The Mario game is good, y’all. Cool.
“Fun” isn’t a bad word. Some editors tell writers to avoid it in reviews because it doesn’t have a concrete meaning. Your idea of fun might be entirely different than mine. (Like, you might enjoy golf, for some reason.) Still, we’re all familiar with the concept of fun, even if we can’t agree on a definition. That gives it value. And there’s almost nothing in any medium that more deserves the word, and more lives up to all the many meanings it might take, than a Super Mario game.
Super Mario Odyssey is the next centerpiece Mario title, the latest in a lineage that includes the NES originals and Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and the Super Mario Galaxy games. Despite the constant proliferation of Mario spinoffs and adjuncts, the endless stream of unassociated games with Mario’s name and face splashed all over them, the series of so-called “core” Mario releases remains the most consistently great (and, thus, venerated) series in games. Odyssey isn’t just the latest in that line, but quite possibly the best. That means it might be the most purely fun videogame ever made.
Here’s the math, boiled down to its basics: Mario equals fun. The word might be nebulous but from the beginning Nintendo has prioritized the pursuit of pure pleasure with its mainline Mario games. Forget story, forget subtext, forget commentary—forget everything but the simple elation of guiding this brave little man through the beautiful and multifaceted series of worlds found in his every adventure. Almost every main Mario game is a whimsical masterpiece of perfectly calibrated play and adorable art design, a glorious living cartoon that synthesizes the various multimedia strands that make up a videogame more seamlessly and holistically than anything else in the artform. Perfection is an impractical goal in any artistic pursuit, but other than a few hiccups with the camera (that most persistent of videogame vexations), the best Mario games are as close to perfect as anything ever released on a cartridge or disc. Super Mario Odyssey might be the best of them all.
This might read like overkill, like an exaggeration built on hype and nostalgia. And maybe it is! Maybe, when you play Odyssey, you won’t feel the constant, overwhelming warmth that I felt, the joy buzzing around instead my brain as I schlepped through every kingdom and hunted down hundreds of power moons. (Yeah, you collect things. It’s-a Mario game.) It’s possible it won’t resonate with you as powerfully as it did with me. Maybe, just maybe, my version of fun doesn’t line up with yours.
That’s cool. No worries. Let’s dig into why this thing is so fun, though, and why I think it’ll be hard for people who approach Odyssey in good faith to not embrace it similarly.
Unlike Homer’s Odyssey, which just drifts on and on, there’s no wasted time in this world. Every decision you make or direction you head in will lead you to a useful discovery, assuming you haven’t already cleared that area out. Instead of a series of objectives with optional side business you can pursue, every kingdom is a large puzzle made up of dozens of smaller puzzles that you can tackle in any order and at any moment. Some are easy to solve, others will take thought and effort to crack. Together they make up a game that’s overflowing with possibilities but that never feels overstuffed. You can head in any direction on any of its kingdoms, and unless you’ve already been there and wiped it clean, you’ll stumble into something that you’re looking for. There is always something to do or collect in Odyssey but it never feels like busy work, and you never feel like you’re pressured into doing any of it at any single moment.
Despite how that sounds, it’s not a true open world game, though. In the Mario tradition, it’s split up into a number of different levels, called kingdoms, each one of which is designed with a specific theme in mind. Instead of a large sandbox, Super Mario Odyssey is a series of small, distinct sandboxes that can be revisited at any point and in any order as you unlock them. This structure prevents the kind of aimlessness that can creep into other open world games, when it’s not clear where you need to go or what you need to do to proceed.
Also, like most of the “core” Mario games, this one is built on classic Mario mechanics that are bolstered by significant new additions. Running, jumping and stomping are still Mario’s forte, but this time he can use his new anthropomorphic hat friend Cappy to commandeer the bodies of a variety of creatures. This gives Mario dozens of new skills that will come in handy at specific moments, like the ability to jump higher, to swim without needing oxygen, or to just fly and blow stuff up because oh hey Mario can become a living bomb now. Instead of just donning a suit that resembles, say, a frog, or a Bullet Bill, Mario adapts to their forms; they look the way they also do, but immediately grow a mustache and don Mario’s signature red cap. That’s completely adorable pretty much every time it happens. After decades of ducking Cheep Cheeps and squashing Goombas, there’s an undeniable appeal to finally taking control of them and bopping your way through deadly parallel dimensions built around cooking or a 1930s Hollywood version of New York City. This is a crucial touch that gives Odyssey a unique hook within the annals of the series.
You know what’s also fun? Fashion. And Odyssey is basically a Mario fashion show, with him collecting multiple new outfits on every kingdom he visits. Most of them are purely aesthetic, but on most levels there will be one area Mario can’t access without wearing the local style. Mixing and matching hats and threads can lead to some absurd combinations, which makes an already cute game almost criminally adorable. There are some missteps here—the sombrero and poncho get-up in the bizarre Mexican-themed planet is a bit cavalier towards that culture. You might think Mario or the Desert Kingdom’s odd skeleton people look cute in those clothes, but it’s a little too uncomfortably close to outdated racial stereotypes. That’s a real country with real people and a real culture, not a cartoon. The vast majority of costume options don’t flirt with bad taste like that, offering another playful opportunity in a game already overloaded with playfulness.
That’s really what Odyssey boils down to: extreme, unrelenting playfulness. Everything in the game exists solely to entertain. It’s a flawless little diamond of good cheer, a straight shot of undiluted fun as pure as any we’ve seen before in videogames. Again: It’s a Mario game.
The key to games is what they do in response to our actions. We put ourselves into these things through button presses and the decisions that we make, and how we feel about them is dictated by what we receive in return. Ideally, that receipt will be something we can classify as fun, no matter how vague that term is. Like so many Nintendo games, fun is definitely the primary product of Super Mario Odyssey, and the sole reason it exists. Cool: The Mario game is good.
Super Mario Odyssey was developed and published by Nintendo. It is available for the Switch.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.