Switch City, Vol. 2: Super Mario Odyssey

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jeremyf

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Vol. 1: Introduction and Picross S

Welcome back to Switch City! I may have been without substantial internet for over a week, but that didn't stop me from doing my homework for this feature. That's the magic of the Switch, I suppose - a magic I have begrudgingly come to enjoy.

I used my time away to get every last stinking moon in Super Mario Odyssey. This was one of the "big two" for the Switch last year along with Breath of the Wild, and the only one exclusive to it. Despite this being the first time I've owned the game, it's far from the first time I've experienced it. For starters, Mario Odyssey enjoyed monolithic popularity in the speedrunning community for months. Over that time I've seen dozens of runs in multiple categories. Plus, in the very very brief window of time I had access to my roommate's Switch, I rushed through as much of the game as possible.

This is all to say that any of the "magic of discovery" that made this game so popular is totally lost on me now. Going into the game I knew nearly everything there is to know about it. However, I don't really see this as a negative for the purpose of this feature. Personally, I think it allows a more objective look at this game. The result? Well, let's-a-see.

Mario hits the NOS
Mario hits the NOS

The first thing I want to touch on is the platforming controls, which may be the best of any 3D Mario thus far. Nintendo can get away with using like two buttons on their controller because they're so good at making each input versatile in a variety of contexts while staying intuitive. In Mario, these manifest as Jump, Crouch, and Hat. Any combination of these inputs will result in one of the many moves in Mario's toolbelt (which you can demo at any time).

Of Nintendo's attempts to supplement Mario's abilities with a "gimmick," Cappy feels like the most successful. We can all agree that FLUDD was a little clunky with multiple buttons and nozzles to juggle. The Mario Galaxy spin is effective but limited with a cooldown. Cappy's moves basically expand on what the spin could do. For starters, the hat can be used for offense on the ground and air, like the spin, but at a much greater range and with some (albeit finicky) control over direction. You can throw the hat to slightly extend your jump and reset your momentum, just like the spin. From there, though, you can dive on the hat, throw it again, and dive one more time. This combo is rather simple to master and it's useful the whole game, especially for making sweet shortcuts.

And while the game doesn't always require you to pull of said sweet moves, it definitely anticipates it. Cappy will congratulate you on certain shortcuts if you pull them off. Rewards are hidden at the top of structures that at first glance seem impossible to scale but can be reached by the platform masters among us. For instance, piles of coins are hidden on top of the wall boxing in a seemingly top-down section. Another developer would make those walls go up forever, but Nintendo used them instead to reward thinking outside the box and mastery. I absolutely love it. Plus, the Luigi's Balloon World minigame is a great way to test your acuity with the platforming against other players. It's surprisingly addictive.

Time ran out just as I buried my face in the balloon, but that just made me more eager to optimize and succeed.
Time ran out just as I buried my face in the balloon, but that just made me more eager to optimize and succeed.

So when the platforming controls fail, it feels depressing. I would occasionally bonk off ledges that I should have cleared, and my dives would fail to hit Cappy or not come out at all. I feel like the dive move is the one exception to the intuitive controls, requiring an unnatural combination of crouch and hat. In Mario 64, only one button was needed. It seems wasteful, but maybe a dedicated dive button could have avoided these frustrations. They were comparatively rare occurrences, but each time it was just a bummer.

I didn't take any screenshots of captures so enjoy this art
I didn't take any screenshots of captures so enjoy this art

But Mario's moves are only one portion of the game. The other is the capture mechanic. To use hip modern-day parlance, the captures are a mixed bag. As a way to shake up the pace from being Mario all the time, I think they mostly succeed. But once you get past the moment of "you can possess that?!" their mediocrity often sets in. Like the tank's inaccurate shooting, the bird's clumsiness, or the podoboo's sensitivity. That said, there are also some great captures like the onion and cheep cheep. The captures take up a big chunk of the game's challenges, and their situational (read: predictable) uses feeds into some other issues I have with the game, which we'll get to later. I usually prefer playing as Mario, and using his abilities to skip a section meant for a capture feels great.

What else do I like about Mario Odyssey? I love the Steam Gardens music. I love love the costumes both celebrating Mario's erratic history and being plain silly. I love love love this screenshot from the ending:

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Mario and Bowser just tried to kill each other for the thousandth time in a conflict that crippled a dozen world societies. Yet in the face of mutual rejection, all they can do is comfort each other. That is fucking hilarious and shows off the side of these two's relationship that allows them to play tennis and race together. I love how every other culture is freaking out about Bowser, but Mario just accepts this charade as a fact of life.

But I'm going to be completely honest right now. The structure of Mario Odyssey? What the platforming controls are used for? The actual game part of the game? It's poop.

Simply put, there are too many moons in Mario Odyssey. Let's check back with the older games, shall we? Mario 64 had 120 stars of varying complexity, impressive for its time. Mario Sunshine also had 120, except no it didn't, because a chunk of those were blue coin shines, which everyone hates. Plus, some of the shines were just slightly harder replays of earlier challenges. Mario Galaxy had around 120, with a number of them again as repeated challenges via comets. Galaxy 2 had an additional 120 stars after the first batch (which included comets) which were just thrown about the existing levels without much thought.

So, Nintendo clearly has trouble creating 120 good, unique challenges. So why on earth did they decide to put 880 moons in Mario Odyssey? As a result of this absurdly high number, the ratio of "good moons" in this game is at an all-time low.

When you get a star in Mario Galaxy, it signifies the end of a thought-out level and a reward for the player doing something substantial. Except for one star where you jump on a roof and Luigi just gives it to you. In Odyssey, Luigi Roof Star is 80% of the game's content.

Slightly off camera is the level's start. Often, Mario Odyssey doesn't even bother to use the pretense when handing out its moons.
Slightly off camera is the level's start. Often, Mario Odyssey doesn't even bother to use the pretense when handing out its moons.

Collecting a moon means nothing in Mario Odyssey. Many moons are just sitting there. There's no challenge or anything, they're just there to be collected. You get one moon by sitting next to a guy on a bench. You get moons by throwing your hat at something. You get a disturbing number of moons by ground pounding some random point. You can't walk two steps without tripping over a moon and doing a little dance.

Some moons are just unfun. They aren't hard or interesting, they're just not fun. Like finding seeds across the level and running them back to a pot. There are no obstacles, there's no way to speed it up, you're just holding a seed and running for over 10 of the game's moons. How about herding sheep? Does that sound like a fun way to use the game's mechanics? Did no one at Nintendo realize these things are simply not fun, when so much of the game is?

MFW too many moons
MFW too many moons

In the earlier examples I talked about how Nintendo repeated some challenges even with a lower number of stars. Well, in Odyssey, they've fully committed to their golden rule. "If you do something once, do it again." No challenge is unique in Mario Odyssey. There's standard stuff like recycled bosses, but it goes further than that. Essentially, the same types of challenges are reused for each of the game's areas. Captain Toad - every level. Stack goombas - every level. Koopa racing - every level, twice. Each sub-area has exactly two moons in it. No more, no less. Even some of those sub-areas are repeated later in the game. So many moons are obtained just from talking to Toadette. She gives you moons for collecting other moons.

The cumulative effect of this design means two things: One, the game ceases to surprise you as you know exactly what moons will be in each level before you even get serious about collecting them. Two, it means that you're playing a standard 3D Mario 7 or 8 times over. For sure, there are good fun moons. Like the hint art that rewards players paying attention to the environment. Or the story moons that are just traditional 3D Mario challenges. But the thing is, these interesting moons are worth the exact same as a stupid bullshit moon.

The best way to improve Mario Odyssey is to delete moons. Within the shiny swamp, there are probably enough fun ones to make a better game. Unfortunately, trying so hard to hit 880 makes each collectible pretty much worthless.

The hardest moon is not the final gauntlet but this jump rope game. The only way to win is to cheat like me.
The hardest moon is not the final gauntlet but this jump rope game. The only way to win is to cheat like me.

So, there's a lot to like about Mario Odyssey. It's got a wonderfully quirky attitude and fantastic controls. On its own it could be called a great game, a fantastic game even. But earlier 3D Marios have done this style of game in a much more rewarding and satisfying way. I'll stick to Galaxy for now, but a sequel or expansion to Odyssey would get me interested - so long as they focus on the right things.

I can't believe it, Mario was dead this whole time.
I can't believe it, Mario was dead this whole time.

Next up: I get a lot more positive on a genre I don't usually like.

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