Mario—his full name is “Mario Mario,” if we want to be formal about it—hasn’t starred in an important game in a very long time. He’s been in good games in recent years, like Super Mario Run for smartphones, and exceptional games, like Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U or Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2 for the Wii. But he has long stopped reinventing what video games look and feel like.
Super Mario Odyssey, out on Friday for Nintendo’s hot-selling Switch console, can’t hope to achieve what Mario’s debut in Donkey Kong did in 1981, introducing the rudiments of character and story to carnivalesque arcades. Nor can it match the novelty of Super Mario Bros. in 1985, with its surreal landscapes and Alice in Wonderland–like transformations by mushroom snacking, or of Super Mario 64 in 1996, a game that virtually invented open-world game design in three dimensions.
Even so, Super Mario Odyssey incorporates and reinvents elements of each of these games without feeling like a nostalgic, reverential mimic. Odyssey doesn’t establish something totally new for video games, but it recaptures something old: the joy of surprise and discovery that is the indispensable element of a Mario game.
“Surprise” may seem like an odd theme for a series whose setup—monster kidnaps girl; boy goes on quest to defeat monster—has been basically unchanged since Donkey Kong ascended a ladder in 1981 while carrying Pauline under his arm like a rolled-up carpet. Rather than discarding the series’ dated gender dynamics, Odyssey at first appears to speed-run right into them: Bowser, Mario’s Godzilla-like nemesis for more than 30 years, absconds with Princess Peach in order to marry her. (More on that later.) To head off the forced nuptials, Mario teams up with a new ally, Cappy, a sentient hat. (It’s not worth dwelling on the surreality too closely. These games have always been weird. It’s winged turtles all the way down.)
Cappy brings with him new powers for Mario. He can be hurled to pick up coins at a distance or knock back an occasional enemy. But most of all, he provides Mario with new ways to transform. In Odyssey, there are no flowers that grant the power of fire, or mushrooms that make you larger, or raccoon costumes that let you float through the air. Instead, Mario “captures”—possesses is more like it—creatures and items, both animate and inanimate. Rather than just defeating his foes, Mario can also become them.
Frogs, electricity, rocket ships, Goombas, a dinosaur, zippers, remote-control cars, Yoshi, woodpeckers, a hunk of raw meat, forks, those lava fireballs Mario is always evading: The transformations aren’t endless, but the game is perpetually making new ones available, each with a new move set to exploit. The result is a game with ever-changing controls that are wonkier than Nintendo’s usual impeccable standard. Yet the sheer variety of interactions makes up for the occasional infelicity.
On its face, the mechanic resembles one from another 2017 game, David O’Reilly’s Everything, a moving meditation on the interconnectedness of existence. In practice, however, Super Mario Odyssey plays more like a Saturday-morning What Remains of Edith Finch, more interested in dazzling players with new ideas than in exploring any one of them too deeply.
To chase after Bowser and his nonconsenting fiancée, Mario and Cappy repair the titular Odyssey, a steampunk airship that runs on (of course) Power Moons. Mario collects this crucial inscrutable substance by finding, or earning, the moons as they are scattered throughout the game’s many kingdoms. He might need to find his way to a remote location, or wear a particular outfit (a clown suit, a football helmet, a pinstriped suit that makes him look like an extra in Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” video, or go shirtless with his new nipple-exposing boxers). Or maybe he needs to defeat a particular enemy, or even flatten himself into two dimensions for sections that are animated like it’s 1985 all over again.
Each kingdom is dense with these moons, with scores of them to be found in places obvious and secret. I’ve discovered more than 300, and there are hundreds more that remain hidden. The kingdoms themselves are constructed, for the most part, according to the templates provided by past Mario levels and Star Wars planets. There’s a forest one, an underwater one, a snow one, a desert one. Still, each is a delight, and there are unexpected turns, like a “Luncheon Kingdom” ruled by utensils, a “Ruined Kingdom” with realistic animation that could come from Game of Thrones, and the much-advertised “Metro Kingdom,” aka New Donk City: an ersatz Manhattan in which Donkey Kong’s Pauline has been elected mayor and Mario appears a goblin-like freak amid normally proportioned human residents.
Yoshiaki Koizumi, one of Super Mario Odyssey’s producers, also co-directed 2002’s notoriously difficult Super Mario Sunshine. For Odyssey, Koizumi and the game’s director, Kenta Motokura, have exchanged challenge for abundance. (Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario’s creator, is credited as executive producer, an advisory role.) While there are areas that will tax the skills of seasoned players, they can be abandoned on a whim at virtually no cost to progress. Just walk away and pretty soon you will be riding a motor scooter while being chased by a dinosaur down a city street, or you’ll walk into a movie theater where a version of World 1–1 from Super Mario Bros. is playing on the big screen.
Granted, there are bosses that must be dispatched with a sometimes-challenging fight—as when my Mario, in the form of a mustachioed fireball, had to ascend a trail of bird lava-vomit—but even then the game typically offers a way to double your hit points after one too many defeats. The historically tightfisted number of “lives” for Mario have also been eliminated and replaced with a Weimar wheelbarrow of coins that is reduced by a mere handful upon “death.” Every coin adds to Mario’s longevity, so you’re no longer scouring for green 1UP mushrooms. The coins are also actual currency usable in the game’s souvenir shops to buy new costumes for Mario, or to personalize the steamship Odyssey with stickers and decorations. If you want, you can even buy Power Moons with them.
As these and other changes (most shocking and welcome: a map with fast travel) suggest, Super Mario Odyssey is informed by its predecessors without being constrained by them. Allusions and motifs from older games, famous and obscure, turn up everywhere. Some are Nintendo’s own (Donkey Kong Jr.!), but some aren’t (Centipede! The indie platformer VVVVVV!)
Odyssey is not as groundbreaking as the early Mario games (how could it be?), but it still equals and sometimes surpasses them. It is surely not a spoiler to note that the game ends with Peach’s liberation from Bowser. In the postgame, she finds herself reflecting in ways that are surprising and sad on her captivity.
Even with Bowser gone, Mario continues his hunt for Power Moons. The game is no less satisfying—and much less icky—without a Weinsteinian predator to destroy. This denouement is an acknowledgment of how poorly Peach has been treated by the Mario games, and it contains a message, perhaps, to Nintendo: Bowser’s ritual princess kidnappings have trapped Mario, too. Peach is free. Let her, and these impossibly happy and inventive games, stay that way forever.