Hands-on with Super Mario Odyssey, and its interesting callbacks to Banjo-Kazooie

There’s a sombrero on a sheep, and I dig it.

Super Mario Odyssey — the titular plumber’s latest adventure — is coming to the Switch this fall, bringing the overall-wearing hero to Nintendo’s newest system for the first time.

But, at least on some superficial levels, Mario’s newest adventure also seems to be pulling inspiration from his former Nintendo 64 ursine and avian competitors: Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie.

I’m far from the first to point out the googly eyes on Cappy, Mario’s new hat companion. Typical Rare fashion was to put googly eyes on everything, a tradition that Mario now wears, well, on his noggin. Aside from keeping his head warm, Mario can also use Cappy in various moves, including throwing the red cap at enemies and spinning it around him in a circle.

Hey Mario don't you think your TANK top is a little big for you

Hey Mario don’t you think your TANK top is a little big for you

The connections between Mario and Banjo don’t stop there. Mario may be used to riding Yoshi and not a T-Rex proper, but his new Odyssey hat ability also allows him to take control over the king of rexes. Just like Banjo could become one in Tooie. Mario as a tank? Yup, Banjo’s been there. The two levels shown off at E3 also had 100 hidden collectible purple coins, a reminder of Banjo’s collectable 100 music notes per level. 

Even the game’s signature “Capture” mechanic calls back to a mode in Banjo-Tooie: In Odyssey, Mario can throw Cappy at myriad things and take control of them, including said T-Rex, Bullet Bills, and even people. It’s reminiscent of an abandoned idea hidden in Banjo-Tooie where a second player could take over and control enemies.

I can’t say whether these Banjo throwbacks are purely coincidental (they probably are), but I can say that at E3 this week I got time to both watch others play through Odyssey, and go through it myself. There were two levels on the E3 demo: the realistic New Donk City, and the Mexican-themed desert level. While watching others, I was into what I saw. Cappy, the aforementioned new hat companion, is cool. I like being able to buy new costumes for Mario, and that you can decorate the inside of Mario’s spaceship with various items.

Playing the game, however, I’m a little more down on it. Don’t get me wrong: It’s good. I liked it! But actually getting my paws on it, there are some things I have to nitpick. 

First off, I’m not loving the Joy-Con motion controls. The good news? While I played the demo with them, folks at home will be able to use a Switch Pro Controller, though Nintendo is saying some moves will be “harder” using that setup. Either way, motion controls will probably end up being moot: Nintendo needs to push the Joy-Con, and people can avoid them if they wish.

Controlling Mario himself, however, also felt a bit slippery. The controls across the demo were also disjointed: In one area of New Donk City I used Cappy and took control of some random dude in the city, and had to race an RC Car around a little track to get a moon (this game’s big collectables). The car controls were tough to get a handle on, as was directing a Bullet Bill I took over later in the desert level.

While Nintendo is claiming Odyssey follows in the tradition of 3D games like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, the game also has 2D sections where Mario can jump into a wall. In these sections, you are thrown into a side scrolling NES Mario game, essentially, down to the 8-bit graphical style. It’s an obvious nostalgia play, but it’s also an odd way of traversing the environment. Then there are the electric wires that Mario can jump into to traverse tall buildings or giant chasms, or even controlling Bullet Bill: The game gives you a lot of ways to avoid actually doing platforming and jumping around.

It’s also worth noting that while Mario has never been really about story, instead of moving further away from the ‘Bowser kidnaps Peach” plot line, Nintendo seems to be gripping to that overtrodden idea even further, down to wedding outfit amiibos. Mario will also have to fight evil wedding planners. It doubles down on the old trope, when Super Mario Odyssey could’ve provided an excellent opportunity to continue to move away from that.

As with most E3 demos, my hands-on experience is far from the entirety of what you’ll see in the game. There’s still a lot we don’t know, such as how traveling between the levels works, how many levels there are going to be, or Overall, though, I’m feeling good about Odyssey, with a few reservations. We’ll see how Mario’s latest adventure ends up when it releases right before Halloween on October 27. Just hold onto those hats.