GAMEOLOGY is an ongoing video/written discussion of game design hosted by Mathew Falvai (me) and game developer Attila “Gabriel” Branyiczky.

Mario games are always an event and Odyssey is no exception. Since SMB1 revitalized the gaming industry and set the gold standard for platformers and home video gaming, the franchise has been held to freakishly high standards. Miraculously, nearly every entry introduced ingenious elements and often raised the bar for how good a game could be. Since Galaxy 1/2 however, the series has lacked the monstrous impact of years prior. My co-host called 3D World a ‘safe bet’ and that describes why fans were clamoring for the next entry in the cherished series to take a Mario-sized leap forward.

Although Attila and I haven’t completed the game, it’s safe to say Odyssey feels as special as Mario fans hoped it would. It’s as beautiful and polished as you expect from every Mario (and most Nintendo games) but the Cappy mechanics push the series forward in fantastic ways.

Cappy serves as: a temporary platform, a destructive projectile (like a fireflower), and allows Mario to assume the form of many enemies and objects (like a Venom suit). There’s a fun novelty to assuming the identity of one of Mario’s longtime nemeses. But the application extends far beyond nostalgic gimmick. Attaching to a pole might fling you much farther than Mario could jump while also acting as a safety net. Morphing into a tank or T.Rex are fun power upgrades great for taking out enemies, but also unlocking previously unreachable areas.

At first I wasn’t a huge fan of changing controls to the new form. My favorite part of Mario is how he controls, and becoming a big lumbering T.Rex was a quick thrill, but didn’t play to the strengths of the core gameplay. The levels and this game are quite large however, and I eventually grew to enjoy these much more. Odyssey encourages experimentation and playing at your own pace, which is perfectly supported by the transformation ability.

Cappy as a temporary platform however, is an ability so intelligently useful, I have trouble imagining another Mario game without it. Chaining a cappy toss into a series of jumps to reach twice the distance is brilliant design. It extends Mario’s reach while still relying on his core movement mechanics. You spend the entire game jumping on platforms. Cappy is just another platform you can use in creative ways.

Mario games have fallen into two distinct categories: Linear obstacle courses and open sandboxes. The 2D games were linear with a few options to find secret paths or maze-like fortresses and ghost houses, while 64 and Sunshine decided an open sandbox best fit the less precise 3D controls. Galaxy had a few open areas but mostly funneled you down narrow paths and 3D World refined that process further, even bringing back a time limit.

Odyssey is the most sandboxy yet, with gigantic levels and plenty of ways to interact. The maps are so large they even borrow the compass, map, and warp points from Zelda!

The best games have mechanics that work together in synergy. Odyssey’s gigantic levels are served well by the new Moon system. Whereas previous 3D Stars and Shines were rarer and often took you out of the level upon acquisition, the Moons are far more prevalent (over 800!) and let you continue after a short animation. The huge amount of moons means the player has more choice over how they spend their time. If you can’t solve a challenging Moon, you can switch gears and chase after a few simpler ones. The gate to leave a world has been quite low (in the levels I’ve played so far). Only one World saw me spending an extra ten or so minutes tracking down the final required moon for travel and it didn’t feel frustrating in the slightest.

Another big evolution is the removal of the archaic lives system. Instead of a death destroying any progress, you simply lose a miniscule amount of coins and are right back in the game for another attempt in seconds. This supports the sandbox/experimental vibe of the game. Lives, continues, and game overs were all holdovers from the Arcade era. It was designed to match the idea of short experiences, purchased 25 cents at a time. With infinite lives, Contra and other difficult games could be beaten in a day. As games got longer, lives were removed from the equation, but Mario retained them, until now. I see lives still providing enjoyable tension in obstacle course styled Marios, say the next 2D version. But for Odyssey, there should be practically zero punishment for trying and failing.

After being fairly critical of the opening hours ease, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and consistently entertained by the wonder Odyssey spoils me with. The game has gotten stronger with each level and I’m confident that by the time I reach the end, it’ll sit comfortably among the very best in the franchise. Nintendo has once again proved they’re at the top of the game when it comes to games.