Super Mario Odyssey benefits from unlimited lives
There is no lives system in Super Mario Odyssey. No 1-Up mushrooms in hidden blocks. No "100 coins for an extra life" barter system. No ticking life counts in between deaths, to remind players how close they are to oblivion. In its place is the most minor of penalties for dying; a loss of ten gold coins, which is easily replaced by just walking around, quite literally.
In the unlikely event you run out of coins, there is no penalty, other than restarting from the last checkpoint. It's a token, symbolic punishment; the difference between losing ten coins and losing no coins is nearly equivalent, especially when they are so plentiful.
The antiquated lives system we are accustomed to in other Mario games is a holdover from the arcade era. They were a moneymaking proposition, of drawing someone into a game’s immersive world and then charging an incremental fee to prolong that immersion. Arcade games were difficult by design—a means of extracting as much money from consumers as possible. For the more popular arcade games, the lives system created a natural breaking point, where the losing arcade player could surrender the joystick to the next player in line. To arcade game developers, an ideal customer's experience would be fun, short, and financially lucrative.
So when home consoles began to hit the market, the concept of “unlimited play” was one of their major selling points. Videogames were no longer some intangible money pit; they could be "owned," and ownership meant that you could play them as many times as you wanted to. But the Mario developers, rather than embracing this ethos entirely, kept the lives system as an artificial means of increasing their games' length difficulty; after all, the less chances a player has to practice a sequence, the longer it will take them to master it.
When Mario games are fun, they’re extremely fun; no other games convey whimsy quite like them. But in their worst moments, Mario games conjure an unmistakable, low-frequency dread. You get increasingly nervous as your lives tick down. Mistakes compound mistakes. And eventually, your desperation induces reckless stupidity. You’ll dive over a cliff in pursuit of a Starman. You’ll cross a set of disappearing, rickety lifts to get a single gold coin. This can be thrilling. This can also drive a person to drink, especially after the 20th "Game Over."
By and large, the threat of death keeps Mario moving forward with a singular focus. Mario platformers have a start point and an end point. And when you collect a star, reach a flag, or hit a block, the level ends. You might occasionally veer off the path to collect a 1-Up or a trove of coins or a warp whistle—things that would help you achieve your ultimate end goal of saving Peach. But even if the player knows side paths exist, they may feel discouraged to pursue them, especially if the risk of death is too high versus the potential reward. The primary concern in these games is to keep Mario safe and err on the side of caution, even if it means that the player will overlook secret areas and hidden passageways in the process.
Super Mario Odyssey also has a linear storyline where, once again, Mario has to save Peach from Bowser. But this time, it's framed as an afterthought instead of the main point. Odyssey is less about saving Peach and more about the journey to that goal – detours included. Staying alive is no longer paramount. And instead, with death out of the equation, your primary concern becomes collecting Power Moons; you're emboldened to go exploring and be daring in pursuit of this task. You'll take ill-advised risks, not because you're desperate, but because it's fun to take them. You'll want to go down the worst path, not for 1-Ups but for bragging rights.
There are 999 unique Power Moons in the game, and you can get them for doing a variety of tasks. You can complete a tricky jumping sequence. You can run an errand for another character. You can solve a brain teaser. You can just pick them up; many Power Moons lie in the open.
You only need 124 Power Moons out of 999 to save Peach and defeat Bowser, and with that increased flexibility comes choice. If there was a lives system, I would have opted for the easiest challenges, so that I could quickly advance with the least amount of frustration. But now that there are no "Game Over" stakes, I'm actually more willing to challenge myself, assured that I can die as many times as I need to master a sequence.
Odyssey takes on a self-determined difficulty scale—it is as hard as you want it to be. It's a positive, rather than punitive, approach to challenge, where you are rewarded for your persistence in addition to your skill. And as your skills sharpen, you can take on challenges that you may have walked away from hours ago. Or not. Odyssey gives you the tools to have fun in the way that you want to have it. It can be a big ball of stress, if that's what excites you as a player. But it doesn't have to be.
For years, I took that stress—of consequential death at any moment—for granted. I didn’t like it, but I assumed it came, parcel and package, with the concept of a Mario game and what a Mario game represented. When I heard that Mario Odyssey was going to ditch the lives system, I was at a loss. What would a Mario game even be without its lives system?
But after playing Odyssey, I don’t know if the series can ever go back to what it used to be, unless it’s a deliberate throwback, sold as a nostalgic quirk. Because having unlimited lives sets Mario free. It’s all fun and all whimsy, even at its most difficult. There’s stress, but it’s the type that pushes you to try the sequence again, not turn off the console and try again tomorrow. I’ve spent hours on this game. And by the time I’m finished, I will have spent more hours playing Super Mario Odyssey than playing any other game this year.