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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Super Mario Odyssey: Review and Game Design Analysis

Super Mario Odyssey is a burst of joy, in the purest form. I don’t know any better way to describe it than that.

In that vein, the closest comparison I can make to anything is the feeling of playing on a playground when you’re little, exploring each new part; there are the slides, there are the swings, there are the jungle gym, and so on, and here’s how it all fits together. Here, Nintendo has created the their own digital playground, much more intricate and detailed and interesting than the real world ones people are used to. And then, they went and did twelve more times.

The level design work in Odyssey is superb, a case study for anyone who’s interested in video games as a creative medium, with hundreds of things to pull apart. In my article on Splatoon, I alluded to my desire to see more games return to using well-constructed “hub worlds” in navigating to the levels. Mario Odyssey doesn’t do that, yet I hardly found myself missing them.

All of the care that normally went into designing those massive, connecting levels is instead here applied to each individual world, making each feel massive without actually making them large or cumbersome. The amount of things to do in each one is deceptive, and contributes to the illusion of feeling grander than it is; even the largest world could be completely be circumnavigated in less than ten minutes, but each is so densely packed with interesting challenges and exploration that it feels more massive (again, just like a little kid in a new playground).

Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit notes that the large number of varied play mechanics could easily be enough work to develop a dozen smaller indie titles, and I would say that sentiment could easily be applied to the levels. I would easily play smaller games built off of worlds like these, going from New Donk City (easily my favorite level) to other smaller neighborhood levels/the rest of the city, or an entire set of space-based levels sprawling off from Honeylune Ridge, or so on. Instead, Nintendo decided to cover all of the things, creating a sprawling world that’s so much fun to even just visit, not even getting into the details of the absolutely gorgeous art work, world-building, and sound* that supports the experience.

*The music is its own bit of wonderfulness. I have had most of the songs stuck in my head at some point, perhaps none more than “Jump Up, Super Star” and “Honeylune Ridge: Escape”.

There’s a lot of interesting design elements in play to this end. The first is attention to detail; the levels aren’t overwhelmingly huge, but every detail in them serves some purpose. Even the few dead ends feel like the contribute to at least giving the level a sense of completeness to make it feel like a set of lived-in worlds, like a few empty dead end allies in the city or the empty houses in the desert town. Nintendo also realized the value in in working with all of the space afforded in a 3D world; each level makes use of verticality in a way that few other games of this nature have.

Keeping in mind the z-axis and where different elements fall within it is significant in play, as you remember that a checkpoint that looks close to your destination on a map may actually fall further away from elevation differences, and you find yourself constantly looking for ways to scale objects to survey your surroundings and reorient yourself (which affords you additional opportunities to take in the beautiful landscapes, thankfully). The choice of the bases for each world even shows a commitment to this design concept, whether it’s the skyscrapers of the city, the tall outcroppings of rocks (that can be scaled in low gravity) on the moon, jungles and forests with tall trees around central points, and even a pair of water levels that make full use of the varying depths the sea affords them.

Despite this sheer amount of detail crammed in, it hardly feels overwhelming, thanks to a few other smart decisions that give a sense of the high degree of intentionality that went into the design. The game is dominated by a strong set of rules that the player picks up on in play. Exploration is always rewarded. Any sort of bonus room or special activity will always carry two moons.* Certain activities repeat across worlds and can be planned and accounted for. Certain visual cues will clue in the player to certain well-hidden moons.** Naming conventions for missions and even their placement in the checklist frequently carry clues to their location in the level. In a way, it reminds me of the type of thing found in The Witness, just applied to a platformer rather than a puzzle game.

*There is a single bonus room that defies this rule, the literal "exception that proves the rule", but it comes with the special post-game marking to ensure players know it’s there. Additionally, Nintendo included a bonus feature to let players know if special rooms carry undiscovered moons, which both ensures players realize this deviation AND serves as a good checklist for finding missed moons for completionists.

**Which eases a lot of the frustration that I normally find in these types of quests, especially when paired with the clues available to those who need them. Between these two features, I always found myself thinking “Why didn’t I think of that earlier?” rather than “Why would I have thought of that earlier?”.
In the end, this doesn’t mean that every single power moon is extremely fun to find. There are definitely a few missions that I didn’t like, but ultimately, I could at least understand why they were included, and the fairly strict adherence to these rules make them at least feel fair. And really, one other major design principle makes it feel fine: choice.

Everything in the game gives the players choice. If you don’t like a mission, you never need to do it. There are always other options to replace it. You can unlock everything significant in the game with a fraction of the total moons actually in the game, and if you find yourself short of moons in the postgame, you can just throw some coins at the store to pick up any other moons you may need to cover the difference. The only reason to get all 880 moons* is if you want to, and as someone who has done that, it’s definitely worth it if you enjoy the game. Even the few clunkers in there aren’t enough to spoil the rest of them.

*880 even feels a little like a commitment to intentionality, stopping short of a “rounder” number like 900. It stops at that number because that number is what the designers felt it needed, nothing more.
Other than those few clunkers, though, there aren’t too many complaints that I can make. The only other “substantial” thing is simply that I wish there was more. I want to see what would be just beyond the borders of the existing levels. I want to see full kingdoms based on ruined castles or the cloudtops, both of which are teased but turn into just mini-levels. I want to experiment and take captured enemies to unintended places, like their non-native worlds. I wanted to see more hidden levels like the first major postgame world, filled with nostalgia and callbacks to the past. The work to accomplish all of these is so extreme though, that it seems more than fair to settle for “just” the amazing pure burst of joy that we got instead.

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