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What are devs saying about the design of  Super Mario Odyssey ?

What are devs saying about the design of Super Mario Odyssey?

November 21, 2017 | By Joel Couture

November 21, 2017 | By Joel Couture
More: Console/PC, Art, Design, Production



Super Mario Odyssey is out, and the plumber’s globetrotting, body-stealing adventures seem to have distilled that platforming joy that the series is known for once again. With a new more forgiving lives system, a barrage of new locales and play mechanics, delightful nods to the series’ long history, and an emphasis on fun for all ages and skill levels, Nintendo EPD has created a charming experience that is drawing in longtime fans and new players alike.

With so many people and developers buzzing about the game and its constant array of new mechanics, Gamasutra reached out to several developers to see just what struck them about Mario’s newest outing. Many are playing the game and revelling in every aspect of its design. (Look no further than Chris Wade's epic tech art Twitter thread for proof.)

Below are responses we received from 25 different devs. We got some insightful analysis, some in-depth design critiques, some measured criticisms, and a whole lot of unrestrained gushing. 

Cliff Bleszinski (Lawbreakers)

It’s as if Nintendo found a way to distill Pure Joy into game format. I “finished” it last night, however, the game re-opens itself back up splendidly with dozens of hours more gameplay to be had. It’s a master class in a game and genre that Nintendo has been making for decades. Mood, difficulty, controls, all are an absolute pleasure to experience start to (sort of) finish. Also, that doge – I about died.

Lauren Davidson (Thimbleweed Park)

It's a love letter to platforming. Every element is so well crafted, and with Assist Mode, it's a perfect intro for younger kids & newbies with no gatekeeping to the bliss, while still offering a challenge to the git gud crowd. Mario Odyssey is concentrated joy. It's cold pressed rainbows, blended with starshine and the headbutts of a cat who is pleased to see you.

James Earl Cox III (You Must Be 18 Or Older To Enter)

Beyond the basic game, what I'm impressed with is the Assist Mode. Adding guidance arrows and minimizing fall punishments, it's exciting to see mainstream games open their arms to new players and say "we want this to be fun for you too."

Fisher Wagg (BRKÖUT)

Most people assume Assist Mode is only for very small children, but I've found that it's also great for older folks who haven't played many games before.

"I highly recommend level designers watch someone with little gaming experience play through a level in Assist Mode. It's helping me to become more aware of certain accessibility issues in games."

My mom hadn't embraced gaming until quite recently in her life. She has a lot of trouble picking up on cues for what to do and where to go, so the guiding arrows allow for her to explore the game and simultaneously make progress at her own pace. She's easily frustrated by navigating in 3D space in most games and she has a really hard time figuring out how to use a controller.

She is taking time to explore the extra areas as well. The arrows on the floor don't hinder her exploratory notions in the slightest. She even goes places I hadn't thought to. I would even go as far to say that the arrows enable her to explore, this way she feels more confident in her location in 3D space. She doesn't get lost (unlike her experience with BOTW).

I'm watching my mom tumble through Bowser's Castle now and it's a very interesting experience that is helping me to become more aware of certain accessibility issues in games. I highly recommend level designers watch someone with little gaming experience play through a level in Assist Mode, as you notice some obvious pitfalls (ie, just about every mechanic on Mount Volbono) that would prove extremely treacherous to a new player without assistance.

Anthony Swinnich (Shutshimi)

What boggles my mind the most is the sheer variety they’ve packed in. It feels like every level on its own could be an entire game’s worth of systems, yet somehow each new level offers several unique elements that seamlessly slide into the formula. It’s equally inspiring and intimidating to see how naturally they continue to throw new mechanics at the player without even a hint of confusion. When I can pick my jaw up off the floor, I’ll try to figure out how they did it.

Dennis Zopfi (Horizon: Zero Dawn)

"It’s all up to the player what experience you want, whenever, which makes coming back to that world such a joy. Jump around mindlessly for 5 minutes or spend half an hour figuring out that perfect combination of moves."

I’ve always been a huge fan of the Italian plumber, and this outing is perfectly captures what the Mario games have always been about: momentum, timing and speed.

What inspired me the most from the 3D Marios (and really, all Nintendo games) is the ability to cater to any type of player, casual and hardcore and everything in between, as with Mario’s athletic moves, it's easy and hard at the same time. Anyone can run around with Mario and do its basic move sets, but when you see people pull off the combinations and linking all of its gymnastic moves, it’s like magic. (I can’t wait to see speed runs!) And when you can pull it off yourself, it's immensely satisfying. The underlying message of the mechanics being: challenge yourself!

That athletic creativity always inspired me, as it creates such a fun way of pushing yourself to become better. Especially when I was working on the last project, I referenced that feeling of direct control of your character, being able to do combinations you might not think of immediately which can give you an edge.

The overall game design and its direction, the laid back feeling of do it on your own pace, go for the easy moons or go for those that demand more control over the little mustachioed ninja - It’s all up to the player what experience you want, whenever, which makes coming back to that world such a joy. Jump around mindlessly for 5 minutes or spend half an hour figuring out that perfect combination of moves.

Greg Buchanan (No Man’s Sky)

I came into Super Mario Odyssey with zero attachment to the characters or series beyond owning a Switch. The game is fantastically charming: from the way Mario runs with his hands up in the air to the almost ridiculous range of art styles, everything about it brought a smile to my face until my partner stole my Switch and forced me to get back to work while she played it instead. It works really well in its own right, even without any nostalgic attachment to the series, so I can only imagine what playing Odyssey must be like if you’re a long-time fan.

Jennifer Raye (Boa Retina

One of the things that really pleasantly surprised me with Odyssey was the complete disregard for keeping a consistent visual style. It got weird! One minute you were in a dinosaur world, another you were at a realistic metro city, then a low-poly food world... you felt like you were REALLY traveling to far off worlds that feel distinct from each other. It really gets you excited to see what the next strange world will be to explore!

There was a lot of nicer quieter moments... if you were feeling stressed from the hunt for Moons, you could just chill at the rooftop pool party in New Donk City, fall asleep and let birds land on you, or watch the sunset in Bubblaine... not a lot of controller input or "game" elements to wrangle with - just enjoy the view and take a nice break from the overarching objectives. Oh, and I'm always a big fan of a good Photography mode.

Emma Koch  (Hand of Fate 2

It's evoked a great sense of nostalgia for me for games I played a ton of in my youth like Banjo Kazooie/Mario 64. But, at the same time, it's also made me long for those previous era games in a way that the new Odyssey hasn't quite captivated me. I can't figure out whether this is my child's mind holding those old games in much higher regard compared to my adult self playing Odyssey.

Adam Saltsman (Overland)

I've been taking a lot of bird photos in-game. It’s a very nice place to be right now.

Tyler Glaiel (The End is Nigh)

"It wasn't until well into the post-game content that I finally felt like I had 'full control' of Mario."

I loved Mario Odyssey enough to 100% it (all moons + purple coins), which isn't something I often do. The thing that really helped this feel fun and not tedious was just how high of a skill cap there was to mastering Mario's movement (go look up any speedrun clips). It wasn't until well into the post-game content that I finally felt like I had "full control" of Mario and figured out how all the advanced moves like mid-air jumps and hat bounces worked. The actual end-game content never really required a mastery of those controls, but you could apply them almost anywhere and it made going back for the missed moons feel awesome. A lot of them had intended solutions of "capture a creature then use it to get the moon", but most of them you could also get with just the right combination of mid-air jumps and throws. There was a point where walls and gaps stopped feeling like barriers just because of how much was possible.

Eric Neuhaus (Crystal Control II)

"The developers considered every tiny detail in this worlds, even going so far as to put giant piles of coins on top of high places that only the most agile of players would be able to reach with Mario's insane vertical moveset."

I cannot think of a single time in Odyssey where one of these prime "off the beaten path" locations didn't reward me with a moon. The developers considered every tiny detail in this worlds, even going so far as to put giant piles of coins on top of high places that only the most agile of players would be able to reach with Mario's insane vertical moveset.

Speaking of the "difficultly" of placed coins, the level of challenge in this game is perfect. In classic Nintendo fashion, the main plotline never feels so difficult that I'd expect a casual player to have much trouble completing it. The sheer number of moons alone ensures that you can easily find the right combination to scale to your ability and continue moving forward at a steady pace. For the dedicated player, trying to get all the moons can be a real challenge, both in terms of both platforming skill and ability to problem solve (I see the moon...how the hell do I get to it?).

There were at least 5 occasions where I either teared up or screamed out loud (sometimes both) at the ways this game expressed its love for fans of SM64/the Mario series as a whole, and probably a dozen more times where the game just blindsided me with a story beat or moon objective that was really heartfelt and sweet (a relatively minor example on the spoiler scale: Mario automatically sits down when on benches/chairs. if you do this near a lonely man in New Donk City, he thanks you for being so kind and rewards you with a moon).

Jim Stormdancer (Frog Fractions 2)

"The opening few hours of the game are a fire-hose of awesome stuff to look at and do, and even closing in on 100% completion, I was discovering new exciting things, big and small."

Visually lush, triple-A platformers are incredibly rare, because you have to iterate the look and play of the level geometry simultaneously, they're often at odds with each other, and it's hard enough to get one right. The EPD Tokyo team sidestepped this problem by relying on an abstract, cartoony art style. Hell, the desert world is 90% a single repeating sand texture, and it doesn't look cheap or out of place at all.

The pacing of reveals - reveals of art, of systems, of theming - is incredibly well-tuned while feeling completely naturalistic. The opening few hours of the game are a fire-hose of awesome stuff to look at and do, and even closing in on 100% completion, I was discovering new exciting things, big and small. A more specific example: collection-heavy games usually become a huge slog towards the end, as the density of collectibles drops to zero. They solved this with two independent, judiciously tuned hint systems. These systems are both player and economy-paced, so you only go to the hints once you're ready, and you can't be tempted to tell it "just give me everything."

Marcelo Perez (Moon Hunters)

Much like ZeldaMario Odyssey encouraged me to explore every little corner of the world so that I'm constantly delighted by bite-sized content everywhere. Controls were super tight and flexible - I knew I had only myself to blame if I made a mistake.

Despite the forgettable plot that still stuck with tropes from the 80's, I really appreciated the nods to previous games. My heart was filled with warmth when I got that Mario 64 skin.

I think what struck me the most about this game was its simplicity. There are no procedural systems or complex AI you would find in other AAA titles. Everything is so simple, and yet so fun.

Lucy Blundell (One Night Stand)

"Some of the moons are far too easy to obtain. And then in post-game, levels soon become almost cruelly difficult."

The objects I enjoyed most, mechanically, were the poles in the Metro Kingdom, simply because flicking the control stick flicks Mario in such a satisfying way, but I seriously laughed when I became a piece of meat in the Luncheon Kingdom! Twitching to get the bird’s attention was hilarious! I’d say most of the captured monsters and objects are so fun that they could probably be a full game in themselves.

However, some of the moons are far too easy to obtain. Whilst I don’t mind this on the first level or so, the design feels a little too sporadic. When in post-game, levels soon become difficult, almost cruelly so in comparison to the majority of the game before. But adding these tough challenges post-game means that almost everyone can play through the story and experience some of the finest gaming moments of the year, which is great. 

Marcus Horn (Macbat 64)

"They replaced the whole 'search for power stars' paradigm with 'search for new experiences, new things to capture, and new environments.'"

Nintendo did not simply bring back the 3D platformer collect-a-thon, they nailed the genre down to it's core and reworked it in a new way with this game. One of the things that surprised me the most was how Koizumi and his team changed up the "explore and collect“ aspect of the game. Sure, they included tons of moons to collect, but they also replaced the whole "search for power stars“ with "search for new experiences, new things to capture, and new environments“.

They realized that simply looking for power moons through exploration and a few minigames wasn't enough, so they gave us new purpose to explore those amazing looking sandbox levels, like finding a giant Tyrannosaurus to capture, playing through pixelated 2D stages, or a sort of racing game that has enough potential to become a standalone game.

Chris Deneos (Save Me Mr Tako)

This game is pure generosity, and it tries to wow you at every turn. It's all the lessons from Nintendo games in one place. Great controls, twists on every mechanic, a lot of variety and secrets to discover, but still accessible, with different levels of challenges. I think that a lot of developers forget to be generous to their player, and this game proves once again how important it is (we can also see the generosity of Mario with all the outfits: where other game companies would have put them in lootboxes, here you can find all in the game).

Brent Ellison (Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade)

"Two extremely difficult, checkpoint-less survival challenges make the otherwise relaxing, joyous experience of combing through the rest of the game's worlds ultimately hollow."

There is a nasty post-ending surprise that threatens to hold the entire quest for ransom. Collecting enough moons (~25% & 50% of the total) "rewards" you with access to two extremely difficult, checkpoint-less survival challenges. Given the focus on collecting all the moons, failure to conquer these barriers would seem to make the otherwise relaxing, joyous experience of combing through the rest of the game's worlds ultimately hollow.

A cynic might say that this was a deliberate choice due to the existence of the Wedding Peach amiibo who provides super-hearts as often as you want. It certainly worked on me, as I immediately ordered one for $15 as soon as I encountered the first of these challenges, and I normally turn my nose up at premium-style mechanics (I'll note that while there's no way I would have had the patience for these challenges without the paid-for cheat, it certainly did not make them "easy").

If Nintendo did do this on purpose however, it was a pretty masterful play. I was ultimately buying peace-of-mind, as with the challenge out of the way I'm now free to pursue the rest of the moons at my leisure. I might even recommend this as an experience to other old-school designers in order to give them empathy for users willing to engage in pay-to-win mechanics.

Des Gayle (Hyperstellar: SV)

"One gripe I have is the way that Nintendo introduces a gameplay mechanic for one world or one section of a world and just say 'ok, that’s enough, done now' and you never see it again."

From a professional perspective, one gripe I have with the game is the way that Nintendo are SO talented that they introduce a gameplay mechanic for one world or one section of a world and just say “ok, that’s enough, done now” and you never see it again. The mechanics in question could be spun out into actual game themselves! Who in the hell does that?!?!

I saw complaints on the interwebs that the game was too easy, and I disagree with this. Sure, I made it through the critical path of the game with over 200 lives to spare, but what Nintendo have done so well with Odyssey is that they have made it extremely accessible to EVERYBODY. 2 buttons and a joystick is all you need.

I love how Nintendo have layered control modifiers to enable the more skilled players to get their satisfaction. After 20 hours of gameplay I still haven’t made a successful dive jump onto the cap in mid air allowing me to reach some new areas, but I have mastered the long, wall, triple, and back somersault jumps, and I am fine with that. 800 Moons (or however many it is) is too many to collect anyway.

George Cheal (You Are Worthless)

"Teasing future Kingdoms with fully functioning painting warps was also a stroke of watercooler narrative genius."

I feel the one aspect of this Switch bestseller that stuck out in my mind most of all was the world design and the presentation therein. If the creators of Zelda famously designed Breath of the Wild with the help of triangular shapes to instill curiosity, then Mario’s latest opus is definitely modeled after boxes.

This demonstrably shows in the bluntly uniform and perpendicular shapes endemic to each Kingdom’s LEGO-like design and how it seems so carefully crafted and subtly signposted in such a way as to guide and even tease the player onward. Trinkets and secrets will be hiding under boxes, around boxes, behind boxes, on top of whole stacks of boxes and naturally for Mario, inside boxes. The ways in which collectibles are dotted around each kingdom, and even in the self-contained linear challenges as extra hidden collectibles, encouraged me to consider the breadth of the elaborated movement system, project myself beyond the level boundaries, and think outside the box, too.

Teasing future Kingdoms with fully functioning painting warps I felt was also a stroke of watercooler narrative genius.

The excision of the extra lives system and the freedom to accrue multiple items in one unbroken session demonstrates a willingness from Nintendo to climb out of a box of their own in terms of design limitations, affording the liberation to explore at my own pace. Add to that, the dynamic worlds that adapt and respond (often wildly so) to player progress through to the final Kingdom and beyond is what kept me coming back.

Priscilla Snow (Southern Monsters)

"I'm loving every little bit of sound design in the game."

This game is so full of interesting, clever, moments that I've taken an ungodly amount of screenshots and videos. It's evident that Nintendo has realized how much people love to capture moments in-game - especially if we have tools in-game to compose the shot we want by changing angles. I also love the inclusion of photo filters! We have seen features for this in Splatoon when you take selfies with scanned amiibo, and in Breath of the Wild where you can change poses and position the camera.

And of course, as a sound designer, I'm loving every little bit of sound design in the game. For me, I don't think it surpasses Breath of the Wild in terms of overall sound and music, but it is fantastic. One of the best moments, in my opinion, is when you are playing as the caterpillars. The accordion sound that goes up or down the scale depending on how much you've stretched is so, so good. (I'm not sure if they've used that sound for those in the past, since it's my first Super Mario game, but I love it.)

Charlton Edwards (Kynseed)

"Some of the challenge pipes you go down feel a bit simple and knocked together. They feel a bit like the Shrines in BOTW...some had more time than others and by the end, you feel some were just thrown in due to time constraints."

From a gamer perspective, the game is magical, fun, imaginative, beautiful and packed with content, especially the magnificent after-game stuff. The capturing mechanic is fresh and leads to gameplay that just has you sat there smiling. And, of course, the whole thing is polished to another level...if only other companies had that same sort of commitment to quality.

However, as a designer, and mainly a level designer, there are a number of niggles, and although they do not ruin the experience at all, they perhaps stop the game being as near perfect as say, Mario Galaxy.

The levels vary in quality, both visually and in layout. For the most part they are magnificent, with only a couple of bland ones (the disappointing Woodland and Snow  Kingdoms). The Ruined Kingdom in particular comes across as something that was maybe cut back, and the extra moons just shoveled in afterwards. You get the feeling this was going to be their haunted house level but never made it, and while it's visually very cool and the dragon fight fairly fun, it feels like a half-baked level. When the Kingdoms shine though, they really shine....New Donk City and Bowser's Castle particular highlights.

Some of the challenge pipes you go down feel a bit simple and knocked together. Again, quality on these varies and they feel a bit like the Shrines in BOTW...some had more time than others and by the end you feel some were just thrown in due to time constraints.

The main bugbear I found in my playthrough was the camera. In Mario Galaxy, it was never something that you needed to think about, whereas here, the freedom offered by the levels makes the player need to be on the case more and it is much trickier to control, especially in tighter spaces.

Tion Bruton (Cat Quest)

The localization is great! Treehouse took their time to write a fun script and create an overall solid localization for Odyssey. A colleague of mine, Kantopia, posted comparisons of the Japanese version to the English version and made great blog about it.

I have not had the chance to play the Japanese version, but I'm interested in making my own comparisons when I have the time.

Lastly, the soundtrack is impressive. I'm still rinsing it, but I dig the jazz, metal goth, orchestral, soul rock vibes from it. Personally, I would love to hear about both the localization and music composition process from the devs.

Bill Gardner (Perception) 

" Of all the achievements of Mario Odyssey, the single greatest feat it pulls of is that perfect balance between short and long play sessions. Amazingly, Nintendo managed to pull this off to a degree that every developer should be humbled. This immeasurable challenge feels so effortless as to go unnoticed by the untrained eye. As usual, Nintendo is dominating a league above us that we are now only just realizing exists."

Between Breath of the Wild, and now Odyssey, Nintendo has demonstrated unparalleled mastery in balancing the satisfaction of bite-sized on-the-go micro-session gaming with marathon gaming. No matter how you play these two games, you feel satisfied. Got 5 minutes while waiting in line? You can pull out the Switch, pick up exactly where you left off in an instant, and collect a few precious coins or even a few moons. Every nook and cranny of Odyssey feels crafted with thought and purpose. Pay close attention, as you can’t help but shake the feeling like you might miss something. And when you take a step back and look at the entire playground after discovering a new world, it feels rife with endless possibilities. 

Add to this the fact that everything is tuned so perfectly and feels substantial and meaningful – every step, jump, and item collect you feel like you are working toward a bigger goal. As a dev, this is exactly the sort of thing you spend a career studying. What is it about their inertia, their dust kickups, and their footstep sounds, that make movement feel so rich and fulfilling? It’s nearly maddening at times. You apply the slightest pressure to the analog stick and watch carefully how Mario begins to shift. And then you contrast that by flicking the sticks to watch how he accelerates.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when lucky enough to have the time for a lengthy excursion into Mario’s world, the exhilaration is multiplied exponentially. You find a moon and are immediately tempted by what’s around the next corner, or think you can make out some wander off in the horizon. Like the alerts of the modern world compelling you to action, the siren call of “just one more coin so I can buy that new outfit and get another moon” is irresistible.

Of all the achievements of Mario Odyssey, the single greatest feat it pulls of is that perfect balance between short and long play sessions. For a platform like Switch, where you are meant to change between couch and commute, the fact that both of these playstyles feel equally rewarding is crucial. Amazingly, Nintendo managed to pull this off to a degree that every developer should be humbled. This immeasurable challenge feels so effortless as to go unnoticed by the untrained eye. As usual, Nintendo is dominating a league above us that we are now only just realizing exists.

Andrea Ayres (The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne)

"Watching my husband play the game is one experience, playing it is another. We’re in the same spot in the game, but we’ve both found different moons and talked to do different characters. We’ve each found our own way to utilize Mario’s actions."

My husband and I have been taking turns playing Super Mario Odyssey. He’ll play for a few hours, and then I’ll take over for a few. He played first, so I got to watch him go through the introductory sequence and tutorial. I also had the pleasure of watching his face light up in delight as Mario jumped, somersaulted, and turned into a frog for the first time. He turned to me and said, “It’s so much fun, you have no idea.” 

I took over the Switch and changed the game to my profile (currently a lovely looking llama) and started a new game. You might think that playing the same game, at the same time, would be boring or even annoying, but in this instance you’d be mistaken. Watching my husband play the game is one experience, playing it is another. We’re in the same spot in the game, but we’ve both found different moons and talked to do different characters. We’ve each found our own way to utilize Mario’s actions.

And where I leave some coins out there spinning in the air, Charlie is quick to retrieve them. Our play styles are vastly different and what I’ve come to admire about Odyssey so far is its ability to adapt to this.

It’s hard to explain the amount of fun I've experienced in a relatively short amount of time. I find myself wanting to explore every square inch of the game. I think finding a moon makes it happier than it should, but so do other elements of the game, like:

  1. Throwing my cap in or on every possible object.
  2. Doing a cartwheel in the air.
  3. Ground pounding with my posterior. 
  4. Changing clothes.

The game is so enjoyable, I sometimes find myself unprepared for how irritated I become when I can’t defeat a level boss. The juxtaposition between playful exploration and boss fights can sometimes feel abrasive, but I think it may also be what keeps me pushing forward even after I die over and over again.

It feels like I’m living in a mashup of my favorite cartoons: Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers, Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears and TaleSpin. It’s nostalgic without being saccharine. I haven’t spent a lot of time with Odyssey but the time I have spent has reminded me of the best moments of my childhood. The moments where you believe you can be anything and do anything: You're a cat who can climb to the top of Empire State Building or a rabbit who burrows a hole so deep it finds itself on another continent... It's not about making sense or being logical, it's about allowing yourself the space to be free in a joyful place.



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