While playing Super Mario Odyssey, you’ll occasionally come across portraits like the one pictured above.They are visual puzzles that lead players to hidden Power Moons. Odyssey calls them Hint Art, and there are 21 of them scattered throughout the game. They’re visually intensive and clever, and they’re a great addition to the arsenal of mini-games and sidequests in the Mario franchise.
This piece originally appeared 1/1/18.
Odyssey is the first open-world sandbox Mario platformer. There is no timer; each world is a large but intricate puzzle box that you spend hours turning over in search of Power Moons. You’re not automatically reset to the beginning of the world when you get a Power Moon, as in Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario 64; instead, you keep exploring. Due to the sheer quantity of Power Moons—880 in total, 124 of which you need to save Peach—your search feels open-ended, voluntary, and self-determined.
The push-forward linearity of previous Mario games is still there but in small doses. You access mini, self-contained levels within each world by walking through doors or crawling into pipes. These all have clear Point A to Point B end goals, and some of them even have a timer; you can literally hear a ticking clock as you sprint towards your Power Moon reward.
But the Hint Art challenges are the opposite. They do not reward twitch reflexes and instinct. They reward scrupulous attention to detail and associative memory. They break down into three distinct types, and all of them reinforce Odyssey’s open-world ethos.
Some of the Hint Art is actual screenshots, zoomed in tightly to limit context. Often, Poochy from Yoshi’s Island will be doctored into the shot, pawing at some glowing area. Your mission is to figure out where this screenshot was taken, travel there, and then ground pound the spot where Poochy buried the Power Moon.
The knowledge to solve this Hint Art is accumulative. All the times you were completing other Power Moon missions, you were also collecting information about your surroundings, however subtly.
It reminded me of playing Grand Theft Auto III for the first time. In that game, there was no GPS to direct you where to turn. You used trial and error, heading toward your marker, following the roads as best you could and hoping for the best. Eventually, through pure osmosis and repetition, you learned the neighborhood. You knew where Chinatown began. You knew where the Don’s house sat in relation to El Burro’s territory.
Late in the game, when Asuka tasked you with a 20-minute driving mission that covered every borough of Liberty City, you had the muscle memory to locate bridges and tunnels and know which ones connected you to where. Every mission you completed before the “Expresso-2-Go!” mission was preparing you for the “Expresso-2-Go!” mission. You didn’t know it yet, but that was the beauty of it. You would know it at the exact moment you needed to know it.
The same is true with Super Mario Odyssey. You retread the same terrain, over and over again, out of necessity. You subconsciously note landmarks and how they stand in relation to one another. You are slowly preparing for the upcoming Hint Art challenge, and you don’t even know it.
Until, of course, you see the latest Hint Art. And suddenly, all your passive learning clicks into place
When I looked at the Hint Art above, the color scheme, at least, was recognizable. The Power Moon was almost certainly in the Lake Kingdom, and based on the brickwork and the multilevel, it was probably in the Water Plaza—I had been there countless times before. I didn’t know exactly where in the Water Plaza I needed to go, but the small columns in the background were something to go on. So I powered up my Odyssey ship and headed over there.
I started on the roof of the plaza, where I found the circular set of columns seen above. I ground pounded around the area but turned up nothing. But then I looked at the Hint Art again, and I realized the columns in the Hint Art were much smaller and thinner. I headed downstairs, and there I found what I was looking for. I adjusted my camera to match the angle of the photo. Then I ground pounded, and I hit paydirt.
I solved many of the Hint Art puzzles in this manner: first by identifying the world and then by experimenting with the camera to match the photo. That’s why the most difficult zoom-in puzzle was the one below, which only contained a single word with no visual texture.
I thought back to all the worlds I’d visited. The only world that contained print was the Metro Kingdom—the one with the creepy human inhabitants. And once I revisited it, I figured out what I needed to do. I had walked over that KEEP sign countless times without giving it a thought. Now, the game expected me to remember it.
And I did.
Map-based Hint Art challenges are more advanced. After determining the world and pinpointing a location, you are directed from that location to a secondary or tertiary location to claim your prize. The Hint Art above, for example, pointed me towards the Sand Kingdom. The Koopa with the sombrero was a dead giveaway.
There was only one Koopa in the entire level—the tracewalking Koopa to the northeast of the town. The Hint Art implied that the moon was buried in front of two bushes. And the arrow, along with the compass that pointed North, was the final clue.
Alright. So I would go to the Sand Kingdom, head north from the trace-walking Koopa, and ground pound the first pair of bushes I saw? It seemed simple enough, but the game made me doubt myself. The Hint Art did tell me where the Power Moon was, technically speaking. But it didn’t tell me how far north I had to go.
The first time I attempted this, I was looking for bushes a few paces north from the Koopa. I didn’t see any bushes, so I kept walking. And walking. And walking. Eventually, I could no longer see the Koopa to the south of me. And at that point, I pulled up the Hint Art again. Surely, there was some mistake.
As it turned out, I had to travel north for over half the map to reach the two bushes. My thought process had gone from “This is easy” to “Maybe it isn’t so easy” to “Oh it is that easy! I just had to trust myself.” It was a head game; the developers created an expectation of simplicity, and then challenged that expectation in a way that felt completely fair.
Contextual Hint Art is my favorite, and I wish there were more of it in Odyssey. Most of the Hint Art visually represents the hidden Power Moon with an X, or a yellow glow, or a caricature of a Power Moon. But other Hint Art is more open to interpretation. You are shown a picture and are expected to simply understand what it means. I stared at the drawing above for quite some time before figuring it out. I needed to travel to the Cap Kingdom; the tower with the top hat made that obvious. But where, exactly, was the Power Moon?
I was focusing too much on the foreground and not enough on the background, both literally and figuratively. The drawing wasn’t showing me the location of the Power Moon; it was showing me the point-of-view of the Power Moon itself. I kept my eye on the horizon, and I positioned Mario so the tower would appear superimposed over the moon. I ground pounded this otherwise unremarkable patch of earth, and again, I was rewarded.
As with all of the other Hidden Art Power Moons, this one gave no signal of its location, even when I got close to it. Every other hidden Power Moon in Odyssey makes your controller vibrate when you walk past it. Other times you’ll see a faint glow emitting from where it’s buried, or you’ll see birds gather around it. But the Hidden Art Power Moons give no signals at all, and that makes them feel special. There is no way that one of these could be found by chance. You have to think it through and solve it the hard way.
I’m currently up to 877 Power Moons on my initial playthrough file; I’ve explored nearly every inch of this game. But back when I was at around 700 moons, I was nearly ready to call it quits. I had exhausted most of the easy challenges, and the Dark Side challenge, which required me to defeat every Broodal boss battle one after the other, seemed too difficult. But then, I looked up the rewards for winning the Dark Side challenge: a multi-moon, a new outfit, and 10 additional Hint Art portraits.
The latter incentive sold me. And after I conquered the Dark Side challenge and unlocked the 10 new portraits, I traveled to the Ruined Kingdom based on this Hint Art.
And I traveled to the Mushroom Kingdom, based on this Hint Art.
Since I was there anyway, I reattempted some difficult challenges I had previously failed. One thing led to another. And now here I am, nearly 200 additional Power Moons later. Every time I think I’m done with Odyssey, this game draws me back in. It challenges me to revisit the same worlds but find a new secret, a new bonus area, or a new way of navigating the same environment. The Hint Art challenges exemplify this sort of playful curiosity, and I hope they become a Mario franchise staple in the inevitable sequels to come.