There’s something oddly comforting about playing a new Mario game. Each one is like returning home after being away for some time. There might be a different couch and a new coat of paint in the kitchen, but the things you remember and love remain just the way you like. That’s what Mario: Odyssey felt like during a short hands-on session, incredibly familiar and yet just different enough to feel new and fresh again. So what’s changed, what’s new, and what’s with the magical hat?
First and foremost, the game was incredibly fun to play. The reaction from everyone at the demo booth following their agonizingly short session was “can I have a few more minutes”. This is Mario just the way you like, using the previous 3D titles like Mario 64 and the Mario Galaxy games as inspiration, to the point where the controls were largely unchanged. It was incredibly satisfying to sit down with the game and discover that concepts like crouching while running to long jump or kicking in mid-air to gain a few inches all remained in place. It felt so familiar that were it not for the graphics the entire thing would’ve felt totally at home on an older Nintendo console, and I mean that as a great compliment.
During the demo, we experienced two of the kingdoms that will be featured in the game. First was the Desert Kingdom, which took influence from Mexican and Egyptian cultures in somewhat equal measure. This was a largely classic 3D Mario level, albeit wide open and full of things to see and do. It showcased the more action side of Odyssey, with players jumping through sand blasts or avoiding Bullet Bills while climbing a pyramid. Following that was a session in the much discussed Metro Kingdom of New Donk City, which featured far fewer enemies and focused on puzzle solving and traversal challenges. The task here was to find and collect four musicians and bring them back to the music hall to perform for Mayor Pauline.
The inclusion of Pauline, the original damsel in distress from the old arcade Donkey Kong was just one of the many throwbacks included in the game. Throughout the levels were various references to the older Mario games, and some of the costumes you can unlock for the plumber are directly pulled from old and obscure titles. The biggest throw-back had to be the retro-pipes experienced in the Desert Kingdom, which transformed Mario into his classic 8-bit self for some quick 2D platforming, not dissimilar to Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds wall-crawling mechanic. The entire game just felt like a love letter to Mario’s past and it was obvious from the start that a great deal of respect was being paid to the game’s predecessor titles.
The overall goal seemed to be the collection of different Moons, which are now acting in place of Stars that we’re normally used to. As expected the Moons were hidden throughout the levels, occasionally requiring the completion of side-quests to unlock them. Interestingly enough both levels featured different looking Moons, as well as different level-specific currency scattered alongside the familiar golden coin, hinting at each level having its own unique unlockables. Speaking of coins, one thing noticed during the demo was the lack of lives, in that when you die now you just lose a few coins before respawning, meaning there’s a much lower penalty for failure for some players.
Ok, let’s talk about the hat. The whole possession mechanic had only been shown on the morning of the demo at Nintendo’s E3 conference, so everyone at the demo booth was abuzz with the news. Sure enough, throughout the levels, there were dozens of objects to inhabit. In New Donk City you can inhabit certain pedestrians to complete side-quests, or signposts to use as slingshots, or at one point a manhole cover to slide it out of the way to discover a secret area. In the Desert Kingdom inhabiting Bullet Bills became an essential part of puzzle solving, while using a rocket-powered Observatory offered a tactical view of the level for planning your approach. Unfortunately, the mechanic was limited, and while there definitely weren’t any T-Rex’s to try out, we also discovered that you couldn’t possess random pedestrians or taxi cabs like Nintendo’s demo suggested. Whether this was locked down for the demo or required a special action in the game wasn’t quite clear.
Overall Mario: Odyssey just felt right to play. Everything you want from a Mario 3D game was here, with big open levels to explore, a great sense of humor, a cartoonish but incredibly detailed art style, and plenty of jumping challenges. The demo felt just too short to experience everything there was in the two levels, and there’s little doubt that the game is going to be meaty and massive when it releases in October. Until then this should definitely be at the top of any Nintendo fan’s most anticipated game, and might just be enough to once again sell out the Switch.