Super Mario Odyssey is the most fun game I’ve ever played, and it shouldn’t win GOTY
It’s hard to describe exactly how good Super Mario Odyssey, the latest mainline Mario game on the Nintendo Switch, makes me feel. When I first booted it up, holding the Switch’s tiny controllers in my hand, I was beaming. As a child, I played Super Mario 64 for hours and hours, and this was the first time I had played a Mario game as an adult that made me feel like I was 7 again.
For those who haven’t played it, the game concerns Mario, the maybe-plumber, on yet another quest to save the Mushroom Kingdom’s Princess Peach from the nefarious dragon-turtle Bowser. At the start of the game, Mario loses his iconic hat and teams up with a kind of hat spirit named Cappy. Cappy allows Mario to inhabit many of the creatures the pair encounter throughout the game, from an enormous T-rex to the game’s ubiquitous Goombas, each “capture” usually taking part in solving some kind of puzzle.
The plot is thin: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach, and plans to marry her, apparently against her will. This is mostly a means to justify Mario and Cappy’s trip from kingdom to kingdom, hot on Bowser’s trail. Each kingdom has something Bowser wants for the wedding: a dress, a cake, a ring. In each kingdom Mario must also track down a certain number of “power moons” to fuel his ship.
This all converges to create a perfect platform for dopamine rush after dopamine rush. The game is gorgeous, the denizens of each kingdom are varied and adorable, the game smartly plays to a sense of nostalgia while also moving the franchise forward, and power moons are everywhere. Add in the fact that you can unlock new costumes and use the capture mechanic to explore the map in novel ways, and it’s no surprise that this game is being bandied about for Game of the Year. The discourse around it reminds me of another fraught award contest from last year: La La Land’s Oscar nomination.
2017 has been a banner year for video games. Any of the games up for GOTY would be frontrunners in any other year. But that means we have to be judicious about what game takes home the win, because as much as awards are a problematic way to assign worth, they have symbolic weight.
Flashback to spring, when it seemed like the Best Picture was down to La La Land or Moonlight. On the one hand you had a gorgeous film that celebrated Hollywood in every frame. The colors were rich, the music was infectious, and the characters, Seb and Mia, were irritating in an endearing way, like the best rom com characters. But Moonlight was something special. It wasn’t washed out in beautiful technicolor and it didn’t begin with a fun dance number, but it opened a window into a world and a life that I didn’t have access to. It told a story I needed to hear, and it did so beautifully. Moonlight stuck with me, it moved me, and I still think about it a lot, but I fully expected it to lose to La La Land.
When it won, it sent a message. La La Land was a wonderful movie that ultimately said nothing. It was a gorgeous spectacle that included a subplot where Ryan Gosling tries to explain to John Legend what Jazz is. Moonlight, however, was a quiet and beautiful meditation on race, sexuality, and identity. It was the film that 2016 desperately needed.
(Minor Spoilers for Super Mario Odyssey)
Super Mario Odyssey is La La Land: a fantastic spectacle, a great achievement, an incredible amount of fun, and very little substance. The best I have been able to do in terms of interpreting it is to say that it plays with the idea of agency. Mario literally steals the bodies of many characters throughout the game to use for his own purposes. When he leaves their bodies, they are left dizzy and confused. Bowser kidnapped Peach to marry her without her consent. When Mario arrives at their wedding ceremony on the moon and defeats Bowser, he eventually asks Peach to marry him, assuming this is his reward for following her across the planet. She refuses, running off on her own globe-trotting adventure, this time on her own terms. While we can make much of the fact that in the final encounter, Mario and Bowser are dressed alike, and in the end, Mario “captures” Bowser and literally becomes him, the game itself does little with this.
If we compare this to a game like NieR: Automata, the difference is clear. NieR takes potentially worn questions of the sentience of machines and shakes them up in bold new ways. It creates a dazzling cast of characters, imbuing them with varying motives and playing with dramatic irony as the player slowly pieces together what’s really going on over multiple playthroughs. The game, famously, needs to be played through at least three times to completion, with the final chapter played two additional times in order to get all the story content. Additionally, the game plays with other mechanical concepts, requiring you to save in a very particular way, forcing you to manage your HUD through certain kinds of chips, and gating fast-travel behind a plot point.
Through it all, the game is absolutely gorgeous, the fighting system is one that has to be carefully learned and mastered, and the voice acting is phenomenal. NieR: Automata is a very good game because it’s fun, but it also changes my idea of what a video game can be in a way that Mario just doesn’t. It also lacks Persona 5’s intense meditation on abuse, second chances, and systemic change. It doesn’t even really shake up it’s franchise as dramatically as Residnet Evil 7 did. And it certainly doesn’t have the sense of scale or world-building that Horizon: Zero Dawn has.
It is an extremely good game. It’s easily among my favorite games of this year, and a contender for one of my favorites of all time. Ultimately though, we as gamers have to decide what we want this medium to be. Are video games all about spectacle? Certainly, they are a least a little bit about that. But video games are also unique in their ability to allow the audience to experience new things mediated through an avatar. While you can relate to a character in a film or a book, interactive media provides an opportunity to feel something for yourself. It allows you to be pinned down by enemy gunfire. It allows you to scour an abandoned house, trying not to attract a monster’s attention. It allows you to take part in a climactic battle. In some cases, it allows you to change the outcome of the game, to create a story of your own, one that is unique to you. So when we decide what to celebrate in gaming, we actually have a significant responsibility to move the medium forward.
And while I love Mario and would recommend it to anyone, I am not sure that this is the game to do it.