By the time I was 16-years-old, I mistakenly believed I was too mature to be playing “Super Mario Bros.” games.
That’s why I missed one of the greatest games Nintendo ever produced. Despite the rather repellent title, “Super Mario 64” was a wonder of 3D design. It came out at nearly the same time as “Tomb Raider” for the PlayStation (1996), and both games introduced the concept of navigating characters through three-dimensional environments.
Deep down, I wanted to play it — I just couldn’t admit it to my teenage friends. As a result, my interest in platformers wouldn’t rekindle for many years.
It’s a hole in my gaming history as large as “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.” I watched a lot of classic movies in college, but managed to miss one of the greatest buddy comedies in history — or so I’m told.
Fortunately, the recently released “Super Mario Odyssey” plays just like “Super Mario 64,” and is being hailed by critics as one of the greatest games ever made.
“Super Mario Odyssey” for the Nintendo Switch
At this point, praising a “Super Mario Bros.” game is like pouring a bag of sugar on a chocolate cake. We all knew this game would be super sweet. Considering “Super Mario Odyssey” has a nearly unheard score of 97 out of 100 on the Metacritic website, it’s sweet enough to cause a bellyache.
Unlike most Mario games, “Odyssey” doesn’t focus on intensely-timed jumping levels that take you from left to right. It plays more like an action-role-playing-game, full of three-dimensional landscapes to explore.
While the focus is on exploration, there are plenty of baddies looking to boot Mario out of the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario can possess enemies by throwing his hat at them, which is as silly and adorable as it is necessary. Need to cross a gap that’s too wide to jump? Simply toss your hat at one of the giant floating bullets (known as Bullet Bill), which allows you to fly anywhere in the level. Bullet Bill even wears an appropriately enlarged red Mario hat when under the player’s control.
Maintaining accuracy in a 3D space is tricky, but Mario’s hat throwing ability can home in on baddies with the proper shake of the controller. Relying on limited motion controls is a bit annoying (especially when playing in handheld mode), but it works better than you’d think.
The most charming aspect of the game, at least for my wife and I, is the two player mode. Much like the “Super Mario Galaxy” games, the second player takes on a limited, assistant role by taking control of Mario’s floating hat. My wife is far from a Mario expert and enjoys helping out without getting overwhelmed by a complicated control scheme.
Just be warned, “Super Mario Odyssey” isn’t an epic—in terms of story, anyhow. You can blow through the main campaign in about 10 to 15 hours, but collecting the 800 moons will take at least three times as long.
I haven’t played enough of the game to give it a proper review (hence the lack of star rating), but it’s kind of a moot point. The quality of “Super Mario Odyssey” is undeniable, and it’s already become the fastest selling game in Mario history.
If you have a Switch, odds are, you either own this game or will soon. Mario is critic-proof and will stay that way as long as Nintendo’s developers continue to be masters of their craft.
Nintendo to the Rescue
Earlier, I said “Super Mario Odysessy’s” Metacritic score of 97 was nearly unheard of. But there is one exception.
“The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” — another Switch game (also available for the Wii U) — earned the same exact score at the beginning of 2017.
That overabundance of quality has put Nintendo in the enviable position of owning two exclusive titles that will be fighting it out for “Game of the Year” accolades. The Switch is on track to become Nintendo’s most popular platform, and indie developers are flocking to the system to escape the cluttered online marketplace of other consoles.
This couldn’t come at a better time. Electronic Arts and other major game publishers are shying away from linear, single-player experiences. There’s a lot more money to be made in multiplayer games that milk players through micro-transactions over a period of years. Online gambling mechanisms disguised as loot boxes rake in, even more, cash since there is no upper limit on spending. One gamer spent $9,000 on digital items in “Mass Effect 3.”
It’s an unsustainable business model that may result in federal regulation. And when that slot machine economy comes crashing down in the next couple of years, all that will be left are quality games (many of them single player) designed by artists who see their creations as much more than revenue.
It takes time and ungodly amounts of money to create games as good as “The Legend of the Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and “Super Mario Odyssey.” Those two titles alone represent about a decade’s worth of development work, and cost the same amount of money as a shoddy annual release in the “Assassin’s Creed” series. But since most open world titles are stuffed with digital items to buy, Nintendo games are actually cheaper. All you have to do is buy (or rent) the game — no strings attached.
Despite being a Japanese company, Nintendo single-handily resurrected America’s video game industry after the big crash 1983— a crash caused by a glut of low-quality games made to swindle consumers.
Twenty-five years later, Nintendo has returned to save the industry once again.
Will Smith is a reporter for The Hawk Eye—a GateHouse Media Company—in Burlington, Iowa. His weekly column is printed in the Sunday edition of The Hawk Eye.