When Super Mario Odyssey came out in 2017, it was reasonable to expect an open world sandbox game like Breath of the Wild. What we got, however, was a collection of disconnected mini-sandbox kingdoms. They had great potential but serve little purpose outside the main story and aren’t big enough to capture the gamer’s attention for long afterward. The gameplay gimmick with Cappy is mostly good, but the game doesn’t give players much motivation to continue playing after all the kingdoms are unlocked.
Super Mario Odyssey has a strong start. Bowser kidnaps Peach and plans to force her to marry him. As Mario gives chase, he loses his cap and it ends up shredded. The significance of losing Mario’s cap is more apparent for long-time fans since it has often been important in earlier 3D Mario games.
In Super Mario 64, Mario needed his cap for power-ups that would enable him to fly, turn metal or turn invisible. Without his cap, Mario would be attacked by a Bob-Omb when he hit the Power-Up block. In Super Mario Sunshine, Mario slowly loses his life when he loses his cap.
This loss in Super Mario Odyssey only serves to introduce the main gameplay gimmick: Cappy. With Cappy’s help, you can throw your cap to eliminate smaller enemies and possess many others. This adds a little variety to gameplay, but the mechanics are a mixed bag.
To name a few, possessing a Goomba enables Mario to jump on other Goombas and form a Goomba tower to climb great heights. Simple, but effective. Mario can also possess Hammer Bros. that throw skillets to defeat enemies and break cheese blocks, making possessed Hammer Bros. useful for both fighting and exploration. At the end of the game, you can also possess Bowser himself and use him to break walls and blocks and defeat enemies.
Mario can use Cappy to travel along power lines as a sphere of electricity. This also makes Cappy useful for transportation. Cappy is especially useful to explore the Luncheon Kingdom as most of the kingdom is covered in pink lava that Mario can only explore by possessing a lava bubble.
Mario can capture certain cars, but the player can’t control them since the destinations are set. Mario can capture a sewer cover plate to move it out of the way, but it serves no other gameplay purpose whatsoever.
Too Many Power Moons!
Power Moons power Mario’s airship, the Odyssey, which he uses to travel between the kingdoms and chase Bowser. Power Moons are needed to progress through the game and they’re spread out around the world.
When you finally accumulate 999 Moons, a top hat appears over Peach’s Castle and then you spin Cappy over the center. Fireworks go off around the castle and a modernized version of the classic “level clear” music from Super Mario Bros. plays. While that is a nice last hurrah, I would argue it’s not worth getting 999 Moons to experience, especially when Moons are so trivialized you can buy them for 100 coins at a store.
At times, getting Moons is way too easy to be satisfying. Kicking a rock or throwing Cappy at the top of a pole is sometimes considered enough of an achievement to warrant a Moon. Game Champ argues that it’s a waste of time to find Moons after getting what you need to reach the end since they’re that easy to obtain, and I agree.
Lack of Post-Game Incentive
Super Mario 64, which many consider to be one of the greatest 3D platformers of all time, has a total of 120 Power Stars. Every world has six missions along with a bonus star you get for collecting 100 coins. These missions have specific requirements to complete, like defeating a boss or collecting eight red coins spread throughout the world. The bosses are challenging enough, and the worlds are big enough to make every star feel earned once you get them.
There are also secret stars spread throughout the castle to reward exploration and effort. Spoiler for 100% run! Once you reach all 120, a cannon outside the castle opens and you can shoot to the roof where Yoshi is waiting. After talking to him, your lives are raised to 100, you sparkle like a Power Star every time you triple jump and there’s a wing cap you can use to fly around the castle. It’s not much, but it’s a special last hurrah.
Super Mario Galaxy has excellent post-ending incentives. After defeating Bowser in the final battle, purple comets appear and you collect 100 purple coins for a Power Star. After getting all 121 stars and winning the final battle again, you can start a new playthrough: Super Luigi Galaxy! In it, you play as Luigi who is faster but slippery and jumps higher than Mario.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 also continues after the main game. After getting 120 power stars, green comets appear on every single galaxy, each containing three hidden green stars — 120 hidden green stars in total. It’s a fresh experience after the main game that’s almost the same size.
Most of the kingdoms in Super Mario Odyssey are medium sandbox levels, where the goal is to stop Bowser from collecting something for the wedding. Despite Mario’s efforts, Bowser succeeds at every turn except during the actual wedding. The reason I said most kingdoms are medium-sized is because some kingdoms like the Ruined Kingdom, the Cloud Kingdom and the Dark Side are much smaller and have far fewer Power Moons.
The kingdoms just don’t have much incentive to explore compared to previous games. There is some intrigue here and there like the Jaxi in the Sand Kingdom, Pauline in the Metro Kingdom or the races in the Snow Kingdom. But besides a small town in each kingdom, there is precious little interaction with other characters to make for meaningful experiences that make the kingdoms feel alive. You don’t return a penguin’s baby like Super Mario 64, or save people from drowning in magic paint like in Super Mario Sunshine. You’re just exploring aimlessly in almost lifeless kingdoms with no real purpose but to complete the massive collect-a-thon that is Super Mario Odyssey.