Earlier in the year, when Nintendo gave us Breath of the Wild, it was a revelation. It deconstructed the Zelda’s of old, modern open-world trends, and 21st century anxieties about AI-led warfare, and put them all together in the delicious soup that is BotW. It cut ties with the series past, and looked to a new future.
Odyssey is, in many ways, BotW’s inverse. Where Wild sliced away chunks of the past, Odyssey lingers. Less of a revelation, Odyssey is more of a celebration. I can’t recall a more self-nostalgic title in all of gaming – not one that’s so damn successful at it, that is. The classic formula returns – pick an area, explore, find stars (though they’re moons this time around) – but Nintendo has peppered in so many little references, homages, or even straight-up re-inclusions that it almost feels as though you’re playing every Mario game at once. This may sound like it would make for a confused, indulgent product, but there’s so much earnest appreciation for the things that make Mario great that it’s impossible to take on bad faith. There is a joy shared between both developer and player in the act of experiencing Odyssey, sourced from the near-universal love for the history of gaming’s most iconic franchise.
The game is more than retreads, of course, most apparent in the arrival of Cappy, Mario’s hat friend. Putting aside the unsettling implications of a sentient hat that allows you to invade another’s mind, the possession mechanic allows Odyssey to flex its platforming versatility. Mario games have always been about moving through a space, but Odyssey made me realize how limited they’ve been by confining the player to a single character. There’s only so many options for interaction afforded to Mario (jump, dive, roll, etc.), so pushing the player to subsume new movesets on the fly keeps every moment fresh. Oh, okay, when I jump into a little plant orb I hit ‘x’ to make his vine legs extend. Or: oh damn, when I hop inside of this human (yikes!), I can control the little RC car he’s fiddling with. Each possession recontextualizes the space within your new moveset. Far off ledges become within reach, insurmountable heights seem to flatten, and bottomless gaps lose their menace – the earth rendered fluid beneath your ever-changing feet.
The world of Odyssey truly is your oyster, as it is meant to be – not an inch of level is wasted. Moons are hiding around damn near every corner. Some present immense challenge, while others feel like fruit waiting to be plucked. Either is fine, though I found myself more enriched by moons acquired simply. There’s nothing wrong with difficulty, but frustrating moons felt counter to the tone of the game. Odyssey is framed as a road trip, with Mario and Cappy traveling across the universe in the titular airship. Together they discover the world in the form of new areas, beings and play. Once again, Princess Peach has been captured, but even this tired plot element is cast aside early on in favor of reinforcing a sense of discovery. Princess Peach and her own hat friend don their outback khakis, and set off to explore the world. Without his beau to save, Mario and Cappy return to Moon hunting.
Am I not here to discover, too? To celebrate? Why rip me from my wonder and elation with a stupidly hard moon? True, yes, overcoming a problem is call for celebration, but that’s an egotistical party to throw. Look ma, look what I did! rather than Wow, what a nice thing. Still though, the sheer amount of moons to acquire means that we’re dealing with a fairly large sample size – there are more than enough simple things to accomplish, and to great reward.
As you progress, Mario can purchase different hats and outfits to wear, bringing a little fashionable flair to our once single-outfit jumpman. They don’t offer any bonuses to your movement or hat range, but they are nice, and can’t things just be nice? Sometimes a personalized existence is its own reward. For those in pursuit of something a little more concrete, however, upping your moon count will unlock new areas. God! I wish I could tell you about them. Isn’t that evidence of Odyssey’s thematic success? I have so many stories of enjoyable play, ranging from forests to cities to….. well, again, I can’t really tell you. Normally, I’m not particularly beholden to spoilers – especially ‘content spoilers’ – but I truly believe that to experience Odyssey the way it was meant to be played, you have to stumble into its spaces on your own. You have to learn their ins and outs and secrets on your own. This extends to possessions as well – in keeping with the sense of discovery, each new creature you possess is a learning experience, wherein you internalize and explore its form in the same way you would a level. This simply would not be the same experience if I just laid it all out for you to consume and criticize before playing. Odyssey demands a certain level of mystery. I can reassure you of all the things you want to hear – the game is gorgeous, the level design is as inventive as it is tightly-conceived, and, yes, it feels very good to jump – but, frankly, all of that feels very small when Odyssey is approached as a whole.
And, again, I must reiterate: this is all presented as a love letter to the Mario franchise, without breaking that thin barrier into the realm of the self-indulgent. So many other series celebrations have fallen victim to the saccharine trappings of rose-colored glasses. Look no further than the inclusion of Sonic ‘06 levels in Sonic Generations. But Odyssey manages to walk that fine balance between remembering the past and remaining anchored in the present. That it manages to do so while also standing as its own unique, memorable experience is a feat that cannot be understated, even in context of the moments when it falters.