Music Review – Super Mario Odyssey

7/9

A Musical Odyssey

2017 was undoubtedly the year of the Switch. Nintendo’s home console/portable hybrid took the market by surprise, delivering a slate of quality games throughout the year, as well as a unique experience that more than made up for the lackluster Wii U, their previous home console effort. Among the standout efforts on the Switch this year was the blockbuster Super Mario Odyssey, a marquee Mario game that took a number of risks, expanded the traditional Mario experience, and wowed a lot of gamers in the process.

Along with such an experience comes a soundtrack that tries a few new things with the results working out well, for the most part. Super Mario Odyssey‘s soundtrack has some very large shoes to fill after the excellent soundtracks for the Super Mario Galaxy series, and this soundtrack takes a bit of a left turn to produce some good tunes and great moments.

Quality is job #1

The quality of the music is, once again, top notch – from its composition to its recording, the audio and music team on Super Mario Odyssey has successfully measured up to the very high standard that the Mario series has set throughout the generations. Instruments are easy to pick out, as the mixing sets a good balance among the frequency ranges whilst retaining a good amount of space and air. Lately Nintendo has paid a good amount of attention to the recording quality of the music in its marquee releases, and it delivers a great experience as the result.

A couple of call-outs in the soundtrack: the Wooded Kingdom surprised with a truly unique theme, opting for an electronic-style acid jazz track after the rather standard intro, almost certainly a feint to set the tone for the stage. The guitar lead has a very catchy melody, and the drums and horns, mixed with a slightly vintage-style EQ effect, are blended well with the bass.

The New Donk City festival is a real treat of a stage, featuring a mostly 2D-style gauntlet of challenges in the style of the video game classic Donkey Kong. Perhaps as a sort of celebration of Mario’s history with the franchise, Nintendo composer Naoto Kubo and writers Nobuyoshi Suzuki (Japanese) and Rob Tunstall (English) penned an original song called “Jump Up, Super Star“, a jazz tune (with lyrics!) befitting of the big city setting the festival is in. (source) This was also featured in the game’s trailer, and was another wonderful surprise for Mario fans, with very cleverly written lyrics and a solid contemporary jazz arrangement.

What’s old is old again

Of course, with a new Mario game, comes new arrangements of familiar tunes throughout the Mario series history. The band in New Donk City has a particularly fun version of the original Super Mario Bros. theme song performed with a small rock ensemble, complete with horns. It’s reminiscent of the treatment the Bob-omb Battlefield theme from Super Mario 64 received in Super Mario Galaxy 2′s Throwback Galaxy, and it’s a nice homage to a classic video game composition, while being a great performance in its own right.

The soundtrack itself is largely disparate – as the worlds in Mario’s journey are – but the variety is fitting for the game. This is a very vibrant, energetic, even frenetic game at times, and the choice of genres and themes very much drives that along. World compositions tend to be more upbeat and driving, changing timbre and instrumentation with their surroundings inside a stage (e.g. the Seaside Kingdom theme becomes more muted and somber while swimming vs. running around above water), which is a welcome note of interactivity that the more recent Mario games have incorporated well. Battle themes retreat to the familiar caffeine-induced techno pop style that surfaced in Super Mario Galaxy and has become a mainstay for the marquee Mario games. They don’t have the same kind of impact that they did in Galaxy (particularly Bowser’s themes, which were excellent in Galaxy), but they do enough to get you through the relatively short boss fights.

However, what remains a bit of a disappointment is the sort of tried-and-true approach to thematic choices with some of the stages. While some stages like the Wooded Kingdom get a truly unique treatment, others like the Seaside Kingdom don’t go far enough to really bring a new dimension to their respective stages, opting instead for a more milquetoast approach to their compositions. I’ve heard an island-style theme on an island stage a dozen times over, and was hoping for something a little different.

The verdict

Admittedly, it’s hard to live up to the legacy of Super Mario Galaxy‘s soundtrack, but Super Mario Odyssey succeeds in a number of ways to set a new tone for the franchise, throwing a curveball here and there in its thematic interpretations to try and shake things up. While it doesn’t satisfy in some of the more predictable stages, it nevertheless makes a grand effort to lift up the fantastic new journey Mario embarks on, and that is worth the price of admission.

Buy “Jump Up, Super Star” here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/jump-up-super-star-single/1295624919

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