"A return to form." "A reinvention." There are lots of clichés we fall back on when describing a fresh game in a long-running series. The truth is, Nintendo has constantly reinvented the idea of a 3D Mario game, relentlessly pushing the franchise forward with each release. Super Mario Odyssey is just one more step in the right direction, another evolution of a perfect formula.
The setup in Odyssey is as familiar as ever: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach, so you need to collect an arbitrary item (Power Moons rather than Stars this time) and chase him down to save the day. This time around, Bowser is going from kingdom to kingdom collecting items -- a ring, a gown and so on -- for a wedding ceremony. It's a coherent enough narrative, but the joy of Mario has never been in its story.
The structure is essentially a combination of Super Mario 64 and Galaxy. There are hundreds of Moons dotted around more than a dozen kingdoms, some nestled in hard-to-reach and hidden locations, others handed out for defeating bosses or winning races. Just as Galaxy's spaceship would only advance after you collect a certain number of Lumas, Odyssey's Moons power up an airship that will fly you to new kingdoms.
There are certain things you know you're getting with a Mario game. It almost goes without saying that Odyssey offers tight controls, creative platforming and gorgeous art with near-perfect levels of polish. But every Mario has a twist. Sunshine has the water pack, Galaxy has space, 3D World has multiplayer score chasing. Odyssey's is a hat.
At the start of the game, as Princess Peach is kidnapped, Mario's famous hat is shredded. Luckily, he soon meets a character called Cappy, whose regular appearance is a cross between a Boo and a top hat. Cappy's sister, Tiara, has been kidnapped to act as a headdress for the ceremony. The pair quickly resolve to join forces to stop Bowser from wreaking his personal brand of comic mischief and mild havoc.
Cappy has a single talent: He can be thrown. But that one move opens up a world of possibilities. You can throw Cappy with the X button and use him to grab coins and hit certain enemies. Hold X and Cappy will hover in place, ready to be used to jump over gaps or as a springboard to reach high platforms. (If you run into Cappy, Mario jumps roughly as high as with a backward or sideways somersault.) This alone makes platforming challenges far more dynamic and interesting: Where before you would simply long jump and somersault around a level, now there are multiple approaches to any obstacle.
The real fun starts when you use Cappy to "capture" enemies and objects, which grants you full control over them. Many Mario favorites can be possessed in this way, just by throwing Cappy at them. Goombas can shuffle around and stack themselves on top of one another to reach high places; Cheep Cheeps allow Mario to swim freely underwater; Lakitu will let you fish; Fire and Hammer Bros. grant you huge jumps and their respective projectiles.
At its core, Cappy is a replacement for the power-ups of every Mario game, but Nintendo takes the system to weird and wonderful places. Within a few hours, you'll have controlled a T. rex, a tank, a fork, an RC car, a lava bubble and ... a slab of meat. Each of these possessions brings new mechanics, and there are dozens of characters you can control. Some, such as the Goombas, are ubiquitous, while others appear in just one kingdom or even a single sequence. Just as using Cappy to jump allows for more divergent platforming sequences, the capture system gives rise to ceaseless variety in gameplay.
I played the vast majority of Odyssey in portable mode, maybe eight hours docked with a Pro Controller and a couple more with Joy-Cons in each hand. The Joy-Con controls were fine: There are lots of motion-control options, particularly when throwing Cappy or controlling foes, but I always found the button-press alternatives more intuitive. I'm not a huge fan of the Pro Controller, as I tend to use the Switch as a portable, but it's definitely the most comfortable way to play in front of a TV.
I also briefly tested the two-player mode. It's an asynchronous affair, with one player controlling Mario and the other Cappy. It's certainly useful for playing with very young children, but those coming from the superb multiplayer of 3D World aren't going to be blown away. If you're desperate to play with friends, you're probably better off just passing the pad between Moons.