For some gamers the idea of a ‘sandbox’ Mario game is pure retro. Super Mario 64 played a big part in revolutionising gaming, not just 3D platforming, and then Super Mario Sunshine took the idea in some interesting new directions on GameCube. Yet the Wii was a transformative console in taking Nintendo back to the top of the home console space; by the time Super Mario Galaxy rolled around it was a revolution, flipping Mario quite literally on his head. In that game and its sequel Mario’s playgrounds became tightly structured and designed stages, following the approach that served his 2D adventures so well.

On Wii U we then had Super Mario 3D World, in a sense a hybrid - it incorporated some of the ideas and ‘feel’ of 2D Mario but had some dizzying creativity; it was also a rarely successful multiplayer Mario platforming experience. Yet that blend hasn’t been repeated, with the only thing that’s ‘hybrid’ about Super Mario Odyssey being the hardware on which it belongs. Make no mistake, Odyssey owes its heritage and roots to Super Mario 64, a link that Cappy wears like a badge of honour.

Cappy, of course, is not only Mario’s sidekick but is actually the star. Without Cappy the rotund hero is rather vulnerable, as he explores lands where no power-ups can help him. The little - and charmingly courageous - hat brings the key feature of the game: capturing. In giving Mario dozens of creatures, enemies and even inanimate objects to capture, Nintendo gifts us with more toys than we’ve ever had in a Mario world and makes them all fun, in what’s an impressive display of development and design bravura.

In any case, let’s go back to the beginning. Super Mario Odyssey starts off with an impressive cinematic in which Mario is anything but the cocky hero - Bowser is besting him. The famous foe is intent on marrying Peach and Mario can’t stop him, getting swept off Bowser’s ship to the land below. Cappy follows and we start off in Bonneton (the Cap Kingdom), where sentient hats bemoan the loss of one of their own to serve as Peach’s tiara. Naturally Bowser and his evil rabbit wedding planners have left a mess and destroyed all of the flying hat-shaped ships (stick with us here). Mario, dishevelled but determined, meets Cappy and begins his journey.

It’s bonkers, and delightfully so. You learn very early on that it’s a game where sanity and conventional wisdom have no place. In fact, it goes out of its way to emphasize those points - within the first hour you possess a couple of animals made famous in the many promotional videos for the game; there are wacky boss encounters, retro 2D transitions and sweeping orchestral music. The early tempo is right on the money to set the scene, and though there’s a little scope for freedom the first hour or two is relatively tightly structured as the game teaches you - albeit relatively organically - how to go about saving the princess.

A lot of these lessons are necessary for those more used to linear Mario games, but the training wheels do eventually come off. Much feels familiar, regardless - Mario may initially feel a little lighter and more athletic, with a bit of a ‘skid’ to his run and the instinctive ability to climb ledges. Nevertheless in no time all the old moves come back - the triple jump, high jump, long jump and more. There are excellent ways the game teaches newcomers, but for veterans it won’t take long to get into the groove.

Throwing Cappy is the key - he defeats enemies, captures them, solves puzzles and even acts as a spring to boost Mario’s jumps. The basic throw is easy, but Nintendo has also utilised motion controls for broader moves such as a circular attack (also vital for some puzzles) and the option to fling him vertically. The key moves to progress in the game can all be done with a button press, but some of the smarter throws do require motion inputs. The game pushes you towards using the two Joy-Con as they’re light and responsive, though this scribe has a left controller that occasionally does the dreaded disconnect trick. Thankfully the Pro Controller also works well with the motion inputs, even if it feels less intuitive and stylish shaking the bulky pad around; for long spells of exploration we’d rarely use the motion-only moves, in any case.

What these optional controls also do is remind us that, at its heart, this is a console game best enjoyed on the TV. In theory the motion inputs work in handheld mode, and we had fun in portable play sessions, but it’s not ideal to move and shake the console around - it’s probably best advised not to. It’s a game with sizeable worlds that feels like it yearns for a bigger screen than the system itself can offer.

Back to the core game - once you’ve mastered Cappy you set off on the Odyssey across over a dozen lands. There’s a bit of linear plot to guide you for a while, tied to the Odyssey’s range as a ship. As you reach new Kingdoms your priorities are twofold - to follow key checkpoints to defeat bosses and progress the story, but also to find extra Power Moons to fuel the ship. The design is particularly clever in the first go around, as a lot of extra moons can be discovered on your route from A to B. They’ll catch the corner of your eye, or you’ll see the tell-tale sign of a puzzle or hidden area.

On top of this you’re also looking for gold and purple coins. Gold coins are - in essence - your lives, not that you’ll actually run out; when you die you sacrifice a small number, but it’s pretty inconsequential. That does mean there’s no sense of ‘game over’ peril, but that’s nothing new as Mario games have had endless continues for years. In a game focused on exploration and joyful experimentation this is an understandable approach.

Each Kingdom has two stores - a broad range is purchasable with the common gold coins, with region-specific outfits and souvenirs (which can be stuck on and inside the Odyssey) available with that area’s purple currency. Finding the fixed number of each region’s currency is a nice sub-quest outside of Power Moons, especially if you want to plaster your ship in stickers and build up your varied collection of outfits for Mario.

In the first half of the game, in zones you’ve likely seen in Nintendo’s various videos, veterans may ultimately feel they’re not being stretched. The return to a collect-a-thon approach is risky in that sense, as clearing mini stages and simple puzzles doesn’t always have the same dizzying allure of full inventive levels. Yet the freedom to play and explore does become intoxicating as you realise just how much Mario and Cappy can do. Importantly, too, after the first five zones (in our case) it felt like the experience ramped up, progressing from being excellent Mario gaming to exceptional.

Surprise encounters come at the right moments, and the first arrival at New Donk City feels like a heralding of the real game, with the lessons and easy introductions being mostly finished. It’s a fantastic environment to explore, and the areas that follow seem to take that ball and run with it. That’s not to say there’s anything particularly negative about the first half of the game, but it becomes special once you reach the familiar cityscape.

The transformations, the varied challenges (some with online leaderboards), the visuals, it all continues to up the ante. We found ourselves accumulating many more moons than technically required simply because some lands drew us in and gave us the urge to experiment, the desire to find the next delightfully silly solution. You start finding more standalone stages, too, which become increasingly clever and entertaining as a result. One surprise encounter towards the end is also incredibly random, making us wonder where the heck it came from and what inspired it. That sense of not knowing what’s next is one of the best things about the experience.

The latter lands are the apex, with Bowser evidently taking his game up a notch as he seeks the wedding of his dreams. It becomes riveting at this point, and as you reach the initial ending you’re greeted by one of the best final boss encounters that Nintendo has ever created. It’s right up there.

Once the credits roll, though, Nintendo has found a smart way to keep you interested, and the post-game is both sizeable and fun. There are a few new areas (we won’t spoil them here) to reach, and in the process you can find even more challenge stages and puzzles to solve. It’s a true collect-a-thon at this point, but it’s superior in its design to what we saw in the genre’s early days. We felt more than happy to chase the ‘real’ ending, and it had a few delights of its own. You can even keep going after that if you’re a true completionist.

In our case this was played mostly as a solo experience, but Nintendo has integrated co-op support where one controls Mario - and generally runs the show - and another helps as Cappy. It’s a smart addition, especially if any young or inexperienced gamers want to join in but aren’t ready for three-dimensional running and jumping. Though Mario can snap Cappy back and take charge, it’s useful when player two roams free to collect coins or take out enemies. Cappy has slightly more range in co-op, so player two doesn’t necessarily need to feel tethered at all times.

It’s better than the ‘co-op’ in the Galaxy games, but not in the same league - obviously - as the genuine multiplayer of Super Mario 3D World. It was memorably described to this writer as ‘better than Tails’ in Sonic Mania, in terms of the feeling of actual participation; in that respect it’s a welcome inclusion. One other note for parents or players planning multiple run-throughs, meanwhile, is that ‘Data Management’ is found under options; here you can have five save files per system user.

Also included here, which can be optionally turned on or off at any time, is Assist Mode. This does a few things - Mario starts with a bigger health bar, he doesn’t immediately drop coins if he falls off the stage, and it puts fallen players near where they perished as opposed to the last checkpoint flag. On top of this there are guidance arrows to direct players to the key objectives, nudging them towards progress. As an extra this is a smart addition, as we know Switch converts that are keen to try the game but are worried by their inexperience when it comes to 3D Mario. Nintendo, quite rightly, wants those players to feel welcome.

For you amiibo collectors, these also offer a bit of assistance whenever you please. We weren’t testing the new ‘wedding’ figures for this review, but tried a variety of older amiibo. Non-Mario figures give you small rewards, for example, and scanning one of the ‘Anniversary’ Mario pixel amiibo figures gave us a nice surprise. You can also use amiibo to get tips on Power Moons you haven’t yet discovered, helping with the hunt later in the game. The functionality is generally a cute but entirely optional, and should also help some players in tricky areas when they need a small boost.

Our focus up to now has been gameplay, where Super Mario Odyssey shines, but Nintendo has also hit top gear in the game’s technical achievements. Whether on the TV or portable the gameplay rocks along at 60fps, entirely solid 99% of the time. It’s easy to forget now, but the original ‘sandbox’ Mario games ran at half that rate. On top of that the game is a looker, borrowing the visual approaches that are now so familiar from Nintendo - the Pixar-style cartoon-to-life vibe. It’s a bright and colourful game and also, at times, genuinely beautiful. It’s certainly a contender as the best-looking Switch game to date.

That’s certainly the case when docked, as we feel that playing the title through a good TV is the best way to experience the game. Nintendo, to its credit, has done more than bump the resolution from portable to docked; there are notable enhancements that use the extra resources. The game still looks impressive on the portable, but there are more noticeable artifacts and edges - bringing the action to a TV improves these areas. It’s not just a variation in pixel counts, there are genuine differences. We’re pleased to see this, as while Odyssey provides silky smooth and good-looking gaming on the go, it feels like a genuine ‘console’ game when kicking out of a large display.

As always, we should also give a nod to the music. Famously this title has a ‘lead’ track with vocals that’s even available for download, which is reflective of the confidence and swagger Nintendo demonstrates with the game as a whole. The music, overall, is excellent, in some cases ambient and in the background and at other points designed to get the player hyped up. Then there are the smart touches, like music distorting and changing if you’re underwater, or shifting to a chiptune version in a retro 2D section - all good stuff.

Beyond the sweeping scope, in fact, it’s a game all about small touches. From tourist-style maps for each Kingdom that give you little details on the locale, to silly Power Moon tasks and fun transformations, it’s a game keen to make players smile. It acknowledges the heritage of the title that started it all, Super Mario 64, but is still very much a game of this time - that is its greatest strength.

Conclusion

Super Mario Odyssey represents a shift in direction for Mario. For about a decade we had exceptional but tightly structured 3D series entries, but this new arrival’s building blocks go back to Super Mario 64. It’s a very modern take on ‘sandbox Mario’, however - Cappy and his abilities are key additions that freshen up the formula, and we have a sizeable and diverse set of lands to explore.

Odyssey will, inevitably, now enter the discussions about the ‘best’ Mario games. In the second half and post-credits - in particular - it takes on a life of its own, showcasing incredible design and development flair. It’s also a wonderful showcase for the Switch, and could introduce a whole new audience to the wonders of Mario in three dimensions. For the veterans among us, meanwhile, it’s yet another special release to remind us of why Mario is still gaming’s number one.