Last year at E3, we saw Link enter a more open world with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. At E3 2017, we saw Mario similarly evolve with Super Mario Odyssey, a game that many thought looked like Grand Theft Mario but feels more like Mario does Grand Theft Auto. Let me explain.
Opening the Mario Formula
Open world Mario games aren’t entirely new. In fact, since originally going 3D with Super Mario 64, I haven’t felt like any Mario games have been what I’d call revolutionary. They improve, in great, glorious ways, and I’d argue that more than any other series, the Mario games are becoming accessible to non-gamers faster than any other series to date, from the all-to-obvious Super Mario Run on mobile, to Super Mario 3D World’s masterfully crafted hidden scaffolding based on classical Asian narrative techniques. Super Mario Odyssey won’t be doing that in terms of the Mario franchise, but perhaps a little in terms of Grand Theft Auto gameplay.
Like Super Mario 64, Odyssey puts Mario in a fairly open world. From the demo, it felt like we didn’t have the central hub theme of Super Mario 64, but multiple maps with their own centers. While Super Mario 64 levels have the illusion of being open, the levels feel like they’re trying to guide you to the end. There is a little exploration, and maybe a couple of characters asking for your help, but you’re mostly just trying to beat the game and possibly collect Stars.
Odyssey, however, has multiple maps, each containing at least a central town and tons of nearby content. I had hands-on time with both New Donk City and the Sand Kingdom, Tostarena, a desert town that’s suddenly gotten a bit icy. Both locations felt like they were built around a town, but within the town, you’d find small puzzles. You might do something as simple as talk to a few (real human) musicians to help Mayor Pauline gather up a band, or jump from rooftop to rooftop for a Luna coin, which felt like this game’s Stars.
There was plenty to do in both hub areas, but as my time in Tostarena was a bit longer, I realized I’d barely scratched the surface. Outside the city limits were more “platformy” gameplay and puzzles. I climbed a tower with a mix of 2D 8-bit “time it just right” jumping and modern 3D “watch your back” trouncing, but I also had a rumble-based “treasure hunt” where the controller’s vibration grew stronger as I approached the right area.
These were cute, but not exactly what I’d call unexpected. Prior to E3, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Odyssey, but these felt familiar enough. This is what I meant by Grand Theft Mario, in that it’s quest based gameplay that makes use of exploring and, if you’re lucky, a quick kind of mini-game.
Where things shine are when you introduce Cappy, Mario’s new partner/ability.
Makin’ it happen with the Cappy’n
As you’ve probably heard/seen, Cappy allows Mario to take possession of other, well, things. I’d assumed it’d just be items, like rocket ships and cars for transportation. However, I saw Mario possessing the normal humans. I turned into a Bullet Bill and killed my Bullet brothers after bulletly breezing over a gap Mario would normally need to bounce off a few enemies to clear.
This made the game feel both familiar and accessible, but also new. Yes, possession gameplay may be seen as the new Mario gimmick, but when you need to possess a flying enemy to cross a gap to collect coins to order to buy a new suit to make Mario look slick to, enter a club you weren’t allowed to enter in overalls, everything clicks. Combined with the other “mini-game” inspired areas you get by exploring safer parts of the game, Nintendo’s once again shown how it can innovate and remix to give you something that feels fresh.
This is what I mean by “Mario does Grand Theft Auto.” Nintendo already has pieces of that in the game: open areas that you can explore and interact with, from smashing crates to entering people’s homes through the plumbing (still ew); NPC to talk to and give you missions; vehicles you can “borrow” (though you can’t bump into people, thereby negating the need for cops to take the plumper away); various factions all asking for your help. That’s what I’d normally expect from most developers.
Nintendo did more though. Turning into “bad guys” mechanically works, but more importantly, it inverses something the GTA series specializes in: rather than remorseless ruthlessness being executed against those who stand in your way, Odyssey’s possession mechanic actually makes you feel a bit for your enemies. Each enemy literally becomes a tool, but they’re capable of “dying,” forcing Mario to find a new enemy to take over. Suddenly being able to use their abilities in your overall goal to stop Bowser from forcing Peach into an unwanted marriage (which I admit feels like a dated trope barely rescued by having Pauline as a mayor) makes them feel, well, valuable.
This isn’t new for a Mario game, as the plumber’s RPG games tend to do the same. For a direct platformer though, it’s unexpected. Nintendo tends to be light-hearted, but the literal humans, Bowser’s evolution from simple kidnapping to forced matrimony, and literally connecting Mario to his enemies makes me wonder about the deeper narrative tactics Nintendo may be playing with within the series.
If you’re looking for a traditional Mario game, this won’t be it. Like Breath of the Wild, the sheer scope of the game makes me wonder if I’ll have the time sit down and enjoy the game’s content in the same way I did when I had plenty of free time. I’m more used to Mario just platforming with some minor collecting on the side, not going jumping into huge open worlds filled with sidequests at every turn, except for his RPG games.
When I had more free time, this kind of evolution was thrilling. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve appreciated Nintendo games like Splatoon and ARMS more, as they have quick and cute narratives with some multiplayer, allowing me to get my Nintendo time in and invite my friends. For people who are used to Mario just platforming, Super Mario Odyssey may seem a little intimidating. However, for gamers looking to form a deeper connection to the plumber and his wide cast of characters, Odyssey is looking like it will be fulfilling the job the Mario-based RPGs do but in an open platforming space.
I was told that there would be some sort of local multiplayer option, and my Nintendo contact was positively giddy with excitement, but couldn’t tell me anything more. Like any fan, I’m really excited to hear what that might be. Right now, Odyssey may not be for me, and may scare off moms and dads thinking Mario just moves towards a singular, clearly defined goal, but I feel modern core gamers will find plenty to like about Super Mario Odyssey, even if Mario isn’t running and gunning from the window of a stolen car.