Opinion – Super Mario Odyssey Should Be 2017’s Game Of The Year

by Matt Miller on Nov 22, 2017 at 11:00 AM

Super Mario Odyssey is a happiness pill, and a celebration of gaming in its purest incarnation. While it would be impossible to find any escape or panacea that wipes away every frustration the world throws at a person, Mario’s latest adventure does an admirable job of trying.

With its colorful and playful art, whimsical tone, and boundless sense of joyful discovery, it’s a game that transports me back to why I fell in love with games in the first place. Is it perfect? No. It’s not even my personal favorite game of recent months. But it is the game that most captured what I needed in 2017 – a spirit of delight and simple, earnest heroism – and stood apart from so many of its competitors that offered a bleak or gritty reality. In a moment when the cultural conversation so often pulls us underwater, and even the discussions about gaming and its business practices can be toxic, Super Mario serves up a breath of relief when we need it the most. In so doing, it deserves to be celebrated as 2017’s game of the year. 

2017 has seen a cavalcade of excellent games, but it’s a year in which many conversations about games were underscored by player frustration at questionable in-game business practices, disappointing sequels, or saddening studio closures. And the broader landscape of real world events was consistently characterized by scandal, cynicism, and downright meanness. Most gamers I know don’t flee from facing those challenges on a day-to-day basis, but we recognize the value in stepping away for a respite, if only briefly, and into a world where those concerns can be set aside. 

I’ve rarely encountered a game that so succinctly and immediately pulled me away from concern and worry. Mario’s cartoon wonderland is filled with vibrant colors, silly costumes, and moments of glee. It’s also a game that defies what appears to have become conventional knowledge this year – that every big game must include real-world in-game money transactions. I’ve railed before against the ways that the loot box can harm a game’s design – imagine if every one of those adorable costumes cost $3 – but Mario instead embraces a steady, engaging arc of progression toward the game’s most appealing rewards. 

Many of the games I admired most in 2017 explored dark themes or difficult subject matter, and so I’m certainly not suggesting that bleak subject matter is somehow inferior to carefree or childlike worlds like the ones we visit in Odyssey. However, I often consider that the skillful creation of a bright and smile-inducing setting is an underappreciated art. How many games have you played in a setting like that which feel condescending, overly silly, or just plain boring? In contrast, Nintendo has crafted a landscape of weird and sometimes surreal places to visit, and always with something new to discover around every corner. The constant surprise power moons a player finds, absurd anthropomorphic animal characters, and even the amusing animations as Mario leaps and swims all combine to do something important – make the player revel in the experience and feel happy. 

The folks at Nintendo have long been masters of nostalgia, and Super Mario Odyssey does an impressive job of nodding to its history. Whether it’s side-scrolling stages of a pixelated plumber leaping over koopas, snippets of familiar tunes, or surprise characters who show up to joke about past adventures, Mario’s latest outing constantly reminds us of a long legacy of fun. But its more nuanced feat is layering in those moments of nostalgia in ways that are fun and engaging, even without the benefit of nostalgia. A younger player who has never played the original Super Mario Bros. is still delighted by those 2D stages, or the snappy melodies of the classic music. Super Mario Odyssey captures what made this character resonate in the first place, and repositions that resonance for a modern gaming world. 

Contrary to popular perception, there’s no scientific formula that leads to our selection of the game of the year. My opinion is one of many at Game Informer, and I suspect many readers might be surprised just how spirited the conversations often become when we make the determination. Technical excellence, design innovation, artistic merit, overall entertainment value, and a game’s place in the broader landscape of the year’s releases are all just some of the factors we consider. 

Super Mario Odyssey spoke to me (and a lot of other players) with its focus on joy and discovery, but that alone isn’t enough to justify a position as 2017’s most celebrated release. Luckily, that’s not all the game has going for it; behind the colorful visuals is a tightly designed masterpiece of freeform play, a seamless difficulty curve, hundreds of unique challenges and tasks, and stellar technical execution. It’s also an ideal showpiece for the flexibility of the new console on which it appears, offering excellent long-term couch-play appeal, but also providing bite-sized challenges that work well when taking the Switch on the go. 

Many game releases in 2017 could learn a lot from the focus on fun and accessibility exemplified by Super Mario Odyssey. While other games this year exhibited similar levels of excellence, none so perfectly nailed what I needed from games in 2017.