Will Odyssey Deliver on the Mario Formula?

It’s hard to believe, but this month marks another monumental game release from Nintendo! Joining the ranks of games discussed for decades like Super Mario Bros., Super Mario World, and Super Mario 64 is the newest game we won’t stop talking about for generations: Super Mario Odyssey. Link did a fantastic job carrying Nintendo’s new console through its infancy, but the torch is being passed to the plumber himself. Buckle up folks, this is gonna be big.

There’s no doubt Odyssey will sell millions, even a few tens of millions, or that it will be a hot topic for the entire Switch lifespan and beyond. But that’s not to say it’s a guaranteed hit. What we don’t know yet is: will it be good? Will it be truly great?

The potential is there. The track-record is evident in the series’ preceding entries. All Mario needs to do is avoid a few pitfalls, stick to what has worked, and wow us from time to time. A combination of tried-and-true best practices and fresh experiences will create a masterpiece.

Half of the puzzle has already been completed. The fresh ingredients: totally accounted for. We won’t be left wanting for any wow-factor, as already evidenced by numerous surprising trailer moments: Mario jumping out of a realistic city street’s manhole, Mario’s hat being alive, the game has T-Rexes… just to name a few.

Today, what I’m concerned with is this: Did the developers keep what worked from previous entries in the series? From the short time I’ve played Mario’s new adventure, and from what I’ve seen of others’ gameplay, I’m not so sure. I keep looking for those non-negotiable Super Mario elements, and unfortunately, some of them aren’t evident. Take a look for yourself.

Tight Controls

If we choose to ignore the Arcade Mario Bros. title, we can safely say that the Mario series has always featured tight controls. Whether you were making pixel-perfect adjustments with a D-Pad, or performing aerial cartwheels with an analog stick, the player always had complete and finite control over the mustachioed hero’s movements. However, Nintendo is pushing a control scheme on this game that will prove to be unideal. They say that disconnected Joy-Con with motion controls is the best way to experience Odyssey. However, that leaves us with the Switch’s signature small sticks (or S.S.S.S. for short). The analogue sticks on Switch aren’t very tall, and thus have a reduced range of motion. That’s fine for games like Breath of the Wild, where your character is often traversing in the same direction for long periods. But for intricate platforming, more range is needed.

I would recommend the Pro Controller as an alternative, but we run into further complications with that scheme, just like we do in Handheld mode: motion controls disappear (good), and are replaced with complicated combinations (bad). You would think with all the face- and shoulder-buttons at the Switch’s disposal, simple assignments would suffice, but unfortunately, performing the spinning-Cappy-throw (for example) requires you to physically spin Mario in a circle before hitting the Cappy button.

Another area you will notice the absence of tight controls is in 2D segments—you know—the really cool-looking 8-bit graffiti art portions? As attractive as those look in trailers, it’s really weird and off-putting to play with a modern controller. Imagine trying to navigate the original Super Mario Bros. with an analogue stick, and you’ll get an idea of the sensation. Furthermore, 3D “rules” of Mario still apply during these retro levels, which means running into a Goomba doesn’t make you shrink down, but you lose part of your life meter instead, resulting in a feeling of disconnect.

Level Design

If there’s one thing Super Mario Maker proved, it’s that we all have a long way to go in becoming level designers. The community generated courses simply caused me to appreciate Nintendo’s internal team more, who have proved time and time again that they can carefully craft experiences that will pull newcomers and veterans through to the end. Each level in a Mario game has clear goals, features, and themes. In Super Mario Odyssey, this clear-cut level design might be ditched in favor of an overly-open, sprawling collection of miniature attractions. Places to earn Moons are abundant, which could be a detriment to more meaningful challenges.

Progression Structure

To be perfectly honest, I’m most concerned about this one. We just discussed the plethora of Moons that this game contains, and it doesn’t excite me. 120 Power Stars was a lot to collect in Mario 64, but it was manageable thanks to a cohesive overworld that guides you to specific worlds, and specific tasks within those worlds. The developers of this new Switch title tout the fact that gameplay is returning to a sandbox nature, but that implementation can be taken too far.

In past Mario games, you know if you’re missing something. You know if a world is incomplete, and if a level was too difficult to clear for the time being.

In Odyssey you are provided with a list of Moons collected (with dates), but how will you know where new ones are? How will you know if you got all the Moons in a certain area, except one that you’re missing one in the corner? How much backtracking will be involved, and how many Moons will I pass up simply because I didn’t think to ground-pound a certain summit, or break an inconspicuous box?

You see, I’m a Shrine kind of guy. I love counting down from 120, hearing my Sheikah Slate alert me to a Shrine’s proximity as I enter a new area of the map… but you’ll never catch me trying to collect all the Korok Seeds. And I’m afraid that Moons are more akin to Seeds than Shrines. I hope I’m wrong.

Power-Ups

Gotta love Mario’s power-ups, right? Fire Flowers, Capes, Penguin Suits, Boo Mushrooms, and more! Well, they’re gone, folks. At least, that’s what this quote from the game’s producer heavily implies:
So when we wanted to create Mario games this time around we wanted to focus on the actions Mario can do and in previous Mario games he was able to get power-ups and new abilities. But this time around when we were making many different prototypes and changed our approach that found capturing or “possessing” enemies worked well so we stuck with that. -Mr. Koizumi

It’s unfortunate, to see such a mechanic go. In 2D Mario games, getting a Super Mushroom and earning that feeling of added security and power is iconic. In 3D titles, power-ups haven’t ever been as strongly implemented, but as a result, getting a Fire or Ice Flower felt like a treat. These elements have been discarded in favor of Cappy.

Gimmicks

Speaking of Cappy, he’s the new gimmick! New entries often feature a defining “gimmick,” be it Yoshi, Fludd, or over-the-top new power-ups like the Cat Suit. These open up whole new gameplay opportunities and dictate much of the level design. Odyssey’s most prominent and promising mechanic is Capture, which satisfies this aspect of the Mario formula nicely.
Let’s just hope Cappy doesn’t turn out to be the new Navi, eh?

Music

Mario music typically accomplishes two things. One: it’s catchy, and it gets stuck in your head. Two: it provides strong location associations. You can close your eyes and know exactly when Mario is underwater, in a dessert, or in Bowser’s castle. Did you just hear each of those themes in your head? I haven’t seen enough to know if Odyssey will deliver on this front, but there’s a good chance it will.

Enemies & Bosses

Baddies in the Mushroom Kingdom are always fun to stomp, and they don’t usually get repetitive or bothersome like the creatures in Metroid: Samus Returns. Hopefully, this game’s design will still lend itself to some combat, rather than just Capturing the majority of enemies in sight.

Bosses, while providing a spectacle, are typically an easy three-hit affair. This is an area where the new Switch title could easily improve upon tradition, and make boss encounters more intricate and memorable.

Charm

What would a Mario game be without charm? Character design, animations, music, and polish all create a compound for charm. Mario may be formidable when facing the forces of evil, but he’s equally adorable.

So… what’s this about real tyrannosaurus rexes roaming around? And realistic, proportionate humans walking alongside Mario in New Donk City?

I’m really questioning these design choices, and have been ever since the game was revealed.

Conclusion

Overall, Super Mario Odyssey appears to be a hodge-podge.
That’s the word for it. Just a big stew of locations, art-styles, new and old Mario sensibilities, and certainly a gigantic mix of objectives and tasks.

Will such a recipe, with that many ingredients, actually turn out well? I sure hope so, because I’m a day-one customer and lifetime Mario fan. I do trust Nintendo, but I’m not fully sold on this new direction, and I know I won’t be unless I take the game home and it proves me wrong. If that happens, I’ll update you! Fortunately, I’m entering the experience with low expectations, and that’s the safest posture to take. We’ll find out on October 27th!

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Scott

Scott is a hardcore Nintendo nerd. Always on top of the latest news, as well as looking back fondly at retro history. Main job at TBC is co-hosting the show with BFF Simeon. Smash Bros. die-hard. INTJ, OCD, ONECOOLDUDE.
  • Hi Scott!

    The one thing I took away from this blog entry is how difficult it is to be a game developer. What do I mean by that? Well, many Mario fans – myself included – have wanted something new to come to the Mario universe. I’ve been getting tired of the 3D Land/3D World quasi 3D format, and while I also love traditional 2D Mario games, those have also been driven into the ground in the last few years. So when the Mario team does give us something new, different and fresh, we then tend to worry that it won’t be enough like the old games we love. Its really a no win situation until the game comes out and we get a chance to play it. But the leadup to it can be horrible as we sit around and scrutinize everything with a fine tooth comb, worrying over everything.

    It’s a natural reaction. We love our franchises and worry that they will be morphed into something that we don’t like. I saw a lot of negative snap judgements when the initial trailer was revealed in January with the humans in the scene and stuff, and a reaction like that can cause even more worry to come through as more and more details are unleashed.

    But I fully trust the developers. I was one that was really really intriguged by the “real world” of New Donk City. The fact that it mixes “real” worlds with more traditional Mario ones is going present me with something that is unlike any other Mario game I’ve ever played. And isn’y that what I have wanted? Something different, but something a bit familiar. Expanding the universe without abandoning the stuff I already love.

    You bring up a lot of good points. There is cause for concern in a lot of stuff you wrote about. But with less than three weeks (!) until release, we just have to trust that the game will be good. I’m as unsure about the game as you are, but also like yourself, I have a ton of hope in this game and there is so much to be excited for. This is a great time to be alive as a Nintendo fan, and I believe that Odyssey will only add to Nintendo’s comeback and amazing year. :)

  • Tony Mathis

    Traditional power ups are confirmed to be in the game. Yes you can use them while you are playing as an enemy captured by cappy.