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Nintendo seems determined to upend their classical formulas this generation. With their attempts to reinvent Zelda being a great success, they've now moved on to Super Mario Bros.; and to be honest, I don't quite know how I feel so far.
I suppose you could say that it's a bit of a throwback. Mario has always been weird, but its conventions are so ingrained that we forget how strange it really is. We just take it for granted that Mario shoots fireballs at turtles, or that he can grow tall and powerful with the help of a mushroom.
In that way, Super Mario Odyssey seems calculated to remind us that, yes, Mario is in fact supposed to be weird and off-kilter. By putting him next to real people, we're reminded that Mario is not normal. Not by a long shot.
In some ways, this new approach really works. In others... I'm not so sure. So let me try and break it down a little.
Nintendo showed two different worlds in Super Mario Odyssey: Sand Kingdom and Metro Kingdom. Of the two, I found Sand Kingdom by far the most enjoyable. I'll get to my thoughts on Metro Kingdom (or "New Donk City") in a bit.
So if I'm understanding Nintendo's approach correctly, Super Mario Odyssey is in some ways a bit like Breath of the Wild. You're dumped into a large sandbox rather than a discrete level, and are basically encouraged to explore. Caves and pipes function a little like Breath of the Wild's Shrines: They're bite-sized platforming experiences that are mindful of Mario's classic approach but are over rather quickly.
The rest of the Sand Kingdom is like a much-expanded level in Super Mario 64. Much of the fun is in trying to figure out how to reach moons—replacements for Mario's familiar stars—which can be used to open up new areas.
Key to Super Mario Odyssey's traversal puzzles is Mario's hat, which can be used to take control of creatures and devices. Take control of one creature and you can run across acid (though controlling it is a little tricky, as you have to brake hard to change direction). Throw your hat at a power node and you will become a bolt of electricity that races up and down a wire to new locations.
As you explore, there are some cool easter eggs to be found. If you go down the right pipe in the Sand Kingdom, for instance, the perspective will suddenly shift to something resembling the original 8-bit Super Mario Bros. Classic Mario runs across the wall like a living painting collecting coins then, poof, returns to 3D Mario upon exiting the pipe. It's stuff like this that makes Mario so much fun.
As always, it was smartly designed and fun to play, and I didn't have the same trouble with the controls that other people did (I was playing with the two JoyCons). If the rest of the levels build on what I saw in the Sand Kingdom, it should be fun to play.
Alright, let's talk a little about New Donk City.
It begins promisingly enough. Everything is this weird, funhouse version of what the "real world" might look like. The proportions are weird and there are coin blocks everywhere. It superficially resembles New York; but outside of the somewhat realistically proportioned citizens, it might as well be another part of the Mushroom Kingdom. I kind of like it actually—it's all very "Mario."
The actual gameplay, though, is not. Upon meeting up with Mayor Pauline, you're asked to go and recruit some musicians so that she can put on a party. The first one is waiting right outside: you talk to him and he agrees to go play. The rest of the musicians are found by wandering around, racing up buildings through electric wires with your hat powers, and checking rooftops.
It's a slow-paced and frankly kind of boring process, and it's compounded by Pauline's request that you address some power troubles before the party starts. To do that, you have to collect enough coins to buy an inspector's hat and overalls to post as a city inspector. I suppose that's where you spend more time wandering around and maybe finding some levels to explore, but it didn't feel like there was much to do in the city itself.
I guess I'll come right out and say it: It fell kind of flat for me.
Is this indicative of what the final product will be? I'm not sure, to be honest. From the look of it, Super Mario Odyssey will incorporate a lot of different gameplay elements, some of it quite experimental. It's easy to complain that it doesn't really feel like a "Mario" game, i.e., it's very light on the traditional platforming elements, but that doesn't feel quite right. The spirit of openness and exploration is certainly there, if not necessarily the execution.
What I will say is that it's kind of cool to see Nintendo experiment to heavily with its classical franchises. They could have made something resembling Super Mario Galaxy 3 and been endlessly praised for it, but instead they're striking out in some peculiar directions. It makes me wonder what else they have up their sleeves with Super Mario Odyssey. Whatever it is, I'm sure it'll be extremely weird. I mean, we've already seen Mario possess a T-Rex, so it kind of feels like anything is possible with this game.
But as for the demo that was shown at E3, I came away feeling a little mixed. The Sand Kingdom was kind of interesting, but Pauline's quest really didn't do anything for me at all. Hopefully the rest of the game is more like the former than the latter.