Nintendo has always had a knack for the uncanny. Look closely at most any popular Nintendo series—past the colors and the music and the charming aesthetic—and you’ll find something strange. Kirby is a game series about an insatiable, omnivorous, amorphous pink blob with lungs strong enough to suck in trees. In the Metroid franchise, the most frightening, dangerous creatures in the entire galaxy are floating jellyfish who are allergic to the cold. And Mario, of course, is a series about an Italian plumber rampaging boots-first through a technicolor nightmare of Alice in Wonderland mushrooms and murderous turtles on the way to steal your girl.
Super Mario Odyssey, like many of Nintendo’s best games, succeeds by virtue of layering on even more of that uncanny sensibility until the whole proceeding feels like a giggling surrealist parlor game. Think the giant, smiling moon in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, or the implied drug trip turned into a real one in Yoshi’s Island; working with bizarre, primal images, Nintendo’s developers have always been able to build something that feels as if it was destined to exist. Nintendo’s gift is not just in producing, as they claim, “gameplay-first fun,” but in building that fun out of ideas that should be nightmares.
In Super Mario Odyssey, the first official Super Mario game for the Nintendo Switch, and the first fully-3D Super Mario in seven years, that nightmare is possession. Early in the game, Mario’s trademark red cap is fused with a sentient top hat, and Mario gains an eerie power: anything that is made to wear Mario’s cap becomes Mario. Throw it on a dinosaur’s head, for instance, and that dino is instantly fused with Mario—and you, the player, find yourself playing as a dinosaur. Take control of goombas, electric poles, whatever else suits your fancy. Mario‘s vision of the future is a cap resting on an enslaved head, forever.
This comes with its own internal logic, which quickly becomes impossibly goofy. Mario can’t possess anything that’s already wearing a hat, naturally, so all the new enemies in the game have flamboyant headwear. Classic enemies are suddenly winging fedoras and Carmen Sandiego bowlers at the plumber as he jumps and wa-wa-wahoos around. Several boss fights rely on the conceit that Mario must first remove the enemy’s hat before rendering them vulnerable. Never has any game paid so much mind to millinery fashion.
This is, as I think I’ve established by now, immensely bizarre, but because Nintendo approaches it with absolutely zero irony, it delights rather than disturbs. Playing this game, you sense that at no point did anyone at Nintendo see Mario take control of a frog’s innocent mind, pause, and ask themselves, “Isn’t this kind of fucked up?” Instead, they were too busy imagining how it might be so entertaining that real-world logic entirely flies out the window.
And at this, they succeeded. Super Mario Odyssey is light, fluffy, slightly gluttonous fun, cotton candy in game form. Mario’s journey is a quest to (all together, now) save Princess Peach, who is being forced into a wedding by a white-tuxedo’d Bowser. In order to find them, you hop across the globe—and seemingly across dimensions—in an airship powered by collectible magic moons, solving problems and fighting Bowser’s group of wedding planners, who all happen to be bunny rabbits. This goofy premise is accompanied by some of the most fluid, comfortable action ever felt in a Mario game.
Playing this game, you sense that at no point did anyone at Nintendo see Mario take control of a frog’s innocent mind, pause, and ask themselves, “Isn’t this kind of messed up?”
Mario‘s 3D moveset has been largely static since his introduction into the polygonal world in Super Mario 64, but it’s never felt so responsive, so pleasant, so light. He’s still, occasionally, a bit slippery to control, sliding off of ledges when he shouldn’t, and directing jumps accurately in three dimensions is never going to be as satisfying as it could be. But Mario’s new hat friend—his name is Cappy!—serves as a supplement, making possible a couple of melee attacks and a new type of jump (in addition to, you know, offering a portal of possession into other bodies). Like another 3D Mario game, Super Mario Sunshine, Nintendo smartly uses its new mechanic to supplement the weaker points in the plumber’s moveset, and like that game the weakest moments in Odyssey are when you are forced, for the sake of challenge, to forego the new abilities, which reveals how limiting Mario’s base moves can be.
Odyssey also runs into problems when it gets too caught up in its own playfulness and forgets that there is, in fact, a real world out there. It has problems with cultural representation, largely in a desert-themed world that plays as a clumsy mashup of Latin American and Pacific Islander stereotypes. Its denizens are skeletons in Dia de los Muertos makeup, Maori-themed statues roam around the sand dunes, and to solve some challenges Mario has to dress up in a sombrero and poncho like a thoughtless college student at Halloween. This reads not so much as deliberate racial insensitivity as just just obvliousness: the game is so caught up in its own dream logic that it fails to recognize that these are real cultures that are being playfully considered, mashed together, and then tossed away an hour later. In a game that so thoroughly succeeds elsewhere in conjuring a world from imagination, it’s a disappointing misstep.
And yet Super Mario Odyssey is the sort of giddy, absurd triumph that Nintendo hasn’t pulled off in years. It is constantly rewarding and variable. In the 1920s, when the surrealist poets and writers in Europe got together, they’d play a game called Exquisite Corpse: Each player would write a sentence of a story on a piece of paper, then hand the paper to the next person, who would write another sentence after only reading the last sentence written. Each writer, with only partial information, pushes the story in increasingly unreal and irrational directions, until a whole emerges that would be entirely unimaginable from just the beginning. Odyssey, with its fluid play and absurd mishmash of ideas and images, is an exquisite corpse, given life and taken over by a sentient red cap. This is a Nintendo game, after all. So long as it’s fun, anything goes.