Sometime around the tail end of Summer 2018, I wrapped up my (prolonged, most enjoyable) time with Zelda: Breath of the Wild and sunk down into the dusty springs of my easy chair to contemplate the future. As with myriad Nintendo platforms past, I had purchased my Switch solely to play its flagship Zelda installment without any serious regard for what other games it might then or someday host, and as I stared blankly out the window, Zelda firmly in the rearview, I realized that I was the proverbial Man Without A Plan (“MWAP”). The Witcher 3? Conquered. Persona 5? Down, filthy dick monster. To be confronted with 2019’s awesome, overwhelming, awesomely overwhelming superfluity of worthwhile games is a frightening thing for an MWAP like me. Once upon a decade or so ago, the important games from any given year that a serious gamer “needed” to play to be worth his salt, to know his shit, were easy to identify and not much more difficult to actually get through, but that era is mythical and past. Free time is not so infinite a commodity as it used to be, and that’s fine, because even in limited quantities, there’s still plenty of it, but how to fill it appropriately and best maximize its utility is an agonizing question with no easy answer. Am I doing it wrong if I forsake my Switch and jump back over to the PS4 to spend 100+ hours working through one sprawling epic? Would it be more fulfilling to knock down like dominos a series of the smaller boutique-y platformers that lit the Switch on fire last year? Am I better person if I choose Assassin’s Creed or Celeste? Is one junk food and the other fine dining? Does it even matter?
No, no it doesn’t - at least not really. Like most things, games are a matter of taste, and during the lull after BOTW, it took me a little while to strap on the blinders, filter out the distractions, and peg down exactly what I was hungry for. Hollow Knight didn’t stick. Beautiful, yes. Bugs, totally. But the ruthless way those bigger bugs smacked me down, and the endless, perilous backtracking just so those bigger bugs could murderlize me all over again? No, man. Next on the list was Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, an aggressive choice made with noble intentions (to catch up on the series in advance of the recent threequel release) that I knew wasn’t likely to find any staying power either. It didn’t. Some games don’t age well, and that’s one of them. Divinity: Original Sin felt too clunky and squinty on console. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was a little too deep into shooter territory for me, even with its tasteful RPG accoutrements. And Final Fantasy XV was flat-out terrible, so miserable and unappealing (to me! Back off, fanboys-and-girls) that it probably deserves its own separate write-up.
After all those false starts and Missed Connections (You: a game with magnificent reviews; Me: the guy shooting you creepy digital side-eye in the Playstation Store), there was only one place I could have landed, and it had been waiting for me all along, right in front of me and all but invisible just the same, the unassuming sidekick in the romcom that I should’ve guessed I’d end up with: Super Mario Odyssey. And maybe that’s the point of this article: that Nintendo has had games figured out from the beginning, such that, even in the thick of modern gaming’s legitimately paralyzing amount of choice, Nintendo’s development formula continues to produce experiences that prioritize fun above all else and, in doing so, cut cleanly through the glut. And Odyssey might just be the ideal prototype to best showcase that formula’s efficacy.
The first thing I noticed when I fired it up - well, the first feeling I felt, really - was, quite simply, delight. Delight like a tidal wave pummeling me gently in the face and never receding, in a good way. Among Odyssey’s many virtues is an abundance of charm in its purest form, charm that glitters off the surface of nearly every object and is baked into the architecture. The emojis the characters use to refer to each other in text bubbles; the two-dimensional mini-puzzles that call back to Mario’s humble, flatter beginnings; the care and detail imbued into each of the many collectible costumes, which are just as likely to be mean/subversive (Luigi duds) as they are whimsical (vintage astronaut suit) or flat-out scary (clown wig and makeup). The levels themselves that run the gamut from the hyper-realism of Metro Kingdom, home of New Donk City; Cascade Kingdom, wherein prowls a T-Rex; and Ruined Kingdom, presided over by a massive and not-at-all-cartoony black dragon and which might as well be pulled directly from the Dark Souls series; to the absurdity of Luncheon Kingdom, inhabited by a population of cutlery and tomatoes; and, y’know, the moon, where gravity is broken and all bets re: physics are off.
My point being: from an aesthetic angle, Odyssey is an enchanting experience right out of the gate. Fortunately - crucially, for me, having been recently repelled by the assorted deficiencies of so many other games - it also squarely nails the gameplay thing. Mario controls every bit as fluidly as you could reasonably hope, and it’s a good thing too, given the progressive complexity of the puzzles thrown down in his path. Even better, he’s saddled up with his full skill set from the get-go, and it’s simply up to you, the player, to get good enough at piloting him around and favorably exploiting his wide range of abilities. Mario’s already an expert jumper; he just needs a nimble pair of thumbs to point him in the right direction. In nearly every case, if you can spot a moon (the collectible MacGuffin driving the breezy, perfectly inconsequential plot), you can get that moon with enough deep thinking and experimentation. I was still discovering new move combinations as late in the game as the Moon Kingdom, where, while vaulting across the lunar surface amidst scattered space debris, I realized that I could jump, throw my cap, jump-leap forward while still in mid-air, and then lilypad off my cap, still hovering, in order to reach all those just-out-of-reach moons I’d found so inaccessible up to that point. Most important of all: I had a great time doing all of this. I finished the game, I finished some more of the game (if you’ve played Odyssey, you know what I mean; if not, earmuffs), and when I felt like I’d had enough, I put my fork down and stepped away from the table.
My takeaway from this tale of redemption, this quest to get a game to click, is that there’s a lot to be said for games in 2019 that distinguish themselves by not being preoccupied with self-seriousness and complexity for complexity’s sake. After powering through a few of those 100-hour epics, Odyssey was exactly the palate cleanser I needed, although it remains to be seen if my palate is sufficiently cleansed to again enjoy the taste of the epic just yet. As of the writing of this article, I’ve moved on to Red Dead Redemption 2, and it hasn’t been the cleanest of pivots, especially given that Arthur Morgan would surely benefit from a few lessons in general coordination from our boy Mario. At least I can take comfort in knowing that, should the worst come to pass and I find myself unable to stomach another plodding saunter through Dutch van der Linde’s campsite, I’ve left more than a few moons still un-grabbed in Odyssey, and there’s a copy of Mario + Rabbids parked next to my Switch, still in its shrink-wrap and almost certainly fun as hell.