I’m aware that the title of this article and my previous one are, on first sight, the wrong way around.
‘Is Super Mario Odyssey the game Super Mario Galaxy should have been?’ one might ask, before acquiring the latter. Upon getting it and being blown away, the question becomes a statement: ‘Yes, Super Mario Odyssey is indeed the game Super Mario Galaxy should have been, thanks for asking. Er, why did you pose me such a specific question anyway? And who is this? I’m trying to order pizza.’
The reason for this somewhat unscientific approach was that muggins ‘ere was properly, eleven-year-old, bobbing-up-and-down excited for SMO. If you’ve read my previous piece, you’ll have some understanding of why. If you haven’t, you probably should. As the title suggests, this is a follow-up to it.
Muggins ‘ere ignored the First Law of Science (Copyright Balladeer): back up your assertions. He, I, or possibly you in the previous article, was/were too excited. So he hypothesised, and presented this as fact. Bad Balladeer. Naughty.
Now, with some evidence under his belt, he’s going to test that hypothesis. Is it the case that SMO lives up to the excitement it inspired in him, me, and indeed quite possibly you?
Spoiling the Broth
Before we launch into that, you might well want to know what level of SMO content and spoilers I’ll be using as evidence. Especially if you’re waiting on SMO as a Christmas present, you lucky devil.
Consider this, then, a warning. The majority of this article will refer to gameplay mechanics and level designs that can be found early on in SMO. If you want to hit SMO absolutely blind, don’t read. (It’s worth it.) The rest of you can read without spoilers, up until a point.
At that point, you’ll see the section title ‘It’s In the Post’, and a picture of a painting. Beyond that point, I’ll be talking early-days postgame content. It’s nearly impossible to talk about SMO in relation to SM64 without mentioning the postgame, so I’m not going to try. You Have Been Warned.
If you want to join me again for the denouement, hit Control + End at that point, and scroll up only as far as ‘Billy-GoaT’s Gruff’ and the picture of this game's Koopaling substitutes. Thereafter it’ll be another spoiler-free zone.
Still here? Good.
On paper/a web page it’s a simple question, albeit not quite the one posed in the title. Does SMO live up to SM64’s legacy? In practice, that gets split down further into the following two questions: does it let the player explore and discover, in the way SMG didn’t? And is it bloody brilliant? Thereby making this ‘article’ half an article, and half a review.
The simple answers to both questions are ‘yes’. The slightly more complicated answers are ‘yes, but’.
Let us, in scarily rational fashion, look at the first question first.
Path it On
From the first world, or ‘kingdom’, it’s clear that SMO wants to let you explore. Or, well, the very first kingdom is an elongated tutorial, that shepherds you down a path, pretty much. That’s fine, though. Those who’ve been brought up on SMG and the Super Mario 3D Locale games probably need some handholding to ease them in. (That, right there? That was what they call a ‘sick burn’.)
But the first kingdom proper opens up nicely. For the most part.
In fact, said first kingdom has distinct shades of Bob-Omb’s Battlefield to it. It’s a grassy world (well of course it is, this is a Mario game). It relies on ascending a geological formation, at the top of which the first boss proper resides. Even your first major obstacle rings so many bells to SM64 players, Bowser may as well get it to play at his wedding. And, of course, you can go off the beaten path to hoover up Power Moons.
However, later levels in SM64 relaxed the ‘beaten path’ approach somewhat. Tiny-Huge Island springs to mind, the first star recommending you to jump through a completely different painting to the ‘beaten path’. SMO has a beaten path for every single kingdom, which you need to follow to progress, no matter how many collectables you unlock.
You know what? That’s okay.
Having a beaten path allows the game to focus the bosses and interesting features along a single route. The exploration’s still there, around said beaten path. It opens out even more after you’ve, well, beaten that path, and come back to the kingdom afterwards. It’s an approach that includes something for both SM64 and SMG fans, without feeling lowest common denominator.
And there are some really great things off the beaten path. Stick to the route SMO shows you first up, and – well, first off, you can’t, because you’ll lack the Moons to progress, but you’ll also miss out on sections and secrets that put entire games to shame.
What’s less okay, perhaps, is that you must beat every level’s beaten path to progress. There’s no room to pick and choose your levels. In SM64, to reach the final confrontation, you never have to visit Tiny-Huge Island if you don’t want to. Bar Bowser’s gambits, the only levels you have to visit are Robert Omb’s War Pasture and Horrid Horrid Harbours.
It didn’t bother me, because I am the sort who’ll visit every world anyway before hitting the final boss. Also, like the individual kingdom structure, it allows for the game to shepherd you through a couple of superb and utterly unexpected moments. But it is a stripping back of freedom in a game that promises it.
Let’s talk about Moons, though. They’re the new equivalent of SM64/the Galaxies’ stars, or Super Mario Sunshine’s Shines. Except they’re not.
Because they’re found everywhere.
Complete a tough task off the beaten road, and certainly, you’ll find a Moon. But if you double back through a really obvious ‘hidden’ passage? You’ll probably find a Moon. Complete a simple puzzle, of the kind Zelda is embarrassed by these days? Moon. Kick a rock? Ground Pound a shining spot? Do basically anything that isn’t on the beaten path? Odds are good that you’ll get a Moon for your ‘troubles’.
Rarity increases perceived desirability. It’s a fact of life. The exceptions are things like smallpox. The ubiquity of Moons makes them feel less special than stars or Shines.
If I had to compare my level of joy at finding a moon with a previous 3D Mario collectable, it’d be closer to SM64’s Red Coins (eight per star), or SMS’ Blue Coins (ten per shine). Except there’s no more important collectable than Moons, bar Multi-Moons, which are all limited to the beaten path.
There are other collectables, yes. Purple regional currency feels more like SM64’s coins in significance, or Banjo-Kazooie’s Notes. Normal coins are handy, for buying Moons and alternate costumes. But I can’t help wishing there’d been fifty Grand Moons or Full Moons or Loony Lunar Legend Lockets as well.
Before I finish slagging off this chuffing great game, I have to talk about the lack of a hub world. My greatest enduring memory of SM64, as mentioned in the previous piece, was in the hub. The opening up of the mysterious, empty, even creepy castle was as magical as anything else in the game. Finding secrets in it, or the more thriving Isle Delfino in SMS, made the player gawp as much as anything else.
SMO has no hub. It wouldn’t make sense from a thematic point of view, as you’re travelling the globe. That doesn’t stop if from being a thing this SM64 veteran is craving for, that SMO can’t satisfy. It’s been sixteen years since SMS gave us the last fully populated, secret-filled, hub world. I’d love another one.
SMO, however, doesn’t skimp on secrets as a result. Instead, these are scattered throughout the levels. The same sorts of one-star sub-levels that you’d find in Peach’s Castle can be found behind hat-labelled doors. The exploration and discovery are still there, differently placed.
So, that’s how SMO measures up, explore-and-discover wise. Despite the linear routes through its kingdoms and the lack of hub, it doesn’t lose much exploration; but the rewards, more frequent, are lessened in perceived value as a result.
Which brings us to the second question: is it bloody brilliant?
On the Level
Again, the answer is ‘yes, but’. Here’s the thing, though: I’ve already talked about the ‘but’.
SMO’s flaws are some reductions in freedom, the lack of hub, and (the biggest one to my mind) the ubiquity of its top-tier collectable. Those are they.
Oh – and the game’s bewildering decision to bring back the standard Mario question blocks. The lack of power-ups or Star Bits in this game (more on that in a moment) means that you almost only get coins from them. Given that this is the least fun way to get coins, and that games like SM64 and SMS were much more sparing with the old headbuttable blocks, you have to wonder why they decided these were a good idea. This is a very minor annoyance, but in the interest of completeness, here it is.
Otherwise? This is indeed a bloody brilliant game.
This isn’t a review, or a GotY piece, so I’m not going to go through in detail about all the things that make SMO bloody brilliant. The bosses. The set-pieces. The surprises. The retro moments. The visuals, the music, the ending sequence. Dear God the ending sequence!
I can’t even rave about the level design, because I don’t know enough about the science behind it. No doubt hours went into the precise placing of every hill and dale, every rocky outcrop, every building. No doubt they optimised the location of everything exactly after months of playtesting, to get the right balance between empty space and ‘stuff’. All I can say on the subject is, ‘Woo levels is fun woo!’
Everybody’s Gone to the Capture
I will touch on the Captures, because they feel like an extension of the exploratory theme. Nintendo wanted to explore how much Mario’s mind can take before it cracks. So they forced it into a frog.
The Captures are great fun, but I can’t really talk too much about the greatest hits. Those appear later in the game. Sure, it’s fun to send a T-Rex smashing through all in your path, or to play bagatelle with Chomps. But the best captures, those that aid exploration in inspired manners, come into their own in the second half of the journey.
Perhaps they don’t have the same sustained level of joy as the series’ best power-ups. No Capture can quite compete with the freedom of the Wing Cap or Cloud Flower, or the extra pace of the Ice Flower or Koopa Shell. But those are in games with a maximum of six power-ups (where one is the bobbins Fire Flower). What the Captures lack in repeated brilliance, they make up for in variety.
And nothing bar the Wing Cap in Mario’s history has the same immediate impact as the T-Rex. Not a single thing.
Oh, and because we’re tying things back to SM64, I should mention the paintings. SMO is one giant subtle call-back to its N64 predecessor: nowhere is this clearer than when you’re jumping through paintings to get to other levels. It’s a nice touch, that brought a smile to this weary veteran’s heart.
It’s In the Post
Then you reach the postgame, and it becomes less ‘nice touch’ and more ‘show us on the doll’.
The gentle call-backs to SM64 are replaced by smashing you in the face with a hammer, while yelling, ‘DO YOU REMEMBER SM64 YET? WELL DO YOU!?’
I’m sure many from my era will revel in the re-presentation of Peach’s Castle, complete with the original music. That many will love jumping into paintings, or collecting Power Stars, with the original jingles. That many will love hopping up onto the roof, and finding everyone’s favourite long-tongued friend.
For me, it’s all a bit much. Laying it too thick. Substituting nostalgia for imagination. The subtlety is lost.
The crowning example of this is when you buy a costume that makes you look like blocky N64-era Mario, and it lets you enter a faithful recreation of the empty garden I enthused about in my previous article. A garden that was so great because it used then-cutting-edge technology to present you with a training ground, that allows you to gently test your moves before getting used to them, before subverting your expectations. Recreated as a place with deliberately backwards graphics at the end of the game. Losing all sight of what made that garden so wonderful, first up.
SMO is at its best when it’s riffing on SM64, not aping it.
The rest of the postgame, though, does some wonderful things. A reminder here: SM64, and SMS, and SMG to any meaningful degree, didn’t have postgames at all.
This isn’t a review. But the long and short of it is, SMO is one of my favourite games ever. And by ‘one of my favourite’, I mean ‘top two’.
My dissection of its flaws in painstaking detail is an inevitability, resulting from the time gap between ‘SM64-alike Marios’. If Half Life 3 ever came out today, it wouldn’t live up to everything its fans want from it. How could it? (Me, I’ll be happy if it stars a black female scientist. Hee hee hee.)
So it is with SMO. It was never going to deliver all the beats rabid bobbing-up-and-down exploratory Mario fans wanted from it.
That brings us back nicely to the title of this piece. If Nintendo had released SMO, or an SMO-like game, instead of SMG, it wouldn’t have come under quite as much scrutiny from me and people like me. The shorter gap would have meant we wouldn’t have expected the moon on a stick. We wouldn’t have started making vague economic statements about scarcity when we got ten in the first hour.
The game could have just quietly got on with being the best game in the world at that time.
It may not be perfect. But SMO is absolutely the successor that SM64 deserves. It is absolutely, for a lover of that game, the game SMG should have been. As it is, we have both of those games, Galaxy and Odyssey. And that’s a pretty nice world to live in.
But Odyssey is better. With which, I am changing my identity and moving to Colombia, as far off the beaten path as possible.