumped his way through the hearts of countless video game players of all ages.
Yet even with a bar that high, Super Mario Odyssey manages to be one of the hero's best adventures. It's the new high-water mark for 3D Mario games, and it's evidence that even after all these years, Nintendo is at the top of their game when it comes to making things that can be fun for everybody.
Odyssey, available on Friday for the Nintendo Switch, differentiates itself from most of the recent Mario games by being primarily about exploration, not bite-sized levels. Rather tasking you with running through linear obstacles that have a beginning, middle and end, Odyssey drops you into large, open environments and just says, "Have fun." In this way, the game is a direct successor to Super Mario 64 (released in 1996) and Super Mario Sunshine (2002).
The plot is familiar -- perhaps too much so, in fact. Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser yet again, who hopes to force her into marriage with help from a group of evil wedding planners. Who are rabbits. Because of course they are.
The controls are simple and very easy to pick up, requiring you to learn only a few buttons. The main gameplay hook this time around -- the thing Mario can do besides just run and jump -- is the Capture ability. By throwing his hat (which is actually a new character in the Mario universe, named Cappy) at certain creatures and enemies, Mario can become them, taking advantage of everything that makes them special
Have you ever wanted to play as a Goomba, the most iconic type of Mario enemy? Now you can. Capture a Goomba, stack it on top of other Goombas, and suddenly you're able to reach higher places than you could before. Or maybe you should capture a fishy Cheep Cheep, allowing you to swim quickly and never run out of air. You can capture dozens of unique things in Super Mario Odyssey-- as small as a manhole cover and as big as a T-Rex -- making this a game about far more than just jumping on platforms.
In a way, the game feels like a giant scavenger hunt through whimsical environments. You spend the vast majority of your time looking for moons, hundreds of which are scattered throughout the game's various kingdoms. You obtain moons in a wide variety of ways, which keeps the game feeling dynamic and fresh for dozens of hours. You can get moons by solving simple puzzles, by herding sheep, by navigating tricky obstacles, by assembling a band... The variety in what you're asked to do is impressive.
Some moons are easy to get -- you will practically trip on moons while exploring the game's worlds. Even saying that they are "hiding" in plain sight would be going too far, as these collectibles are sometimes just sitting out in the open waiting to be bumped into. Other challenges, though, you might have to bang your head against for awhile.
Through it all, the game is gorgeous. Every world has its own sort of charm, and most of them pop with color and artistic flair. The Luncheon Kingdom delights with living, hopping forks and oversized vegetables while the Snow Kingdom chills with snowy hills and huge columns of ice.
For a video game console that's less powerful than its competition from Microsoft and Sony, the Nintendo Switch proves that it's capable of wonderful-looking adventures.
Every character, especially Mario himself, is wonderfully animated and moves smoothly. You can also give him more personality and flair this time around, dressing him in tons of costumes spanning both Nintendo history and this game's environment. Do you want to play the entire game with Mario dressed as a pirate? How about him in a bathing suit? Football uniform? Lab coat? There are plenty of possibilities.
One of the greatest things about Super Mario Odyssey is that it can travel with you. The Switch doubles as a system that can connect to your television and a tablet you can use on the move. Even though the system has been available since March, there is still something almost magical about the fact that you can be playing a game on a TV one minute, then grab the console and keep playing that same game with you on the bus minutes later.
For families, there is a two-player mode in which the second player controls Mario's cap. It's fine for what it is, and can be a boon for parents of younger children who might need help in places (or siblings who tend to fight over who gets to play a game). There is also an easier difficulty setting that can relieve some of the the stress of harder jumps.
Generally speaking, though, Odyssey is best enjoyed as a solo adventure. Its exploratory nature can be surprisingly relaxing, in fact, even in places where it's difficult to master.
The main adventure is a satisfying length, but there are tons of things to do after the credits roll that will keep you busy for a long time. Hundreds of moons are waiting to be discovered, with rewards for seeking them out. Speaking personally, it was very difficult to pull myself away from playing Super Mario Odyssey long enough to write about it.
In a year packed with phenomenal video game releases, this one has kept a smile plastered on my face for the longest amount of time.
Odyssey is destined to stand tall in the pantheon of stellar Nintendo games, and it's easy to recommend to just about every type of video game player. Combined with other Switch games released this year (chief among them being The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild), Mario's latest adventure will surely solidify the Switch as a must-have item for many families going into the holiday season.