It was around the time I was flinging my pirate hat in order to possess a huge piece of meat that I realised Super Mario Odyssey is a bit weird, even by Super Mario standards.
Following Nintendo’s leading man on a globe-trotting journey through regions he’s never visited before, the game takes the form of an exploration-heavy adventure like Mario 64 or Mario Sunshine, but with a focus on player agency and a much more pronounced sense of absurd humour. With the new ability to “capture” and take control of a huge number of enemies and objects, plus the addition of unlockable hats and outfits, this might be the funniest and most open core Mario adventure so far.
When I last played Odyssey at E3 I travelled to New Donk City in the Metro Kingdom and Tostarena in the Sand Kingdom. This time around, in a longer demo at Nintendo HQ, there were three locations on show: The Cap Kingdom’s Bonneton, Luncheon Kingdom’s Mount Volbono and Seaside Kingdom’s Bubblaine.
In Bonneton we first meet Cappy, the transforming hat that gives Mario his power to capture, and we have a chance to re-aquaint ourselves with moving Mario around freely in a 3D space. From backflips to triple-jumps, wall-jumps to ground-pounds and rolls, all the usual Mario moves are here and they feel great. New are the Cappy-centric attacking moves, like the throws and spins that can be unleashed with the press of a button or — if you want a bit more control — the flick of a Joy-Con controller.
We also get our first taste of body-swapping weirdness here, when Mario throws Cappy to inhabit the body of a frog and climb up some high ledges. Aside from being very funny (the hat and moustache that appears on every captured object never gets old), the ability to take control of almost anything in this game has me excited for the puzzles and secrets that seem to inhabit every corner of Odyssey‘s worlds. Each captured thing moves and behaves differently, making for new abilities and challenges for Mario to work with.
At mount Volbono, a colourful food-filled land where the villagers are forks that bend their creepy tines like hands when they talk, I captured a fire bubble to swim through lava-like pudding and light torches to uncover secrets.
I also captured a goomba and, spotting a lady goomba on the other side of a lava pit I thought he might like to meet, jumped on top of his friends to make a tower of goombas, steering the four-high teetering stack of bad guys across the steaming goop via a precariously rotating cob of corn.
Each world is littered with Power Moons, awarded for solving riddles, finding secrets or completing certain objectives. While some prerequisites for winning a Moon are more obvious than others, I found myself wandering off the beaten path and always finding a challenge or mystery to take on.
In the sun-soaked Bubblaine, I was tickled to find a secret club that would only permit access if Mario was dressed in a way that would let him “truly relax”. I also captured a cheep cheep to dive deep into underwater caves, chatted to the snail-like locals, shopped for new hats and outfits on the back of a floating dinosaur and found a retro pipe that led to an NES-style sidescrolling bonus stage.
While the smaller objectives, random happenings and spontaneous Moon quests are often delightfully bizarre and unexpected, the narrative setup of the game itself is perhaps even more ridiculous. I can’t describe exactly what happens in Odyssey‘s cutscenes, but it’s clear from the stages themselves that Bowser is travelling the world gathering special materials to use in his upcoming wedding to Princess Peach, who he’s kidnapped once again.
Some horrible creature had been put in control of a much-loved item in each kingdom I visited, to the despair of the locals, with a massive bird hoarding the Stupendous Stew in Luncheon and an ostentatious octopus slurping up all the magical fizzy water stores in Seaside. Defeating these beasts is the obvious main objective in each area and a source of Power Moons, but you’ll also have to duke it out with a group of hat-wearing rabbits called the Broodals, who Bowser has apparently hired as his wedding planners and who don’t take kindly to their plans to lift food and drink being scuttled.
This mix of prescribed, story-based objectives and player-led exploration is something I can see working really well if the rest of the game follows suit. With its new takes on old ideas, a lot of room for customisation and the feeling that anything could happen at any time, Odyssey has the potential to be for Mario what Breath of the Wild was for Zelda earlier this year.
While the game moves the core Mario series forward with a greater sense of exploration, scale and humour, it also follows tradition by feeling like a real showcase for the machine it runs on.
Odyssey seems a great match for the hybrid nature of Nintendo’s Switch — with the option to undertake a long exploration or boss battle when you’re playing at home or go after a quick challenge or Power Moon while out and about — but I was surprised to find it also looks to make special use of the console’s HD Rumble and screenshot features.
The rumble, which can produce a range of convincing effects when utilised well, punctuated actions like kicking beans around or searching for underground treasure. When I jumped into Bubblaine’s sparkling ocean, the Joy-Con controllers fizzed with a bubbling sensation that made my hands feel like they were holding a plastic cup of highly carbonated soda water.
Meanwhile a photo mode lets you pause the action, rotate the camera and apply a range of artistic filters, ready for you to showcase Mario’s vacation through the console’s ability to post screens directly to Facebook or Twitter. With the wonderful ridiculousness of the captures, outfits and random weird happenings I found in just three areas of the game, I expect this feature to get a whole lot of use.
Super Mario Odyssey is out for Switch on October 27.