Super Mario Odyssey hands-on preview
Mario is back on Nintendo Switch.Nintendo

Over the last decade, Nintendo has gained a bit of a reputation for being creatively conservative. After penning some of gaming's most iconic characters, the last few generations have largely seen the Kyoto-based company take those trusty mascots and repeatedly plop them into fun but familiar-feeling sequels.

Now, it looks like the devastating failure of the Wii U has changed Nintendo's approach. Realizing that players want something new and exciting, Nintendo's world-renowned developers have gone back to the drawing board, creating wonderfully bizarre new franchises like the stretchy-limbed fighter Arms and zany online shooter, Splatoon.

Yet, surprisingly, Nintendo didn't just stop there. Applying the same level of creativity to one of its biggest brands, this year's phenomenal Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild showed that it is just as willing to take risks with its biggest franchises.

With Breath of The Wild gaining almost universal praise and its experimental home-handheld Switch console enjoying a ton of positive buzz, Nintendo needs to keep up its winning streak. Enter Super Mario Odyssey.

Sitting down with the colourful platformer at E3 2017, I was slightly worried that Nintendo would stick to the tried and tested, taking the easy way out with its biggest brand. Thankfully though, after spending a brilliant forty minutes with the mustachioed mascot's first Switch outing, I'm pleased to report that this could be Nintendo's most ambitious Mario game yet.

Doing away with the linear levels of 2013's Super Mario 3D World and the nostalgic side-scrolling of the New Super Mario Bros series, Super Mario Odyssey instead lets players loose in wonderfully expansive 3D playgrounds.

Jumping straight into the Manhattan-inspired New Donk City, it's immediately clear that this isn't your dad's Mario. Starting on the roof of a tall brick building, standing before Nintendo's hero are not Goombas, but three suited and booted human beings.

This bizarre sandbox sees the diminutive plumber dodging taxis, climbing up traffic lights and weirdly, interacting with a slew of human citizens who inexplicably all look like mobsters. Armed with a sentient hat named, of course, Cappy, Mario's new wearable pal comes with a wealth of interesting new abilities.

Super Mario Odyssey New Donk City
New Donk City is home to real humans... and Mario.Nintendo

Playing with a Joy-Con in each hand, control wise, Odyssey has a lot in common with Mario's stellar Wii outing, Super Mario Galaxy. With a flick of their wrist, players can fling poor Cappy, sending him spinning in which ever direction you're facing. While this could have just been a weapon, successfully landing Cappy on an enemy or object see you briefly possessing them.

In most games, this brilliant mechanic would be limited to set situations, here however, it just works. Possessing everything from Goombas, people, fire hydrants and Bullet Bills, the action either results in a bit of silly fun or allows access to some incredibly well hidden secret areas.

Yet, despite the larger worlds to explore and the brilliant possession mechanic, it was all the other little surprises that had me enraptured. For example, players are able to buy new outfits for Mario at a number of themed stores. Rather than merely adding a fun way to dress-up the Italian maestro, the (often humourous) costumes also effect the gameplay too.

In New Donk City, I stumbled upon a man blocking a path. In order to get by, Mario needed to be wearing a full construction uniform in order to convince the guard that he was meant to be there. It's small touches like this that show what a different kind of Mario game this is.

While it would be a bit of a stretch to call this an open-world game, from what I've seen so far, there looks to be a staggering amount of content crammed into each sandbox. With hidden bonus areas, a plethora of mini games, and even mission objectives to complete, Odyssey features a surprising amount of depth for a Mario platformer.

The second more traditional world I got the chance to explore was called Sand Kingdom. Set in a vibrant, Mexican-inspired setting, a group sombrero-wearing skeletons soon ask Mario for help melting patches of ice that have appeared around the small town.

Coming in with no context, I have absolutely no idea how to melt the ice or really do anything of use, so I proceed to run and jump buoyantly across the cool-looking environments. Unlike the more carefree coin collecting of New Donk City, this world presented more challenging Mario-style moments.

Dodging Bullet Bills and hopping on to Goombas, many of the sections here required careful timing in order to make it across moving platforms and track down the game's holy grails: Power Moons. Yet, while the Sand Kingdom area is traditional Mario fare on the surface, that doesn't mean that this world wasn't full of its own surprises.

Super Mario Odyssey Sand Kingdom
Mario can buy new outfits from Crazy Cap stores.Nintendo

After progressing through some fairly linear platforming sections, I soon went into a pipe and discovered a little Easter egg that left a huge grin on my face. In a nice nod to where Mario began, jumping through a certain pipe on the Mexican level transformed Mario into a 2D version of himself capable of hopping and stomping his way across an enemy-ridden wall.

It was a brilliant touch, and like with most great Mario moments, it was used sparingly, limited to two brief, but amazing moments in the demo.

It looks like the introduction of Cappy has inspired Nintendo to create far more unusual enemies in Odyssey too. Whether it's the sunglasses-wearing Golem enemies or the angry tank and T-Rex double bill hinted at in the E3 trailer, this broader level of creative freedom reflects in almost every aspect of Odyssey's design.

It would have been so easy for Nintendo to phone it in with Mario's Switch debut. Simply Cappy or the larger sandbox environments would have been enough of a twist to make Odyssey feel different enough from past outings.

Yet, I came away feeling astounded by how much Nintendo has packed into just the two worlds I saw. Coming back to the E3 demo a second time around, I still found myself barely scratching the surface, discovering new paths each time and spotting other areas that the locked time limit wouldn't quite let me reach. Again, this is just two of Odyssey's many worlds, the mind boggles at all the other wonders that no doubt await players come October.

Despite regular complaints of Mario being something of a one-trick pony, there's a reason that his marquee platformers rank among the genre's best - they consistently raise the bar through gameplay innovation and eerily tight game design.

Odyssey appears to be pushing that imaginative spark and design polish to its limits, cramming more varied game mechanics into a single demo than most games manage in an entire franchise, and showcases a re-energized Nintendo at its joyously creative best.

It looks like the only competition Link will have for Game of the Year in 2017 could well be coming from Nintendo's other beloved mascot.

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