Nintendo has the two best-reviewed video games of the year, forever owning their exclusivity and stemming from their two most marquis franchises. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey continue both franchises’ domination of the aggregate review lists, and they compliment one another quite nicely on a single console, the Nintendo Switch.
It sure is a nice time to be a Nintendo fan…
…but you can forget that noise! The internet is not interested in dualities. The internet only wants polarization! Obviously, at some point in your digital adventures, you’re going to have to throw down to support one or the other. Sorry, but them’s just the facts of internet life.
And I’ll go ahead and give my opinion, saying that my preference lies not so much in the content of the games, both of which are unquestionably among the best of this gaming generation, but rather how both games were approached when progressing through development. Nitpicking their faults and deciding which one is “better” is simply too close to call in this race.
It all boils down to what you are looking for in a game, and in this case, you have two games operating at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a video game that completely reinvented a franchise to fit modern times, finding succes on other franchise’s terms and rules. Super Mario Odyssey is a video game that succeeds on its own terms, further perfecting a formula that has kept it at the forefront of games for the last 30 years.
And no question about it, I much prefer Super Mario Odyssey’s take on success. I’m only a few hours into Mario’s latest adventure, having roughly 80 Power Moons under my belt and just crash landing into the Lost Kingdom on my latest play session. I can’t get enough of this game! Mario’s movements have never been smoother, his objectives have never been so satisfying, but most importantly, the side objectives and the sheer amount of content crammed into these levels make it feel like I have zero grind time, a must for me in video games nowadays.
All Super Mario games, most memorably Super Mario World, have a hidden reward system for breaking off from the established path, and it’s something that isn’t quantified by numbers or menu screens. By breaking the mold and finding secrets in Super Mario games, your reward is simply more Mario gameplay. New levels, new challenges, new options to explore and enjoy what you were already doing, perhaps with a more challenging or even more genius approach.
No job trees, no hidden tools or new mechanics, just more of the brilliant game you were already enjoying. Super Mario Odyssey achieves this classic element ten-fold.
Super Mario Odyssey also brings back the sandbox design of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, an approach that was somewhat sidelined by the linear Galaxy and 3D World games. As usual, when it comes to Mario, Nintendo gets this right by realizing that size is not the secret for an open world game’s success. Immersion and intimacy are the key players here.
Where most modern day open world games promise a planet to explore and unlimited freedom, most of them comprise of mountains and towers you’ll never climb again, towns you only need pass through once, and a relatively cut and paste design that fails to create a distinct action set pieces. These games perfectly recreate what nature might look like, but nature in a video game isn’t nearly as exciting to overcome and trek through as it is in real life.
Over the years, I’ve found that all of my favorite “open world” games have limited themselves in terms of space, not expanded upon it. Beyond Good & Evil, Alundra, Mega Man Legends, Stardew Valley. Long before size became the defining element of open world maps, developers hit a sweet spot that where you could memorize a setting in and out, know its inhabitants, and treat the map like it was another character in the game, not some vast, empty obstacle in between two destinations.
And long before Mario mastered this approach to game design, it was The Legend of Zelda that firmly established it as a gaming pastime. They have always seemed like open world games, but deep down, they are masterfully structured games defined by an invisible wire that pulls their audience through some of gaming’s most iconic moments.
This is exactly where The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild comes up short for me. Exploration and uncovering a huge map was never the driving force of the series. Nintendo crafted its success based on dungeon crawling, interesting tools, and an intimate, intricate map that allowed players to progress and pace themselves based on their loadout. The games were structured to create the feel of a sweeping adventure, but deep down inside, the true joy came from using that hook shot that you sacrificed blood and tears to uncover and finally reaching a chest that had been nagging you the whole game.
But not anymore. I once read that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece of modern day game design, and I couldn’t agree more. It succeeds on every level of what gamers are looking for nowadays. The problem with that is I’m not altogether into this “modern day” approach to games anymore.
How many times have I been dumped into an open world at this point? How many times have I climbed a tower to further expand my map, and how many times have I opened my mini-map, marked a waypoint, and immediately bolted towards it? Assassin’s Creed, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Horizon Zero Dawn, Far Cry, The Witcher, Dragon Age, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Borderlands, Just Cause 2, Crackdown, inFamous, The Saboteur, Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, Final Fantasy XV, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Each of these games provides unique mechanics to progress through their campaigns, but at their core, all they really do is drop you in a setting and let you progress at your own pace. They give you the tools, but you have to find your own fun. You can race, you can fight, you can experience a story, you can explore, you can dig, you can build, you can both roleplay and roll-play. These games claim to do everything, and yet, most of these “do everything” games ultimately end up doing nothing. They lack structure, they lack focus, they do everything well but never succeed at a single element.
I was into this style of design for a while, but after so many games, it’s kind of hard to get interested at this point. Breath of the Wild falls into this camp, and it simply came a bit late to the party for me.
This is where Super Mario Odyssey gets my vote. Super Mario Odyssey succeeds as a Mario game. Breath of the Wild succeeds as every other tower-climbing, open world adventure you’ve played in recent memory with a hint of that Nintendo perfectionism and a nice Legend of Zelda DLC skin.
When it was released, many praised Breath of the Wild for coming to the tough conclusion that old franchises have to sacrifice a little of their identity to remain relevant in the modern world.
Super Mario Odyssey blasts that line of praise right out of the sky.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments below!