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Super Mario Odyssey's weird new controls are actually great

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Learn to love motion controls again

Image: Nintendo

Super Mario Odyssey is Nintendo’s biggest holiday release, and it’s a big shift for the series. I got to spend a few short minutes demoing the game at E3 earlier this year, and I walked away with similar impressions to those of my colleague Andrew Webster: Odyssey seemed hard and complicated, especially when it came to the unwieldy controls centered around Mario’s new sentient hat friend, Cappy. In the intervening months, every time I’ve seen anything new or exciting about Odyssey, there was always that lingering doubt in the back of my head — “What if things don’t get better?”

But a 10-minute-long demo isn’t indicative of a game as a whole. After getting to play a far more extended 90-minute demo of Odyssey, I’ve found that my concerns were mostly for naught, and that Odyssey’s controls and complexity, while strange at first, are actually really great.

Part of that comes from getting to play the actual tutorial, which did a far better job of walking me through some of Mario’s new and old tricks than the controller map I was given at E3. But beyond that, what originally felt like an overwhelming number of things quickly turned into a huge set of tools to use.

Want to roll down a hill and barrel into a pile of goombas? Go for it. Possess one with Cappy and build a giant goomba stack? That works, too. Triple jump over them and keep running? That’s another option. The sheer size of the worlds that Nintendo is offering, combined with the massively varied possibilities for traversing and interacting with them, means that there’s more choice and freedom as to what you can do than ever before.

Nintendo seems to be pushing the use of the Joy-Con controllers in their separated, Wii-like configuration as the ideal way to play. I tried out both the Joy-Con controls and the more traditional Pro Controller — and I honestly can’t believe I’m saying this — but the motion-augmented controls really felt like the way to go. The wrist-flicking motion to throw Cappy becomes second nature after a few minutes, and it felt more natural than doing the same thing through a button press.

The best analogy I can give is that throwing Cappy felt similar to the motion controls in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the Wii, where mapping Link’s basic attack worked as a natural extension of the controls and freed up the rest of your hands for pressing buttons. Similarly, in Odyssey you’ll want to throw Cappy at everything, just to see what enemies and objects you can capture (i.e., magically possess in a possibly terrifying existence), or how things in the world will react.

The other half of it is that Nintendo has mapped a lot of abilities to motion controls, and many of them just don’t work as well using a traditional controller. More advanced hat throws — like sending Cappy spinning around Mario in a circle, or throwing the hat up or to the side — are awkward to implement using stationary controls. So while launching that spin throw with the detached Joy-Con is as simple as flicking your controllers to the side, doing the same thing with docked gamepads or the Pro Controller requires rapidly spinning Mario in a circle and then launching Cappy with a button press.

You also can’t avoid motion controls: some things are reliant on them, even if you’re using a more traditional control scheme. This is particularly true when it comes to captured enemies, most of which almost always have additional abilities that are tied to a flick of the controller. Possessing a Cheep-Cheep will let you swim around without worrying about air, but your only defense is a motion-activated attack that requires shaking the controller. If Mario captures a Lava Bubble or a frog, he’ll be able to jump higher if you shake the controller while jumping, actions that just work more naturally with the undocked Joy-Con than it does a stationary gamepad.

Image: Nintendo

My only concern with this focus on motion controls is that they have the potential to negate the Switch’s greatest advantage: portability. While I didn’t get a chance to try out Odyssey in the portable configuration, I’d imagine that the controls will be similar to the Pro Controller. But they’ll be worse, since you’ll have to shake the entire console — screen and all — to activate abilities. I’ll have to wait to see how Odyssey plays away from a TV before making any final judgements, though.

More so than even Zelda, a new Mario game is often the thing that defines a Nintendo console. That means there’s a certain amount of pressure: it needs to be accessible to everyone, while somehow living up to the weight of the plumber’s long history. There are still some potential pitfalls for Odyssey — its new open-world structure, a potentially overwhelming amount of abilities — but after spending some extended time with the game, I’m convinced that the new motion controls are actually one of the best things about the game.