Already among the most positively received games of all time, Super Mario Odyssey expands upon the open, flexible design philosophy of Super Mario 64 while incorporating contemporary design sensibilities and twenty years worth of polish. And like its watershed grandfather, Odyssey is sure to carve its own special niche of influence and esteem in the gaming pantheon. But is it truly the near-perfect experience many believe it to be, or might a deeper inspection reveal some telling blemishes? As I already have Super Mario 64, I will examine each of Super Mario Odyssey’s kingdoms in an attempt to glean insight into their stumbles and successes. In this entry, I will be taking a look at the game’s thirteenth course — Bowser’s Kingdom.
The narrative in Bowser’s Kingdom systematically leads the player through the course, occasionally asking them to pause for pit stops. From start to finish, the player progresses, stops to battle a Stairface Ogre, progresses, stops to gather moon shards, progresses, stops to battle Topper and Harriet, and progresses again until reaching the end. Once there, Bowser tells Mario he’s going to marry Peach on the moon and flies away. Then a cool boss fight against RoboBrood (a mech controlled by all four Broodals) ensues, after which Mario earns a Multi Moon. If Mario has earned 8 moons by this point (and he almost certainly has), he can fly to the next kingdom.
Bowser’s Kingdom is comprised of roughly ten isolated floating platforms typically connected by Spark Pylon wire. The entire course is essentially a Feudal Japanese castle, with different platforms representing different elements of castle architecture, such as a courtyard, a moat, a keep, and so forth. Most areas heavily feature walls and roofs, making the kingdom’s Pokio capture consistently useful for traversal. The entire course is surrounded by gorgeous colorful plumes of cloud that lend the understated architecture a mystic air.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Bowser’s Kingdom is its linearity. Unlike any other course in the game (outside of the two-platform Ruined Kingdom), the player is left with little directional agency. While even a tiny course like Cloud Kingdom has a central platform from which multiple smaller platforms are accessible, Bowser’s Kingdom climactically pushes the player upward and onward. By stringing together bite-size arenas, this course sometimes feels like Super Mario Galaxy, a game Odyssey could have benefitted by taking more cues from, though not necessarily in its linearity.
But Bowser’s Kingdom balances linearity with intricacy, making each one of these relatively small areas worth exploring from every angle. Indeed, regional currency and moons are everywhere, and this course more than any other does a fantastic job tucking them away. Even relatively minor elements, like the three-tiered slanted roof design, creates crevices and tough-to-see areas often pack goodies. Perhaps sometimes it asks a bit too much (such as a moon hidden in a post near the Odyssey and a few coins placed on a lantern that at first seems inaccessible), but this nuanced level design and collectable placement detracts from the course’s linearity, giving players a reason to constantly explore from moment to moment.
Bowser’s Kingdom’s two main captures are Pokio and Jizo. Pokio is a small bird that can shoot its beak out to attack enemies or stick itself into walls. If stuck in a wall, it can move in any direction by pulling opposite that direction and flinging themselves using momentum. Although they are very similar to previous captures like Volbonans in Luncheon Kingdom and delineator’s posts in Metro Kingdom, their mobility and offensive capabilities make them especially versatile and empowering — a brilliant evolution of its predecessors. On the other hand, there isn’t much to the stone statue Jizo. It can break through brittle ground but mostly just slowly stomps around. Still, this adorable Super Mario Bros. 3 callback is surprisingly well-implemented in both the main world and secret areas.
Bowser’s Kingdom contains a total 62 moons, 45 of which are available after defeating all the bosses on the first run-through. Of those 62 moons, 4 are part of the narrative, 10 are in secret areas, 15 are more or less repeat missions (like locating Peach or fishing as a Lakitu), 2 are really stumble-upons gimmes, and the remaining 27 are either for course-specific objectives or more elaborate stumble-upons. Of those 27, the vast majority are detailed or tricky stumble-upons, often requiring use of the Pokio capture (such as 4 requiring sticking a Pokio nose in holes or over ten requiring use of the Pokio to access rooftops or the backside of walls).
This heavy emphasis on tricky moon placement can sometimes be frustrating because much of the level is so aesthetically homogenous. Combined with its modular level design, Bowser’s Kingdom can be especially difficult to navigate. On top of this, vague moon titles render many of Talkatoo’s hints useless since it can be hard to know which “horn” or “fence” he is referring to. But this caveat is more forgivable than the too-obvious stumble-upons flooding most courses. With decent and mostly capture-specific secret areas, heavy and intelligent demand of the Pokio and Jizo, and a modest amount of reused moons, Bowser’s Kingdom has an above-average collection of moons that are generally well-placed and thoughtful.
All considered, Bowser’s Kingdom is among the strongest courses in the game, not because it exceeds at any one aspect but because its quality is consistent in design, captures, and moons. Though anomalous in several ways (not the least of which is its Galaxy-like level design that tethers disparate chunks of the level to each other), it succeeds where many courses falter, especially in its distribution of moon types, moon locations, and meaningful integration of its unique captures.