Three months ago Super Mario Odyssey released to overwhelming critical and commercial success. The game has been hailed as a towering achievement in the platformer genre, a class of games that has been steadily dying out, and has been a contender for many people’s 2017 Game of the Year. It’s ambitious, whimsical, and above all fun, exactly what a Mario game should be. Yet I am unable to feel the same kind of feverish delight that many critics and gamers have about it. Super Mario Odyssey is a wonderful game, but it is not the best Mario game of the past decade, nor is it Game of the Year.
To be absolutely crystal clear, I do love Super Mario Odyssey. The endorphin rush of collecting moons is a consistent high that pulled me along the adventure in such a way that I never lacked for motivation or direction. Tight and precise controls, mechanics that never cease to be inventive, Mario’s expanded moveset, open level design that allows players an unprecedented amount of creativity when tackling challenges, every act of movement in Super Mario Odyssey is pure gaming bliss. But after a certain amount of time doesn’t paradise get boring?
There is no rising or falling action. Every new achievement feels equally laudable as the one that came before. This is a well-documented sacrifice that comes with the move to open-ended rather than linear design and it’s one hundred percent the case for Super Mario Odyssey. Even the sections of the game that involve a focus on linear progression don’t increase the tension or drama. They attempt to, with boss battles and more traditional platforming type challenges, but every action in the game, even if it looks and feels different, is done to collect more moons. So finding a moon tucked away in a hidden corner offers the same reward as completing a challenging 2D-screen. Defeating bosses offers multi-moons, but these are the same basic reward that you get for doing everything else (and most of the bosses are fairly uninteresting to fight).
The strength of this design is that crazy endorphin rush I mentioned at the beginning. Everything you do feels like it has a purpose so randomly stumbling upon the plentiful moons littered throughout the many kingdoms feels good, completing linear stages feels good, running around just for the hell of it feels good. It’s fun in part because the game is constantly rewarding you, but because the game is constantly rewarding you, it never becomes more than just fun.
It reminds me of a mobile game like Fire Emblem Heroes, a title that I loved to play but ultimately put down because it simply didn’t go anywhere. The game’s menial rewards didn’t amount to anything except feeding back to encourage you to play more. Gameplay and feedback loops can be great, but only when they go somewhere when they come together to form an experience that is meaningful beyond the simple reflex to play the game. To feel this for yourself, just go back to your Super Mario Odyssey save file and start “collecting” moons you’ve already cleared. Without the catchy jingle and bright colors to let you know you did something fun, the overarching platforming doesn’t have much of a purpose and feels a tad bland.
Let’s face it though, everyone and their mom is going to compare Super Mario Odyssey to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. How can you not? They’re both made by Nintendo and released on the Switch in its inaugural year. They’re both games with new open-worlds on a scale we’ve never seen before. And they ultimately have the same design philosophy, sacrificing the tight focus of a linear narrative for a looser, player-driven experience. Breath of the Wild, however, does have a sense of dynamic movement for much of its playtime. You explore lonely forests, solve puzzles, fight powerful lion-centaur creatures, and discover mysterious magical entities. All of those actions can happen within the span of fifteen minutes and they all cause significant and varied emotional states in the player in addition to rewarding them with various items such as new pieces of armor, better weapons, and spirit orbs. All these rewards, emotional and in-game, the feedback loops that encourage you to play more, and this dynamism add up to give Breath of the Wild the overarching sense of an adventure in which the player learns and grows.
However, in all honesty, Breath of the Wild is a much less fun game to play. The combat is fairly simplistic, serviceable, and can be abused in many ways to take away the challenge; climbing anything grants an incredible sense of freedom, but only really amounts to holding an analog stick in one direction while you wait to get where you’re going; the world is so big that it’s next to impossible to accomplish anything significant without spending at least an hour in the game. The game isn’t about taking joy in the individual actions you take, but about understanding how those actions build into the narrative that you ultimately craft. Compared to Zelda, Super Mario Odyssey is a frantic joy. Playing the game for a minute just to run, jump, and dive is immediately rewarding. If you play the game for an hour, however, you’ll basically be doing those three great and fun things without end. Where Breath of the Wild understands the forest, Super Mario Odyssey can only see the trees.
That’s what prevents me from loving Super Mario Odyssey more than Breath of the Wild, or the previous Mario games for that matter. Except for the New Donk City festival scene, I was constantly aware that I was playing a game. A fun, marvelous, creative game, but the distance between myself and the screen was always there unlike Zelda, Journey, or even Horizon: Zero Dawn. And you could argue that that’s not the point, that’s not what Mario does, but I felt that sense of immersion in Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, and I ultimately enjoyed the chaotic mess of multiplayer that Super Mario 3D World introduced more than the freedom of Super Mario Odyssey. That’s right, I would rank Mario’s Wii U outing over Odyssey. Sue me.
I prefer the previous Mario games because they had the dynamism that Odyssey lacks. Some levels were more calm and relaxed rather than punishing, or altered gameplay in such a way that they felt unique compared to the challenges that had come before. That’s the advantage of handcrafted levels. I do like Super Mario Odyssey’s design principles. I’m very excited to see what Nintendo might do with the sequel that fans will surely be clamoring for. This game is as well-designed and polished as it could possibly be. In that sense it’s “perfect,” but just because it’s as good as it can be doesn’t mean its design is without drawbacks.