The dreaded water level. Most video games have something of the sort, especially in the platforming genre, and often times they are one of the weaker points of the title. Even some of the best games ever created a struggle to find their footing submerged in the deep — The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s biggest flaw is often considered to be the Water Temple. But in Super Mario Odyssey, the water levels don’t fight back the way previous entries in the series have. Leave it to Nintendo to try and solve a problem they unintentionally created.
First off, what exactly is it about water levels that makes them so egregious? Often it comes down to altering the core physics and systems in place in a game. Wading, swimming, and diving through water is a slower experience than running on land, making progress noticeably slower. Switching from flipping and dashing through Super Mario 64’s beginning worlds makes the slow crawl through Jolly Rodger Bay noticeably less peppy. Coupled with odd camera collision that can arise when your character is suspended in liquid compared to having their feet planted on the ground, and you’re creating a recipe for complication.
Exactitude is something games often struggle with when placed underwater as well. Trying to snag an underwater Jiggy in Clanker’s Cavern in Banjo-Kazooie is frustrating as all hell. The momentum used to swim is imprecise and can become disorienting, leaving the player flailing about trying to get to a precise location. This is further exacerbated by the most damning detail of all. Almost every water level a time limit on how long you can remain submerged. That horrid countdown in Chemical Plant Zone, before hearing the doorstop-flicker and witnessing Sonic drown, will always haunt me. As if it isn’t maddening enough how slow you move when trying to explore underwater environments, being able to drown and unjustly punished for taking “too long” isn’t just annoying — it’s stressful. Commonly, scattering items about to prolong an air meter, bubbles usually, is the half-baked fix — it exists even in Super Mario Odyssey.
Super Mario Odyssey features two different water levels, the Lake Kingdom and the Seaside Kingdom, both of which are sizable chunks of content. Like previous Mario titles, the levels are split between underwater exploration and standard platforming areas on dry land. Swimming is as slow as it has even been in a Mario game, with Mario’s animation and style of swimming harkening back to the original Super Mario Bros underwater levels. Mario is always standing upright when submerged, and feathering the jump button will determine the depth in which he sinks or rises, as well as how fast he moves — but even at its fastest, the movement is still molasses-like. Mario is also cursed with a breathing meter that is constantly draining. Floating aimlessly toward my goal of a Power Moon, I saw a cheep-cheep (a common, large red and yellow fish) making laps in the lagoon before me, and as I threw Cappy at the foe, I found Nintendo’s next underwater fix.
Super Mario Odyssey’s big hook, and something that allows it to circumnavigate the terrible hangups of underwater sections that would otherwise plague it is Cappy. Cappy plays the role of Mario’s hat in Odyssey, and with it Mario can take control of dozens of different creatures, utilizing their unique abilities to traverse the world and seek new Power Moons and coins. This feature, exclusive to this game, is what saves Super Mario Odyssey from the absolute frustration of the water level. Taking control of the cheep-cheep, Mario’s breath meter disappeared — there no more time limit pressing against me. Furthermore, Mario could now swiftly navigate the lagoon and get to the next destination with ease. My exploration was no longer stifled by content trips to the surface for air, making it far more leisurely and enjoyable. Fortunately, this level, the Lake Kingdom, is short and concise, contained within a rather small body of water with nothing was too far away to swim to. The Seaside Kingdom, however, is another story.
The Seaside Kingdom is a sprawling ocean and beach zone, with a smattering of small islands all surrounding a giant fountainhead. Even with the assistance of a cheep-cheep, there is just too much area to cover, swapping between underwater areas and on-land challenges to be limited to swimming as a fish. The solution then was the create something else for Mario to take control of — the gushen. This small squid is surrounded by an orb of water, and lets Mario jet across water and fly through the air by expelling water from its underside. The amount of water is limited, and when you’ve used it all, the squid falls back to the ground. Any contact with water allows the supply to be immediately replenished and Mario can take off again. Utilizing these creatures and avoiding actually being Mario when trying to cross a body of water makes the entire experience of playing through the water sections painless, and even fun. This isn’t a perfect solvent, but it’s still infinitely better than trying to float Mario to the location before he chokes and drowns.
The fact that water levels are so poorly executed in games has always been something I’ve found upsetting. The environments, music, and enemies are generally unique and interesting, offering new color palettes and challenges specific to that area. Unfortunately, the enjoyment to be found in this gameplay is frequently subpar compared to the rest of the experience. Super Mario Odyssey’s attempt to make its underwater sections as accessible and joyous to explore is admirable, and the success it finds is equally so. Having to completely ditch controlling Mario for another creature’s form to find this success may seem like a one-game solution, assuming Cappy never makes another appearance, but for what it’s worth, they picked a hell of a game to make the concession with — I’m not complaining.