Super Mario games pretty much always have polish. As such, the former plumber's games are usually great platforming adventures with some whimsical designs and tight controls. That being said, it's difficult to say the series has retained its unique sense of charm in the past decade. Super Mario Galaxy was the last time the core series of games really reinvented itself. Ever since, the linear New Super Mario Bros. and 3D games have been making slight improvements with several games but with none that broke any innovative new ground for Super Mario. I guess it is extremely fitting, then, that the brand new sandbox 3D game in the franchise feels like the freshest adventure Mario has had in more than ten years.
Finally, Nintendo fans and gamers have received the first exploration-based 3D Mario game in fifteen years; not since 2002's Super Mario Sunshine have players been able to experience a Mario adventure in this vein of discovery-fueled, platforming adrenaline. And really—as you'll likely deduce as well by reading further on in this review—Super Mario Odyssey is most like Super Mario 64 in terms of giving players the freedom to explore and figure things out for themselves.
Other reviewers have definitely applauded this return to form, as well as the further innovations Nintendo's developers have implemented. Does this mean it's truly time to celebrate Mario at his finest? Odyssey feels like it has a much more impactful soul than many of this decade's Mario titles. It is the first ever Mario game to make a conscious effort to not waste the player's time, bringing them straight to the superb level of fun this game has to offer.
First off, the themes of surprise and collection are kept in the forefront consistently. Small changes like not having to teleport back to a main hub after every Power Moon found (as was not the case in previous 3D installments with Power Stars and Shine Sprites) and being able to skip the cutscenes that pad loading times in between kingdoms both make it obvious that Nintendo's main priority this time around was making sure this game was non-stop fun based on player freedom. With no possible way of getting a game over and having lives connected to the game's gold coin currency, less time is wasted worrying about (or ignoring) the lives system. Instead, deaths are usually a fun learning experience related to how many gold morsels one has for the stores in the game, which offer Animal Crossing-like ways to customize Mario and the Odyssey airship akin to Link in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Secondly, the epic scale of Odyssey's story also somehow accommodates the player's desires. After a brief introductory cutscene featuring Bowser literally beating the cap off of Mario's head, players are thrust into the first expansive level of Odyssey's impressively long and robust lineup of kingdoms to play in. The story objectives are always made clear if players would like to get the minimum amount of Power Moons required to move on, and on the other hand, players can also explore to their hearts' content in each level before moving on with the main story. Players can also go back and discover everything they have missed after beating any amount of other kingdoms and even after the entire story if they so choose.
Super Mario Odyssey employs a refreshing mix of linearity to the procession of sandbox environments Mario can explore. This means that while the individual kingdoms themselves have a variety of objectives, pathways, pals, and platforms to have fun with, each one is tackled by its lonesome until enough Power Moons are required to advance. The number is never very large, which encourages some level of trailblazing from beginners, and once the benchmarks are met by the player, the game then opens up (especially post-game) into the Super Mario 64 style of travel options in which Mario can go to any level at any time to get any number of Power Moons missed.
However, this semi-fluid structure of keeping things fresh yet calculated means little if the gameplay in each kingdom is not fun on its own merits. Thankfully, Super Mario Odyssey delivers on its mechanics better than anything else (and there aren't many flaws in the other areas of the game to begin with). The capture ability Mario's new friend Cappy bestows him is the single most creative and brilliantly unique way of adding dozens of diverse playable characters into one game that I have ever experienced. Each new capture target—including Goombas, Hammer Bros., a T-Rex dinosaur, Chain Chomps, Bullet Bills, Uproots, etc.—is fun to handle. When they are not, it is for the sake of comedy; I doubt anyone honestly expected Manhole Cover Mario to control all that excitingly.
Characters in-game can completely turn Odyssey upside down. Capturing Sherm the tank turns the game into an adrenaline-charged first person shooter. Capturing Tropical Wigglers in the Lost Kingdom takes the jumping out of platforming. Still other creatures can cause joy in this Mario game whereas they would have caused pain otherwise. Bullet Bills, Fire Bros, Chargin' Chucks, and many more all used to be nuisances in the 2D and 3D platformers of the past, but now, their power is just as much the player's as it is theirs.
The capture ability is even faster than Kirby's copy ability is in execution. All it takes is a flick of the wrist or press of the Y button to use Cappy to capture something in the environment. The same can be said for how snappy the 2D sections of the game feel. Upon entering certain warp pipes, Mario can revert back to his 8-bit self and enjoy a quick session of old-school platforming. Odyssey took a page from The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds' book here, added a bucket load more nostalgia, and made leaving the mechanic as simple as jumping back into three dimensions.
The gameplay is always fun and fast. Unorthodox as it may seem, the story of Odyssey is also brief yet exciting. The plot starts in media res, much like Homer's original Odyssey, and shows that Bowser can actually kick Mario's butt, and he does so often throughout the game. Mario doesn't usually feels like the underdog, but he absolutely is in this game. With clever moments aplenty—Pauline's Metro Kingdom concert, races pitting bouncing ball-shaped Shiverians, and many satisfying, surprising boss fights come to mind—implemented throughout the main story, Odyssey feels like a much fresher take on the series' usually stale plot and story beats.
Orchestrated music (along with fitting 8-bit remixes for pixelated sections) and astounding animation complement the funny, witty tone of the actions and emotions of Mario. Music comes in at the right time, leaving silence to sometimes permeate an area just like it did in Breath of the Wild. Once tracks kick in at just the right moments, players' ears are treated with one of the best original soundtracks in the franchise's legacy. Whether an electric guitar is shredding the nighttime visits of New Donk City or a breezy theme is serenading the Steam Gardens, the music feels appropriate and worth multiple visits, just like the kingdoms themselves.
Mario himself seems to be more expressive than ever. Added idle animations of being chilly or too hot are a nice touch, and so are the physics of his bulbous nose in cutscenes. There are some truly impressive and shocking moments that display how amazing the Nintendo Switch can perform graphically, and it leaves at least some not wanting anything more from the system. Sights also delight with the in-depth screenshot mode that can soak up even more hours of the player's time with toying with the Nintendo Switch capture button (which can now also record video, as seen below). With art design that brings to life a civilization of forks living amongst polygonal food stock and crystal clear waters across the world's kingdoms, it is no wonder that some prefer Nintendo's new games over others in terms of visual appeal.
Super Mario Odyssey can run just fine in handheld mode, making everything I've already detailed even more impressive to behold. There is a caveat here however. If you plan on using motion controls heavily (as I would suggest because moving the Joy-Con can unlock purely optional, yet fun moves for Cappy), I would refrain from playing this particular game in handheld mode as much as possible. That might not be too difficult since the game's true home definitely feels like the television screen, but it is definitely worth noting that playing with the Joy-Con detached is the way to go on this odyssey.
Finally, a Mario game can legitimately surprise us again. It can delight the inner child who has wanted another Super Mario 64, Sunshine, or Galaxy in their lives. In fact, I would go so far as to say Super Mario Odyssey is better than all of those. This game more than any other (counting all video games, not just Mario games) is whimsical, charming, surprising, and full of variety in every way from start to finish. There are dozens of hours of non-stop fun to be had here. Playing Odyssey sometimes feels like experiencing the mascot's greatest hits combined with all the newest, wackiest ideas Nintendo had been waiting to implement. From laugh-out-loud interactions with nonplayable characters to enemy encounters experienced while also playing as an enemy yourself, the creativity and joy in design are noticeably off the scales. This is an unquestionable must-have title for all Nintendo Switch owners and Super Mario fans.