Super Mario 64 was not only a system seller, it represented that first huge step into the world of true 3D gaming. Polygons, textures, draw distances. The hypothetical z-axis and an abundance of what we would come to know as fog. Most of the 3D worlds found in the ‘90s were riddled with the stuff. To those who took the plunge, whilst giving a middle-finger to the slow as hell technology they called the CD-ROM, the cartridge-based Nintendo 64 was home to many classic, gimmick free, pure gaming experiences. No boring movies to sit through, or rump shaking CD music to shake our rumps to. Just straight-up next level 3D gameplay.
Granted, there were a lot of 64-bit duds too.
For me, the Nintendo 64 was a big deal. I’m talking high-school graffiti big deal. Counting down to a potential release-date big deal. The US one, only to restart the process once the Australian launch was delayed to the following year. Lay-by. Money earned from that first job in retail. Payments made regularly. New receipts stapled on top of each other one by one until March 1, 1997 rolled around. $399.95 for the console and $99.95 for a copy of Super Mario 64.
Day one of the Nintendo 64 era was spent playing the world’s first true 3D platformer. A close friend’s birthday skipped just to put in a few more hours.
Now, this trip down foggy memory lane might be a case of simply leaning into nostalgia for a different time. A time with way fewer polygons. But the truth of the matter is Super Mario 64 is one of only a handful of 3D titles from the mid ‘90s that is still great to play today. So then, it’s no wonder that the controls in Super Mario Odyssey, the latest in the 3D Super Mario line of platformers that began on the Nintendo 64, are mostly the same. Run, triple-jump, backflip, and dive. Not as a sign of laziness, but another testament to the enduring foundation set by one of the all-time greats.
Followed by Super Mario Sunshine on the GameCube and then Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii, it’s a series that I’ve always come back to and finished each and every time. Maybe not to the 100%, all 120 stars collected level of Super Mario 64. But close enough. Super Mario Odyssey represents the latest version of a style of game that has existed for about 20 years. But also, one that has been sorely missing of late. The 3D platformer.
Spending 90 minutes with Super Mario Odyssey, across the opening section and two of the game’s Kingdoms (or, worlds) it’s a return to classic 3D Mario. Not that he’s been unreliable of late. It’s just that with a string of party games, sports endeavours, creation tools, and ventures back into the world of side-scrolling that were labelled ‘New’ (all of which were fine by the way), it’s great to see Mario back in must-play form. Best in genre level stuff. Platforming gold. Mushroom Kingdom Tea.
Of course, taking this as gospel from a 90-minute play session is borderline silly, so you probably shouldn’t do that. Instead trust in the track record. And that my opinion comes from a personal internal formula and checklist, fine-tuned over many years, to gauge a 3D Mario’s worth. A checklist that has yet to find any cracks. Or, beads of sweat on a portly Italian brow.
Here it is. Does it still feel great, with intuitive controls and subtle, barely noticeable improvements across the board? Yep. Are there new mechanics that at first sound hooky but reveal themselves to be simple catapults to showcase the design and creative ingenuity at Nintendo? Yes indeedy. Does it use technology in a way that complements classic 3D Mario? Abso-fruitly. Does it feel, well, essential? You betcha.
The two Kingdoms that were sampled for this preview didn’t include the weird-looking New York inspired New Donk City from the reveal. Even so, it’s clear that Super Mario Odyssey is another visual departure from the Mushroom Kingdom. Like the tropical vacation locales of Super Mario Sunshine and the otherworldly celestial bodies of Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Odyssey seems content in throwing away any sort of rule book about what constitutes canonical Mario. If you can dream it, create it, and not mess with the core Mario feel, then sure, go for it. At least, that’s the impression that one gets.
Which is probably how you end up with a charming Kingdom all about food. Packed with friendly utensils to talk to, corn on the cob to ride like logs in dangerous purple rivers, and a giant bird making a delicious but menacing stew. Plus, series staples like Goombas, Koops Troopers, and those fireballs with eyes that fly out of lava-based water sources. And then dive back in like clockwork. In terms of presentation it’s still very much Super Mario 64. Collecting Power Moons instead of Stars, with a one-line clue hinting at the next Power Moon location. But, you can still explore at your own pace, and collect in any order you see fit. The additional power of the Switch means the Kingdoms are both larger than ever in size, whilst also looking better than any Mario game you’ve ever played.
Now, big worlds might sound great on paper but one of the reasons that some of the latter 3D platformers failed is that bigger often led to feeling overwhelmed and confused. Super Mario Odyssey has none of that. A true testament to talent at Nintendo, where they’ve created a huge 3D Mario game. But also, one that never feels aimless or padded with vast emptiness. The second Kingdom that was demoed was set on a tropical island, and felt like a combination of all the best Super Mario Sunshine moments filtered through the new cap mechanics of Super Mario Odyssey. And the ability to don some cabana wear.
Okay, so we’ve come this far without talking about the fact that coming across an enemy and throwing your sentient cap at them, Cappy, will cause Mario to enter their body and take over full movement. It’s even weirder than it sounds, but also adorable thanks to the addition of a moustache on any creature you take over. It’s the sort of thing that in another developer’s hands would lead to a handful of different setups, maybe two or three different control schemes and set piece designs. In the world of Nintendo, and in the spirit of 3D Mario, this means mechanics are introduced for one awesome sequence and then discarded a few minutes later. Where Cappy is being used in an entirely different fashion.
It also means a sequence where you take control over a huge chunk of red meat, and move it into the view of the giant boss bird creating that menacing stew. Just to entice it to pick you up. To save the fork people. Weird sure, but then again to be pleasantly surprised and excited whilst playing something that you can feel the spirit of Super Mario 64 lying deep within, is something that doesn’t come around often. Does Super Mario Odyssey feel, well, essential? You betcha.