Back in August, I finally managed to complete Super Mario Odyssey. While I found much to love about it—the gorgeous and eclectic visuals, the fast-paced story, the fact that Mario is weird again, the myriad of accessibility features, etc., etc.—there was a reason it took me nearly two years to complete. While I definitely intend to replay the game’s story someday, I can say with confidence that completing it is a task I will never undertake again.
As the number of remaining moons dwindled, so too did my enthusiasm. In fact, by the end of my run, I was having more fun grinding for coins in Luigi’s Balloon World so that I could afford the last few moons needed to max out the counter than I did hunting for the ones populating the game’s various worlds. Why was that, and what could Nintendo have done differently to avoid the slog? That’s exactly what I intend to answer in this edition of Spit Shine.
As the number of remaining moons dwindled, so to did my enthusiasm.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the premise of Spit Shine, I try to spitball ways to polish up games. Part of this is the limitation that I have to stay true to the core ideas of the game. Redesigning the game from the ground up is verboten. With the last few entries in the Spit Shine series, this limitation was basically a non-issue, as the games I was discussing only needed additional modes, quality of life improvements, or balance tweaks.
Unfortunately, the issues I’m about to address with Super Mario Odyssey aren’t quite as simple, as they pertain to mission structure and rewards, which are not exactly minor aspects of the game. For that reason, I’ve decided it’s only proper to list what aspects I believe can’t be altered without fundamentally changing the game:
- Any mechanics core to the explorative 3D Mario formula (collectathon-based progression, moves and common abilities, etc.).
- The premise of the game’s story: a globe-trotting adventure to save Princess Peach from marrying Bowser.
- The core aesthetic choices that form the game’s signature look and feel.
- The capture mechanic.
- The game’s focus on open-world exploration, particularly the uninterrupted flow between objectives.
- The player’s ability to choose which objectives to complete in order to progress.
That said, I’m mostly going to focus on missions and rewards.
How The Missions are Designed
The mission design in Super Mario Odyssey is fairly different from previous explorative 3D Mario games. Most missions are no longer based on platforming skill, but instead focus on observation and pattern recognition. More specifically, most moons require the player to notice some irregularity in their surrounding environment. While I prefer participating in performances of platforming prowess, this isn’t a bad approach for open-world games; Breath of the Wild did something similar with its Korok seeds to good effect. The downside, however, is that these tasks feel fairly insubstantial, at least on their own. If the levels/missions in 64, Sunshine, and the Galaxy games were sandwiches, these shorter missions feel like individual potato chips: they only feel satisfying when consumed in sequence.
Not all objectives in Super Mario Odyssey fit into this category, of course. There are many hidden areas that feature more involved platforming segments and story missions are almost always quite meaty. Having said that, I would add that the only missions that feel even close to the level intricacy and substance of previous titles are the story missions, as the side-challenges tend to either be short puzzle rooms or moderate length platforming challenges that amount to about half of a Super Mario 3D World stage. So while these medium length stages provide more substance than the Korok-seed-styled moons, they still feel somewhat lacking. Topping this all off is that the full-sized story missions make up a relatively small part of the game, and they can’t be replayed without starting a new save file.
while these medium length stages provide more substance than the Korok-seed-styled moons, they still feel somewhat lacking.
While I do take issue with these design decisions, I don’t think they are particularly egregious on their own (aside from the lack of a replay option for story missions, that is). A much worse issue is the reward for each mission. With the exception of story missions, every objective in Super Mario Odyssey only yields one moon. This ultimately compounds with the aforementioned issue of many missions lacking substance and depth to seriously hamper the overall sense of worth that every moon and objective carries.
To put it another way, imagine that the only reward for anything the player did in Breath of the Wild was a single Korok seed. Placing a rock to complete a circle of stones? Korok seed. Completing a Shieka shrine? Korok seed. Recovering a lost memory? Korok seed. Finishing a dungeon? Korok. Seed. As you can imagine, that would devalue the accomplishment of each because the reward the game gives you doesn’t acknowledge the difficulty or gravitas of each task. Admittedly, Odyssey does mitigate this in the case of story missions, which often reward the player with a triple moon, but my point still stands: almost all challenges in Super Mario Odyssey have the same low payout. Different tasks of different levels of difficulty and importance within the context of the game’s world need to have different rewards.
Almost all challenges in Super Mario Odyssey have the same low payout.
How I Would Fix It
Okay, so the problems we’ve identified are as follows:
- Most non-story missions feel too short/simple/shallow.
- The rewards the game offers for non-story missions are all the same, leading to the worth of moons feeling arbitrary and inconsistent.
- Story missions can’t be replayed.
Let’s start with the last one. After completing all of the story missions, Cappy would tell Mario that he’s been keeping a journal or possibly made a scrap book. By reading the scrap book, the player could replay any of the game’s story missions. To return to normal gameplay, the player either exits the stage through the usual means or finishes the story mission. This wouldn’t be a complete reset of the stage, as moons earned after the player completed the mission would stay collected. It would simply be temporarily turning back the level’s event flags. This would have been very easy and a simple inclusion.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the main event. Moving up the list is the issue of the lack of variance in rewards for objectives of different difficulties and scopes. I have two ideas as to how to handle this one: change the reward for the lesser objectives to something less valuable or increase the reward for the longer missions.
For the first solution, I would look to Super Mario Sunshine for inspiration. Similar to Odyssey, Mario’s GameCube outing featured many lesser side-objectives that rewarded players for exploring their surroundings. Unlike Odyssey, however, these side-missions didn’t provide the game’s main collectible—in this case Shine Sprites—but instead yielded blue coins. Odyssey could easily do something similar. If only there were oddly colored coins in Super Mario Odyssey…Oh wait, there are! Instead of having them strewn about the level haphazardly, Odyssey could have instead made purple coins rewards for completing side missions. Seeing as moons can already be purchased with regular gold coins, I wouldn’t change the function of purple coins.
While this is my preferred solution, this would require a pretty substantial reworking of the game’s progression model, which may unfortunately put this idea into conflict with item number six of my list of immutable design aspects of Odyssey. This would fundamentally change the accessibility of the game by removing the easier-to-collect moons. So while I personally like this idea, I’m going to go with plan B.
What is plan B? Simple, make the harder missions worth more moons. Just as story missions yield three-moon bundles, there could also be two moon bundles. Or we could bump up the number of moons obtained from story missions to five and make side-missions worth one, two, or three moons based on difficulty for even more fine-tuned reward balancing. Best of all, this would be fairly easy to re-balance; all that we would have to do is change some of the numbers for progression to account for the increase of moons in circulation. Done!
Last of all is the first item on our to do list, the short/simple/shallow feeling of non-story missions. There’s a reason I saved this one for last: I’m not sure there’s actually anything that can done about it. I’m fairly certain Super Mario Odyssey’s missions are shorter for a reason. Because the game is about constant exploration and discovery, the designers probably didn’t want the player to be away from that exploration/discovery gameplay loop for too long. Therefore, the dedicated platforming and puzzle areas are kept short to get the player back into the game’s core gameplay loop. All that to say, I don’t think I can lengthen the missions without overstepping the scope of a Spit Shine.
The dedicated platforming and puzzle areas are kept short to get the player back into the game’s core gameplay loop.
Then again, I don’t necessarily need to change anything, when I could simply add something instead (and yes, I know I said refinement is a subtractive process in a previous article, shut up). Instead of changing the average mission to something more akin to 64’s or Sunshine’s missions, the game could instead have a handful of longer side-missions in each stage. These missions should have something to differentiate them from normal side-missions, however. Perhaps these lengthier side-quests could have some sort of story element, similar to the Bomber’s notebook missions from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
Like I said at the beginning of this article, I genuinely enjoyed Super Mario Odyssey and found much to love about. Heck, in writing this article, I’ve developed a bit of a hankering to jump back in and replay the main story. That said, I think it suffered from some of the same issues Breath of the Wild did in focusing more on quantity than quality. While I think implementing some of the measures above would go a long way to mitigate the fatigue I felt and that hollow sense of accomplishment I felt after many of the game’s moons, I’d personally prefer Nintendo scale back the next game to something somewhere between Super Mario Sunshine and Odyssey. Maybe a 60-40 split.
If you want to hear more about Super Mario Odyssey, check out our podcast on it here. Or if you’d prefer some more game design analysis regarding Odyssey’s moons and missions, check out this video by the very awesome GameChamp3000.