Clearer Art Direction Helps Super Mario Galaxy Shine Brighter Than Super Mario Odyssey

Clearer Art Direction Helps Super Mario Galaxy Shine Brighter Than Super Mario Odyssey

Please don't take me down to the New Donk City, where the grass is green and the people look like they're PS2 models.

The other night I was watching the speedrun of Super Mario Galaxy from the latest weeklong virtual-triathalon of Awesome Games Done Quick, which wrapped up over the weekend. The speedrunner, 360Chrism, powered through the entire 15-or-so hour campaign with breezy finesse as Luigi. The end of 360Chrism's run capped off at two hours and 36 minutes at the final star grab following one last Bowser fight, beating the speedrunner's former time by minutes.

Watching the speedrun was dazzling, it of course being a quick runthrough of an entire game by utilizing mind-numbing tricks. It also reminded me how enchanting Super Mario Galaxy has been since releasing in 2007 for the Nintendo Wii, and why it's remained so beloved by me and others in the world ever since. Then Super Mario Odyssey stepped in late last year and seemed to make the world collectively forget its awe-inspiring peaks, and only recall its sometimes-obtuse motion-controlled valleys.

This seemingly happens with every big Mario release, likewise with the other major series that introduced a new game last year: The Legend of Zelda. The collective critical process feels like a circle jerk: At first blush, the game is phenomenal, a 10-out-of-10 by wide standards. A climax, to be vulgar. Nintendo games, being the polished, arguably flawless playthings that they are, remain being the leaders of their named genres—platformers and adventure games—for a reason. Nintendo games can only top the Nintendo games before it, figuratively. Then the next game comes along, and the blemishes of the previous game in the series arise, like long dormant acne after the pharmacy runs out of the face wash you use to usually keep it at bay. Now the new game is truly the best, last game be damned to infinity.

Of course, Super Mario Galaxy is a decade old at this point. It's hardly the most recent Mario game in recent memory. (By a quick count, there have been nine "Super Mario" games since Super Mario Galaxy's release, that's not even counting others like that one bad Paper Mario game for the Wii U.) As I played through Super Mario Odyssey during a feverish weekend (my birthday weekend, mind you), I enjoyed it. And yet, I failed to see what was garnering bombastic claims everywhere, where even our site's own ranking edged out Galaxy in favor of Odyssey mere weeks after release.

But I also didn't grow up with Mario. The only Nintendo systems I had in my childhood were the Game Boy systems, and much later the Wii. While I wouldn't consider the wealth of Nintendo a blindspot—I've played a lot of catch-up in the decades since—I still just don't have that nostalgia for it. I felt more kinship while playing Sonic Mania last year than I did Super Mario Odyssey.

Visually, the Luncheon Kingdom is a high point.

Yet I think the big failure of Super Mario Odyssey in not resonating with me beyond a pleasant weekend was because of another issue entirely: its jumbled art direction, something I feel has always been one Nintendo's chief strengths.

Super Mario Galaxy was the best example of Nintendo's pristine art direction. As Mario (or Luigi), you explored the literal galaxy, hopping from planetoid to planetoid, collecting Power Stars for Rosalina and vowing to save Peach for the umpteenth time from Bowser. You were on an adventure. At times, the long journey felt comparable to Homer's epic poem Odyssey. Much later, little would Mario know another more aptly-named odyssey would befall him.

Super Mario Odyssey ends up feeling more like Kingdom Hearts than the eloquent balance of Super Mario Galaxy. In Galaxy, the universe is mysterious but full of wonder. You never know where a Power Star is hiding. In Super Mario Odyssey, Power Moons are everywhere you look; from the tippy-top of a waterfall to being dug up by a puppy in a vast desert. Power Moons are hardly scarce; they're plentiful. You're rewarded for digging into the corners of Odyssey's worlds with Power Moons, or worse, just with coins.

Super Mario Galaxy is a delight to explore over its many hours because no land is too daunting or large, and they all feel uniform in their focus. No two galaxies look the same, but you wouldn't gaze at them and think they were plucked from another game in the slightest either. In Super Mario Odyssey, the opposite is true, to an unfortunate degree.

While Super Mario Odyssey has some of the best boss fights in Mario's history, about 80 percent of them still boil down to ugly rabbits that throw hats at you. Meanwhile, Super Mario Galaxy at least switched things up in giving you a whole planet to run around.

Whether it's the dullness of New Donk City or the rusted bore of the Wooded Kingdom (that happens to have some of the game's best music, oddly enough), about half of Super Mario Odyssey's worlds are exciting to behold and possess new oddities in, while the other half end up feeling like another round of that Pirates of the Caribbean world in Kingdom Hearts 2. Sometimes, the unfamiliar-to-a-Mario-game weirdness works, like when Bowser summons a massive dragon for a boss fight that looks like it came out of a Hidetaka Miyazaki game. Other times, it just looks like a bunch of assets thrown together, like the chaos of the Sand Kingdom's hodgepodge of appropriated cultures (from Mexican to Chilean).

But when the art direction of Super Mario Odyssey works, it really works. It results in moments where the game crystallizes into focus, such as visiting Bowser's Castle for the first time, and feeling surprised at the fresh way it's taken shape.

Likewise, when Mario visits the Luncheon Kingdom, a candy-colored world of pastels and sugary goodness, it's enchanting. While it's mechanically not amazing—swimming in those giant pools and jumping on tomato-foes to make more mini-pools on land isn't my favorite mode of transportation—aesthetically it feels different enough while still feeling very much like a Mario game. The world feels realized, with every part and creature you can throw your hat on fitting within it, unlike many of the other kingdoms beside it.

It's the perfect case of the type of odyssey Mario would actually find himself on. The world is low-poly but artistically sound—it's unlike the world he himself is used to living it. It's a different vibe entirely, not akin to looking like he was plucked into unfinished games like New Donk City, or how the game sometimes feels like not the only Rabbids-tied game of 2017 in terms of Bowser's new combatants.

Super Mario Galaxy feels less incoherent. The lushness of the Gusty Gardens looks just as at home in Mario's expansive universe as the Space Junk Galaxy, a makeshift group of "planets" that are really just things that got lost in space. Super Mario Galaxy's world is one that's easy to believe, while Super Mario Odyssey's just feels like a group of designers throwing darts at a wall of ideas and putting them in, whether they fit cohesively or not.

It doesn't detract from Super Mario Odyssey as a game—as I said, I enjoyed my time with it—but in the months since I've played it, I can't point to it and say I loved it in any big sort of way. I keep oscillating back to what made me love Super Mario Galaxy, a platformer that felt fresh at the time of its release, whether that was because of its unique motion controls or running across those 3D spheres. When it comes down to Super Mario Odyssey, I came away feeling like I only really dug half of it; the half that felt artistically flawless in every way it could be.

In the years to come, I'm sure time will vindicate me, and players will know the truth: Super Mario Galaxy is a much better Super Mario game than Super Mario Odyssey. But in the meantime, Super Mario Odyssey is still pretty darn good too.

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Caty McCarthy

Senior Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.

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