Video games are going through a little bit of a phase at the moment. Just as Call of Duty ushered in a wave of first person shooters in its heyday, the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry and even Dark Souls have created a mountain of open-world, exploration driven games in their wake. It makes total sense. That style of game gives the player enormous freedom to explore and find things for themselves, and it gives developers a great way of showing off how good they are by creating a huge, hopefully beautiful world to explore. That’s to say nothing of how successful such titles have been of late. The only problem is that many developers are simply hoping to cash in on that success, and their efforts can often feel like cheap imitations. Even Red Dead Redemption, one of the finest examples of the genre, can often be bogged down by incessant minigames between missions and corny expositional dialogue in the lengthy journey between destinations. It only goes downhill from there; lazier titles will leave the world barren, with nothing to find and nothing worth looking at. Worse still, there are titles that miss the point, clogging their minimaps with so many waypoints and symbols that it takes the joy out of exploring the world.
Super Mario Odyssey bucks the trends, and the result is one of the most enjoyable and charming games of the year, maybe even the decade. Nintendo has created a game that boils the open world game back down to its two key elements: the joy of exploration and the thrill of discovery. That makes it sound very similar to the other hit switch game this year, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but the approach is entirely different. There isn’t a sprawling overworld for you to explore in Odyssey. Rather, there’s a selection of smaller worlds to travel between in search of Power Moons (which are absolutely not the exact same as the Power Stars in Super Mario 64, no sir).
These worlds might not be as large as the likes of Hyrule, but they’re just as meticulously designed; in each world, you get dropped in, and you’re given free reign to find as many (or as few) puzzles and secrets as you please. And that’s exactly the point, you have to find them. You’re left to your own devices and to draw on whatever clues you can decipher from the brilliant design of each gorgeous world. And what fun it is to explore in this game! The core gameplay mechanic, as is made obvious in trailers, is Mario’s magic hat, which lets him control a number of enemies and creatures in the game-world. Rather than feeling repetitive, each and every possessable object has a unique ability or characteristic, and each world there are puzzles designed specifically to test your use thereof. Goombas stack on top of one another to help you reach new heights. Bullet Bills allow you to traverse large pits and holes to get across to new places. You can even possess electrical wires as a form of transport. The game does a great job of introducing you to these creatures in basic scenarios, letting you get used to how they operate, and then forcing you to put those skills to the test in more challenging puzzles for rewards. It’s not exactly innovative, but it pulls together all of the threads of previous Mario games into a definitive celebration of what makes them so great. That includes delightfully charming 2D sections, where Mario turns 8—bit to traverse a wall or height. It’s marvellous.
Every new element I discover about this game makes it more charming. I have yet to be underwhelmed by a new level, I have yet to feel cheated by the mechanics of a puzzle, and I have yet to lose the enormous smile on my face on any level. In a world full of games and films that have nothing new to offer, Super Mario Odyssey is a perfect case study in how to breath new life into well-worn formulas.