41 Games: Super Mario Odyssey
Plenty of smart people have already written about the A Traditional Festival level in Super Mario Odyssey (http://www.zam.com/…/well-be-talking-about-super-mario-odys…), and for good reason. It neatly encapsulates so much of what makes this game great: its structure, its style, its reverence for the past, its music, its playfulness.
My enjoyment of Odyssey took me by surprise. I haven't ever really gotten into a 3D Mario. I found them too open, sprawling to the point of losing focus, directionless. I felt lost and frustrated in Super Mario 64. I only really enjoyed the encapsulated time challenges in Super Mario Sunshine. I played a bit of Galaxy before the sense of purposelessness set in.
I think my enjoyment owes a great deal to the Switch hardware. But by that I mean, developing it for Switch meant that Nintendo made calculated decisions about how they wanted people to be able to enjoy it. This is something Nintendo has always done exceptionally well on their handheld platforms: they don't simply bring over a home console experience unchanged. They consider the session length of a handheld player and build their games so that they can be enjoyed in tinier chunks. What Nintendo has done brilliantly with Switch is to find a way to do that, and make the game still feel massive and worthy of a home console. The result is that you always feel like you're discovering or accomplishing something in Super Mario Odyssey. It's an extremely generous game.
While I was underwhelmed by Breath of the Wild's answer to this question (the shrines), I was delighted by Mario's. This is in part because the Mario series has very few pretenses of being a believable world, rather than a fever dream of design elements.
But it's also because the ratio of "here's a completely disconnected challenge" to "here's a puzzle to solve in this place" is pretty much exactly reversed. Here there isn't a stark separation between the exploration game and the progress game; they're the same game. Explore Mario's world and you're bound to pick up a half dozen power moons along the way.
Super Mario Odyssey's difficulty curve is also the exact inverse of Zelda's. I think Zelda's difficulty curve largely works in that game (I know others disagree)--lending you a feeling of vulnerability that pushes you forward on your journey to get strong enough to defeat Ganon. But the strength of Odyssey's approach is that the game gets a chance to delight you early, and then becomes *more* engaging the better you get and the further you go--unlike so many RPGs which fail to hold interest once the player has accumulated enough upgrades to make encounters trivial.
The game's structure plays to this as well. Half the game isn't even unlocked until you beat the main story. And beating the main story is a relatively easy task, designed to be achievable by most players with very low time investment.
The reward is a proper endgame with more devious challenges, and a world that *knows you beat the game* and has *changed because of your actions.* Horizon doesn't do this, Breath of the Wild doesn't do this, The Witcher 3 doesn't do this; in fact, the vast majority of RPGs--games which above all are trying to convince you that you've stepped into a living breathing world--shatter that very illusion the moment you beat the game.
But not Super Mario Odyssey. Finish it, and then go back and discover the world all over again.