Super Mario Odyssey Critique
Super Mario Odyssey is one of the most disappointing games I’ve ever played; and yet I loved just about every second of playing through it. In fact, it may be my personal favorite game of 2017, since I was hooked from moment I first jumped into it on my brand new Switch.
This is not a new trend for me, since many of my favorite games I find to be incredibly flawed in some way(s). Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is also a 2017 game that I became briefly obsessed with, and a title I’d also consider amongst my personal favorites; yet that game is one of the most consistently frustratingly uneven experiences all throughout. Fallout 3 may be my favorite game of all time (the numerous hours I’ve spent playing it across many different platforms could be proof of such), but I struggle to even call it a good game.
This fascinates me. Video games are tough to critique objectively since there are so many factors to consider before rushing to judgement. From a mechanical perspective, Odyssey is just about flawless. A fully-realised gameplay experience with some of the most detailed and focused level design ever brought to the medium. It is at once a stylistic and conceptual marvel, serving as a testament to the history of the Mario series as well as games in general. It simultaneously builds upon its own influences as well as the standards the series itself has forged throughout the decades.
Odyssey is fueled by Nintendo’s ability and goal to refine. It’s perhaps the first entry in the Mario series to acknowledge (at least subconsciously) the fact that each title revolves around the same premise, and that the details are what are most important to the legacy and longevity of this very property. New Donk City ends with an immense celebration of Mario himself (ie. the player, Nintendo, games as a whole, etc.), which accurately summarizes the game’s celebratory nature, but also brings to mind one of my biggest issues with the game.
Super Mario Odyssey is all about presentation. Not so much “style over substance,” as it is indebted to aesthetic and manipulable pleasure more than anything else. Odyssey wants the player to feel as empowered and in control as possible, which consequently too often sacrifices challenge for prescribed fluidity.
I flew through the main game. I reached the ending after only a handful of hours, collecting even more Moons than necessary to progress. It was around the halfway point where I realised most of these collectibles are absolute filler content, lacking any sort of obstacle to their accumulation.
Odyssey visually teaches players many lessons, cleverfully implying the significance of exploring every nook and cranny by hiding rewards everywhere that seems otherwise superfluous. But a reward only feels truly rewarding when the player is expected to skillfully collect that reward. Many if not most Moons require finding them with little actual input involved. Ground stomp a glowing crack in the floor.
Run up a salt hill and jump. Buy a Moon from the store (the most asinine, and rather insulting, task of them all). These don’t require skill. They are not testing a player’s patience or commitment. They are rewarding players for simply being aware of their surroundings and knowing what buttons to push at what point.
Odyssey is at its best when introducing new abilities or gameplay initiatives that require logical input from the player, not only testing their patience and understanding but making that reward all the more impactful. Filler content feels so uninspired, especially coming from Nintendo. The level construction of Odyssey is ambitious and captures a keen attention to detail, which acts as a frustrating counterpoint to the actual objectives situated within.
Level design comes first to SMO, while actual objectives come second. Again, this all points to an emphasis of presentation over content. It’s nice to return to the various Kingdoms after completing the main game to find an abundance of extra Moons to collect; but what should serve as more engaging content instead passes off as busy work, mindless asides inspired by audiences’ collected obsession with checking off lists of things to do (AKA chores).
Frankly, Mario has a hoarding problem. A player’s intention to collect every Power Moon across the 8 stages of Odyssey is motivated by obsessive compulsive behavior, all without any true satisfaction granted until the very last Moon is obtained. I returned to Cap Kingdom first after defeating Bowser, and I was disappointed to see no reward or even mere mention of collecting every single Moon in its realm. I had to double check the list of Moons to make sure I hadn’t missed any, before inevitably heading off towards Cascade Kingdom in dissatisfied vein.
Perhaps it is unfair to say the one driving force behind players interest in Odyssey is an inherent desire to complete tasks on a list. The game’s greatest achievement after all is the sense of empowerment it instills within its players. Never before have I played a tighter, more balanced platformer. Mario leaps and bounds and rolls with the ease of just a few interesting button patterns, and half of the Fun is learning how to perfect the timing and coordination of those various movesets.
However, each time I travelled to a new Kingdom, ready and willing to explore and find new objectives demanding my accuracy, I was sorely disappointed by a lack of compelling challenge. Too many great ideas are introduced and then quickly replaced by another. The final stage takes Mario to the Moon, where gravity is diminished and Mario can soar across the grey plains with long leaps.
It’s a testament to the lasting creativity throughout the game, that is until the player is forced underground into a familiar lava section where gravity is retained and an assortment of earlier challenges are reintroduced — including the very first boss fight in the game! A three-dimensional recreation of Chargin’ Chuck is even introduced and then sadly thrown away after two or three brief encounters. Many concepts presented like this seem to be afterthoughts — ideas Nintendo wanted to include without giving enough thought to their actual inclusion.
It’s tempting to call the direction of Odyssey “lazy,” however that would be an inaccurate summation of the grand scheme. Instead, Odyssey is simply focused on particular areas of consideration, notably presentation and gameplay. But it forgets to warrant proper motivation for players to succeed, to improve their skills, besides a few notable situations in which their efforts are indeed rewarded.
It was during a moment in the Luncheon Kingdom when I first realised just how elementary most of the game had been, up to that point. Mario needs to attack a number of rolling vegetables so they will turn into lava, and then traverse the course by capturing a lava blob and jumping between the lava spills. This is both a creative marvel and a necessary challenge, and I found myself finally struggling trying to complete the task and collect the Moon.
Suddenly, the game’s immense lack of difficulty was made consciously apparent. Collecting that particular moon was one of my favorite moments in the entire game, because it finally felt earned. Earlier in the Luncheon Kingdom, suggestion taught me how to capture and maneuver lava blobs, as well as how to use the rolling vegetables as manipulable platforms.
Some introductory practice was provided, and then I was forced to apply my skills on a dedicated gauntlet, to prove my understanding of the abilities which the game put me in charge of. It was capability through actual demonstration, not deceptive empowerment.
Super Mario Odyssey is a divine treat. Never before has a platformer felt so precise and committed to level complexity. It’s an amalgam of bright, vibrant ideas thrown at a wall, and just about everything sticks. But much like a collage, the game is more about form than content, satisfied with its window dressing and too often forgetting to provide the fundamental necessities of a platformer: challenge and subsequent reward.
Because what is the significance of bagging a prize without first earning it? A checklist of collectibles is not the same as a checklist of challenges, and Odyssey largely fails to keep that in mind. Nintendo mostly nailed delivering a delightful experience; so it’s a shame they seem to have overlooked, or simply forgotten how to ask players to really prove their skills, rather than simply their memories.