Mario prepares for the 'best game' debate

Super Mario Odyssey has been out in the wild for a week, and it's safe to say that its launch couldn't have gone much better. Critically acclaimed, to the sort of levels seen with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it's also been a notable commercial success. Switch owners have rushed to buy it, breaking sales records in the US, battling the big boys in the UK charts and smashing it out of the park in Japan, for a few examples. If Nintendo had ambitious targets before release, there's every chance they've been exceeded regardless.

Many players, including some that we know wouldn't typically lose a weekend to game like this, became utterly immersed when it arrived, and the buzz has been significant. This week we ran polls asking the Nintendo Life community to choose the 'best Super Mario game' - as we write thousands have voted and Odyssey has dominated, taking over 40% of the vote. It's crushed what was the previous undisputed champ among our readers, Super Mario World.

Now, let's remember that buzz and hype around a shiny new game plays a part, but even with that in mind the results are eye-opening. It may interest some that in our review for the game this writer originally said the following, a line we took out because it wasn't the right platform for the debate.

It's unclear whether Super Mario Odyssey claims the throne as the best Mario game so far, but it's certainly in the conversation.

That line was originally included partly due to 'the fear' that can strike a reviewer. Basically, when awarding a game 10/10, even when happy with the conviction of that decision, there's always a dread that the popular consensus will be drastically different. It's not about towing a line with what others say, but a curiosity and uncertainty over an individual's interpretation of a game's merits before it's out in the world. That top mark is always reserved for the best of the best, so whenever it's in the offing there's debate and extra thought as a result.

Mandatory image of Mario's alluring figure

The line was also wrestling with a common issue - how do you compare Mario games? We're sure some of you had the same thought when voting in our polls. How do you weigh up 2D vs 3D? Even in 3D we have 'sandbox' games like 64, Sunshine and Odyssey, and then more structured linear titles like Galaxy 1 & 2. All have their own merits, and so declaring the 'best' out of them is tricky.

So, aside from the evidently popular opinion that seems to rate Odyssey as the finest of Mario games (and therefore surely one of the best games ever made), what arguments can be made to justify that? Well, let's think of some.

In some ways, Super Mario Odyssey is a little like its home system, the Switch. When Nintendo unveiled the Switch fully in its January presentation it tried to pitch it as an accumulation of three decades of hardware development. That does ring true to a certain degree - it has portability to embrace what has always been Nintendo's most lucrative market, its Joy-Con controllers offer multiplayer out of the box along with motion controls and clever features to use in gameplay, and it also offers conventional console gaming on a TV. That all-in-one approach rightly concerned some, but so far it's paid off handsomely. The Switch has the DNA and elements of various Nintendo systems.

Odyssey is similar, though the bulk of its inspiration comes from Super Mario 64. It makes no secret of that, and there are bits of Sunshine in there too - that was inevitable with the 'sandbox' approach. That said, Nintendo's teams also included numerous nods and winks to the other 3D Mario games, and of course there are 'retro' 2D sequences thrown in. When you add the Cappy 'capture' mechanics to that it actually sounds like the game could be overcrowded, full of too many ideas to be cohesive. In fact, pre-review and before experiencing the game, this scribe repeatedly expressed reservations in private about how the game would 'flow'; would it come together as a cohesive experience, or just be a collection of playgrounds with little to tie them together?

It's a critic's job to be, well, a critic, but in hindsight we should have known better. Nintendo's 'B teams' can occasionally put out mediocre games, but the 'A teams' very rarely disappoint. Nintendo evidently had its top talent producing Odyssey, and it's a design masterclass. For veteran gamers it finds ways to surprise and twist conventions, driven not only by the capture mechanic but also the layout of the stages. The further you go, too, the more it trusts your abilities and provides optional tricky areas to tackle, many of which are hived off and essentially take the form of linear levels. As you complete a playthrough you realise that you're gradually getting the best of both worlds - freedom to explore and experiment, along with linear sequences and challenges to test your platforming skills. There are organic and clever worlds with which to interact, and also delightful levels that have been carefully crafted.

More importantly, Super Mario Odyssey makes Mario playable for everyone. We know some purists don't like 'Assist Mode', but it does no harm as it's optional. Its clever features, however, mean that this writer knows at least one Switch owner enjoying the game that has never played a Mario title before. They also invested dozens of hours in Breath of the Wild, despite having never played a Zelda game before. Nintendo is creating experiences that are for everyone and can, conceivably, entertain any player willing to give them a try.

What that means, ultimately, is that games are evolving. While playing something like Super Mario World (without save states) there's the fear of game over. That won't happen in Odyssey. Without peril, without the fear that makes players focus and become immersed as a result, the design and sheer joy of playing has to stack up. That's where Super Mario Odyssey succeeds. We've read comments online of players that typically enjoy more 'mature' games spending an hour simply running and jumping, basking in the pleasure of Mario's movement. It's that tight connection between Mario and the controller, placed within colourful, wacky and imaginative worlds, that's so captivating.

That, we'd suggest, is Super Mario Odyssey's greatest triumph. Other Mario games typically cater to specific types of gamers, due to the level of challenge, the way they control, or indeed the structure they follow. The Switch masterpiece, by contrast, can be enjoyed by anyone at their own speed. It's the ultimate entry point for those yet to fall in love with Mario games, and the culmination of 32 years of progress for those that have played them all.

Perhaps it truly is the greatest Super Mario game - so far...