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What makes a Mario game? Is it the characters? The setting? The type of gameplay?
It's a valid question, considering this is the same series that gave us Super Mario 3D World, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario 64.
And now that the series has decided to embrace open-world level design again, it brings us to Super Mario Odyssey. A Mario game in which you can drive a motor scooter through a variation of New York City while being chased by a photorealistic T-rex wearing aviator goggles, while you're dressed like a member of the mafia.
It feels like Nintendo was trying to come up with as many new ideas as they could when designing this game. Therefore, we get an anachronistic New York City-esque environ with 1950s-era people who use laptops, a Tim Burton-esque black, white and yellow land of flying hat-shaped ghosts, a Mexico-Egypt hybrid populated by Day of the Dead skeleton dancers, a dark and creepy crumbling castle, a forest garden tended to by robotic watering cans, and other wacky ideas. We even get a concert with full vocalized lyrics and excellent lip syncing and dancing performed by Pauline from the original Donkey Kong!
At the same time, the gameplay is mostly "Super Mario 64 II". You explore levels and collect things. Collect enough things, you can move on to the next level. Mario's ability to possess other creatures changes the movement, mechanics and abilities, but at times it feels gimmicky to me. Other times, they come up with very creative uses for these abilities, such as having to climb a challenging wall using a bird's pointy beak as a spring.
When you first play through the game, there is a story and a sense of progression. You visit a world that's in crisis, and you deal with the crisis. A giant soup container is being ruined by a giant bird. A UFO is sucking up all the flowers from a hidden garden. You deal with the crisis, and the world changes to be happier and more lively, with the civilians basically coming out to play. You explore and collect moons to earn the way to the next level. And you move on, pursuing Bowser across the planet as he attempts to marry Peach.
Once you rescue Peach, the game continues, but the theme changes from progressing forwards, to one of having a big vacation. Tons of new objectives show up in the previously visited levels, and the people from the different worlds are also visiting each other's worlds as tourists! It's very charming and nice and upbeat. The game is almost a vacation simulator - not only do you visit worlds populated by tourists from other worlds, but there's an excellent photo-taking feature, and you can collect souvenirs and stickers for your ship.
The worlds themselves are small - larger than any level in Super Mario 64, but they don't feel big enough to be worlds for me. Still, they're imaginative, diverse, and original. I wish there were more worlds, but the game is charming, fun and very imaginative.
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