Welcome Home, Mario. We Missed You.

Super Mario Odyssey is only one week old and it already feels timeless. I was 21 years old when the Nintendo 64 launched with Super Mario 64. I spent months poring over every polygon, peering around every corner, plumbing every pipe. And then my gaming life moved on. The thought of Mario 64 never stopped giving me those warm, fuzzy feelings, but I also never thought about it too deeply. I didn’t play the 3DS remake. I never revisited it on an N64. It was a legendary game from my past and that was enough. I didn’t miss it. Or, I didn’t realize I missed it, until last week.

The very moment Odyssey began, a smile crept across my face. Little audio cues, Mario’s ‘voice,’ the ominous drums that accompany Bowser’s Airship, the coins’ iconic ding, they all dialed up the nostalgia. My muscle-memory kicked in as I pushed forward on the stick and saw Mario’s little legs start pumping. I reflexively timed his jumps, Hip, Hup, WA-HOO! Triple Jump: check. My grin grew wider. The first hours with this game were like a time-machine, giving me an admittedly rose-tinted window into a simpler time. It is a perfect follow-up to Mario 64. And, it turns out, I did miss Mario 64. I missed it a lot.

I’ve put in many hours with Mario Odyssey this week. And I’ve reflected on it in the hours I wasn’t playing it. I’m going to tell you about how impressed this long-lapsed Nintendo fan has been since the launch of the Switch, and how completely they’ve won me back with Mario’s latest adventure. But while I may have strayed from Nintendo over the past few decades, I’ve always played games. I just played them somewhere else. Mario Odyssey is such a joy, such a rare treasure, that I can confidently recommend it to those who haven’t touched a controller in twenty years. There’s an entire generation that was raised on Nintendo. And while some may have been away for a long time, I think they’re about to come home.

“Then, Nintendo announced the Wii, and I knew it was over. Nintendo was no longer making games that were for me.”

Like most people my age, I grew up with video games. I was a child with Atari 2600 and Intellivision. I was an adolescent with Nintendo and Sega’s Genesis. As the medium grew, I kept up with it as best I could. In the late 1990’s, I was a young adult with a limited budget, but I was always fortunate enough to have access to games, whether it was on consoles I owned, or those of friends and roommates. The Sony PlayStation dominated the cartridge-based N64. Games like Final Fantasy 7 and Tony Hawk: Pro Skater are far more prominent in my memory than Star Fox 64. As the next wave of consoles hit, I stayed with Nintendo through the GameCube. I even had the GBA Player add-on so I could play GameBoy Advance games on my television. But outside of Wind Waker, Mario Sunshine, and Metroid Prime, that console was always second fiddle, or third, really, to my shiny new Xbox and the ubiquitous PS2.

Then, Nintendo announced the Wii, and I knew it was over. Nintendo was no longer making games that were for me. I had, and still have, zero interest in motion controls. I am an active person. I exercise regularly and have a physical job. When I want to play games, I want to sit down, controller in hand, and play a game. I’m not saying Nintendo was wrong. With more than 100M Wii consoles sold, I’d be crazy to make that claim. I was happy for their success, but for my own gaming, I was happier on the Xbox 360.

I had access to the Wii. I had a roommate who had one. I played, and loved, both Mario Galaxy and Galaxy 2. I have particularly fond memories of the two of us playing New Super Mario Bros. together. I got to sample Metroid Prime 3, but that just solidified my stance against motion controls. I only slightly regret never getting to play Skyward Sword.

Sadly, I don’t think we even have to mention the Wii U. But I really hope there are plans to port Bayonetta 2 to the Switch.

Because the Switch is the console I didn’t know I needed. The moment I saw that fantastic first commercial, I wanted it. I would have been justified in having doubts. Nintendo likes to swing for the fences, and for 15 years, none of their innovations had left the park for me. But two things in that first ad spot grabbed me. The handheld functionality actually seemed to work. And they showed the Pro Controller. Nintendo was going to make games designed to be played on a controller again. I knew I wanted to be there for that.

The Nintendo Switch has exceeded even my high expectations in every way. Breath of the Wild was a masterpiece, and hinted at the promise of all that is to come. The little games were my biggest surprise though. Things I’d never gotten around to on the other consoles, games like Binding of Isaac and Shovel Knight, and more recent additions like Golf Story, Thimbleweed Park, and Steamworld Dig 2; they are all part of a perfect little library for a handheld machine. I’ve never been much of a handheld gamer, but the freedom the Switch affords me has been a delight. I rarely take it out of my home, and it still changed the way I play games. I have a dedicated room and television for the other consoles, (and my Switch dock), but sometimes, especially with more laid-back games like Golf Story, it’s nice to just relax on my couch with one earbud in and cartoons or the news on in the background. And now I can do just that.

I’ve been sold on Nintendo’s newest console since it released. But that brings us back to where we started, the recent release of Super Mario Odyssey. As I said, I was immediately blown away by how familiar it all seemed, while still managing to feel so new. Outside of the general feel and presentation of the game, there are so many specific nods and easter eggs to find. I want to go on about them, but I don’t want to spoil any of it for those who haven’t yet played. As I played on, I just kept thinking, ‘I could put this in anyone’s hand, and it would make them smile.’ That’s a rare thing. Look at it this way, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was equally perfect, but it was also very challenging. For any modern gamer, it’s a must. But could I hand it to someone who doesn’t play games? Zelda demands at least some commitment, to learn the systems, to learn the physics, to learn from one’s own defeats. There’s a price of entry to Breath of the Wild. Mario Odyssey is distilled to the purity of three intuitive buttons and a stick. It scales up to more complicated mechanics and has a high skill ceiling, but it starts out easily enough and it holds your hand as it walks you in.

As I was forming this thought, I was presented with a test subject. One of my wife’s colleagues, a woman I’ve met, but don’t really know, saw a couple of tweets I’d posted about Mario Odyssey. Let’s call her… Pauline. She reached out to me on social media and basically said she hadn’t played a game since Mario Sunshine, but thought she needed a new hobby, and asked how she would go about playing this new Mario. ‘Amazing!’ I thought. I wrote her back about the Switch, sent her the link to that announcement ad, and told her I was still enjoying Mario and thought it was magical. Later that night, she wrote, and I’ll quote here, “I bought it. It’s exactly perfect. I may never leave the house again.” I was not expecting such quick results. I haven’t heard from her again, but I hope she’s still enjoying it. My experiment with a sample size of 1 was a complete success.

With a smile, I tried to think of follow up suggestions I could make to a returning gamer with a brand new Switch. It’s not a short list, the aforementioned Zelda, Mario Kart 8, and a multitude of adorable indie games all come to mind easily. But for now, while I’m still deep in the honeymoon phase, everything feels like a step back from Mario Odyssey. While the gaming medium is always moving forward, this is one of those rare moments that feels like a destination, leaving this gamer asking: where do we go from here? I’m happy to stay here collecting power moons until that question is answered.

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