Since its inception, the Super Mario Bros. series has embraced many of the concepts found in surrealist art. Its universe is filled with non-sequitur, from turtles with wings to smiling red mushrooms that slide across the ground. 2008’s Super Mario Galaxy currently stands as the best example of the series defying logic and reason in favor of imagination and surrealism, but Super Mario Odyssey seems to be pushing those concepts even further.
Surrealist art take an understood concept and mashes it with other concepts to create an image that shows the power of the unconscious mind. Some pieces attempt to portray an idea, while others hold different meanings depending on the viewer. At the core of the style is imagination, the driving force behind so many ideas found in the Mario Universe.
In the recently showcased Gamescom footage of Odyssey’s Luncheon Kingdom, surrealist concepts define the world from the get-go. The kingdom itself is made up of gigantic and polygonal food items that Mario traverses, inhabited by humanoid cooking utensils that don chef hats. Molten sugary substances create rivers, traversed of course by capturing a traditional fireball. Already surrealist Hammer Bros transform into Frying Pan Bros, hurling pans capable of breaking through large blocks of cheese because… they just do. None of those ideas should make any sense to anyone, yet they exist in the Luncheon Kingdom and feel somewhat appropriately placed.
The Metro Kingdom, Sand Kingdom, and Cascade Kingdom push the limits of imagination as well. Gigantic hunks of ice randomly litter the desert of the Sand Kingdom, while comparatively realistic dinosaurs stroll Cascade. Metro Kingdom combines elements of reality and fiction, as the cartoonish mayor Pauline governs a city filled with ordinary humans. Its buildings exist far above the clouds, with no roads leading into the metropolis.
Even the core gameplay concept of Odyssey, capturing enemies by slinging a hat at them, embraces the bizarre concepts Mario has been built upon. Fireballs wear hats, taxi cabs grow eyes, and fish with wings grow mustaches. Everything found in the game would feel right at home in a Salvador Dali painting.
With Yoshiaki Koizumi producing the game, the parallels between surrealist art and the worlds of Super Mario Odyssey shouldn’t come as a surprise. Koizumi has a history of creating worlds that push the boundaries of imagination. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, renown for its zany story, was written by Koizumi. He also directed Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat and Super Mario Sunshine, while playing a key role in creating Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker.
Nintendo Switch’s big first party releases this year have embraced the key ideas that started each franchise and taken them to even further extremes. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild recaptures the feeling of endless adventure and player freedom found in the original title, and Splatoon 2 continues to provide doses of millennial culture that feel both parody and celebratory. Super Mario Odyssey thrusts players into a nonsensical world of whimsy, unaffected by the limits of reality our brains perceive.
In the never ending discussion about video games as an art form, Mario games understandably get overlooked in favor of games that move us emotionally. While there is no deeper meaning to find in the world’s story or environment, Super Mario Odyssey serves as another piece of evidence that video games are indeed art.