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 fourth or fifth course — Wooded Kingdom.
Wooded Kingdom is Odyssey’s second large kingdom, only slightly smaller than Sand Kingdom. While Sand Kingdom is divided into several distinct regions separated by barren desert, Wooded Kingdom is incredibly dense, with little vacant space. Instead, it is piled on top of itself, constituted by overlapping layers interwoven through ramps, beanstalks, and platforming sections that use the superb Uproot capture. While most of the level blends into itself, the starting forested area sticks out for its lack of metallic undergirding, and the secret flower field at the other end of the stage is a gorgeous high point. Wooded Kingdom also contains a hidden Deep Woods underneath the starting area that conceals its treasure trove of surprises and unique objectives in its dimly lit nooks and crannies.
On the way to Wooded Kingdom, Cappy tells Mario of the region’s greenhouse and famous Soiree Bouquet, but on arrival Mario finds the resident Steam Gardeners terrified of Broodals flying overhead. After Mario traverses the level’s main path, the Broodals confess to stealing the Soiree Bouquet, and Mario takes on Spewart, a typically mediocre pushover. Once the Broodals depart, Mario can take an alternate path through the level to reach the secret flower field, where he fights a flower-obsessed UFO in a brilliant battle that unfortunately misses the opportunity to tie the level’s organic versus inorganic theme, despite perfectly suiting it. Structurally, the narrative and levels overlap (much as in Sand Kingdom), but it feels more forced in Wooded Kingdom because the environment is less open, and its aesthetic themes are barely explored.
Wooded Kingdom’s primary design theme, for better or worse, is its leveled verticality. While Sand Kingdom was a sprawling desert, Wooded Kingdom is the polar opposite. It is towering, densely-packed, and mostly homogenous. At first blush, it sounds a compelling contradiction, but in practice the homogenous art and level design — combined with the visibility-impairing height — makes the layout unintuitive and confusing. This height and lack of discrete areas make for a complex course that can be difficult to mentally map. While this focus on height on for height’s sake negatively impacts most of the level, it also allows for ample use of the wonderful Uproot capture by providing plenty of opportunities to take advantage of it.
Wooded Kingdom’s obsession with secrecy comes part and parcel with this verticality. More than any other level so far, it packs secret upon secret into its compact landscape. While it can sometimes be intriguing to find these secrets in places you swore you thoroughly explored, the confusing layout dampens this sense of discovery. Unlike games like Dark Souls, where discovering the way regions connect with other regions contributes to world-building, Wooded Kingdom feels like a bland maze with a lot of dead ends. Furthermore, the numerous nuts strewn all over the course spawn at various points throughout the game, depending on how far the player has gotten. This makes exploration even more of a slog, because the player will have to retread most of the level multiple times to find everything, and keeping track of where you’ve been and haven’t been can be irksome.
Wooded Kingdom’s greatest secret is the Deep Woods region, under the main plateau. This is Odyssey’s Ash Lake (even though its lush, dark vibe is more akin to Darkroot Basin), a small but cool asset-reusing region that the player is more likely to find accidentally than intentionally. Discovering Deep Woods is a strange but enthralling experience, a kind of unexpected reward that increases the level’s sense of interconnectedness, like Hazy Maze Cave’s Metal Cap unlock.
Finally, Wooded Kingdom is replete with a sense of iron-y. This is an admittedly tongue-in-cheek reference to the stage’s metallic art motif, as well as its use of irony in the level’s dialogue, tone, and design. Indeed, its geodesic dome and stand-out orange metal seem to play off the natural beauty of the wooded sections in a way that undermines its beauty. While much of the level seems a clash between two color palettes or two conflicting ways of being, the course feels most cohesive in the purely wooded regions, or the secret flower field, where nature runs amok. On top of this, the Steam Gardener robots and UFO’s love for flowers is never fully explained and feels nonsensical, making it come across like a spottier take on Sand Kingdom’s dualism. Even the third of the brochure’s “Three Keys to the Kingdom” is “Appreciate machines and nature living in exquisite harmony” — a facetious statement that flies in the face of the narrative.
Wooded Kingdom is flooded with captures — Poison Piranha Plants, Fire Bros, Coin Coffers, Goombas, Binoculars, a T-Rex, a rocket, Glydon, a tree, and a boulder — but none are as central as the Uproot, which perfectly suits the vertical level design and compelling platforming sequences interspersed throughout the level. In its unique ability and deliberate use, it is one of the most thoughtful and memorable captures in the game, despite not having the initial shock value of something like the T-Rex. The tree and boulder are worth mentioning for the opposite reason. As inanimate objects not defined by any particular trait, slowly moving is all they can do. Like Sand Kingdom’s cactus capture, these captures merely hide rewards, and add little value to the experience, even if capturing them can be momentarily humorous.
Wooded Kingdom’s 76 moons are the third largest amount of moons in any pre-post-game course, just behind Sand Kingdom and Metro Kingdom. 49 of those are available from the start, with another accessible through a painting in a future kingdom, 4 more open after defeating Bowser, and the final 22 made available after shattering the Moon Rock. While I lauded Sand Kingdom’s diverse and scattered moons, Wooded Kingdom’s vertical orientation makes some moons feel too tightly packed in. In particular, the many post-game moons are basically stumble-upons placed in nuts hidden in hard-to-find areas. In a level this troublesome to navigate, being forced through the course multiple times in search of these is a flat-out waste of time; these moons should have all been accessible from the get-go. The hint systems are also especially ineffective here, as the moon names are as vague as usual, and Hint Toad’s location clue means little in a course as tall and layered as this one.
All that said, Wooded Kingdom still features a higher percentage of non-stumble-upon moons than usual, primarily because most of those moons have been placed in nuts that require a little bit more effort. Outside of the ones in nuts, however, few moons feel level-specific, instead mostly culling from repeated moon types or being placed in Wooded Kingdom’s seven secret areas, which vary in quality and rarely feel meaningfully connected to the kingdom. Deep Woods features some of Wooded Kingdom’s most memorable moons, though they are also a bit underbaked. “Past the Peculiar Pipes,” for instance, is a level-specific one-off, but could have benefited from being made a puzzle (maybe having to recognize a pattern in pipe selection, or identify something peculiar about each correct pipe) instead of a game of chance. “Deep Woods Treasure Trap” also dips a toe into being a puzzle (one of those underwhelming treasure chest ordering ones seen in Super Mario 64’s Jolly Roger Bay and Dire, Dire Docks), but is so brief and shallow that it fails to live up to the low bar set by its predecessors.
On the whole, Wooded Kingdom is probably my least favorite of Odyssey’s large kingdoms. It’s indistinct, difficult to navigate, and thematically shallow. On top of these issues, unlocking of certain moons at certain times is particularly frustrating, since it can be tough to know when you’ve scoured every crevice of the course, and doing it repeatedly in search of a poorly-named, newly-spawned, well-hidden moon can be dispiriting. That said, the Uproot capture is among the most mechanically interesting in the game, providing a simple but one-of-a-kind ability integrally tied to the course’s design. And Deep Woods, though obscure and perhaps under-telegraphed, is the kind of subtle, expansive surprise other courses could benefit from. Though it doesn’t rise to the heights it strives for, Wooded Kingdom is home to some clever concepts more captivating than the level itself.