The obvious points of comparison for Super Mario Odyssey are the latest Zelda game and Super Mario 64. Breath of the Wild in particular pairs with Super Mario Odyssey as a statement game: they’re the most recent entries in Nintendo’s two most important franchises, working together to launch a hugely important console for Nintendo. And they share something new in their design: just as Breath of the Wild sprinkles shrines and Korok seeds all over its world, so too does Super Mario Odyssey manage to hide a remarkable number of moons within each of its levels.

That comparison, though, points out why, for me, Odyssey is no Breath of the Wild. Odyssey is a very good game, to be sure; but what I found most magical about Breath of the Wild is how natural the world felt. Not only did every hill and every tree feel like it was in the right place, but every time you came across a Korok, a shrine, a village, it seemed like that was exactly where it belonged.

In Super Mario Odyssey, however, the levels just don’t fit together the same way: they’re segmented instead of flowing, and the result is that each level felt to me like an agglomeration of puzzles and locations rather than a whole. I was going to say that they feel designed rather than organic, and that’s true, but that doesn’t quite get at the issue: overtly designed structures can have their own beauty as well, where every portion is there for a clear reason. But Odyssey doesn’t do that, either, or at least doesn’t do that across the scope of each of its levels: individual puzzles are well designed, but the fabric between them isn’t, or at least isn’t to the extent that Breath of the Wild managed.


Breath of the Wild is, of course, a very high bar, and for most games and most series, it would be a completely unfair comparison. But with a Mario game, it’s not an unfair comparison, and in fact the game showed why not at two separate times.

One is after the end of the main narrative arc of the game: you return to the Mushroom Kingdom setting, with a level based on Super Mario 64. And as soon as I landed there, I felt at home, at home the same way I felt in Breath of the Wild. You can make a case that that’s nostalgia, but I don’t think that’s all of what’s going on there, or even most of what’s going on. It’s a castle and a castle grounds, and the grounds are designed in a way that feels right to me in a way that most of the other levels didn’t, with hills and trees and paths and water just where they belonged. In most of the other levels, the locations of moons made sense because that’s where a Mario game would put a moon, but there was a tension between the parts of the levels that were there for platforming and the parts of the levels that were there as connective tissue; in the Mushroom Kingdom level, though, I didn’t get that separation.

The other reason why I felt at home in the Mushroom Kingdom level was the music, and the sound design more generally. Again, I’m sure that some of that is nostalgia, but I also again don’t think that that’s everything that was going on: the music in Super Mario 64 was a lot better than the music in Super Mario Odyssey. (Admittedly, this is an area where Breath of the Wild doesn’t do so well, either: Ocarina’s music was much better.) And a lot better not just in an abstract sense of preferring the earlier game’s tunes, but in a situated sense of being the right sounds at the right time.


There was actually one other level in Super Mario Odyssey that felt as good to me as the Mushroom Kingdom: New Donk City is a ridiculous name, but it’s a great level. It felt a little corridory to me when I was going through it initially, but once I made it past the boss fight and the sun came out, I really liked the level: full of people who had a reason to be there, full of buildings that made sense in that context, but the buildings also all served a second purpose as platforming navigational challenges and a third purpose as suitable settings for hiding isolated puzzles.

And, while I wasn’t actively impressed by most of the music in Super Mario Odyssey, I loved the song that caps off New Donk City. And I loved the set piece that that song fits into: organic puzzles are great, but artfully designed set pieces that combine theatre and gameplay into a virtuostic package can be special as well.


Don’t get me wrong: I thought Super Mario Odyssey was a very good game. I was happy to play it, I stuck around for quite a while in each level the first time after making it past that level’s boss fight and I spent a fair amount of time with the game past the end of the main story. It’s just a very good game that actively invites comparison to both Breath of the Wild and Super Mario 64; at its best, it even manages to come off evenly in those comparisons, but most of the time, I wanted a little more…

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