Super Mario Odyssey Is So Successful Because of its Familiarity
But to fully discuss my love and appreciation for Super Mario Odyssey, I need to take a step back.
It was the late 90’s, perhaps early 2000’s, when I warp piped onto the gaming scene. One of my earliest memories of Mario, in fact, was barely Mario at all. The first time I remember meeting Mario, he was a precocious baby boy in an oversized hat.
It was Super Mario World 2 Yoshi’s Island for the SNES. And in a world full of bright colors and Magikoopas, I struggled to keep him safe as my 5 year old hands fumbled with my first console controller. That game was so hard to me, back then, but I was determined to make it through.
(I’ve been replaying it via the Super Nintendo Classic Edition and have to admit some of that challenge was real).
It’s hard to say when my first real Mario game was. Perhaps it actually was Super Mario Land 2 Six Golden Coins… but Super Mario 64 is what stands out in my mind. I remember it like it was yesterday (in part because I replayed it just last year).
I can still see Lakitu swooping down with his camera, panning over Peach’s castle, as if to invite us into this new world.
I loved Bowser’s nefarious laughter as we chased him throughout the game, the way you could punch a goomba in the face. And to this day I still jam out to the tunes of bob-omb fields.
For a kid that feared boss battles, Super Mario 64 was stressful: with large enemies often sitting at the top of a world. Even as an adult, tossing Bowser into those damn spike presented its own challenges (although that’s more of a Mario vs. The Camera situation than anything).
Each painting was, quite literally, a portal to another world and each star signified a grand accomplishment. You’d get your star, burst out of the painting, and take off your cap as if to exhale out the experience. You’d run your hand over your forehead, the screen noting your accomplishment, only to backflip back into that painting for yet another adventure.
I wasn’t the best player as a kid and even as an adult I still have my gaps. While I never mastered things like flying amongst the clouds it still felt good to put that winged cap on and just glide until the music faded and those wings flickered off.
But most of all, I loved the way the castle was full of secrets.
In Super Mario 64 my curiosity was always peaked and sometimes, on the days I was lucky enough or smart enough or some magical combination of the two, that curiosity was satisfied.
Everywhere I looked, in Super Mario Odyssey, there were call backs to Super Mario 64: from hat stealing birds to paintings you can jump into. Of course, there are references to the series as a whole too. We saw familiar friends from Dorrie floating about to numerous encounters with Captain Toad.
Gameplay wise, we saw familiar platforming moments as well (jumping around without Cappy sure reminds me of those sans flood challenges Super Mario Sunshine was known for).
While there are components of the entire franchise I feel Super Mario 64’s presence the strongest. And It’s not just because I can catch a rabbit and get a power moon… it’s because Super Mario Odyssey makes me feel the awe and wonder that characterized my gaming roots.
Secrets that demand you to keep playing
While linear structure is clearly at play, Super Mario Odyssey allows the adventure to be predominantly seamless. It’s an experience that’s pure joy fueled by player curiosity.
“Odyssey” is defined as a long wandering voyage (usually marked by many changes of fortune) or an intellectual or spiritual wandering quest.
This game delivers on the promise its name implies. In Super Mario Odyssey the adventure is truly in the journey, the process of it all. If you want to collect all the purple coins and get all the moons you literally can’t leave a stone unturned. In previous sandbox Mario games we’d be shown our objective and invited to get it. In Odyssey we stumble onto moons left and right; they’re a reward for our curiosity. Or, they’re a challenge presented to us; we see a moon off in the distance and think: how the hell do I get there?
The truth is, if you’re doing the bare minimum in this game you’re robbing yourself of the experience Odyssey has to offer.
As much as I geek out about callbacks to older games, it’s worth noting that the capture mechanic refreshes the experience entirely. Literally, we are on the other side of where we’ve always been. Instead of destroying or avoiding enemies that are in our way we are reinventing/ them for our own purposes.
It’s the ultimate subversion of our expectations. Bullet Bill is now a source of exploration. Chain Chomps are now a source of power. Cheep Cheeps let us survive in water instead of spelling our doom. We aren’t getting burned by Lava bubbles… we are the lava bubbles.
But in Super Mario Odyssey you’re not just traversing a diverse range of landscapes via a wide variety of enemies; you’re traversing the history of the franchise itself.
Super Mario Odyssey isn’t about how far Mario has come; it’s about how much Mario has remained the same.
All of this culminates to the festival in Metro Kingdom aka New Donk City.
When paired with the song (a song I was albeit, not a big fan of originally) things became fantastical. It becomes clear that time was a flat circle. Pauline sings:
Jump with me
Grab coins with me
It’s time to jump up in the air
Jump up, don’t be scared
and it perfectly encompasses, even since the days of Donkey Kong, what this franchise has been about.
There are so many iterations of Mario but at the end of the day it’s all about how the simple act of jumping can be used for larger means of adventure. From 3D to F.L.U.D.D to outer space to Cappy, the series continues to grow. And yet, at the end of the day, it’s all about jumping. That has always been the crux of it all and Super Mario Odyssey is no exception. It’s merely a brilliant take on what already works so well. And as a lifelong fan of the franchise that’s all I ever want.