Though Nintendo is home to some of the most iconic video game franchises of all time, including The Legend of Zelda and Donkey Kong, the Super Mario games are arguably the company’s flagship property. Every major Nintendo console has featured a Super Mario game and the franchise, as of now, is still the best-selling of all time. And for good reason.
Super Mario Odyssey, which launched on the Nintendo Switch this weekend, is the latest installment in the series and a fitting next step for Mario in the same way that Breath of the Wild opened the door for Link. Breath of the Wild was lauded for its open-world build, which followed in the footsteps of recent video-game hits like Skyrim. Unlike previous Zelda games, which required following a relatively linear path, Breath of the Wild allowed players to tackle missions in whatever order they pleased—or skip them entirely—over the course of hours and hours of gameplay. Despite its adaptation serving as something of a reflection of the shifting video game landscape, it never felt like a capitulation. Super Mario Odyssey does something similar, as it keeps the franchise’s signature kingdom-to-kingdom structure, but shakes up almost everything else to keep surprising the player.
Given that Super Mario has been chugging along for over 30 years now, Nintendo must be doing something right. To wit, Odyssey features many Super Mario staples. As Mario, you’ll still be doing a lot of jumping, and you’ll still face down Bowser, who has once again stolen Princess Peach. But those familiar mechanics have been tweaked—think of how fresh Super Mario Sunshine felt when it debuted on the GameCube in 2002, compounding Mario’s natural jumping ability with the jetpack power of FLUDD. Through most Super Mario games, Mario has been able to access new power—from flight to throwing fireballs—by donning new outfits. Odyssey co-opts that mechanic by pairing Mario with a supernatural cap named, well, Cappy.
Throwing Cappy onto an enemy allows Mario to temporarily harness their powers. For instance, throwing your hat onto a fireball-throwing Koopa will let you throw fireballs, too. And if that seems too quaint, Odyssey immediately makes clear that this is as much about fun as it is a means to an end: You’re allowed to control a Tyrannosaurus rex within the first 10 minutes of gameplay. You can clear a path by charging around in the dinosaur’s body, but it’s terrain you could just as easily have traveled on your own. There are certain goals you have to hit—you have to collect “moons” in order to power the ship that takes you from place to place—but how you go about it is entirely up to you. The stages are all incredibly dense, packed with other levels and characters that aren’t essential to moving the main plot along, but will prove rewarding for the particularly intrepid explorer.
More impressively, the Cappy gimmick never gets gimmick-y. Each new world is vastly different; one feels like an offshoot of Cooking Mama while another—the now infamous New Donk City—feels more like Grand Theft Auto, and the resulting variety means that there’s that much more you can do with Cappy.
That the game hinges on the player’s willingness to explore is made even clearer by how forgiving Odyssey is of mistakes. Broadly speaking, it’s just not that difficult. There’s no set number of lives you can run through. Instead, each time Mario dies, you simply cough up a handful of coins. And coins are so abundant—and re-spawn so quickly—that that’s hardly any object. Then there’s the fact that the game continues even after the main quest is completed. Odyssey isn’t about fending for your life; it’s about enjoying it.
The game also feels apt for our nostalgia-soaked age in that, despite how vibrantly new much of it is, Odyssey also features healthy doses of nostalgia for past Super Mario installments. For instance, certain Warp Pipes transport Mario into a 2D landscape rendered exactly like the first Super Mario titles in the ’80s, and other parts of levels feel like updated versions of older games.
Maybe it’s greedy to wonder what’s next for Mario, but Super Mario is the rare franchise that has managed to update its formula to fit the ever-changing demands of players and developing technology without getting rid of what made it work in the first place. (To that end, it’s fitting company for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The latest installment in the Wolfenstein franchise also dropped this weekend, and in a true “only in this day and age” moment, has been the subject of controversy as it stuck to the tried-and-true franchise formula of killing virtual Nazis.) Like Breath of the Wild, which was also critically acclaimed, Odyssey has taken an old dog and taught it a host of new tricks by expanding its world. But with comparatively lower stakes and a much more enthusiastic lean into the bizarre, it’s very much its own creature.
Despite how long Mario’s been around, each Super Mario game is a unique offering, and in that sense (and that sense only) Super Mario Odyssey fits the mold. Nintendo’s always been about having fun above all else—just look at Nintendo’s presence at E3 in contrast to Sony and Microsoft—and Odyssey is the purest distillation of that ethos yet.