Mario’s next big adventure, Super Mario Odyssey on Nintendo Switch, follows the open-world formula established by Super Mario 64. In Odyssey you’ll explore huge spaces, uncovering secrets and collectables, traversing everything from the rooftops of skyscrapers to icy underground caverns. I had the chance to play a 10 minute-long demo of the game here at E3, and while it introduces a number of clever and inventive new gameplay twists, there was one aspect that stood out the most: this game is really hard.
The area I played — New Donk City — is a New York-style urban cityscape, complete with tall buildings, yellow taxis, green parks, and properly proportioned humans who look bizarre standing next to the squat, cartoonish Mario. Much like in its predecessors, one of the big goals of Odyssey is to collect things. In this case, they’re objects called power moons, and you need to gather a certain number of them to move on to the next big area. (Nintendo says there are significantly more moons to find in Odyssey than the “stars” and “shines” in previous games.)
Some are obvious, glowing temptingly on top of skyscrapers or tucked away in back alleys. Other moons can be earned by completing tiny objectives or larger missions. Many can be earned through experimentation. Super Mario Odyssey designers want you to engage with the world and discover how it reacts. You can bounce on cars like they’re trampolines, climb your way up lampposts, and slide down glass buildings. Some stages feature pixelated warp pipes that turn the game into an old-school side-scrolling experience, complete with a moon at the end. I earned my first moon by leaping into a game of jump rope and successfully making a handful of hops.
The core of the experience feels largely familiar. Mario still has his traditional jumping and climbing abilities. But new in Odyssey is his sentient hat Cappy. It’s not just a new character, complete with huge expressive eyes, but a new tool. You can toss Mario’s hat to collect coins, attack enemies, and activate objects like an electronic zip line. Perhaps most notable, the hat also takes over the power-up role for Mario; throw it at certain enemies, vehicles, and other characters, and Mario will take control of them, turning the plumber into everything from a tank to dinosaur to his oldest nemesis, the lowly goomba. Cappy also changes up traversal: if you toss the hat in front of you, it can double as a platform to reach new areas.
These additions made the game feel more complex than what I’m used to from a Mario game. At one point, I struggled to make a long jump between two buildings, only to realize I needed the help of my hat to get across. If you’ve played a lot of Mario before, the new abilities force you to change the way you think about these spaces, and in my brief time with the game it felt slightly overwhelming. Part of that has to do with just how much there is to do in each level. In addition to collecting coins and moons, there was also a main quest line to follow, which involved finding a series of musicians scattered throughout the city. It’s a big enough place that Odyssey includes a mini-map complete with objective markers to help you your way around — the only other entry in the series to do this was Super Mario 64 DS.
This complexity is combined with some surprisingly tricky level design, which results in a game that isn’t as easy to pick-and-play compared to other Mario titles. It gets even harder when you factor in motion controls that — during my brief experience — felt frustratingly imprecise. You can use the Joy-Con controllers to simulate tossing Mario’s hat, but in my demo the aiming felt off, and I was able the throw with accuracy maybe 50 percent of the time. When I reverted back to standard controls, I found it much easier to hit targets.
The structure of the game may lend itself well to the hybrid nature of the Switch. It’s a game that you can play for long sessions in order to follow the missions, or in short bursts while you collect a few moons in portable mode. It’s a structure somewhat reminiscent of the bite-sized shrines in Switch launch title The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, making the game another great example of the Switch’s flexibility.
Of course, it’s impossible to get a proper sense of what a huge game like this is like by playing for such a short time. Super Mario Odyssey introduces new ideas and mechanics that seem like they will take some time to get used to, as they significantly alter a very familiar formula. What is clear from even just a few moments, though, is that this is a game bursting with ideas, and one that brings back a style of game that Mario has been missing for years. 10 minutes in New Donk City isn’t enough.
Super Mario Odyssey is coming to Nintendo Switch on October 27th.