At E3 this week we had our first opportunity to try out Super Mario Odyssey, the mustachioed plumber’s first outing on the Nintendo Switch. We got our first glimpse at the then-unnamed Mario game for a few seconds in the initial reveal of the Switch way back in October 2016, and since then Nintendo has been keeping its cards close, releasing a single trailer until today, when the game was finally made playable for E3 attendees.

Re-united with Mario, a Familiar Friend

We’ll get this out of the way first, we're very impressed; Odyssey has every bit as much charm as any of its predecessors while managing to do some truly interesting things that have never been done before in a Mario game. The E3 demo we played featured two kingdoms: Sand Kingdom and New Donk City. These are the same two worlds that have been shown in the trailers we’ve seen.

Apparently Mario is on a quest to stop the marriage of Princess Peach to Bowser, and in so doing will be travelling to neighbouring kingdoms outside the Mushroom Kingdom with the help of his new living cap, Cappy, and his ship, the Odyssey. Together with his new allies, Mario will travel to foreign lands in search of Bowser’s unwilling bride.

Of course, Mario controls just as fans would expect him to. All his signature moves are present and accounted for: long jumps, somersaults, backflips, wall kicks, you name it. If you spent hours playing Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, then you’ll feel right at home picking up your Joy-Con to play Super Mario Odyssey. The right Joy-Con's B button controls Mario's signature jumps, with the ZR button controlling Mario's ability to crouch. The crouch button is used in the same way as previous Mario games, meaning using it in air will make the mascot do a ground pound, and jumping while crouching will get you a backflip.

The Y button controls Mario's latest ability, throwing his hat. Holding down the Y button leaves Cappy spinning in mid-air for a short period, enabling Mario to use it as a platform. You can also throw Cappy with a flick of the Joy-Con, but we preferred using the button for that. One move we could only perform with the Joy-Con in the demo, however, was throwing Cappy in a circular motion, letting him take out enemies and collect items around you in a circle. It took us a few tries to get the hang of it, but once we did it was immensely helpful. Playing Super Mario Odyssey with two Joy-Con in hand, no grip involved, felt a lot like playing Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii. It's familiar enough to evoke nostalgia while still feeling completely new. 

A New Adventure in Super Mario Odyssey

Our adventure started out in the Sand Kingdom, where we were encouraged to stray from the beaten path. The world laid out before us was incredibly expansive, but our objective was simple: find as many moons as possible to power the Odyssey to be able to move on to the next kingdom. We had the option of either heading straight into the town directly ahead of us, or wandering off into the sands to see what the desert had to offer. We opted for the latter and were surprised by what we found in the Sand Kingdom's frozen desert. 

One of the first things that was pointed out to us by our friends at Nintendo was that each kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey contains a number of checkpoints. The checkpoints themselves are going to be familiar to anyone who's played a previous Mario title, but the new wrinkle about them is that these are now fast-travel locations. Once you've hit a checkpoint in a particular kingdom, you can push the minus button on the left Joy-Con to bring up a map from which you can select a fast travel point. This ties into the game's theme: to explore. There are secrets seemingly everywhere, and we're guessing players will be returning to certain spots often in search of more power moons for their ship. 

During our exploration we fell into a sand trap; we thought this would spell Mario’s demise, but instead we happened upon a Jaxi, a stone, jaguar-like creature that Mario can ride. The Jaxi offered to sell us its services for 30 Mushroom Kingdom coins. We’ll get back to the Jaxi in a moment, but now is a good time to talk about currency in Super Mario Odyssey. Every kingdom has a currency all its own, like the triangular coins seen in the Sand Kingdom and the Mayor Pauline coins found in New Donk City. Local currencies are purple and can only be used in the kingdom in which they’re found, while Mushroom Kingdom coins are good anywhere, which is why our new friend the Jaxi wanted the Mushroom Kingdom dosh.

After paying the Jaxi its 30 coins, Mario was allowed to take it for a spin. The Jaxi is incredibly fast, but tough to control by design. It will run in whichever direction you point it and will not stop for anything, even if certain doom is straight ahead. Fortunately you can slow it down with B and use that opportunity to steer it, but it's designed to be a fast, if not easy to control, way to get around. We stumbled upon a secret course hidden within the Sand Kingdom for our Jaxi; it was a series of moving platforms and hairpin turns that had to be performed without letting the Jaxi run you off the edges into the abyss below. We were felled once, but managed to complete it on the following turn. 

There are no lives in Super Mario Odyssey, marking a major shift in how the series deals with failing a course. When you die, you instead sacrifice 10 Mushroom Kingdom coins. Representatives from Nintendo were unable to tell us at this time what happens if you die and don’t have 10 coins in the bank, though we suspect that would give you a game over. 

Once we reached the end of our trial with the Jaxi we parted ways with it, collecting a power moon for our troubles. Unlike previous games, collecting a moon doesn’t kick you out of the level, instead you can keep on going, collecting as many as you like before heading back to the Odyssey and taking off on your next adventure. It’s a simple change but one that makes the game feel much more fluid than previous entries. Speaking of fluidity, fans will be pleased to know that Super Mario Odyssey runs at a rock-solid 60 frames per second with nary a dip in sight. 

Super Mario Odyssey's Neat Fit With Cappy

All of this happened before we even had the opportunity to test out the game’s core mechanic, using Cappy to capture enemies; he can capture various things and characters, including some New Donk City inhabitants. As we explored further into the Sand Kingdom we happened upon an impassable chasm with a small launcher sending Bullet Bills our way. With a push of the Y button Mario tossed Cappy onto our enemy and we were in control, flying across the obstacle in our way before exploding, sending our hero back along his travels in his own body. 

Towards the end of our time in the Sand Kingdom we found a tower with no platforms on it whatsoever. At a loss, we found a pixelated warp pipe and went in, emerging on the other side in a mural painted on the wall. Similar to those found in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, 8-bit Mario appeared on the wall and we were treated to some old-school platforming action, hopping on Bullet Bills and making our way to our last moon. 

Once we retrieved it our timer ran out and we had to move on. It was an absolutely breathtaking experience. It’s clear the team at Nintendo has put a lot of love into Mario’s latest and possibly greatest outing yet. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what one single Kingdom has to offer, which is part of the excitement for us. Nintendo was unable to confirm additional details such as how many moons in total will be available, or how many kingdoms are available in total. We are, however, very optimistic about Super Mario Odyssey; with four months before release the game is already looking incredible, and runs without any technical issues we could see.

Nintendo Sets High Standards With Its Hero

Most importantly, it manages to do so much that is completely new while still maintaining the heart of a core Mario game. It makes excellent use of the Switch’s motion controls as well as HD Rumble. Riding vehicles around New Donk City felt like you were really holding onto the handlebars of a motorised scooter. Mario has always been Nintendo’s go-to franchise to explain the value of its hardware, and Odyssey looks to be no exception in that regard. A small number of units running the demo in portable mode are on the show floor as well, and while we didn’t get to play them yet, we were assured that the game experience is every bit as good undocked.

We’ll have much more on Super Mario Odyssey this week as E3 continues. For now, what has you most excited for Super Mario Odyssey? Let us know in the comments.