Mario dies in the first minute of Super Mario Odyssey.
At least, I think he does.
Nintendo's latest opens, in typical fashion, with the titular plumber's arch-nemesis Bowser kidnapping his beloved Princess Peach. This time, Bowser's going to make Peach his wife - and he's already dressed for the occasion. So off he takes the poor woman, again, in his flying pirate ship, sending Mario crashing to Earth and shredding his trademark red cap. Mario comes to in an ethereal, otherworldly realm populated by angel-winged Goombas and ghostly, funereal hat creatures - one of whom, Cappy, becomes Mario's new best friend. It's then up to Mario and Cappy to chase Bowser through the world's various Kingdoms, stop the wedding, and rescue Princess Peach.
As with all Mario games, Super Mario Odyssey is based around clever variations on a single gameplay concept. This time, it's all about Cappy, who when thrown at enemies allows Mario to possess their bodies and abilities (and give them a little moustache). The game encourages players to throw Cappy at everything, and you'll want to. With controls as sharp as Mario's animations, it's satisfying simply throwing Cappy around - but the captures are the real draw. Odyssey doesn't shy away from the metaphysical weirdness of having Mario take over other creatures’ bodies, nor does capturing something simply reskin Mario - instead, captured creatures grant temporary special abilities, many of which are laugh-out-loud funny when you first discover them. Some can be used as offensive weaponry; some as a means of locomotion; some as a way to access otherwise inaccessible areas. It's almost intimidating how comprehensively Nintendo iterated on this one idea.
Cappy aside, Odyssey marks a return to the sandboxy 3D worlds of Super Mario 64 and Sunshine, after several titles of more linear gameplay. All of the great moves from the Nintendo 64 classic return, while the camera controls move to a more standard dual-stick system. Aside from its camera and movement controls, Odyssey is a three-button affair, with the basic jump, crouch, and action buttons doing all the work. Motion controls can be used to throw Cappy with a little more finesse, but apart from a couple specific, optional sections, they’re not strictly necessary. And even if you end up dying because you had the temerity to use buttons to control Mario, he simply loses a handful of coins, which can be reacquired later in a surprise nod to Dark Souls. No lives this time, huh Mario? Curious.
As in previous games, Mario advances by finding Power Stars. Here, they’re redubbed Power Moons, for reasons that become clearer as the story progresses, and they’re used to power Mario and Cappy’s lovably old-fashioned airship, the Odyssey. There are hundreds of Moons to find across the game’s dozen or so Kingdoms, though only a fraction are required to complete the story, making Super Mario Odyssey incredibly generous with its post-game content. Each Kingdom is positively lousy with the damn things, gained via platforming puzzles, boss battles, exploration, races, and more. Some Moons are insanely difficult to acquire, some are gained via game-spanning puzzles, and many don’t even unlock until after the credits roll. Odyssey sports so many hidden secrets and delights, so many unexpected surprises, that you’ll become obsessed with finding them all and ticking them off the game’s persistent, maddening list.
And such worlds you’ll explore! Super Mario Odyssey is a travelogue of sorts, with Mario and Cappy jetting wide-eyed from kingdom to kingdom. Each kingdom - gorgeously rendered with a blend of cartoon design and photorealism - has its own geographical theme, paired with sometimes surprising thematic and gameplay-related motifs. The Sand Kingdom combines Mexican, Aztec, and Egyptian design with capturable Bullet Bills and a curious They Live gameplay reference, for example; the Lake Kingdom seems like a standard water level at first, but its walls also feature zippers that can open up to reveal hidden areas. Other sights include multiple dinosaur-inhabited areas; a forest world maintained by robots; a “metro” world with realistic human beings; an Italian-themed world with sentient food; and most surprisingly of all, a ruined kingdom straight out of Dark Souls, with a lightning-dragon battle to boot. The kingdoms have their own super-cute mini-narratives based around various elements of wedding preparation, and their own currency with which Mario can buy souvenirs, stickers, and outfits connected to the area. The whole thing plays as an affectionate ode to travel, and it’s hard not to return the affection.
But Super Mario Odyssey is also something of a travelogue through Mario’s past, which makes his “death” all the more intriguing. The game is filled with nods to the fifteen (!) prior games in the series’ thirty-plus year history, from fossilised 8-bit characters to costumes and dialogue references. Numerous segments flatten Mario into a 2D version of himself, running and jumping through sidescrolling areas mapped ingeniously onto the larger 3D environments. One sequence sees Mario attend a festival literally devoted to celebrating his origins, culminating in a recreation of the original Donkey Kong. I’m probably reading too much into it, but if ever Mario’s life flashed before his eyes, it’s in Super Mario Odyssey.
I've been asked if Super Mario Odyssey is worth buying a Nintendo Switch for. It is, but it’s not the first Game of the Year contender on the Switch, either. A true lesson in simple, effective, and varied game design, Super Mario Odyssey is that rare game that works well in small bites (the Switch is designed to travel, after all) but also plays well in marathon sessions. It’s incredibly addictive, in much the same ways that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is, and it’ll have players chasing the elusive 100% completion for months.
But perhaps the best thing about Super Mario Odyssey is that, like Breath of the Wild, it lives and breathes a spirit of fun and joy and adventure. Sometimes you just want a game to make you feel happy - to make you laugh, to make you smile - and Odyssey quietly works that Nintendo magic at every turn.