January 20, 2019
One thing I love about the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild is how totally unbothered it is by our hero’s presence in it. Cliffs you can’t climb, monsters you have no real shot at beating, characters wandering about who aren’t there as side-quest farmers or undifferentiated foils for your inevitable progress. Even the weather will inconvenience, injure or outright murder you if you walk out into it dressed wrong, and in large ways and small this mattered. I’d seen lighting strikes in the game before – and getting one-shotted by the rain after I missed the memo about not wearing metal out in a storm was startling enough, lemme tell you – but the first time I saw one hit water, saw a handful of stunned fish floating to the surface, that put my jaw on the floor. The rain that made this hill too slippery to climb gave that world the sense of a being a world, one that for all your power and fate and destiny just didn’t revolve around you.
Super Mario Odyssey is the precise, exact opposite of that, and at first I really didn’t get it. I couldn’t get into it.
It’s surprisingly hard to enjoy an entire world carefully and forgivingly tuned to precisely fit your exact capacities at all times, to the point that if you’ve done much platforming in your life there’s no real challenge to navigating Odyssey, much less risk. A “death” that costs you about six of the abundant, constantly replenished gold coins that litter the landscape hardly even counts as a setback – you’re likely to restart next to eight or ten of them! – so my first impressions were that it amounted to a hoarder’s brightly coloured to-do list. I decided to grind through it to see the New Donk City I’d been studiously avoiding spoilers for, hearing only that it was the best and weirdest part of the game, but it was definitely a grind.
But after watching my kids play it, and helping them through the parts they’ve been hung up on, I realized something: Odyssey is a bad single-player game because it’s not a single-player game, at least not a single adult player. It’s a children’s book, a children’s experience; it’s Mario Disneyland. And once I discovered the game I was actually supposed to be playing, the whole experience changed.
With fresh eyes and unskilled hands involved, this sprawling, tedious fan-service buffet becomes an entirely different thing, a chance to show my kids around a game world I grew up with. Even the 2D sidescroller diversions, eye-rollingly retro on their own, become a conversation. Most amazingly, to me at least, the two-player option – one player driving Mario, the other driving his ghost hat companion Cappy – stops looking like a silly gimmick and starts looking like a surprisingly good execution of a difficult idea I’ve wanted for a long time. Odyssey is the only game I’ve ever seen that has cooperative, same-couch multiplayer that’s accessible to people of wildly different skill levels. Another way to say that is, it’s a game I can play with my kids; not versus, not taking turns, but “with” for real, and it’s kind of great.
So, playing Odyssey alone by myself? Sure: unchallenging, rote and if we’re honest enough to admit it, a little sad. But with my kids’ playing it, playing along together? Definitely. Not only good but good fun, maybe even a meaningful experience. Sign me up.