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Less Can Be More: Super Mario Odyssey and Bowser’s Fury

Super Mario Odyssey launched to great critical acclaim in October of 2017 for Nintendo’s newly released Switch console. Instead of continuing down the road of linearity, which began in earnest in 2007 with Super Mario Galaxy and continued through 2015 with Super Mario 3D World, Odyssey was lauded, in part, for returning to a more open-ended design reminiscent of Super Mario 64 that helped to first capture the imaginations of so many players in 1996. Interestingly, in a similar vein to another immensely impactful Nintendo Switch game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Odyssey touted a long list of collectibles, 880 to be exact, that seemingly cemented the game’s place as Mario’s most content-rich three-dimensional outing. Replacing Power Stars from Galaxy and Shine Sprites from Super Mario Sunshine, Odyssey’s 880 collectibles took the form of Power Moons littered across the game’s sandbox-style Kingdoms. While the preposterous number of collectibles absolutely dwarfed Odyssey’s 3D predecessors, 880 collectible Moons allowed Odyssey to help deliver on Nintendo’s promise of a hybrid console. Players who wanted to sit down in front of a television for a few hours were given a long list of objectives to complete, and, simultaneously, players who only had shorter windows of time to progress through Mario’s latest adventure, either in docked or handheld mode, could meaningfully advance in those brief moments by collecting a few Moons. With so many Moons in the game, the odds of coming across one or two Moons in a small window of time are generally high, and this, depending on your perspective, is one of Odyssey’s general strengths.

However, in the years since Odyssey’s launch, the high number of Moons has become one of the primary points of criticism levied against Odyssey. In his review of Odyssey, Joseph Anderson lays out this criticism quite thoroughly, and regardless of whether his argument is ultimately convincing, Odyssey’s sheer number of Moons clearly did not win everyone over. Indeed, Anderson argues that there are a large number of different Moons that are lower quality than other Moons in the game, or rather, that there are categories of Moons that are so much easier to get than others, like Moons that can be obtained through merely ground-pounding a specific spot or Moons that are just sitting in an easily accessible spot, that all Moons could be, in a way, devalued. Of course, whether one is convinced by Anderson’s argument likely hinges on whether they appreciate that all Moons acquired are treated as equal progress in the game or they, instead, feel that the whole experience is diminished in favor of catering to a different group of players.

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Perhaps a second-tier collectible, above Odyssey’s Purple Coins and below the Power Moons, like Breath of the Wild’s 900 Korok Seeds, could have alleviated this issue for people who share Anderson’s opinion. However, Odyssey is a game that undoubtedly pursued a goal of equalizing progress for all players through Moons, or in other words, Odyssey clearly aimed to provide all players a way to see every Kingdom in the game both without a steep time-investment and regardless of how much time two different players wanted to invest in the game. Indeed, 3D Mario games seem to generally share this goal with Super Mario 64 requiring only 70 of the game’s 120 Stars to beat Bowser and Galaxy requiring even less Power Stars, 60 out of 120, to see the credits roll. Indeed, Odyssey carried this vision to its logical extreme by only requiring 124 Moons for a player to confront Bowser. A second tier of collectible could likely hurt this aim of allowing players to “choose their time-investment” by instead muddying progress between two different objectives. An exception could be Super Mario Sunshine’s Blue Coins, which allowed players to spend ten Blue Coins on a Shine Sprite, but this was likely something the developers of Odyssey considered implementing because players have the same ability to purchase Moons in Odyssey albeit with regular coins instead. The decision to use regular coins to purchase Moons further indicates Nintendo’s commitment to a “choose your own time investment” philosophy with Odyssey because regular coins are infinitely available throughout the game, so instead of locking that purchasing ability behind a limited collectible, this choice allows players who just want to see the next portion of the game to do so. Ultimately, the developers could have run the risk of a player with limited time coming across a collectible that does not allow them to work toward fighting Bowser, but this risk seems counter to a core design-pillar of 3D Mario games. Because of that, a second-tier collectible does not seem to be the answer to this criticism.

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Instead, with the release of Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury in February of 2021, Nintendo seems to have answered this question themselves. In some ways, Bowser’s Fury is more open-ended in its approach than Odyssey, or any other 3D Mario game. Bowser’s Fury sets players loose on one relatively large map to unlock hubs each with around four platforming level-equivalents attached to each hub. This time, the player is tasked with collecting Cat Shines, and the levels can be approached in any order with each level holding five different Cat Shines to acquire. However, players are prohibited from collecting all five Cat Shines in a level on their first run through a particular level, and they are instead incentivized to travel across the map the map to other hubs and levels thanks to this limitation. Upon returning to an earlier level, players will likely find that the level is populated with different enemies, or slight layout changes, and the missing Cat Shines will generally now be available. With only 100 Cat Shines, collecting each Shine feels like a reasonable middle ground between beating a level in Galaxy and finding a so-called “lower-quality Moon” in Odyssey. In Bowser’s Fury, most Shines require the player to accomplish a more traditional platforming challenge, but this is paired with a much more freeform approach to tackling objectives like what was seen in Odyssey. Whether the player is combing the platforming playground for five pieces of a Shine or they are completing a traditional “run to the goal,” Shines in Bowser’s Fury succeed in feeling equivalent to each other where Moons in Odyssey did not. This format accomplishes the best of both Odyssey and the older 3D Mario games by responding to those who feel Odyssey was bogged down with too many meaningless Moons.

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The core driver of this seems to be the lower number of Cat Shines. With less Shines, the developers had to be more judicious and thoughtful about how the Shines were delivered to the player, but the smaller overall size of Bowser’s Fury allowed Nintendo to concentrate a lot of those objectives required to get Shines into shorter, but diverse, and generally high-quality gameplay sections. Excitingly, this seems to be a formula that could be easily expanded upon in the future. While there may not 880 Moons to collect, the next full-fledged 3D Mario could still feature a staggering number of collectibles without having so many collectibles that the developers resort to handing out Moons for any and every conceivable task in the game. Indeed, Bowser’s Fury has found a wonderful middle ground for those who loved Odyssey’s friendly approach to progression and those who felt it devalued the hunt for every Moon. Ultimately, Bowser’s Fury seems to have expertly demonstrated that less can be more, and in a world of bloated Triple-A games filled to the brim with recycled content, this is undoubtedly refreshing.

Sources

Joseph Anderson's Review of Super Mario Odyssey:

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