In several ways, Super Mario Odyssey seems too eager to please. The game’s basic storyline—Mario must rescue Princess Peach from Bowser—remains obligatorily familiar, no doubt to avoid ticking off a legion of traditionalists. As in other 3D Super Mario games, you collect celestial items (only this time they’re moons, not stars), and Nintendo hides so many of them within the game’s worlds that you’re bound to find dozens of them by accident or through routine inspection, given how some items are concealed within like-minded places throughout. You can dress Mario up in a variety of clothes, which appeals to a popular, if banal, gaming trend where players modify the look of a protagonist, often so they can post silly pictures of the playable character on social media. And last but not least, Nintendo incorporates various segments where you play as a pixelated 2D Mario, so as to ensure that the nostalgia of older players has been sufficiently stoked.
That such safe, pandering elements can’t even begin to sum up Super Mario Odyssey is a testament to the often peculiar creativity that bursts from the seams of the game’s many worlds. As in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the best part of Mario’s latest outing is the sheer breadth of what players can discover throughout his odyssey toward saving Princess Peach. But Link has never had anything as dependable and exciting as Cappy at his disposal. This talking hat allows Mario to literally take possession of certain things around him, both alive and inanimate, as a way of finding more moons and coins, opening new paths, and generally kicking some ass.
As early as Super Mario Bros. 3, the high-jumping plumber was able to gain new abilities from magical items scattered across levels, such as the Super Leaf that transforms him into a flying raccoon/human hybrid. Possessing a being or an object in Super Mario Odyssey, what Nintendo euphemistically calls “capturing,” takes this tradition of power enhancement in a more surreal and provocative direction. When Mario transports inside of something, the captured being or object is instantly marked by the plumber’s trademark cap and mustache. Implicit here is the idea that the Mario brand will let you get away with anything, and in our political landscape of extreme polarization and moral sniping, that freedom entails a palpable release of tension.
As such, while Super Mario Odyssey may not be the best Mario platformer, its allowances—the ability to wrench control of something or a situation and utilize it for your aims—function as catharsis for our collective sense of anxiety. Yet this idea by itself would only go so far if the game’s levels (and tasks) weren’t so dynamically designed. In a kingdom of piles of salt, rolling corn on the cob, and boiling candy, you can assume the role of a big slab of meat, at which point the camera hilariously switches to the first-person perspective of a hungry bird. Once this feathered enemy picks up protein-rich Mario, the level alters, with new adversaries, puzzles, platforms, and more. And that’s just one showcase of the game’s unrelenting sense of imagination.
Super Mario Odyssey does not lack for twists and disparate experiences. There’s a simple yet demanding racing minigame where you must, with precise button presses, bounce on the track to make good time. One sequence recreates, with Mario on a scooter facing the screen, the unforgettable T-Rex chase scene from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. A later level is a series of Japanese temples, where Mario can possess a bird whose needle beak doubles as a samurai weapon and a climbing tool that, vertigo be damned, flings the plumber from spot to spot on walls, provided he doesn’t peck metal portions of the buildings, in which case he might fall to his death. Sometimes what you can do has a lurid yet childlike bent, such as when you manipulate a human who’s playing with a remote-controlled car.
If you can think of the game’s kingdoms as one connected map, they have nothing on the expanses of open-world counterparts like Breath of the Wild that strategically employ pseudo-survival features and great distances to trick players into thinking there’s something real about the characters and spaces. Here, Nintendo winks even in the darkest of moments. After you defeat a gigantic dragon in the Ruined Kingdom, you can return to the spot of the battle to find the creature still living but lying down. If you speak to it, the dragon tells you it’s tired, and part of the reason that’s funny, outside of mocking the dreariness of Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s brand, is that you, in contrast, are energized. More so than any pop game this year, Super Mario Odyssey sees virtual space as a land of elating possibilities.