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Number 2: Super Mario Odyssey


Copyright Nintendo

I guess this sort of spoils what my game of the year is.

Super Mario Odyssey looked like shit 11 months ago.  When it got announced, I remember comparing it to Sonic Adventure, in that awkward “Sonic is in the real world” sort of way.  Station Square is a weird place where cartoon Sonic interacts with more realistic (although it is an anime style “realistic”) humans than himself and Super Mario Odyssey’s debut trailer had Mario running around New Donk City with a bunch of realistic looking humans.  It was weird and incongruous and was definitely not representative of how fucking amazing the actual game turned out to be.

3D Mario games have always been these experiments in how to work with 3D platforming, even all the way back at the beginning with Super Mario 64, which pioneered things like camera controls and multidirectional jumping.  Sunshine and the Galaxy games pushed their own boundaries, and had their own successes and triumphs, but then there was silence on Nintendo’s front for seven and a half years, with the only Mario platformers being these sort of okay 2D throwbacks to the SNES era and a couple of cool, but plain, isometric platformers.  I guess when I saw that trailer all those months ago, I expected Nintendo to have lost the magic.  Even when people were saying the game was great, I didn’t expect anything.  A hat that possess things?  Why can’t I just play as Mario?

Then I played that first level.  There’s not much in that first level.  It’s a desolate, barren place that Bowser tore through on his rampage toward Mario and Peach and there isn’t much to see, but it’s also the first time in years that, as Mario, I got to run around and practice my jumps and moves, just like the courtyard of Peach’s castle in Super Mario 64.  Using Cappy was a breeze, and when I finally used him to possess a frog and jump super high, I got it.  Everything made sense.  By the time I finished the next level (which was only as far as I had gotten for a long time, because it was my brother’s copy), I had been a T-Rex, a goomba, even a chain chomp!  There was even a solid boss fight, with boss mechanics.  It wasn’t like it was Dark Souls or anything, but 3D Mario games have always had kind of crappy bosses, and that was not a problem with this one.

Odyssey has a depth to its gameplay that is completely unexpected.  One of the concerns I had about Cappy was that possession of different enemies and creatures would be gimmicky, maybe a means to get a moon or two, or for some sort of set piece.  I should have remembered I was dealing with Nintendo.  Each thing Cappy can possess gives Mario a different set of skills and mechanics to play with, each with their own advantages and weaknesses, even comparable to Mario himself.  A goomba might not have the strength of Mario or the ability to jump, but they’re sure footed and won’t slip and slide on ice, where as a hammer brother can jump really high and throw hammers, but isn’t quite as fast or maneuverable as vanilla Mario.

Each level, too, is unique and interesting.  None quite match New Donk City, though.  What looked like a strange, Station Square wannabe, which brought on Sonic’s still unending Dark, Dork Age, is in fact one of the best Mario levels ever.  Escaping from a rampaging T-Rex while on a motorscooter?  Confronting Bowser during a thunderstorm on the top of a skyscraper?  Precise platforming across a construction zone?  New Donk City has all of that in its setpieces and level sections, but it’s also just a really cool urban environment for Mario to play around in.  Each level makes a point of giving Mario enough room to do whatever a player wants without feeling too big, since it’s all stuffed with moons and things to do.

In truth, I haven’t seen everything this game has to offer.  I know a lot of moons are just sort of sitting there, out in the open, and the bosses can get sort of repetitive, but what I have played is some of the best Mario platforming in years.  Much like with Sonic Mania and my Game of the Year, it does so much right, taking stuff from games almost as old as me, that I almost forgot what it was I liked about these franchises.  Mario Odyssey pulls in so much from the old NES and SNES games in a way that the 3D games, and even the New Super Mario games have just failed to do.  Whatever sort of wizardry Nintendo pulled in to make all of this work, I don’t know, but I’m glad they did it.