LOS ANGELES — The new “Super Mario” game coming to the Nintendo Switch is fantastic. That’s the most important thing you take away from this.
Would you expect any less from a game that looks as weird as this?
Just as “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” was a massive evolution of the long-running, celebrated “Legend of Zelda” franchise, “Super Mario Odyssey” appears poised to challenge and evolve the “Super Mario” formula.
The game arrives this October exclusively on the Nintendo Switch, but Nintendo offered attendees of the annual E3 video-game trade show a chance to play a 20-minute demo. I played that this week, and am here to tell you that it was rad.
“Super Mario Odyssey” is an open-world, nonlinear “Super Mario” game. Remember “Super Mario 64”? How about “Super Mario Galaxy”? Those are open-world, nonlinear “Super Mario” games.
If you’re thinking “Grand Theft Auto,” that’s not entirely accurate. “Super Mario Odyssey” is segmented into worlds. New Donk City, seen above, is one of them — it’s a massive open environment that you can explore to your heart’s content. There’s no timer; your only limitation is survival.
In traditional “Super Mario” games, your goal was to reach a flagpole that symbolized the completion of a level. In “Super Mario Odyssey,” your goal is open-ended: collect moons, of which there are many in each area.
In “Super Mario 64,” little Mario entered paintings that acted as doors to massive, distinct worlds in which there were six stars. After collecting each star, Mario would be whisked back out of the painting. You could choose to jump back in and go after another star, or you could move on — if you had enough stars to open the next area.
“Super Mario Odyssey” works very similarly. Each area has a certain number of moons, which are used for powering your ship (seen above), which is how you reach new places.
You could go to, say, New Donk City and focus on collecting as many moons as possible. Or you could collect just enough moons to power your ship to the next area.
Little Mario here has collected a fat grip of moons.
There are two major differences here that I noticed that make the moon system in “Super Mario Odyssey” distinct from the star system in “Super Mario 64”:
1. You can collect as many moons as you want in one run. You’re not reset, as it were — a short, celebratory animation plays when you grab a moon, and then you’re able to continue exploring. Like “Super Mario 64,” moons you’ve already collected will appear as ghost items. (You’ll get a few coins for grabbing them again. No biggie.)
2. There are many, many moons in each area. They’re all over the place — hidden inside of girders, across perilous gaps, on top of seemingly insurmountable buildings. There’s a focus on exploration in “Super Mario Odyssey” that I did not expect.
The premise of the game is that the perennial antagonist Bowser is forcing Princess Peach into marriage. The game’s main enemy? The evil wedding planners.
The actual plot, of course, is to defeat Bowser. That’s always the conceit of “Super Mario” games, and it’s the case here as well.
The path to get there is what’s most important. To that end, “Super Mario Odyssey” is seemingly built for exploration. In my short time with the game, in both New Donk City and Tostarena (the desert area), I was overwhelmed by the number of places to go and the amount of stuff to do.
One example that I particularly love happened in New Donk City. I was running around an area on the street level when I came upon an alcove with a glowing door. What could it be?
I ran into the doorway, and it transported me to a distinct area with a one-off platforming puzzle to solve. I leaped (as Super Mario, of course) from moving platform to moving platform, carefully avoiding Bullet Bills along the way. When I reached the end, I was rewarded with what else but a moon. Then I was whisked back to where I came in.
That’s exactly the kind of personalized, hand-crafted delight that Nintendo does so well in its “Mario” games.
There’s a new gameplay hook in “Super Mario Odyssey,” thanks to Mario’s new friend Cappy. Yes, his hat.
Caps don’t have eyes. That’s because Mario’s hat is alive in “Super Mario Odyssey,” personified with the name Cappy. And Cappy enables Mario to do some pretty neat stuff.
You can use Cappy as a means of jumping especially high or getting over a gap.
But more importantly, you can use Cappy to take over stuff — everything from enemies to inanimate objects.
That you can take over and play as so, so many things in the world of “Super Mario Odyssey” is both incredibly impressive and strange. Flying around as Bullet Bill, you’ll easily reach areas that seemed unreachable.
This is the most profound change I experienced in my time with “Super Mario Odyssey.” I swapped Mario into enemies, electricity (enabling me to move through telephone wires), and a construction pole (enabling me to fling Mario up high).
There’s a depth of exploration available through this mechanic that I was unable to grasp in my short time with the game, but it’s clear that, with time spent mastering the controls and learning the world a bit more, it’s there.
It’s also just ridiculous — and ridiculously fun — to play as enemies that you’ve been fighting for so long. Just look at this Mario as Hammer Brother.
And this Mario as a frog.
And this — I promise this is the last one — Mario as a Tyrannosaurus rex.
As hinted at earlier, there’s a concept of outfits in “Super Mario Odyssey.” These can be purchased using the game’s money and have different applications.
In one instance during my demo, I came across a building in Tostarena with a bouncer. When I asked him what was up, he told me (Mario) that I had to be dressed appropriately to go inside.
Given that he was wearing a sombrero and a poncho, and so was everyone else in Tostarena, and I was wearing blue overalls with a bright red cap, it stands to reason that I was not dressed appropriately. He alerted me to as much, and I went on my way.
Here’s how things might’ve played out had I owned the right outfit:
As it turns out, I could’ve retrieved the appropriate couture from the Crazy Cap shop. It’s unclear how these outfits affect gameplay, if at all, but they play a role in the game in different ways.
You probably assumed as much — and you’d be right — but the game controls exactly as well as you’d hope. It’s a “tight” “Mario” platformer.
Like riding a bicycle, such is “Super Mario Odyssey.” Everything from Mario’s long jump to his reverse backflip to how he leaps off seemingly backward from the top of things — it’s all in there. Wall-jumping from the new “Super Mario” franchise? Yep, that’s in there too.
Just as “Mario” games build upon themselves, teaching mechanic after mechanic until you’ve mastered a suite of abilities that can be chained together, such is the evolution of Mario himself. It’s as though the Mario in “Super Mario Odyssey” is the sum of all previous Marios (whoa).
His jumping feels as precise as ever, which is to say that it’s intentionally kind of floaty. But it feels right, and that’s what matters. I had no problem easily jumping into the game. It felt like old times made new once again.