Upon first loading up “Mario Odyssey,” I was met with a message that asked me to try to play the game with one of the Switch’s detachable controllers or Joy Cons in each hand. This caused an inner groan because I knew it meant the game was trying to push motion controls over a traditional gamepad configuration. It’s not that I hate all motion controls — I quite enjoy my Oculus Touch controllers, for example — it’s that I was never fully enamored with Nintendo’s last serious foray in this direction during the Wii-era. (I remember playing” Zelda: Twilight Princess” and feeling as though I could do without having to twirl the Wii-mote.) That said, I almost immediately took to “Odyssey’s” recommended control setup which I found to be as finely calibrated as just about everything else in the game … except its story.
A friend of mine who also writes about video games told me he was disappointed to see that, once again, Mario is set in motion by Bowser’s umpteenth kindnapping of Princess Peach. Honestly, before I played the game, I thought he might have been making too much of the trope until I saw that Bowser wants to force Peach to marry him. The narrative designers might have done well to come up with something else because really, why raise the specter of consent or lack thereof in a Mario game? Thankfully, in every other way the designers’ work is stellar.
At its best, the Mario series is known for its innovative gameplay. I’ll never forget how astonishing it was to run along the ceiling of World 1-2, in the original “Super Mario Bros,” to discover the Warp Pipes for the first time; or how people who didn’t even play video games used to drop by my college dorm room to stare for hours at “Mario 64” as if they’d tumbled through the looking glass. In “Odyssey,” the major innovation is the capture system. Mario can throw his sentient cap, “Cappy” onto an enemy to become him. So, for much of the game, adversaries are potential tools, making the environments that much more playful. When I became a mustachioed dinosaur early on, I had a feeling that I was in for a treat. By the time I was a goomba (basically an angry mushroom) jumping on a threatening tomato much later in the game, I felt gloriously ensconced in top-grade absurdity.
It says something of the game’s ingenuity that the episode with the mushroom and the tomato happened in the Luncheon Kingdom, a lava level. “Odyssey” places its stamp on one of the more overused settings in gaming by eschewing fiery-red for candy-pink magma and giving Mario the ability to steal the form of a Lava Bubble and swim in it. Wrapping the whole level around a cooking theme to emphasize that a familiar sight has been given a new flavor, adds the perfect touch.
Old timers take note: “Odyssey” channels the history of the eighties Mario games in wonderful ways. I felt nothing but warm fuzzies seeing 3-D Mario go through a pipe, which jutted out of a rock wall, and then appear in 2-D form in a mini-level that scrolled along the wall’s surface where enemies moved from 2-D to 3-D as they edged along and then out of the wall. And then there is the showstopping bit in the Metro Kingdom (a cartoon version of Manhattan), where Mario runs along the surface of buildings in an homage to his earliest adventure, “Donkey Kong” (1981). “Odyssey” is filled with curiosities that I was all too happy to discover. And I rejoice in the knowledge that I have plenty of nooks to find.
This is one of the closest things to the fountain of youth that I expect to come across.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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