There’s something kind of admirably insane about Super Mario Odyssey. The idea that a Mario game can both treat the franchise as a deity to be bowed down to and as a cliché to be abused is mostly bonkers. Plenty of games handle the former but so few even know what to do with the latter in a meaningful way. Nintendo, though, has somehow figured it out.
They have boiled down the entirety of Mario’s 30-year career into a single, sweep emotion: joy. There isn’t a part of this game that isn’t engineered to put a smile on your face, and that is no small feat. It’s like reducing a Fauvist artist to just one primary color. But whether through surprise or nostalgia or something plainly but impossibly exciting, that is this game.
It perhaps is summed up no better than in the conclusion of the Metro Kingdom, better known as New Donk City. And it’s such a strangely slow burn, too; many of us going into the game has been aware of this oddity since E3. The draw seemed to simple: Mario wandering around a world of actual, real human beings.
And to an extent, that could have been enough. The question of whether Mario is a human at all has long been a quandary best pushed to the back of the mind, but with a game that also addresses the dark, macabre concept of ego death, this seemed perfectly benign. And as far as kingdom gimmicks went, that wasn’t a bad one.
Slowly, though, it sank it. Pauline’s mayor, huh. That’s neat. Oh wait, is that the same woman Mario fought to save against Donkey Kong? Hold on a second, these street names. Dixie Street? Cranky Avenue? Oh my gosh, New Donk City! This entire kingdom is a throwback to Mario’s origins! Hell yeah!
And you kind of think that’s it. Pauline makes a crack about Mario’s penchant for pipes here, there’s some fun billboards there, etc. Time to go about our business and get those dang moons and find out what this festival is all about. But then you do find out what that festival is and it all really clicks together on a level you couldn’t have possibly foreseen.
It’s perfectly reverent to the franchise, pointing to and hoisting up the decades of history and influence and sheer monumental shadow of this mustachioed man. But it also brings something completely new to the table with Pauline’s prodigious talents and utilizing one of Odyssey‘s new gameplay mechanics in absolutely unexpected and stunning ways. It’s a ten-minute sequence that will make your cheeks hurt from smiling so damn hard.
And that’s pretty much the entire game summed up in a single moment. It’s brilliant and unique and inventive and charming and obsessive and so much more than you could ever expect from a Mario game, a franchise that has defined every single one of those qualities for an entire industry—an entire generation. And that’s why Super Mario Odyssey is our number three game of the year.