A compelling mixture of Sunshine nostalgia and Galaxy panache.
Super Mario Odyssey is the latest Mario 3D platformer, bringing the plumber closer to his 3D roots with more emphasis on exploration. The E3 2017 demo evoked a nostalgic hybrid of gameplay reminiscent of Super Mario Shunshine with the pizazz of the more recent Mario Galaxy and 3D World entries, and was a heck of a lot of fun to play.
New Donk City is the somewhat old-timey metropolitan environment that has been more heavily showcased in trailers. Themed after the classic Donkey Kong arcade game, the level was organized around a hub area in which Mario can interact with humans and explore skyscrapers, construction sites, shops, and more in the search for Moons (the analog to Stars and Shines from previous 3D Mario games) and other goodies. The city on display was filled with fun little details, including various shops and streets named after Donkey Kong characters. This section is relatively free-form and reminded me a bit of Delfino Plaza, with plenty of places to climb and wall jump across and a somewhat hands-off camera.
Many corners and alleys of this city led to more linear areas analogous to those you might find in Super Mario 3D Land or 3D World, with more tightly controlled platforming challenges and default camera angles that you rarely need to adjust. However, it is of note that even these linear sections encouraged exploration: while reaching the end of these sequences rewarded the player with a Moon, there were also hidden Moons along the way. For example, by possessing a Bullet Bill in one of these linear segments (using Cappie’s special powers), Mario could be steered off course to a floating island with a suspicious dumpster which, upon impact, revealed a Moon. After collecting the Moon the player was expected to continue on his merry way to complete the segment. Indeed, one of the biggest changes in this game is that collecting a Moon does not disrupt gameplay—just like in Banjo-Kazooie, Mario will continue to explore after nabbing one of this game’s MacGuffins. (And on the topic of sacred cows being slayed, this game also gets rid of the lives & continues system in favor of a 10-coin penalty for each death.)
In my second demo session, I played the desert-themed world, which was less densely populated and a little more structured than New Donk City. The demo was structured such that the player was encouraged to take a path that strung together several fairly linear Moon acquisition missions. This route included a variety of obstacles, including 2D painting mode segments (in which you hold Y to run, unlike the fully analog running controls in the rest of the game), and one section where Mario had to collect five Moon Shards (similar to red coin challenges from Super Mario 64).
While I found New Donk City to be more engaging as an environment overall, I found myself enjoying the Desert platforming more. This may be in part due to some input lag issues with the television demo setups during my first session. In case there are reports of issues with the crispness of the controls: my first session was hampered by non-trivial input lag on the television, which felt like slightly “off” controls at first. I had also seen seemingly knoweldgable players ahead of me struggle with some of the platforming segments, as well. I confirmed my suspicions by playing my second session on a demo running in handheld mode, which played very well and very much as expected of a mainline Mario 3D platformer. Mario’s signature acrobatic moves were all available, including a smooth, continuous roll mechanic available by hitting the attack button (or gesture equivalent) repeatedly while crouching. Mario’s new hat-phantom sidekick also lets Mario interact with environments and enemies with a toss. This move works like a boomerang and also allows him to possess some objects and enemies. It was difficult to get a sense of the possession mechanic, as I only found two enemies I could possess during the demo.
Visually the game looks appealing, and if the trailer is any indication, there will be a variety of art styles to match the various crazy worlds Mario will be exploring in this game. Overall the game looked better to me on the handheld screen. The animations seemed more fluid and not marred by upscaling (since the game doesn’t appear to run natively in 1080p when docked). That said, Super Mario Odyssey is not a technical powerhouse—like Sunshine, it appears to sacrifice some graphical detail in favor of draw distances. I did notice the frame rate drop a few times, but mostly in the hub area of New Donk City when it didn’t really impact playability.
While I was able to try out both worlds on display, I didn’t get to explore as much as I would have liked on the first day of E3 2017 due to the large crowds and long lines. That said, both New Donk City and the Desert environments were brimming with creativity and fun, and I’m very much looking forward to the final release.