The problem with Super Mario Odyssey – Reader’s Feature

As reader explores why he was disappointed by the most recent 3D Mario, and why he doesn’t think it’s a patch on Super Mario Galaxy.

There is no better demonstration of an all-time classic then the failure of developers either to surpass or equal it. This, more than graphics, mimesis, storyline, character or complexity, is the measure of why to this day Tetris is still regarded one of the best video games of all time. There are more complex and, with the advance of technology, perhaps more compelling puzzle games (Tetris Effect, perhaps?), but there are none that can objectively be called ‘better’.

If the best video games are those that introduce genuinely innovative gameplay mechanics and thread them together in such ways that every experience is both challenging and rewarding, the simpler the game the easier it is to ensure such consistency. What makes Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 so impressive is that they achieve all of these things in an incredibly diverse and multifaceted game world.

The problem with Super Mario Galaxy is the same problem a developer of a puzzle game has with Tetris. Never ones to rest on their proverbial laurels, Nintendo are victims of their own peerless legacy. People will say that Super Mario Galaxy 2 improves on the first, and in some respects it does, but this misses the point. The follow-up is an extension, not a reinvention. We can quibble about which is the better, Ocarina Of Time, Majora’s Mask, or The Wind Waker – all of which have their merits – but as with Super Mario Galaxy 2, every iteration based on the Ocarina template is in the latter’s shadow.

Galaxy, of course, builds on the Super Mario 64 template. However, unlike those that followed Ocarina, it retroactively exposed the limitations of its forbear. Breath Of The Wild succeeds where Skyward Sword, despite tinkering with the formula, failed. Not only is it a radical reimagining of the formula, it succeeds on its own terms in much the way the Galaxy games do. Within the Zelda universe, A Link To The Past stands out for the same reason and like Tetris, Super Mario Galaxy, and Breath Of The Wild is a perfect distillation of form.

Tastes are subjective but if subjectivity were the sole criterion by which critics reviewed video games, reviews would be meaningless. I know GameCentral laud Super Mario Galaxy as much as I do which is reason, as with their love of Advance Wars, their reviews are a reliable barometer of whether I will like the game too, or at least ought give it a try. But they sometimes get it wrong. Just as by their own admission Skyward Sword was not the masterpiece they once thought it was, perhaps they will have cause to say the same about Super Mario Odyssey.

From the very beginning, I was completely enraptured by Super Mario Galaxy. As I played Good Egg Galaxy, the first you encounter, I was thinking there is no way this is going to reflect the standard of the whole game and if, as improbable as it seemed, it did it will be the best video game ever made. And of course, it was. Despite feeling underwhelmed at first, with Super Mario Odyssey I so much wanted it to be Galaxy’s equal that I questioned whether my tastes had changed or I had become more jaded.

Perhaps it would ‘click’ later and it is simply a matter of perseverance. And persevere I did, right until the end by which point the flaws, relative to Galaxy, had become all too apparent. If anything it had confirmed my suspicion that Super Mario Galaxy cannot be improved on. Nintendo had made the perfect 3D Mario platformer leaving them with a choice, either, as they did with Breath Of The Wild, abandon the formula altogether or make Super Mario Galaxy 3. Instead they tweaked the formula and by the standard of the series those tweaks, in my view, are for the worse. I would go as far to say that Odyssey is the worst of the 3D entries.

I’m not suggesting that Super Mario Odyssey is a bad video game, far from it. If I were to score a review now, I would give it a 9. But I suspect that with the passing of time, its light will fade and people will regard it in much the way many of us now regard Skyward Sword, a noble attempt to build on Ocarina Of Time but one that ultimately failed.

An entire thesis could be written about why Super Mario Galaxy is indeed a better video game than Super Mario Odyssey. In doing so it is possible to discern what makes a perfect video game. There’s not the space to do this here, so I shall focus on what for me are a few key interrelated issues.

Recycling of ideas with few genuine surprises or standout moments

While the open game world, hat mechanic, and reward structure are the most obvious changes to the Super Mario Galaxy template and, to a degree, bear closer comparison to the more open world gameplay of Super Mario Sunshine, the problem is not with those changes in themselves but how they cohere in this particular instance. The game mechanics of Super Mario Galaxy are perfectly married to the 3D platform format. While they work in themselves, the novelties of Odyssey sit more awkwardly with the template they established in the previous iterations.

In Super Mario Odyssey, I loved the caterpillar-like avatar that expands and contracts like an accordion and the live show sequence in New Donk City that shifts to a two-dimensional plane. These were the highlights for me and stood out because there are few others that were equivalent. With Galaxy there are so many highlights that it would be easier to list the moments that do not fill you with joy.

Not only is Odyssey bereft of standout moments, those that did stand out were endlessly recycled. Super Mario Galaxy frequently shifted to a two-dimensional plane but they were seemingly integrated within the overall design aesthetic and were always varied. The frequently repeated 2D sections of Super Mario Odyssey seemed by comparison bolted on and lazy, as if Nintendo couldn’t think of anything else to put in their place.

Barren and uninspired worlds

The worlds in Odyssey were, again by comparison to Galaxy, barren and lacking in charm. One of the highlights of Super Mario Galaxy 2 was the penguin-populated galaxy in which after pounding a platform the ocean is iced over. By transforming the landscape the register shifted and new and varied challenges emerged. The achingly beautiful melody perfectly complemented the achingly beautiful vista. It was one of many instances in which, as with Breath Of The Wild, the pleasure is as much in contemplation as it is in interaction, making one want to start all over again to experience it anew.

There were many such moments in the two Galaxy games, but none in Super Mario Odyssey so impressive that I wanted to return to them. Like a delicious meal, every moment of Super Mario Galaxy was one to saviour, the ending one to delay. I tried to approach Super Mario Odyssey as I had with Breath Of The Wild but in the end raced through it to get it over with. And I have played it again, all the way to the end, and found no reason to revise my opinion.

Unbalanced and chore-like reward structure

The third, and again related, point that others have criticised is the collect-a-thon reward structure. The satisfaction of collecting a moon by negotiating a set of hurdles as difficult as any from Super Mario Sunshine was diminished by the fact that elsewhere you could buy them with in-game money or stumble on them in hidden places. Collecting moons is often a random exercise of hunt and seek wherein the only challenge is whether you can be bothered to walk or ride to an area of the map you have not visited.

Those that did involve a challenge were frequently frustrating and those that were genuinely fun, and occasionally innovative, unevenly dispersed. What kept me playing Odyssey through to the end, and repeatedly revisiting sections, was the possibility that some of its best features had somehow eluded me and that in discovering them my opinion of the game would change. It had its moments, but again they were so few that such efforts became increasingly difficult to justify.

The aesthetic

Graphically, Odyssey benefits from the power of the system it was designed for. Galaxy is still the more beautiful. From the vistas, to the tiny details, the characters and, not least of all, the soundtrack, it is a delight from start to end. I struggle to remember any of the tunes from Odyssey, nor care to revisit the game, as I do Galaxy, simply to hear them again.

Nintendo are in the same dilemma with several other of their franchises, each of which can be tweaked but which, like with Ocarina Of Time, are so perfect it has tied them in a knot. While readers may want to debate these, I would suggest Advance Wars, F-Zero GX, and Mario Kart (number 8 in my view has raised the bar to the point where it is difficult to imagine how the series can be improved on).

It would be regressive, and in the long term damaging, for Nintendo were they to give up trying to innovate and give fans ‘what they want’ by producing more of the same. But in all of these cases where they have arguably reached a theoretical peak, it would be understandable and also welcome if, while continuing to experiment, they did sometimes do more of the same.

So, yes, if Advance Wars cannot be improved on, give us another Advance Wars in HD with more maps and new items. Give us another F-Zero but online with more competitors. But most of all give us Super Mario Galaxy 3 and if not that then HD remasters of the first two games so that everybody who owns a Switch can judge for themselves whether indeed Super Mario Odyssey pales by comparison.

By reader Ciara

The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

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