Super Mario Odyssey is the first Mario for those kids who grew up with Mario 64 instead of Super Mario World. Their Mario had freedom, and so does Odyssey. Their platforming was more about collecting. Odyssey uses it extensively as the primary hook. The children of Mario 64 never played alongside low resolution pixels; everything came to life through polygons. Odyssey is flush with them.
Mario is no longer a fantasy hero in Odyssey – he’s an alien. He feels out of place in his own videogame. He meets real people in New Donk, the city of Donkey Kong. At first, New Donk is soaked by rains. Tarps on the roofs flap from the heavy winds, the scene lit by a fuzzy moonlight. Hollywood-like coloring takes over the scene, reducing the bold primary palette Mario usually features to uninviting blues. Take this look, place it into Call of Duty. It fits. When skewing toward a certain reality, Super Mario Odyssey looks surreal. Here’s this pokey cartoon character, bouncing and stretching, interacting with relatively real worlds. Sega’s rival mascot Sonic the Hedgehog tried this. Things didn’t go well.
In a smaller way, Odyssey is an odd generational melting pot. On the fly, at pre-set junctions, Odyssey switches between glossy 3D and classic Super Mario Bros. pixels for short bursts of super nostalgia. Those brief slices recall what was, in the backdrop of what is. The juxtaposition is odd. Seeing vintage Mario play out in the realistic New Donk City looks as if Super Mario Bros. is being reduced to a billboard on the side of a building. It is though, in a way. It’s similar to Hot Topic selling vintage videogame t-shirts to a millennial audience. It looks neat, even if the buyers never tried the source material.
At the start of Odyssey, Mario’s seen it all; there’s no awe to any of this in his eyes, just a blank generic smile. Once the excitement of visiting familiar locales melts away, what’s left is a Mario entry lacking in urgency. Mario Odyssey lurches ahead in a constant hunt for hidden quarter moons used to power a super balloon. Everything revolves around moons. The collection of puzzles hiding moons belie the usual platforming spunk of the series.
It’s less about level design than bulky worlds. Where the prior 3D World and Galaxy made use of every inch of their space, Odyssey creakily progresses across wasteful expanses. If Peach truly is in danger, Mario Odyssey isn’t in a hurry to let the hero reach her. Even the music slows in tempo; take your time, relax. There’s undeniable purity in that approach, if lackadaisical thrills.
Parts of Super Mario Odyssey delight in their fantasy rambunctiousness. With his living hat, Mario inhabits the body of a roly poly seal and engages in their blubber-based racing games. Mario still fights Goombas; he finds them love too in one of Odyssey’s best recurring gags. Living forks propel the Italian stereotype skyward toward his goal, which is yet again to rescue Peach, who yet again is in the clutches of Bowser. Odyssey even takes Mario to the moon, and this is not his first trip spaceward (Super Mario Land 2 first went to the moon. Mario needed a helmet to breathe then but not now, consistency be damned).
Odyssey presses down hard on the cuteness scale. Mario is at peak adorable. Wait until he dances inside a jazz bar, jamming to Koji Kondo’s catchy Level 1-1 theme. The cold of a traditional ice world makes him shiver. Dress Mario up in a bevy of costumes, either ridiculous (he runs just fine in flippers) or dapper (evening suits and matching top hat). Others skirt the lines of cultural insensitivity – paunchy Italian Mario dons a sombrero and plays in a Mariachi band. Mario hasn’t adapted to changing standards.
Like, when he commandeers a realistically textured Tyrannosaurus and begins smashing every living and non-living thing. This is not the Mario an older generation knew. That Mario saddled a plump green dinosaur named Yoshi. Now, his dino pal is a Jurassic Park leftover. Things change. Now Mario has too, but building a bigger dinosaur doesn’t feel befitting.