Review: Super Mario Odyssey

This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of Super Mario Odyssey.

Until last fall, the core Mario franchise was in danger of becoming the video game version of Mickey Mouse: an iconic legend with a lack of current relevance. After a string of disappointing entries such as New Super Mario Brothers U & Super Mario 3D Land on the low selling Wii U, the mustachioed man of mushrooms was at the nadir of his illustrious career.

Super Mario Odyssey blows away that disappointing recent history with an experience that is profoundly ambitious & creatively inspired. The latest Mario adventure combines the best elements of Super Mario 64’s platforming with the bright visuals of Super Mario Sunshine & a deep collection of fresh, vibrant new worlds to explore. The unique mechanic in Odyssey is Cappy, a sentient ghost that perches itself on Mario’s head as a cap that can be thrown onto creatures, objects & even people to interact with them. This manifests itself in a variety of fun results from flicking Mario around a dense urban landscape to controlling classic foes, gigantic animals & even bewildered humans (!) to collect moons, a collectible that powers your vessel that traverses from kingdom to kingdom in pursuit of the kidnapped Princess once again.

The quality that makes Odyssey truly special is its focus on the freedom to explore. Gone is the 1-up, replaced by a symbolic penalty of 10 coins for each death which is often replenished in seconds after respawning. The power moons required to progress from world to world can be earned in a wide variety of ways, allowing the player to skip almost any challenges that are too difficult or less appealing to hit each power moon tier before flying to another kingdom. The different levels range from the expected snow, water & sand levels to entirely new creations such as New Donk City, a brilliant take on Manhattan that stands out among a deep collection of wonderful worlds. Without spoiling any particular moments, there are some optional set pieces & retro throwback sequences that are joyous tributes to earlier games which made me exclaim in delight.

It looks brilliant on the Switch’s display, filling the screen with worlds dense with detail & hidden treasures that become progressively more nuanced as they are explored. The focus on design through placement, creature behaviour & modifiers such as shimmering on interactive elements are combined with the extensive use of procedural vector elements over rasterized assets (the entire game is a remarkably small 5.7 GB in size), resulting in worlds with far reaching draw distances as well as nearly instant load times. The cheerful bobble of friendly characters, staccato hopping of Goombas, tenacious pursuit by Bullet Bills, loopy swim patterns of aquatic creatures & much more imbue the world with an energy that never fades.

The melody focused music blends remixes of classic themes with springy, toe tapping new tunes to accompany each adventure. The new tracks aren’t as iconic or immediately etched into memory as the theme songs from the 2D era games, but they inspire the same sense of upbeat fun when exploring each kingdom: from the light percussive tones of the Sand Kingdom to the wind swept harmonies of the Snow Kingdom, each world has a distinctive aural composition. Bouncing off of enemies, flinging Cappy, snaring a Power Moon & every other action has a quick, bright audio accompaniment that is the unmistakeable signature of Nintendo: composers Shiho Fujii, Naoto Kubo & the legendary Koji Kondo deserve special recognition for their work.

The game is so rich with options that many of them can be missed during a completed story experience. I managed to finish the core story mode without using the Cappy sustained throw & jump that creates a temporary landing pad for Mario, missed a lot of the optional moon side quests & barely scratched the surface of repeated missions like the riddles or time attack races that populate each world. I kept both Joy-Con controllers firmly affixed to the Switch while I played exclusively in portable mode, navigating each world without using the variety of motion sensitive controls for spin attacks or specialized throws. For players with a completionist approach, this game can devour well over a hundred hours with carefully crafted puzzles, hidden areas & increasingly difficult challenges to gather a fortune in addictive collectible moons.

Super Mario Odyssey is a remarkable achievement for the adventure franchise. By offering the most powerful combination of old & new since the Nintendo 64 launched with a similarly revolutionary platforming experience in Super Mario 64, it serves as the capstone of an incredible 2017 for the Nintendo Switch & redefines the Mario franchise for the current generation of Nintendo hardware.


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Review: Titanfall 2

This review is based on the Xbox One version of Titanfall 2.

One of the downsides of modern video games is missing out on great games due to an overwhelming flood of options: from a continual release of AAA titles to a tidal way of free-to-play & affordably priced mobile options, there are more quality options to choose from than ever before. Titanfall 2 suffered a particularly challenging release as part of an aggressive fall 2016 publishing strategy by Electronic Arts to challenge the dominant Call of Duty franchise by releasing both the Respawn developed shooter & Battlefield 1 closely together, resulting in an adverse impact on the futuristic shooter’s sales.

Fortunately, Titanfall 2 has a completely revamped story mode paired with a compelling multiplayer experience that still holds up over a year after release. Respawn has replaced the original concept of campaign as quick intro/outro voiceover on multiplayer maps with a full narrative paired with story mode specific levels & sequences comparable to Call of Duty or Battlefield. As pilot by necessity Jack Cooper, the sprawling levels are explored with sentient Titan BT-7274 as the upstart militia battles the assembled armies, level boss mercenaries & treacherous terrain to prevent annihilation. There is a massive game changing event that happens midway through the campaign which completely changes the perception of combat as well as exploration, a big risk by Respawn that upheaves the established design of the Titanfall series but successfully grabs the player’s attention with its creativity.

The multiplayer is a mixed bag, objectively good but subjectively strange compared to the innovative approach of the original game. Titanfall 2 abandons all of the titan frames from the original game for new classes that are restricted in their weapon choices, movement options & chargeable core abilities. The new designs are interesting, but the dramatic changes feel like a deliberate choice to mirror similar class structures in other modern shooters. Burn cards are gone & the presence of AI controlled units are dramatically reduced, focusing the combat more on pilot & titan matchups rather than the ongoing, changing areas of battle that the original game introduced. The silky smooth controls, fast reaction times & low latency servers carry over but the online experience overall is a slower, more deliberate version of the breakneck pace that made the original game unique.

My delayed start time with the game also afforded an opportunity to try it out with the Xbox One X, hardware that Titanfall 2 takes full advantage of with a resolution & texture upgrade that improves the visual fidelity to near high end PC quality. Load times were already quite fast online, but the campaign loads a lot faster & the multiplayer menus are slightly more responsive on Microsoft’s newest console.

There are newer & trendier options that have emerged since the release of Titanfall 2, but the sequel to Respawn’s debut title is not to be missed. It makes a concerted effort to build upon the unique but admittedly barebones structure of the previous game with a lot of attention to adding features & narrative. Some of the uniqueness of the experimental original game is lost in transition but the meaningful additions to narrative, weapons & titans form a worthy addition to the crowded first person shooter genre.


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Why Xbox One X Matters: The Arrival of True 4K Consoles

In recent years, the line between console generations has become increasingly blurred with the increase of games running at different resolutions between platforms, dynamic resolutions, different upscaling approaches & now with the current product cycle of partial upgrades in the PlayStation 4 Pro & Xbox One X. Sony opted for a modest power increase to support their VR headset & be the first to market with a mid-cycle console product, while Microsoft spent an extra year to benefit from faster/cheaper harder along with an emphasis on 4K resolution as their distinguishing value proposition.

Why does 4K matter? This increased resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels (also known as Ultra HD, 4x the resolution of HD) is slowly but surely gaining traction as one of the major quality tiers for interactive media. High Dynamic Range colours (HDR) and/or 60 frames per second (FPS) are also meaningful capability/performance achievements, but the ability to consistently deliver a 4K resolution is the main advantage of Microsoft’s newest console over the PlayStation 4 Pro for the next generation of games.

The Xbox One X is the first console targeting 4K as a baseline for new releases as well as select catalogue titles that can automatically take advantage of the improved hardware or become patched to do so. If it can consistently deliver on this publicly announced goal, the X offers a significant leap over the sporadic 4K availability of the PlayStation 4 Pro and the 4K upscaling of Xbox One S among intermediate or in-between generation products.

The new console also arrives on the market at an opportune time: 4K televisions have dramatically increased in popularity & decreased in price throughout 2017 while content providers from sports channels to Netflix have begun creating a steady supply of 4K content. The demise of 3D televisions paired with the lukewarm reception to dedicated VR headsets have established 4K as the natural successor to traditional HD screens, where the inclusion of a 4K Blu-ray player in the X but not the Pro may also prove enticing to high resolution enthusiasts.

The ball is now squarely in Sony’s court as they determine the timeline for a PlayStation 4 Pro successor, which may be accelerated in response to Microsoft’s latest offering. The X is an expensive premium product that is unlikely to ever take over as the highest selling Xbox One console variant, but it marks an important step in driving the industry towards consistently higher quality visual experiences & creates a competitive challenge to Sony that should benefit all console gamers in the long run.