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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.

Analysis by Caty McCarthy, .

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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Comments 18

  • Avatar for Flipsider99 #1 Flipsider99 8 months ago
    Gonna have to agree to disagree. I think Odyssey's art direction is fantastic. Yes, it's less "cohesive" than Galaxy but I think that is a strength, not a weakness. It's right there in the title: this is supposed to be an "odyssey", a wild journey that takes you to many different and exotic locales. I think artistically it pulls off what it wants to do splendidly, and many of the areas are incredibly beautiful in their own way.

    For me personally, the flaw with Odyssey is just that it feels too easy, and there are way too many moons. It particularly suffers in the "endgame" where it feels like there is a lot less thought put behind every moon. It's a small complaint though, Odyssey is incredibly well designed and it's amazing the amount of creativity and thought that goes into the placement of almost every main game moon.
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #2 The-Challenger 8 months ago
    It also needed a dozen or more transformations. It was okay, I prefer Galaxy too, but whatever.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #3 NiceGuyNeon 8 months ago
    I haven't played Odyssey for more than 30 minutes and need a Switch badly. Buuuuuuut, I still believe that Super Mario Galaxy 2, not 1, is the best 3D platformer of all time and the best game of that system generation, sorry Dark Souls (or if you're basic, RDR or Uncharted I guess).

    SMG2 opens up the brilliant ideas of SMG, keeps the fantastic art direction, and iterates on what by itself could have been the best 3D platformer of all time, but through iteration improves on it with more creative gameplay ideas and rarely defaults to the "OK now collect 100 coins" trap that SMG1 fell into in the endgame.

    I'm sure I'll love Odyssey, and I hope I love it more than Galaxy 2, but I somehow doubt it. The precise level design, the simple controls, the perfect motion, it just gets it all. Challenge is stellar as always. As much as I enjoyed New Super Mario Bros U, NSMBWii, Super Mario 3D Land (yes I played it) and 3D World, Galaxy and Galaxy 2 are the real stars, and Galaxy 2 stands above all else.

    To be honest, I feel like Odyssey is in a different boat than Galaxy. Odyssey, Sunshine, and 64 (I love all three of them) are all about big playgrounds and exploration, while the Galaxy and 3D games are about fine tuned platforming levels with an end goal in sight. So I almost don't want to compare them, I'm just happy that the two styles can co-exist alongside the 2D games and that Nintendo can do so much within the same genre with the same mascot.

    Buuuut, Galaxy's use of level design is just jaw-dropping even today. I'd be happy with a Galaxy 3 right now and wouldn't bat an eye at picking it up.

    EDIT- I wrote 120 coins, I mean 100 coins.Edited January 2018 by NiceGuyNeon
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  • Avatar for TerryTrowbridge #4 TerryTrowbridge 8 months ago
    Galaxy was my first let down with Mario. After exploring 3D worlds in 64 and Sunshine, Galaxy seemed so liner. I also hated the waggle. Sure it looked and sounded great, but I didn't enjoy playing it. Didn't 100% it, first for a Mario game for me. Also didn't even beat Galaxy 2.
    Odyssey was the game I wanted 10 years ago.Edited January 2018 by TerryTrowbridge
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  • Avatar for Drachmalius #5 Drachmalius 8 months ago
    Joseph Anderson recently did a YouTube video on Odyssey that really underscores a lot of the problems with it. I agree with everything Caty said here, and Galaxy 1 + 2 are still the best 3D Mario games. Odyssey is fun to play through, but the more time you spend with it the less rewarding it becomes. There are so many filler moons that feel unnecessary and the game just got really boring for me after a while, so I put it down. I had a similar experience with BotW, it was fun for 50 hours but eventually I just got bored and went to kill Ganon.

    Taste is subjective, and I liked Odyssey well enough (there were some very high highs in that game). But it does seem like a lot of players/critics have their blinders on when it comes to new Nintendo games.
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  • Avatar for Toelkki #6 Toelkki 8 months ago
    This "darts at a wall" is the argument I'd use against Galaxy 2 and 3D World rather than Odyssey. Galaxy 1 used the same galaxy "blueprints" longer than Galaxy 2 did. The level design principle (kishotenketsu) I saw mentioned at least in Eurogamer for 3D World made it that game less cohesive in my opinion.

    In this sense, the fewer kingdoms (vs galaxies) in Odyssey keep it more coherent.

    Make no mistake, I don't like Odyssey, but it's nowhere near the worst offender in the Mario games of past 20 years in terms of lacking structure.
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  • Avatar for moochan #7 moochan 8 months ago
    I honestly feel Odyssey is more "Super Mario 30th anniversary sorry we missed the 30th year also sorry for 25th" than it trying to be this amazing game. It was more having fond memories of playing Mario and going around seeing all the crazy things you had adventures with. Galaxy however is meant to be it's own thing in it's own setting. Not just in gaming layout (Galaxy is more linear platforming while Odyssey is sandbox) but they also different in how one would appreciate them.

    "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. "

    Eh I disagree with that. Every Mario game is its own thing and while the later games tend to do more with what they learned from the previous game they each do things differently enough that they are all great in their own ways. Mario World doesn't blemish Mario 3 and 64 doesn't blemish World. Sunshine is the only game in the series (guess outside of Mario 2 Japan) that people feel isn't great but people felt that way from near day one so it's not looked at poorly because of how great Galaxy is.
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  • Avatar for JamesSwiftDay #8 JamesSwiftDay 8 months ago
    It's not really a fair one-to-one comparison as Odyssey has huge stages compared to Galaxy's bite-sized planetoids.
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  • Avatar for Minkukel #9 Minkukel 8 months ago
    No no, that one bad Paper Mario game was on 3DS!

    Anyway, I'd argue that SMG's graphics have aged rather poorly if you compare them to SM3DW. I think that when it comes to textures and colors used, the graphics of Galaxy don't quite look like Mario games do nowadays. Just like how looking at renders of the Mario cast from the GCN days looks a bit weird now. The Mario series has just evolved a bit past that, but not long enough ago like SM64 to make it retro already. If that makes any sense.
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  • Avatar for AstroDemon #10 AstroDemon 8 months ago
    I'm with Caty, but I prefer 3D World over Odyssey (and Galaxy), strangely enough. I'm not a huge platformer fan in general, but that game's tight levels and SMB2 character lineup (and cat suits!) really did it for me. I wanted to replay every level with every character just because the levels were fun. When I beat the Odyssey story, I played a bit of the endgame area, but got bored quickly and haven't touched it since. I had fun with Odyssey over a weekend, like Caty, but that's about it. The ending was memorable, but not much else was for me, even the Luncheon Kingdom. At some point during the endgame when I was collecting moons, I realized how random, tedious, and boring the whole collect-a-thon was. Don't get me started on the Broodals and the crappy motion controls.
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  • Avatar for Neifirst #11 Neifirst 8 months ago
    It's of course fine to prefer Galaxy to Odyssey, but after reading the article it doesn't seem like 'art direction' is really the focus of the criticism, but rather the style of game. Odyssey's kingdoms are larger and contain many more moons (stars) because the gameplay balance is tilted in favor of exploration versus platforming, while the opposite is true in Galaxy. Even considering art direction, the chief complaint seems to be the lack of coherence between the kingdoms. But then the argument is contradicted by the praise for the Bowser dragon boss fight (because...it just works(?)). That kingdom is the one most conspicuous for being yanked out of another game series. Maybe I shouldn't be responding to this at 5:30am, but it doesn't appear to me that the details provided support the argument well. Enjoyable read nevertheless, and I appreciate the effort that went into it.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #12 riderkicker 8 months ago
    @kazriko Oh yeah. Odyssey isn't even the most HD Mario game ever made, that's 3D World. Super Mario Odyssey is the most well constructed game of the entire series, if it has a distinction.
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  • Avatar for secularsage #13 secularsage 8 months ago
    What I appreciate about Super Mario Galaxy AND Super Mario Odyssey (and heck, even the underrated Super Mario Sunshine) is how these games reinvented the Mario formula and kept it fresh. The chaotic art direction of Super Mario Odyssey creates a "throw crazy ideas to the wall and see if they stick" sort of context, and it really works because the game's about surprising the player constantly with a feeling of, "what will they think of next, and how can this new capture mechanic make me see this game differently yet another time?!"

    These titles stand in sharp contrast to New Super Mario Bros. and its sequels or to Super Mario 3D Land / World, which are all great games, but mired in polishing up old ideas instead of delivering something spectacularly new. They also stand in contrast to the Mario Party, Sports and Kart games, which all feel a little samey from platform to platform.

    Compare this to Sonic, which is only really able to shine when it plays to its nostalgic strengths (the excellent Sonic Colors notwithstanding). Or compare the core Mario series to Zelda, which had to radically reinvent itself to turn heads. Mario's greatest asset is Nintendo's ability to envision him as an evolving character who can take on new mechanics without losing a sense of what makes him so much fun to play as.
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  • Avatar for Outrider #14 Outrider 8 months ago
    I didn't have the same complaints that you did in regards to Odyssey, but I do think Mario Galaxy is probably one of the best games Nintendo's put out and probably the better game than Odyssey. It's a definite high point for the series.
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  • Avatar for dard410 #15 dard410 8 months ago
    I love BOTW as much as the next person, but it’s pretty clear Nintend, especially Mario and Zelda, games are graded on a curve. Remember, Skyward Sword was getting 10s from many reviewers back in the day, as was Mario 3D World. I’ve made it a policy of mine to wait a few months before buying new Nintendo games to see if the hype is real, if people still praise the games months after release.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #16 Kuni-Nino 8 months ago
    @dard410 Skyward Sword deserved all those 10's. No other game in the history of videogames incorporates motion controls better into a traditional videogame structure. Anyone who played it realized how great they were the minute they fought Ghirahim.

    Couple with a good story and great level design and the game is an automatic 10. You can't point to anything else that does it better.
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  • Avatar for novacav #17 novacav 8 months ago
    I loved Odyssey, but I agree with you for the most part. Both Galaxies are just that good. Two of the best games of all time. Gamerankings agrees with you, at least as it pertains to Galaxy 1 vs. Odyssey. https://www.gamerankings.com/browse.html

    Odyssey was brilliant but I think people will realize in time that both it and BotW were crowd pleasers. Doesn't make them bad, in fact they're quite good (in particular Odyssey is just brilliant in so many ways and applies its nostalgia so damn well), but these titles were designed to be huge mega-hits that give departed fans what they've wanted for years and bring them back.

    In other worlds, big open worlds. Odyssey and Breath of the Wild are the games that brought back all your friends who haven't cared about Nintendo since the N64. They are the rare games where Nintendo bends and delivers precisely what the fans want, rather than what their visionaries decide and what fans didn't know they wanted.

    It's a smart move to pump up Switch and both regain and develop a new horde of Nintendo loyalists for the next decade. As mentioned, they are lovely games.

    That said, I hope it's not a permanent new strategy. There's something about appreciating the more nuanced Mario and Zelda titles, that your PlayStation and Xbox friends will never understand, the is uniquely Nintendo. The yin and yang of what I describe is important.
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #18 donkeyintheforest 8 months ago
    I agree with this article so much on almost every respect... however, I don't think it's the art style that detracts from the gameplay, but pacing/spacing. I "beat" the game in a bout an evening an a half and was like that was fun, its fun to play mario games, and it's a fresh mario game. But it didn't grab me like a lot of the others. Then I did a bunch of the moon stuff, then even mooner stuff and was like oh there is some challenge to this game after all. And then I picked it up a month later and played through some more of the unlocked stuff. It was pretty fun!

    The game has lots of good stuff, but it also wants you to spend a bunch of time not doing the platforming that makes the game great. It makes you go looking behind staircases for moons or talking to villagers for fetch quests. This was an issue lots of people had with Sunshine, but for some reason the reviewers seemed to ignore it here. Sunshine at least had a pretty cool hub world, and absolutely amazing graphics for the time. The Galaxies, NSMBs, and 3D Land/World all dispensed with that collectathon stuff. It's Odyssey's filler moons that knock the game down to an 8.5 for me.
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