It's been a week since I first played Super Mario Odyssey and got a brief glimpse at its brilliantly bizarre worlds - as well as its slightly baffling motion controls. It left a big impression, but I couldn't help feel like I needed more time to properly understand everything happening on screen before me.
So, towards the end of E3 week, I went back for a much longer follow-up session. No longer limited by time, I was able to better explore the two Kingdom areas of Odyssey playable on the show floor. After my initial 30 minutes with the game I'd thought I'd got a decent glimpse of what these two areas had to offer. But, after a further hour, it became clear that any initial playtime really only scratched the surface. I also got to play using the Switch's Pro Controller, which proved far easier to get to grips with.
Above everything else, the one thing which became obvious from more time with the game is how much of Odyssey lies hidden. The game's Kingdoms are stuffed with things which you'll initially overlook. New Donk City appears to be only a handful of city blocks. The Sand Kingdom's Tostarena is just a handful of dusty buildings. And yet each of their levels stretches much further, includes rocket ships and warp pipes to whole other areas, and hides secrets atop buildings and frozen within oases. Or, for example, this whole ice platforming section hidden beneath a sinkhole (skip to 6:30 in the video below):
Venture further past Tostarena and explore the Sand Kingdom's ancient architecture, via those 2D Mario sections where you are converted to a NES-style sidescroller. It's an idea similar to the wall-inhabiting gameplay in Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, but expanded here into a full platforming experience. And the moment you leap out of the wall at the other end back into full 3D is something I've gone back and watched on streams again and again.
Journey further through the ruins and you are now presented with aerial platforms, tricky moving sections where you need to throw Mario's hat Cappy to collect coins and set off waves of fire to destroy blocks in your path, all while the platform you are on is mid-flight. Make it to the other side and you'll find an entirely fresh area of the Sand Kingdom to explore, inhabited by new enemies named Moe-Eyes. Similar to Moai statues, these sunglass-wearing carvings can be captured by Mario, and their sunglasses used to reveal invisible platforms. Moe-Eyes can't jump, however, so you'll need to release the statues from your control then take on the invisible platforms as Mario himself - navigating the platforms from memory. Then, beyond that, is a whole other area with more surprises inside an inverted pyramid, which we won't spoil.
Back in New Donk City, pursuing the Kingdom's first main quest to find Mayor Pauline's jazz musicians rewards you with a similar amount of new things to do - again, up high, among the city's skyscrapers. This type of changing level is reminiscent to how Mario 64 and Mario Sunshine's open areas altered for each major objective - although now the differences happen on the fly, areas adapting and expanding as you progress their story. And all the time, of course, you can wander away from the beaten track and discover something new around each corner. In New Donk City, it's my personal hero Captain Toad hiding out on a remote, hard to reach girder. In the Sand Kingdom, it's another cluster of purple coins uncovered by crouching into a crack underneath a building - enough, perhaps, to purchase the level's poncho outfit.
The above footage, streamed on Nintendo Treehouse, shows a much later section of Tostarena gameplay, including how the level looked at night-time. There's plenty of open-world exploration here, too, revealing just a couple of the dozens of Power Moons available in each world. The video also showcases Mario Odyssey's co-op controls, revealed late during E3 week after our initial hands-on. Here, a second player can control Cappy, and direct him to target specific enemies in a wide circumference around the main player. Gameplay streams have also shown off the interior of the Odyssey, Mario's top hat-shaped spaceship, which you can decorate with relics and mementos of your travels, as well as bumper stickers.
Other discoveries come more in the form of realisations - the fact you are so free to explore, that gameplay isn't interrupted or exploration progress reset when you collect a nearby Power Moon. The game encourages to take risks thanks to its lack of a Game Over screen - or not one I've seen. Mario falling off a platform or getting hit too many times by an enemy now simply deducts a few coins from your total. Respawning is a lot more user-friendly, too - you reappear at the nearest flag checkpoint, which are helpfully dotted throughout levels. Helpful, considering each Kingdom's size. Nintendo brought a third Kingdom to E3 just for its Treehouse livestream - an enormous wooded area not available to press or public on the E3 show floor. You can watch 30 minutes of gameplay of that just below:
And finally, there's the controls - which, while manageable in the initial demo setup of a separate Joy-Con in each hand, felt more natural to me on a Pro controller (the same setup for if you're playing in handheld mode, or on your TV with the Joy-Con in their grip). Cappy will home to objects after being thrown, and while Cappy's throwing and hovering mechanic still takes a little practice, the notion of flicking Cappy in a particular direction is not part of the equation. You can still shake the controller to throw Cappy out, but button presses make for a more finessed approach.
These are the big details, but Odyssey really is a huge game made up of tiny moments. It's what Nintendo's definition of a 'sandbox' game is all about - not a world where every detail can be manipulated by the player, but a vast playset where countless little distractions and discoveries are stuffed. The first time you capture a Bullet Bill and realise you can fly. The first time you leave Mario idle by a boombox and watch him dance. Spotting that last hidden Power Moon shard after idly climbing a palm tree. And, after playing those two Kingdoms for well an hour longer, there was still much, much more to do.
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