Late to the Game is a bi-weekly column dedicated to exploring games of the relative and extreme past, deem if there’s something problematic or worth celebration within them and serves as a damn fine excuse to finish exploring the depths of my backlog.
I, infamously at this point, wrote that The Lizzie McGuire Movie instilled the desire in me to travel on my NYU admittance essay. A movie about a girl living the “rockstar” life in idealized Rome would change my life entirely. A few months later, I got that acceptance and I credit that affirmation for everything. That was the year I decided to travel no matter what. I’d go on to travel upstate, to neighboring states, across the country and even briefly to the great white north. Sometimes when I embark on these journeys, I’m excited at the prospect of new adventures with good friends. Other times, I’m incredibly apprehensive about traveling by myself to unknown places and meeting people for the first time. Most times however, it’s a miserable trudge through the early hours of the morning to make a flight or a bus. Travel is often exciting but frequently a source of immense tension. If you ever find yourself feeling similar feelings, I think I have a remedy for you. It’s name is Super Mario Odyssey, and it’s the best game about traveling I’ve ever played.
The “X Factor” that makes Super Mario Odyssey stand out above the rest of it’s peers is aesthetic and it’s overindulgence in it. Mario, and to a larger degree Nintendo, have always had an “aesthetic” in the way that Disney or Pixar do. That is to say, it’s not so much a conscious commitment to a style and more a marriage to a philosophy or equation for success. Due to that, the “Nintendo Charm” is present but noticeably faded in every one of its properties, it’s prime property being no exception. In Super Mario Odyssey though, it’s rejuvenated and the result is resplendence.
It’s there in every touch and flourish of the game. Take the music for example. Cascade Kingdom’s Theme brings to mind a lush landscape and swells in a way that connotes a grand adventure while later allowing for a quiet moment of reprieve, like a campfire on the night of the end of a long hike. The Lake Kingdom is carried by a tune that doesn’t communicate that it’s “just another water level” but rather focuses on crafting an elegant and tranquil ambiance, a feeling complemented lovingly by its inhabitants being dressmakers who just happen to also be fish. The Seaside Kingdom’s music sounds like it was ripped straight from a video promoting a romantic couples getaway on the beach and the Luncheon Kingdom hilariously riffs on the fact that Mario is Italian, a people known and universally loved for their food. These tracks capture more than a theme. Instead, they make a world feel alive, alluring and ripe for exploring by riffing on things we know. This promotes a level of comfort that makes these worlds inviting at the very least.
Every inch of every area in Super Mario Odyssey that is supposed to feel welcome and inviting does and that’s partially because it plays into stereotypes, which reinforces the aestheticization of each of its worlds. Rather than pigeonhole the team or be problematic, what comes across isn’t a deep understanding of these spaces but an appreciation for them. It’s why when a man in New Donk City says “fuggedaboutit”, I smile instead of groan: every detail is in ode to the legacies of the setting. These are the qualities that make these places recognizable and appealing and Nintendo made a game all about going out there and exploring them. Super Mario Odyssey functions as a love letter to the world and the qualities that make places within it unique and worth the hassle to get to. Whether it be a long, early flight, a bus in a snowstorm or having to find devilishly hidden moons, the ends should justify the means.
Mario’s storied history has always centered around other worlds (all eight of them, typically) but has made you feel like an outsider in them. Sand levels had quicksand that would consume you whole if you stayed still, snow levels had slippery patches of ice that made precision platforming a pain and pits of lava would spew forth fireballs that would singe Mario. Worlds have always been always been excuses to provide a theme to obstacles. The goal behind them is to function as gatekeepers. Therefore with every new world, a new set of apprehensions arise. This is the key similarity between Mario games and reality while functioning as the distinction between them and Super Mario Odyssey.
By allowing you to become your foes for example, Super Mario Odyssey breaks down barriers that have been in place far too long. The oppositional nature of the unknown fades away and what’s left behind is uncharted territory, an all too good lure to the inquisitive mind. No space remains uncrossable. This, paired with the obscene and fiendish distribution of Power Moons in the game, forces you to consider the environment in ways that you wouldn’t have thought to in order to achieve your goals. One Power Moon requires that you get all but consumed by a sandpit, only to emerge on the other side of a wall and collect it. Fireballs become keys to traversal puzzles over volcanic lakes and one spectacular boss fight. Ice patches become maneuverable and downright easy to navigate. The ease which Odyssey promotes became a turnoff to many players with aspirations of hardcore platforming, but really it was the only way to promote the adoration and celebration of the worlds that populate and inspire the game.
By approaching the world as a curious onlooker rather than an opposing force, Super Mario Odyssey channels the one thing that’s been truly missing from the series for what feels like ever: wonder. The wide-eyed bewilderment of Mario as he flies to his next destination communicates it all. Here is Nintendo’s very own everyman, the guy who has floated among the stars of our galaxy, astonished at the beauty and density of the world around him. It’s a feeling I’ve tried to keep in mind on my last few trips and one I hope to channel in the trips to come. May I never tire of discovering the world around me.
It can be all too easy to see the world as colossal. The sheer amount of variety in every little niche of it means that it could be impossible to see it all. You’ll miss whole cultures, dialects, dishes, art, music, etc. Travel is expensive, a hassle and a luxury and it’s impossible to not be dismayed at this fact. But it’s also wonderful that the world is populated with little secrets, some that you know of and ones still waiting to be discovered and it’ll likely never totally stop being a mystery. It’s comforting to know that if I get out there, there are discoveries worth celebrating which make the hassle worthwhile. Most importantly, it’s great to know there are storied legacies out there which I can contribute to. With this in mind, Nintendo made a game about pushing yourself to see as much of the world as you can and I’ll be damned if Super Mario Odyssey isn’t one of the best out there for it.