Wait, what game is this?
In the dark depths of New Donk City, one man’s world crashes down around him after having stumbled into his beloved’s affair one fatal night. The ensuing aftermath of confessions and heartbreak leads the battered soul on an aimless stroll, the city streets stretching for an eternity. Banners, signs and billboards displaying the visage of his big-shot former lover mock him at every turn, all asking him the same bitter question: What was it all for? The barrels, the umbrellas, the daring rescue from an 800-pound runaway gorilla…all of it had been for her. Only her. Night gives way to a misty morning, the man frozen on his apartment’s front steps. His chest hollow, his throat parched, he only finds solace in absently resting his head on the front door.
Obviously, that’s not the plot of Super Mario Odyssey, and yet it could very well be the backdrop of this article’s header image. Mario’s latest adventure is all about abandoning the series’ comfort zone and embracing the unfamiliar, be they encountering realistic humans, possessing a ferocious T-Rex and exploring Dark Souls-inspired ruins. Perhaps this is why Odyssey has gripped Nintendo fans everywhere for the past two weeks; yes, the stellar gameplay and imaginative ideas are what keep us coming back for more, but its risks in featuring such visually intrusive concepts (and rendering them absolutely normal, at that!) makes it the freshest Mario in the past decade.
In that sense, perhaps Photo Mode is emblematic of Odyssey‘s new identity. What I point to as secretly being the best part of the game, it captures even the most mundane of Mario’s routines and gleefully reforges them into the captivating, the stunningly beautiful, and gut-bustingly funny. All the different filters from Cartoon, Pencil Sketch and Game Boy frame it as an entirely different game(s), and we’re compelled to experiment with every single shot. Just look back at the header image: the Silhouette filter transforms the bright, active New Donk City into a gloomy, miserable slum, depicting a Limbo-esque atmosphere that’s immediately at odds with Mario.
Naturally, this is only the tip of the iceberg — we could just as easily craft another morbid tale for the Sepia-decorated Dr. Mario above — but the real genius behind Photo Mode lies in how it feeds into our fascination and complements our travels to enrich the experience. We urge ourselves to forge every sort of clothing combo, poke at every nook and cranny and engage with every NPC to capture every shot possible. Be it the funniest or simply the most eye-catching, it beats at the very core of Odyssey.
Take what goes on in my beloved Metro Kingdom, home of New Donk City. I always make at least one stop per play session to soak in all the activity, be it planting seeds, jumping on the hapless New Donkers or hunting down those elusive purple coins. On one such trip, I was jumping off taxis and swinging off traffic lights when a well-placed jump landed Mario clinging on a street light. Thrilled by my new discovery, I instantly whipped out my camera, zoomed in, and laughed my head off at Mario’s expression above. Experimenting with this new discovery, and I found Mario to be so flexible he gripped the underside koala-style, a sight so silly I had to snap it up with every filter possible. This entire process had absolutely nothing to do with anything, yet all this photo-shooting gave it a life of its own.
Meanwhile, an idyllic scene in front of New Donk City Hall is only moments away from chaos, as Diddy Kong has begun mobbing civilians for their coffee. Or, wait, is that just Mario dressed up as Donkey Kong’s second banana? The Diddy Kong suit spooked me in how much it resembled the actual character — even Mario’s animations echoed a case of evolution gone wrong, and so my natural response was to capture shots of him attacking random passerby in every angle possible. Of course, the Smear filter only heightened the intensity.
Is it pointless? Yes. Is it funny as all hell? Absolutely, and it plays into the “I can do that” mentality birthed from the very first Super Mario Bros. and formed the foundation of Super Mario 64. I think of a Japanese interview with Shigeru Miyamoto, who expressed that trivialities like exploring the front courtyard of Peach’s Castle or carrying Big Bob-omb down the mountain were his goal for the players, and how much that’s echoed here: it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s the “correct” way to play, as even if we’re not gathering Power Moons, that we keep finding new toys in the sandbox breathes new life throughout every facet.
Even on a purely aesthetic level it captivates; for instance, I’m stunned at how out of the three retro-inspired filters (NES, Game Boy and SNES), the Game Boy is probably my favorite: I’ve always found the original green display far more crass than the later monochrome presentation, and yet I remain spellbound at how the above picture could very well be in one of my 1998 Nintendo Power issues. It’s enough to make me wish the game itself could be playable with these filters, unpractical as that may be — the Game Boy filter doesn’t display Luncheon Kingdom’s pervasive lava, y’know, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to play with the Fish-Eye lens one.
Still, it’s key I feel that way: they say the joy of a new Mario game makes you feel like a kid again, and I can hardly find a better example than New Donk City’s moped. It bounces off taxis like trampolines, drives up stairwells with ease, and a spare can be found at the very tippy-top of New Donk City Hall because, heck yes, I obviously want to drive off hundreds of feet feet downwards into the busy streets below. Sadly, you can’t bop off the heads of New Donkers with said moped, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pretend: thanks to Photo Mode, we witness the above prelude to a tragic accident, spurred on by a half-naked Mario’s reckless driving. As seen below, it’s delightful how this one addition renders New Donk City as Grand Theft Auto-lite for all audiences.
In the years following Super Mario 3D World, there’s been much ado about what constitutes as a real 3D Mario, or what 3D Mario should be, or whatever. Odyssey, to me, presents the correct answer: to be anything and everything we want it to be, and what better method there is than taking goofy pictures and altering them as we see fit? When considering everything we can capture and how many outfits there are, that it seamlessly integrates into the actual gameplay means we will probably never stop discovering things, and I can’t think of a higher gaming bar to surpass.
It’s enough to dictate my one Odyssey rule that every kingdom visit must require a change in Mario’s wardrobe to keep my photos fresh, yet the irrepressible pull of his Wedding Dress and how it renders me a convulsing mass of tears every time I start taking pictures, including what’s possibly my favorite one below.
I call it “Haters Gonna Hate.” Perhaps Mario’s crossdressing expresses him taking game’s theme to heart?