A dusty, barren lunar surface. Light synths seem to struggle to find a melody as a fat, squat man in a dazzling white tuxedo—complete with top-hat—flips, bounds, and rolls in the low-gravity environment. The tolling of church-bells breaks the near-silence. One horizon is dominated by a green-and-blue Earth-rise. On the other, a winding red carpet leads to the landscape’s sole edifice, a small wedding chapel. Light spills from its open doorway. A steampunk airship circles its bell tower.
This climactic moment from Super Mario Odyssey, released in late October 2017 by Nintendo for their new Switch console, is, like practically every other moment in the game, utterly surprising. That’s quite a feat for a full-featured video game in the modern era, especially one as laden with nostalgia and familiarity as a Super Mario title. Many games draw us in with unique premises but quickly settle into well-worn ruts as they attempt to pad a single idea into a thirty- to sixty-hour playtime. This has never been a problem for Mario, who from his earliest days was exploring sunken ghost ships, hopping into Kuribo’s wind-up shoe, and unlocking bizarro worlds populated by fire-spitting pumpkins. But even given this track record, Super Mario Odyssey is not your typical Mario. Its greatest strength is how consistently it zigs when you expect it to zag, creating virtual playgrounds out of surreal juxtapositions.
Before continuing, a few more examples:
A Jurassic Park-style rampaging T-rex wearing a tiny, bristling brown mustache above its roaring maw.
A waist-coated cartoon rabbit with a teetering tower of emerald-green top-hats—at least a dozen in total—stacked atop his head.
A showdown between Mario and his longtime rival, Bowser, in the cloud-formed Nimbus Arena, in which Mario must steal Bowser’s mechanized top-hat (ten sizes too large on the diminutive plumber) and use its spring-loaded boxing arms to punch-out the King of All Koopas, Little Mac Style.
Bowser, in an unmistakably ’70s-kitsch white-and-purple tux, riding on the back of a thunder-spewing dragon and using it to shoot Mario’s airship (a Rococo contraption in the shape of a cherry-red top-hat) out of the sky.
Many more scenes involving hats and mustaches.
In his Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton writes:
It is, as it were, from the fortuitous juxtaposition of the two terms that a particular light has sprung, the light of the image, to which we are infinitely sensitive. The value of the image depends upon the beauty of the spark obtained; it is, consequently, a function of the difference of potential between the two conductors.
Although I’ve never studied surrealism formally, this notion seems intuitively right to me, and it is the ideal to which my writing has always striven. Elsewhere, Breton writes that “in this day and age logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest.” The image, borne out of the subconscious, evoking new correlations in the mind of the reader, as a means to transport the mind someplace wholly unexpected; this is the true and right end of creation. And, as a conduit along which such image-sparks might travel, games have always been an ideal medium of creation because there is always, to some degree, an act of creation “in the moment,” an implicit tension between the aims of the creator and the experience of the audience/interactor.
Super Mario Odyssey isn’t the first game to tap into surrealist imagery, and it’s far from the most surreal game currently available—What Remains of Edith Finch, Everything, Little Nightmares, and NieR: Automata surpass it in this respect, and that’s just counting games released in 2017. Nor is it the only example of this sort of storytelling within the Mario universe; the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario RPG series have been doing this for years. But it is still surprising for a mainline Mario title to be this consistently weird. What makes Odyssey successful as a surrealist work is how well it functions as a game—it was the fastest-selling Mario title to date and consistently received near-perfect scores from reviewers, which means it’s destined to reach the hands and minds of millions of gamers worldwide—and how thoroughly it reframes its own history.
As its name suggests, Super Mario Odyssey is a journey. Bowser, the nefarious turtle-dragon, has kidnapped Princess Peach again, and this time he’s hired a bevy of cunicular wedding-planners to help him plan the perfect wedding—on the moon. Because the aforementioned wedding-planners are also from the moon, they’re rabbits (referencing the well-known Japanese folk belief that the silhouette of a rabbit pounding mochi can be seen on the moon’s surface). Princess in tow, Bowser hops from continent to continent, stealing each region’s most prized artifact (they all seem to be wedding-related) and creating havoc that Mario must clean up before picking up Bowser’s trail in the next region.
Aboard his airship Odyssey, Mario will visit fifteen kingdoms, sandbox-style biomes that are represented as locations on a globe but feel more like separate planets. Each kingdom has its own inhabitants, art, and gameplay style—New Donk City, with its Art Deco skyscrapers, rain-slick pavement, and pin-striped attire, screams “film noir,” while the Luncheon Kingdom’s mounds of hill-sized vegetables, rendered in broad strokes with bright, incongruous pastel colors, look more like an Impressionist still-life. Other environments include a seaside resort that pumps seltzer water from its fizzing waves; Bowser’s shogun-area Japanese fortress in the clouds, wreathed by colored smoke and populated by firework-flinging woodpeckers; and a vast greenhouse tended by sentient robots that live symbiotically with the flowers they cultivate.
The only thing tying the disparate environments together is their sense of incongruity. The sight of the bubble-headed, dwarf-sized Mario standing alongside the anatomically accurate citizens if New Donk City is weird in its own right, but it’s even stranger when sandwiched between levels populated by talking snails, bouncing seals, and sentient utensils. Each new kingdom is a sudden and drastic tonal u-turn, and there’s a surprise waiting around every corner. Bonneton, a Tim Burton-esque landscape of black hills and top hat-shaped buildings silhouetted against a giant yellow moon, is an exceedingly odd choice for an opening environment in a Mario game, but it effectively sets the tone for what’s to come.
It’s here in Bonneton that Mario meets Cappy, one of the Cap Kingdom’s inhabitants, who normally appear as ghostly top hats. Within the first seconds of gameplay, however, Cappy possesses Mario’s trademark red cap and gives him access to a new repertoire of moves: the plumber can now fling his hat around to bean enemies, smash obstacles, grab hard-to-reach coins, and even use it as a springboard to gain a little extra air. Headwear isn’t the only thing Cappy can possess, however; through the power of the magic hat, Mario can now assume direct control of dozens of unique creatures, replacing the usual complement of power-ups with a more diverse array of abilities.
Throughout the experience, Odyssey remains fixated on fashion, particularly hats. While playing, I frequently joked with my wife that the game only exists because the creator didn’t get that hat he wanted for Christmas thirty years ago. Bonneton is, of course, a landscape entirely devoted to headwear, in which hat-shaped spirits inhabit hat-shaped airships on the brim of a hat-shaped tower; a skyline of hat-shaped skyscrapers can be seen in the distance. But as the game continues, nearly every living thing possesses a hat, and when it doesn’t, Mario’s hat can be used to possess it. Some creatures seem to have evolved headwear as a means of protection against psychic assault, like the archetypal tinfoil hat. The entire global economy appears to revolve around the Crazy Cap, a retail chain with locations in every continent. Hats are such a symbol of power and prestige that when the aforementioned wedding planner appears with a stack of twelve on his head, you know he means business.
Meanwhile, the fact that enemies “captured” (notice the subtle wordplay) by Mario retain his iconic red cap and mustache calls to mind the surrealist and Dadaist works of René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, and Salvador Dali (one can imagine Mario exclaiming Ceci N’est Pas une Warp Pipe). This fixation with appending hats and mustaches to incongruous faces—or even objects that lack faces—creates many moments of surreal juxtaposition. One pinnacle of weirdness comes, appropriately, when Mario reaches the pinnacle of a mountain in the Luncheon Kingdom and possesses a massive slab of salt-encrusted meat; the meat, lacking appendages, is unchanged except for the barely visible mustache and cap. The on-screen instructions simply urge the player to “twitch.”
As much as it is a journey through space, Super Mario Odyssey is also, like any self-respecting globetrotting adventure, a journey through history. Since rescuing the gaming industry from its self-created destruction in 1985, Mario has worn many hats—physician, composer, time traveler, racer, sports superstar—but the most enduring, and the best fitted to his bubble-like head, is that of watchful shepherd. Sometimes, he has taken the lead—it wouldn’t be unfair to conjecture that without Super Mario 64, 3D gaming on consoles might never have taken hold—and other times, he has seen fit to watch from the shadows. But he’s always been a quiet innovator, and as the gaming demographic has shifted older, and games themselves have tackled grittier, more mature themes (with varying degrees of success), Mario has remained the steadfast guardian of gaming’s original promise: the pure joy of discovery.
Odyssey‘s diverse kingdoms are strewn with major and minor nods to gaming’s past. The previous 3D Mario titles are particularly well represented, and for players of a certain age, no small measure of the game’s joy will come from pure nostalgia. Although Mario’s primary mode of conveyance is the steampunk top hat machine, you can also access small, hidden areas by stepping through magical paintings, a la Mario 64 (incidentally, these journeys into the image world bypass Magritte’s “treachery of representation”). Nor is this the only callback to Mario’s first 3D outing. Dorrie, the blue plesiosaur from the Hazy Maze Cave, can be spotted swimming around the game’s water-based environments alongside 64’s treacherous “Maw-Ray” eels. And dedicated players who uncover all of the game’s secrets can explore a recreation of Peach’s Castle, the groundbreaking Nintendo 64 game’s hub world.
Meanwhile, the pollution-spewing Piranha Plants from the Steam Gardens and all of the Seaside Kingdom’s Bubblaine resort should feel familiar to players of the Gamecube’s underappreciated Super Mario Sunshine; one of Bubblaine’s captures, a stubby octopus that can propel itself around the environment by spraying jets of water, even revives some of that title’s core gameplay. And rescuing the ill-fortuned Captain Toad from various far-flung environments, chasing down white rabbits, and flipping gravity in certain 2D segments—to say nothing of the low-gravity antics of Mario’s moonwalk—should remind players of Mario’s most recent 3D adventures in Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel.
Mario’s earliest days are represented by the aforementioned 2D segments, which serve as brief, nostalgic interludes within the larger levels. When Mario drops down a voxelated pipe, he is flattened into a pixelated image of himself that is then projected directly onto elements of the 3D environment: cliff-faces, folding screens, even the ocean floor. The look and handling of these segments is faithful to the original Super Mario Bros., which means there’s not a lot of depth to the gameplay. But this flattening is intentional as the game knowingly juxtaposes this stiff, blocky, differently proportioned version of Mario with the lush 3D environments—and the feature-rich 3D gameplay—surrounding him, as if challenging players to reconcile this thirty-year-old version of the plumber with his current iteration. Donkey Kong, Jump-Man’s earliest claim to fame, even makes an appearance, juxtaposed against the games least Mario-like environment: the metropolitan gridlock of New Donk City—even as its mayor, Pauline, sings of going “off the rails” and experiencing “freedom like you never knew” in the game’s entirely too on-the-nose theme song.
Other minor details recall moments from other 2D Mario titles: the Jizo statues in Bowser’s kingdom bear an uncanny resemblance to Mario 3’s Tanooki Suit transformation, towering stacks of goombas return from Super Mario 3D Land, while throwing Cappy at graffiti resembling the cat suit characters from Super Mario 3D World rewards you with coins or a life refill.
But Super Mario Odyssey embraces more than the history of the red plumber. In more subtle ways, it seems to enfold the entire history of video games, at least on Nintendo consoles. The Ruined Kingdom, a small area populated by flocks of bats and crumbling gothic towers, feels as though Mario tumbled out of his own title and into a Castlevania game (appropriately, he does enter the area by falling out of the sky). That area’s boss fight against a tremendous thunder dragon feels like a transplant from God of War or Dark Souls. A tan puppy straight out of Nintendogs (kitted out with a cowboy hat, natch) appears in some locations, tumbling and leaps after Mario; you can play fetch with it or allow it to sniff out buried treasure. When Mario captures a tank, the game turns, briefly, into a FPS-adventure in the style of Metroid Prime.
For as much as it plays on nostalgia, Odyssey feels marvelously progressive. Like other long-standing franchises that have recently reinvented themselves to join the 21st century—Final Fantasy XV, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Metal Gear Solid V—Super Mario Odyssey embraces an open-world philosophy. Each of its diverse kingdoms is a virtual playground begging to be explored. While there is a plot-driven set of objectives to follow, these barely scratch the surface of the game’s content. This is the biggest Mario sandbox to date: each kingdom features between fifty and one hundred purple coins to collect, some in fiendishly hard-to-reach locations; as well as an average of twenty-five to fifty Power Moons, which replace Stars or Shine Sprites from earlier 3D Mario games. Multiple objectives in a single environment are as old as 3D Mario himself; what’s new here is the sheer quantity of them, as well as how Odyssey never breaks immersion by throwing you out of the environment after grabbing a Power Moon. You can grab a dozen of them in a go as you forge your own path to the stage’s main objective. It feels freeing; for the first time, Mario feels truly “off the rails.”
The emotional impact of this evolution in gameplay is twofold. First, it enhances these biomes’ sense of place. The more freedom a player is given, the fewer invisible barriers are thrown up around the experience, the more “real” the experience begins to feel, which plays wonderfully with the visual surrealism of the experience, especially in the more fanciful environments. Two, the environmental seamlessness is itself juxtaposed against the seaminess, for lack of a better word, of its many incongruities.
The wedding theme is appropriate because the entire experience of Super Mario Odyssey is about creating a marriage between two things that—like a bull-headed turtle sorcerer and a humanoid princess one quarter his size—don’t quite fit together. And rather than attempt to smooth over the seams and inconsistencies that are created when these things meet, Odyssey revels in them. The inherent message seems to be that the only way Mario can exist in a modern game world capable of hyperrealistic graphics, as seen in New Donk City and the T-rex, is as a collection of inconsistencies, the fortuitous juxtaposition of two terms, a grotesque, magical dwarf standing in a crowd of well-formed mundanes.