Mario Odyssey was the right game at the right time for Nintendo as a business. After Breath of the Wild proved that Zelda was able to do some things differently and thus bring back attention and sales to the series, all eyes were on Mario to do the same. In that way, Odyssey was a major success. Odyssey has a welcoming structure that moves away from the many worlds with fewer missions of Mario Galaxy 2 and leans back toward the larger worlds and more numerous objectives of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. This focus made it easier for both new fans and wary old ones to jump into Odyssey’s colourful universe. But while it was the correct direction for reputation and sales and while Mario Odyssey is – like all Mario games – at very worst well designed and tight to control, it is ultimately an artistic and mechanical step back from the single player series’ high point: Super Mario Galaxy 2.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is something of an anomaly. It was not only released during the same console lifecycle as its predecessor, Super Mario Galaxy, but it is a rare direct sequel in the long-running series. In that way it shares some unexpected similarities with another high point in another series, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Both serve to prove that perhaps Nintendo’s method of constantly needing to find new hooks and angles on their properties is not as desperate as they believe. But while Majora’s Mask acts as a profound counterpoint to the Zelda formula with Ocarina of Time as its subject, Mario Galaxy 2 is distilled near-perfection of the 3D Mario formula.
Super Mario 64 was a turning point for many gamers. It seemed unbelievable to be able to explore a world of such magnitude that would also reward players with a naturally evolving mastery of control over the world’s red-capped explorer, Mario. Stuffed with secrets and a mysterious air, Super Mario 64 usurped a sense of adventure normally left to other games in other franchises. But mood aside, the gameplay in Super Mario 64 involves conquering environments by way of following power stars placed by the designers in order to get players to test their mastery of Mario and mental mapping of each area.
Super Mario Sunshine was a well-intentioned and confused attempt at expanding this gameplay philosophy. Nintendo gave Mario an expanded moveset by means of a talking watergun jetpack, and added more area and methods of collecting power stars, or shines, or whatever. But while the game has plenty of highlights, it ultimately feels like a less focused, more tiresome, and more clinical version of Super Mario 64.
Super Mario Galaxy attempts to peel some of this fluff away and is largely successful. It is a strong, focused game, but it still had too much pointless exploring of worlds that Mario-style gameplay was only ever incidentally connected to in Super Mario 64.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 finally sheds the veneer and makes Mario gameplay into a simple and elegant conversation between environment and mastery. Worlds are abundant and different challenges on the same world either take Mario down a different path or shed a new challenging angle on an old task. Mario gameplay is exposed and can be directly communicated with, revealing the artistry of interaction in the micro scale in the tradition of 2D Mario, 2D Zelda, or (so I hear) the best Mega Man games. Skilled Mario players might need to sink some time in before the challenge comes to the surface, but that is something that skilled Mario players will run into from 64 to Odyssey anyway and while challenge can enhance an experience, a lack of it does not dissuade appreciation of form.
Super Mario Odyssey takes what is interesting about the contrapuntal expanding inventiveness of Galaxy 2 and waters it down to make it accessible. Exploration makes a return when it is not only no longer necessary to enhance Mario gameplay but – as Sunshine proved – only dilutes it. Odyssey masks this facts better than Sunshine did, and there is something innately satisfying to collecting power moons in Odyssey, but it is still an often meaningless task. Collecting all the stars in Galaxy 2 is a slow ramp up to an intimate knowledge of its form. Collecting all the moons in Odyssey eventually becomes a very dull list of sidequests.
3D Mario games are not meant for operatic gameplay strokes like a true adventure exploration game or else they would lose their identity, but adopting some inviting and aesthetically satisfying elements of the genre make good business sense and it appears to have been the right call for Nintendo as a company. Plus, the company’s best games are built on the backs of others and there is no way to avoid growing pains. Perhaps Odyssey was necessary, but it was not a peak.