Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 17, Super Mario Odyssey
It should say something about the franchise that a Mario game I have some complaints about still manages to be the 17th-best thing Nintendo has ever made.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
I don’t think I like the Switch’s flagship Mario game, Super Mario Odyssey, as much as some folks, which is saying a lot about how said folks feel about it considering you’re seeing me write about Odyssey a few games into the top 20 of these rankings. It’s an exceptional game, a lovely way to experience Mario’s traditional 3D hopping and jumping and woohoo-ing, even if it’s not exactly my favorite way to Mario. Give me a chance to explain before you judge me too harshly.
Super Mario Odyssey has been labeled as a game that pushes the boundaries of what Mario can be, as steps forward for a franchise that is, at least in its 3D form, always looking to be something new. I don’t think that’s necessarily correct, though. To me, Super Mario Odyssey is the greatest 1990s 3D platformer I’ve ever played, release date of 2017 be damned. It’s got more in common with 90s collectathon platformers than with other 3D Mario games, and, in many ways, it feels like what Super Mario 64 would feel like if it released in the present instead of in 1996. If it had been able to feed off the swell of 3D platformers since Mario 64’s time, instead of being the reason for that swell. Hell, it has you use Peach’s castle and the surrounding area from 64 as a base of operations and a stage to be bested, and you can even play as that exceptionally blocky 1996 Mario, to boot, which is not subtle at all.
It’s all in the design of the stages. Traditionally, 3D Mario games, with the exception of Super Mario 3D World’s hybrid setup, take place in a layered world that’s arranged a little differently each time you enter it to collect the power star, shine, whatever. There is a progressive nature to the design, where the first level of a world introduces you to whatever the gimmick of that stage is going to be, and then the levels become a little tougher or weirder or even gimmickier for the later stars. This design is at its absolute best in the Super Mario Galaxy games, which is likely why Nintendo changed direction with their last two 3D Marios, 3D World and Odyssey: why try to top what the Galaxy games achieved when you can let it rest and explore other worlds and ideas instead?
3D World we’ve covered, but Odyssey is different even than that. The worlds are much larger, that specific kind of layering removed. You collect moons instead of stars, and there are loads of moons per world: there are 880 of them in all, or, at least, 880 unique ones. You can have up to 999 of the things, because of the in-game shop. Anyway, rather than these layered stages, you’re presented with something of an open, mini sandbox stage where you go around achieving whatever tasks and unearthing whatever secrets you need to in order to collect moons and keep going until you find all of them. It all feels new for Mario, but it’s not new for 3D platformers: this is like, Banjo-Kazooie 101 stuff, in terms of design, albeit the scope is larger than what was possible during that franchise’s heyday. There are loads of MacGuffins to get to in each Odyssey world, some necessary, some not, and it’s up to you to figure out which is which, and when enough is enough.
Hell, even the transformative powers given to Mario in Odyssey are reminiscent of Banjo-Kazooie’s systems. In the B-K games, the pair would transform into different kinds of animals in order to solve environmental puzzles and reach areas they otherwise could not, allowing for full completion of a stage and access to all the collectibles within it. That is, by way of Mario’s hat friend, Cappy, what you spend a whole lot of Odyssey doing. Throwing Cappy onto a frog to allow Mario to, like, Quantum Leap into the frog and control it, by way of a magical hat. Tossing your hat at a Goomba in order to become one with that Goomba, or intercepting a Bullet Bill to gain the power of cannon-powered flight yourself. You don’t have the suits Mario typically dons in Odyssey, like the Tanooki or the Cat: instead, you’re borrowing the powers of foes by becoming those foes, and it’s necessary to puzzle out which power you might need to pass a specific environmental obstacle or unearth a hidden collectable.
This, too, is actually a system Nintendo has experimented with before, except it was in a first-person action game featuring ghosts that they published, called Geist. Shigeru Miyamoto — you know, the creator of Mario — is the one who suggested n-Space’s Geist include “object possession” during early development, and that element is what made Geist work and be memorable enough to recall for these purposes, despite it being an overall forgettable experience. Odyssey’s system is kind of a combination of elements from these two other Nintendo-published series: the newness is mostly in the frequency and intent of their use.
The system is expanded upon and is much more satisfying here than in the Banjo-Kazooie games (or Geist), neither of which made this list because they very much showed their age over a decade ago when they got HD re-releases on the Xbox 360, never mind now. But Odyssey’s system is not “new” in the way that Galaxy’s or even Sunshine’s felt. This is Nintendo purposely deciding to look back at a time in games that has mostly passed us by outside of retro-focused indie releases, and to do it very, very well. Nintendo’s inspiration from the past tends to be more focused on the design philosophies of either Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, with transforming the ideas or at least the ethos of a 2D world into a 3D space, and with tremendous results: with Odyssey, though, Nintendo decided to try their hand at influencing a 3D game with the sensibilities of other 3D games. It feels noticeably different for this reason, more than any other. Don’t be fooled by the occasional nod to Mario’s 8-bit era in Odyssey, as the game is 3D in both body and spirit.
Like with Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, covered on this list what feels like ages ago now, Super Mario Odyssey is not necessarily the game I wanted it to be — controlling a dinosaur was too central to the game’s marketing for what we ended up getting, and don’t think I’ve forgotten that injustice — but it’s still awesome despite this. I run a retro video games newsletter, and still, the 90s-flavored 3D platformers and ideas Odyssey decided to base itself off of are probably not ones you’re going to see me writing about here very often. It wasn’t my favorite genre when it was happening, and I’m not exactly thrilled about the eventual retro-fueled resurgence of it like I was for the return of the 2D platformer, but if the inevitable flood manages to be half as intriguing as Odyssey, then it’s all going to be fine.
I don’t mean to disparage early 3D platformers as a whole, because there are some real gems there, but what ended up being popular and propagated within that genre isn’t necessarily what I found most appealing from that time period, either. I wince whenever I see someone praise Donkey Kong 64, alright? Be kinder to yourselves. And yet, Odyssey is wonderful, a real joy to play even with design systems in place that I swore off of a long time.
What I do miss here, though, is the inventiveness that the Galaxy games provided: Odyssey levels are a lot more straightforward, constrained a little more by environmental logic and uniformity in order to ensure the mini sandboxes you play in make some measure of sense. Again, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a preference thing: the sheer volume of moons to be found within stages designed this way evokes a specific era of platformers I like much less than the ones that came before and after that era, and Odyssey succeeds in spite of that.
Odyssey nails what it set out to do, enough that I’m writing about it this late into the project. Consider all of this an exploration into what Odyssey is along with an explanation for why what it is isn’t ranked even higher than this, more than it is a criticism of a game that I have genuine affection for. I actually had Odyssey initially ranked higher than where it landed, until replaying all 3D Mario had to offer re-contextualized my feelings for all of these games and significantly widened the gap between Mario’s greatest and second-greatest efforts. It wasn’t going any lower than 17, though, not when Pauline put on a concert I am unable to get out of my head whenever it worms its way in there:
While Odyssey doesn’t have the traditional suits of other Mario games, it does have costumes, and they are more than just cosmetic even if they are mostly, enjoyably, cosmetic. Collecting them actually allows you to fully access all of the game’s areas, and will get you 100 percent completion if you’re searching for it. There are areas that are simply inaccessible without the appropriate costume, and it’s not that the costume itself grants you any power needed to complete an area. It’s just that you can’t get through whatever lock is in place without the right attire, whether it’s needing to be dressed up in the Super Mario Maker builder suit to get one of New Donk City’s moons, or like an explorer to go on an excursion with Peach, or whatever. You buy costumes with coins, which you just collect and collect with no resetting of them at 100 collected like in many Mario titles, so by game’s end, you should be able to afford just about whatever costume you haven’t yet acquired, so long as you bothered to collect coins while you played. And why wouldn’t you?
Odyssey, and now Bowser’s Fury, which is packaged with the Switch release of Super Mario 3D World, have done a wonderful job of rehabilitating an era of platformers I was mostly happy to leave in the past. They show that there is real promise in the idea of going back to some of those designs and philosophies, and applying what’s been learned since and the leaps in technology to them, in order to create something that’s not quite as “new” as, say, a Mario Galaxy game was at the time of their release, but is still joyous and worthwhile in its own right.
New Donk City is easily the highlight of the entire Odyssey experience for me. It’s the most fully realized world in the game, the one where the blend of past and present work together the most harmoniously, the one where the desire to explore every nook and cranny feels more natural and the right kind of compulsory, rather than simply a thing you have to do to check off all of the boxes in a world. Maybe it’s because it’s not the kind of environment — a modern, “real” city — that Nintendo tends to place Mario within, giving it a sense of newness that the desert world or a water world just aren’t able to when they’re presented as straightforward as the level design in Odyssey makes them, 21 years after Super Mario 64 first introduced us to 3D Mario. That’s part of it, but it’s also that it was the best environment available for the kind of open-world-ish experience Nintendo wanted Odyssey’s stages to feel like. The nooks and crannies you can squeeze into a world based on something like New York City are numerous in comparison to what was going to be pulled off in yet another desert or plains level, well-tread ground Nintendo utilizes in both 3D and 2D Mario outings. And collectathon-style games are all about those nooks and crannies.
The late-game challenges, too, also feel special: I enjoyed Odyssey’s pre-credits gameplay outside of New Donk City well enough, but post-credits, when the game opens up even further and adds some layer of difficulty to the proceedings, work better than much of the rest of the experience. It has that in common with Super Mario 3D World, in that the pre-credits play is mostly training for what comes after you’ve defeated Bowser and could put the game down. Why would you, though, when there’s so much left to do, much of it better than what you’ve already done?
Odyssey was a lot of fun to return to, enough so that, even with the concerns I’ve gone over, it’s still ranked as the second-best Mario outing out of many more than that, and one of the 20 best games Nintendo has ever made. Whether it’s a one-off of design or the direction Nintendo sees themselves heading in more regularly with Mario is of little consequence to us now for the purposes of this project: as things stand, it’s a great and unexpected revival of sensibilities long thought discarded, maybe even left where they belonged. For that reason, its existence confuses me, to some degree, but I’m grateful for it all the same.
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