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 third course — Sand Kingdom.
Sand Kingdom is a massive desert with seemingly endless reddish sand dunes percolated with occasional cactuses and palms. It is the home of Tostarena, a large desert region influenced by Mexican culture, particularly Día de Los Muertos. The area is comprised of several distinct regions, including a small town with several shops and resident Tostarenans who look like decorative calaveras brought to life, large sections of ruins north of the town, a giant inverted pyramid further north, a small oasis to the southeast, and an area with partially invisible architecture inhabited by the Easter Island-influenced Moe-Eyes.
En route to Sand Kingdom, Cappy gives Mario a rundown of their next destination, including a Binding Band he suspects Bowser wants for a wedding ring. On arrival, much of Tostarena is covered in ice, an odd revelation given its desert locale. Chasing a beam of light in the distance, Mario travels to the top of a tower in Tostarena Ruins due north of the Odyssey. After nabbing that moon, another beam of light spawns in the Moe-Eye Habitat to the east and after that moon is acquired, there is a final beam of light on the top of the inverted pyramid. Upon beating Harriet the Broodal at the top(?) of the inverted pyramid, it turns to night and the pyramid rises from the sand to reveal a gaping hole leading to the desert’s frozen underbelly. After some icy platforming involving goomba and bullet bills, Mario fights the ring-loving Knucklotec by capturing his fists to play three rounds of the bully favorite “stop hitting yourself.” After pummeling Knucklotec, the desert is somehow restored to its normal sultry state, and Mario can proceed to the next course provided he has collected the requisite sixteen power moons along the way.
Though Odyssey lacks a deeply engaging narrative, the first four moons on the Sand Kingdom described above provide a sense of progression missing until this point. Like Jolly Roger Bay from Super Mario 64, not every piece of the puzzle fits together, but the semblance of a story partially told through changes to the level make the narrative seem tied to the player’s actions. These changes to the levels could have been more deeply realized, but little touches like a frozen taxi thawing and leaving behind a tourist’s luggage impart a sense of weather-based cause-and-effect unique to the place. Combined with the level’s particularly open design, the narrative thread that runs through the Sand Kingdom propels the player forward while giving them free reign over their pacing. Though not perfect, this is one of Odyssey’s greatest storytelling accomplishments. That it climaxes with a brilliant boss battle that puts the Broodals to shame is icing on the cake.
Some central themes of the Sand Kingdom are its gargantuan size, duality, and evolution of Super Mario 64’s Shifting Sand Land. In terms of indoor and outdoor square acreage, Sand Kingdom is probably the largest kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey. While Cap Kingdom and Cascade Kingdom felt constrained by their sizes, Sand Kingdom sometimes feels a bit too big for its britches. Especially along the course’s perimeter and on much of its eastern side, vast swathes of vacant space can feel difficult to parse, and since the game requires the player repeatedly and thoroughly parse each level, the blander portions of the Sand Kingdom can involve a lot of aimless wandering. Fortunately, Jaxi the breakneck lion taxi is a fun way to traverse the open desert that feels like a Halo warthog with a death wish. While Jaxi speeds traversal, occasional moons on the level’s edge that require closer observation can be easily missed, meaning completionists will likely have to spend considerable time tediously scouring seemingly empty terrain. Still, much of the level takes advantage of its enormous scope, and the copious space between the course’s central features makes it feel like the barren terrain it emulates.
Hot or cold. Night or day. Visible or invisible. Many of Sand Kingdom’s central ideas incorporate the concept of duality. While this theme is present in other Odyssey courses, it rarely seems so fundamental to a course’s identity. Yet while the idea of co-existing opposites is a captivating idea for a Mario course, it rarely feels fully embraced through Sand Kingdom’s level design and moons. While past Mario levels dealing with duality (such as Super Mario Bros. 3’s Giant Land, Super Mario 64’s Dire, Dire Docks, and Super Mario Galaxy 2’s Shiverburn Galaxy) attempt to incorporate the theme into its moment-to-moment gameplay and/or its objectives, Sand Kingdom primarily conveys duality through changes to its world. Countless puzzles could have been built around this if the player had control over these changes (if Mario had, say, an ocarina or something that could change the time or temperature). But as it stands, the player witnesses the level undergo drastic changes without those changes tangibly impacting gameplay outside of some minor alterations.
Finally, Sand Kingdom is a desert. And as the first desert in an open 3D Mario game since Super Mario 64, it begs comparison to its spiritual predecessor Shifting Sand Land. It’s a tough act to follow, but Sand Kingdom largely succeeds by delving deeper into, specifying, and modernizing the nitty-gritty cultural understanding of the desert. While Shifting Sand Land was more focused on its pyramid’s interior than its exterior, Sand Kingdom intelligently expands upon 64’s meager oasis and turns quicksand from generic insta-death into the engulfing surface one would expect. Areas like Tostarena, ruins, and the toxic Moe-Eye habitat further play off a broader and more specific understanding of what constitutes desert in a globalized world where many treat the desert too literally as a “wasteland.” That said, I miss Shifting Sand Land’s dense pyramid interior, oddball secrets, obsession with mummification, dust devils, wing cap, and, somehow, Klepto.
Throughout Sand Kingdom, Mario can become a spark pylon, a rocket, a pair of binoculars, a sand-fishing Lakitu, a gliding lizard named Glydon, Knucklotec’s fist, a cactus, or a Goomba. But the course’s two most central captures are the Moe-Eye and Mario staple Bullet Bill. Moe-Eyes allow Mario to dawn shades that make the invisible visible (AKA Bifocals of Truth). Most of the time, this amounts to unveiling an invisible path leading to an otherwise inaccessible area. Although Odyssey doesn’t take full advantage of this mechanic’s gameplay potential, what’s there is enjoyable if also a bit too simple. Bullet Bills, however, are used without restraint. Whether used as a quick way to travel, navigate puzzles, or destroy architecture, they never disappoint. I particularly commend the “On the Eastern Pillar” moon for posing a genuinely puzzling platforming challenge revolving around the Bullet Bill. It’s one of the strongest integrations of a capture in an overworld challenge in the game, and it tests problem-solving and kinesthetic ability in a manner far too rare.
Sand Kingdoms far-flung reaches are populated with a total of 89 moons. 61 of those moons are available at the outset, with 4 of those being the light beacons that lead the player through the level’s storyline. Another 2 become available after completing missions in other kingdoms, followed by another 6 after defeating Bowser, and another 20 after shattering the moon rock. Given the sheer quantity of moons, it is almost surprising only 24 are either stumble-upons or require very little effort. Like in Cap Kingdom and Cascade Kingdom, most of those are unfortunately unlocked in the post-game, meaning they give a somewhat artificial reason to comb through the course once more. On the plus side, 62 moons require at least a little more skill than a stumble-upon, including 3 timer challenges, 3 2D sections, 3 hidden seeds the player needs to plant in pots, and 14 tucked into the course’s 7 secret areas (which are mostly fantastic). There are also plenty of mini-game-esque moons that have the player throw their cap to win a lottery, answer a Sphinx’s ridiculous questions, and more.
While there are 25 moons that are unaltered or slightly altered versions of moons on other stages, 28 are built around the stage’s unique assets and themes. This constitutes a collection of moons that feel more place-specific than those of the Cap and Cascade Kingdoms and ultimately translates into a more specialized and consistent experience. However, the hit-or-miss nature of the moon hint systems is especially relevant to Sand Kingdom, where searching for a specific moon can take a long time and a “hint” in the form of a generic moon name is rarely enough. Along with more clever, helpful moon names, I wish there were hints for regional coins since those can be especially tough to locate in gargantuan overworlds. Whether looking for a poorly-named moon or regional coins, the player can easily be forced to repeatedly scour the outskirts of the course haphazardly until they happen to notice a faint glow on a sand dune or a string of coins on the map’s perimeter. Still, Sand Kingdom’s moons are the most cohesive and interesting set so far, even if tracking down the last ten can be a hassle.
The first time I played through Sand Kingdom, I felt torn. While I enjoyed its captures, incorporation of narrative, and most of its moons, I also felt it was weighed down by its massive scale, obnoxious stumble-upon moons, and underutilization of its themes. But going back to it the second time, with full knowledge of where the tedious moons lie and what portions of the map deserve my time, I hold it in higher regard. It’s not perfect, but so far I think it is the only course that feels built around around Super Mario Odyssey’s lofty ambitions of depth and breadth. Sand Kingdom is the moment when Odyssey spreads its wings, and takeoff is smoother than the two prior courses had me anticipating.