When Super Mario Odyssey was announced earlier this year, I knew that it was going to be the game that I bought a Switch for. Then later in the year when it was announced that there was going to be a special Super Mario Odyssey Switch bundle I did what any video game enthusiast with no self-control would do: I pre-ordered it. For the last two weeks, I’ve been off and on playing Super Mario Odyssey (and enjoying the Switch) and while Odyssey is a great game and definitely a worthy entry into the Super Mario 3D platformer pedigree, I’ve come to one conclusion that stands out above everything else in regards to the game:
There are too many freaking moons.
So let’s step back a little bit. With Super Mario Odyssey, Nintendo is putting their own little spin on the “open world” philosophy that has dominated games as of recent times. Much like Breath of the Wild is Nintendo’s open world Zelda, Odyssey is Nintendo’s open world Mario. Despite having the game divided up into distinct worlds that you have to progress through in a linear fashion, each world itself is a huge sandbox. The first time visiting a world you’re given a general direction to go; but you don’t have to follow the game’s suggestion because there are just so many moons available to you. If you feel like going off and exploring the world at your leisure, that’s your prerogative.
What drags down other open world games in general is the fact that there are tons of meaningless collectibles which clutter the map of the overworld. If you look at a map of Assassin’s Creed or Horizon: Zero Dawn, you’ll see a ton of little icons that let you know where a tower or a treasure chest or a random X collectible is located. It’s a gameplay loop where exploring nooks and crannies gets you a bunch of random collectibles that don’t usually do anything else besides filling in the “how many collectibles have you found” meter and maybe giving you a trophy or achievement after you’ve devoted your life to finding every single one. And they always divide the collectibles up into different category to make your brain feel like you’re accomplishing something by completing sets – except the different collectibles don’t actually functionally do anything in the game, so there isn’t really any difference between them all outside of aesthetics.
In Far Cry 4, for example, there are journals, Mani wheels, Masks of Yalung, propaganda and lost letters scattered around the map. And you have to find every single one to get 100% completion of the game. But there’s no real difference between tearing down a propaganda poster or spinning a Mani wheel except for the actual visual look of it. It’s “go to a point, do a thing, get some experience, see your meter go up a little and get a burst of dopamine so you feel validated in doing the thing.” It’s how game designers make it seem like an open world is more full than it actually is. A player will you see all these different spots on the map and think to themselves “wow, there’s so much to DO” and not realize that the actual active content is low – most of their time will be spent in map traversal, going from point A to point B to locate the marker on the map.
Super Mario Odyssey simplifies this open world philosophy. There are two things you can collect in Odyssey: coins and moons. Moons are the main objective – they’re the equivalent of Stars or Shines and collecting them lets you progress from world to world. And while the coins are divided into regular coins and special purple coins that are only usable in the world you find them, you only use the coins to buy two things: cosmetics for Mario/your airship, and more moons. That’s it. There aren’t special figurines of Peach scattered around, there aren’t secret postcards from Luigi you have to find. It’s coins and moons, moons and coins.
That’s no moon, that’s a conveniently placed collectible!
In its own way, it’s refreshing. You know if you’re taking on a new platforming challenge or figuring out a tough puzzle or fighting a new boss – there’s a moon as a reward at the end of this. But if you decide to futz around and explore, you might find a moon hidden around a corner or under a cliff. The sheer amount of them also allows Nintendo to just throw them anywhere and everywhere – you might be able to see a moon floating in the air, but the trick is figuring out how to get to it. Or it might just literally be sitting in an alcove and all you had to do was rotate the camera in the right direction. It’s a great change of pace from other open worlds that dress up their pointless collectibles as unique things that add to the game. Instead, every time you find something interesting, you end up making progress on the actual focus of the game instead of a pointless experience meter.
But as I said at the beginning of this article – there’s just too many of them.
In Super Mario 64, the first Mario 3D platformer, there were a maximum of 120 stars you could collect. That was a lot at the time. In Odyssey, you can max out your moons at 999 total collected. And while the design philosophy of the games and worlds within the games are totally different, it’s still just a crazy difference in amount when you compare the two. More importantly, in Super Mario 64 you have to have 70 stars to be able to fight the final boss. In Odyssey, you’ll probably be about 1/6 to 1/5 of the way to the 999 total when you beat the final boss and reach the “post-game.” Collecting 700+ moons after I’ve already beaten the game is just way too daunting of a task – a game shouldn’t have MORE to do after you’ve “beaten” it. Beating the game should be a good reward, and the post-game should be for some harder challenges and mopping up what you missed during your original playthrough.
While Nintendo’s spin on the open-world genre with Odyssey is fun and a much more streamlined design than most other AAA developers, it still suffers from the constant open-world problem of crazy excess. As the great Ian Malcolm once said, at Nintendo they “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” It’s great to add replay value to games and make sure people get their money’s worth. And I do appreciate that Nintendo is Nintendo and packages a full game without any of the monetary nickel-and-diming BS other companies do.
I like the idea of completing games. Back in the day, I could 100% a game like Mario 64 or Donkey Kong Country in a reasonable amount of the time. Nowadays, it takes 15-20 hours to complete the main game, but upwards of 50-60 hours of time to get every collectible. And Odyssey is no different in that aspect. I’ve hit 250 moons collected and I’m starting to get burned out of the game. I enjoy playing it – the movement mechanics are amazing and feel smooth most of the time, the hat ability is the freshest and neatest power addition Mario has gotten in years, and each world is superbly crafted and detailed and they all look beautiful. But there is absolutely no way I can force myself to keep looking for more moons at this point. My attention span has drifted.
When I get bored, this is what happens.
Here’s my final thought on the matter: several years ago I watched a streamer named Siglemic who was competing with another streamer named Nero for the world record of getting 120 stars in Super Mario 64 without any hacking, tools or other assists. Simply playing the game from start to finish. 100%ing it would take around 2 hours – I think the world record back then was around 1 hour, 45 minutes but I think it’s lower now. They would go back and forth as WR holders, and it was always super exciting to watch a run by one of them. Especially because as they got closer and closer to the end everyone watching would get hyped to see if they’d finish breaking a new record. The reason this was fun to watch was because the game was filled with things to do, but also concise and streamlined with an easily obtainable endpoint. While I’ll probably be surprised at the best speedruns of Odyssey in a year or so (as there are already videos of people doing insane things with Mario’s move set in the game) I can’t believe the best start-to-finish 999 Odyssey run would take less than 10 hours.
Game philosophy and design is just different now compared to when Super Mario 64 came out. I get that. But for me, I don’t see the problem with having a game that isn’t overstuffed. Having so much to do the first time around makes it hard for me to want to replay it from the beginning down the line – I didn’t even complete it the first time, how can I justify replaying it later when I have all these other games I could start/finish?
Odyssey is a great game. It was totally worth getting a Switch and I recommend it to anyone who loves old-school 3D platformers or collectathons. But I’m all mooned out.