After Link's last outing, Mario has a lot to prove. He seems keen to keep up.
"The game gives you absolute freedom to do what you want, with objectives and items hiding away everywhere."
It doesn't feel particularly surprising to return from the first day at E3 with confirmation that Super Mario Odyssey feels amazing. Off the back of Breath of the Wild I'm pretty sure Nintendo can nail anything - but there's still more to Odyssey than meets the eye.
Nintendo is marketing Super Mario Odyssey as the first open-world 3D Mario since Super Mario Sunshine. It's been a good 15 years, and while the fantastic Mario Galaxy games had their similarities to those games a key concept that wasn't as present there was a true sense of openness. Odyssey brings that back and then some - and that's what truly sets it apart.
Back when we saw that brilliant first trailer it looked like locales such as New Donk City would be hub worlds that'd lead into smaller levels, as Peach's Castle or Delfino Plaza did in 64 and Sunshine. In fact, these locations are themselves the levels - they're broad open areas that you can approach in any way you like, packed with coins, enemies, collectibles and optional challenges. I didn't expect this.
This makes the game fabulous to demo in short bursts, like at E3. It also makes the game likely to be just as good in a handheld Switch setting as docked.
In the city stage, I ignore the clearly stated objective and meander off. The game gives you absolute freedom to do what you want with objectives and items are hiding away everywhere. The stage is a modest footprint size-wise, but crucially there's a great deal of verticality. Climbing and exploring will uncover smaller puzzles. These might involve a bit of lateral thinking or some hardcore platforming that would've felt at home in Mario Sunshine's special stages.
Each small puzzle will net you a Power Moon - Odyssey's new collectibles. Rather than six of these in each level like Shines or Stars, there's loads in every stage. The exact count will vary depending on the size of the stage, but we're talking 30-plus of each. You're basically free to wander levels, and occasionally you'll spot a piece of curious geometry in the distance which, when investigated, will clearly be hiding a Power Moon. Other times you'll spy one off in the distance on the other side of a difficult-looking platforming challenge.
The platforming action is as pleasing as you'd expect. Mario controls tightly and with the same sort of precision that made his previous 3D outings great. I slightly missed the belly-slide he could do with a tap of the B-button, but other moves like wall kicking, backflipping and long jumping are all intact.
Mario's traditional 3D move set is paired with his new hat buddy, Cappy. Tapping Y or making a small motion gesture with your controller will cause Mario to throw cappy out, and it can have a number of different effects depending on what it's aimed at.
The big reveal at E3 for Nintendo was that Cappy can be used to possess certain characters in the world. One puzzle in the city required me to take control of a remote control car and pilot it to a Power Moon, for instance. To command the control I simply tossed Cappy at the man controlling it and took over. On another occasion I turned around harrassment by Bullet Bills by tossing Cappy and actually becoming a Bullet Bill myself.
This stuff is all super cool. The game also does a great job of defining what can and can't be possessed: smaller Goombas can only be defeated, not taken over, while some Bullet Bills will spawn from their cannons already wearing a hat, meaning Cappy can't land on their head and take them over. The game is typically smart in a very classic Nintendo manner.
"Possessing a bullet bill lets you fly for a while and gives you an explosive self-destruct attack, while possessing a Hammer Brother will allow you to toss projectiles."
Mario always has power ups at his disposal, and possessing characters with Cappy opens up a variety of options. Possessing a bullet bill lets you fly for a while and gives you an explosive self-destruct attack, while possessing a Hammer Brother will allow you to toss projectiles. None of these powers last long, so the game is really asking you to constantly shift about, making for quite a dynamic feel.
Cappy has other uses, too. Sometimes it can activate items, or pop coins out of boxes or blocks. To get the true potential of Cappy you need to make use of the motion gestures, and these are arguably the most difficult and questionable part of my hands-on. These motions are simply flicks and should feel as natural and as helpful as the motion-assisted aiming in Zelda, but it did take some getting used to all the same.
It's difficult to understate how impactful these two relatively simple mechanical choices are to the general flow of Odyssey as you play it. Cappy seems a more interesting addition to Mario's setup than Sunshine's FLUDD, while the decision to make levels larger open sandboxes rather than linear adventures or specific objectives really makes a difference.
The two levels available at E3 offer a decent glimpse of how these mechanics can play into a broader game, too. New Donk City is all about traversal and that verticality and is relatively enemy-free. It's full of Mario fanservice, from Donkey Kong style girders and tribute street names to the fact the Mayor is Pauline, Mario's girlfriend from the Donkey Kong days who presumably kicked him to the curb when he started eating psychedelic mushrooms that made him grow in size. It doesn't look like a Mario level, but the challenges it gives you are different as a result. There are more puzzle-like challenges, and it's the perfect sandbox to use to get to grip with the controls.
"My brief half hour with Odyssey hasn't quite given me the 'oh my god' cold sweats that Zelda did last year, but it has made me enormously excited."
The Day of the Dead inspired desert stage is much more typically Mario, packed with enemies, pipes and other classic Mario iconography. It feels more like traditional Mario but also differs from New Donk City in other crucial ways. It's a more flat area and featured more outright platforming challenges. I kept discovering small new mechanics - I fall from on high and discover sinking sand. I enter a pipe and find myself inside a wall mural of 2D Mario art with a classic 2D Mario style sprite representing me - Odyssey is full of cool little moments like that.
So, yes - so far, so good. My brief half hour with Super Mario Odyssey hasn't quite given me the 'oh my god' cold sweats that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild did last year, but it has made me enormously excited to play the full thing. I've written a fair chunk here and I haven't even touched on the costumes Mario can wear, the in-game stores, or the fact that Nintendo has hinted that there'll be some sort of multiplayer mode. It all appears promisingly dense.
It feels not just like a return to a Mario formula that I was perplexed Nintendo ever left, but something bold and experimental. This absolutely feels like Mario - but it isn't Mario quite as you know him. That can be a little strange at first, but it feels like a welcome, brave step. Roll on October!