I've been playing Super Mario Odyssey for hours over the last week. Like many of the best Mario games, I'm sucked in along an amazing addictive path. There's always something to find, just around a corner, just up ahead. Satisfaction and motivation to go a bit further keep dovetailing.
But there's something I'm really impressed with, too: For such an expansive, weird game full of incredible oddities, it's also easy to grasp. I'm pulled along. I get it.
To walk along the knife-edge of the unknown while finding comfort in the familiar isn't easy. Great retro reboots strive for it: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," "Blade Runner: 2049," or what Nintendo seemingly pulls off every time with new Mario games. We all knew that Super Mario Odyssey was going to be unusual and surprising ever since videos showed Mario wandering around "New Donk City" (the game's stand-in for Manhattan) and controlling a t-rex with a magic hat. So maybe it shouldn't be a revelation that surprise is the key to Odyssey's design, too.
"When we first began development, Mr. Koizumi [Yoshiaki Koizumi, the producer of Super Mario Odyssey] gave me some very specific directions. He said, 'I want you to surprise people.'" says Kenta Motokura, the game's director. "And so we actually took that as one of our themes. Surprise became a keyword as we were thinking about the design of the game."
I started to realize how artfully the game gently indicates what to do next, and how important that is in a game that's pretty light on tutorials.
If I tried to recap everything that happened to me over my many hours of playing, a lot of it would seem bizarre. But somehow in the moment it makes sense. The mechanics gel. I wasn't sure what would happen from moment to moment, and sometimes I was shocked by the game's twists. But not too much. I found my way. I was surprised, in some ways, how familiar the unusual circumstances turned out to be. I leaned into Mario-like elements that anchored me: A platforming puzzle. A hidden door. An occasional familiar mushroom-shaped Goomba in a world otherwise filled with angry tomatoes and blocks of cheese.
Motokura explains what's going on: "Surprise is very important to the way we're thinking about game design in this Mario game, but there's one other pole that I feel is important to consider as well, and that is emotional resonance. And that really comes down to how you communicate almost intuitively the function or effect of something in games. If an object is spiky, you're communicating that it would be painful to the touch and would hurt Mario. If something is shiny, you're communicating that this is something they would want to pick up. We want the object design and the gameplay to be something that instantly and intuitively resonates emotionally for a lot of different kinds of people."
I think, as I keep playing, that's what keeps me coming back: familiarity with the chance of surprise. Something just weird enough.
And parts keep reminding me of other great Nintendo games, in a good way. There's a brief hint of Super Mario Sunshine, the sometimes-overlooked 90s GameCube game. The different residents of each kingdom make me think of Zelda games. The world map's branching paths remind me of Starfox. The shape-shifting reminds me of Kirby. The extended 2D platforming parts, which suddenly resemble classic bits of 8-bit Super Mario gameplay, remind me of all the reinvented levels of Super Mario Maker.
Odyssey's producer, Yoshiaki Koizumi, thinks of Mario himself as the anchor. "There are a lot of different ways to view a character like Mario. For us, Mario is really a vehicle to explore new challenges in game design and find new ways to keep players engaged. But from the point of view of players, he's really seen as this bright presence, a character that's very easy to get along with and identify with." The familiarity starts with Mario's face. And from there, it's about meeting and defying expectations. Much like the various Zelda games, they're different but in some ways they're the same.
I love weird things like Twin Peaks, but not everyone does. Mario's a game for everyone. But it's challenging and full of tasks that keep gradually ramping up. It's what keeps me coming back to every Mario game. It's what made my son so excited to play them and master them.
I played with my 9-year-old son in co-op mode. He picked it up right away, or at least got used to the controls playing in two-player mode. I was Mario, and he was my shape-shifting hat-creature, Cappy. It reminded me of the Wii's Super Mario Galaxy, which let another player wave the other Wii remote to collect stars and discover secrets around Mario. Cappy's controls are more advanced and have greater impact, but it's a bit of the same idea as far as co-op gaming.
The multiplayer, and co-op play, is maybe the biggest key to where Nintendo wants to take games like Mario in future. Koizumi says, "I'm allowed to think a little bit about where we would like things to go, we'd love to see a future where the kinds of places that people play games doesn't feel so restricted," Koizumi adds towards the end of our conversation. "People feel comfortable taking the system outside with them, and if they encounter someone they want to play with right in that moment, they can grab one of the Joy-Cons and hand it to that other person and share the joy, and have a gaming experience right there in that moment."
Koizumi also produced 1-2 Switch, the Switch console's biggest effort towards spontaneous multiplayer gaming. It's a serious dream for the creators of the Switch. And it might have an even greater impact in game design for the future of Mario and games like it.
Mario Odyssey's multiplayer modes are fun. But its mix of surprise and familiarity is what makes it great.
Super Mario Odyssey, reviewed: Yes, it's a masterpiece.
Nintendo Switch, reviewed: It's a good time to buy one.