Hakoniwa Worlds | Super Mario Odyssey

Hakoniwa is a Japanese word referring to the intricate, miniature gardens created within a small, constrained space. In these boxed gardens, each diminutive landscape boasts an abundance of detail—from figures to immaculate structures—and the joy is in discovering the minutest of features. Many observers ruminate over these creations, keen to ferret out and indulge in their finer elements. But as outsiders to these miniature worlds, we can never inhabit them. Perhaps we can bow our heads a little, or bring them closer towards our eyes; yet, these acts, however intimate they are, merely grant us glimpses of spaces we cannot occupy. That’s why scenes that may seem mundane outside these gardens, like watching a lone figure fish at a secluded spot, become a thoroughly fascinating secret—one that evokes wonder and awe.

Inspired by the very concept of hakoniwa gardens, the myriad kingdoms in Super Mario Odyssey are brimming with secrets to unearth. Rife with collectibles, Easter eggs, secret passages, and nooks and crannies to get lost in, each kingdom is a self-contained world, thrilling players with surprises at every turn. Their distractingly vibrant environments hide a bonanza of collectibles, with some concealed beneath layer after layer of levels and scenes. The boundaries set by the diminutiveness of hakoniwa gardens are removed—we can see, touch and interact in these worlds through Mario—and we become overwhelmed by a yearning to explore. We are willing to risk our neck diving into every waterfall, and peer cautiously over a precarious cliff, if we can only find just one more coin.

But where does this motivation come from? While hakoniwa gardens are mesmerizing, regular-sized gardens can be a bore (to me, at least). Shrinking into the size of a pea to wander in a miniature landscape, no matter how tasteful or pruned it is from outside its perimeters, probably won’t sustain inquisitiveness for long. For Super Mario Odyssey, this curiosity may have stemmed from the bizarre, even exotic sights in each kingdom, from the mountainous grandeur of the Steam Gardens to the gigantic, sumptuous foods of Mount Volbono; it’s an odyssey to the most outlandish of worlds after all. The unfamiliarity possesses us with a childlike sense of curiosity, urging us to pick at every clue and follow any trail of breadcrumbs doggedly.

These are extensions of a child’s eyes and fingers, firing up our instincts to inquire and explore

To young children, every impression is new, every sight a captivating object for reaching out to. Curiosity is a primeval instinct; one 1964 study on children’s curiosity revealed that babies as young as two months old gravitate towards unfamiliar patterns. Scientist Carlo Parvanno also bemoaned the loss of this thirst in older students, saying about younger children, “From the first ball they send flying to the ant they watch carry a crumb, children use science’s tools—enthusiasm, hypotheses, tests, conclusions—to uncover the world’s mysteries.” It becomes easy to see that when presented with miniatures like dollhouses and Matchbox cars, the allure of its worlds would draw them even closer. In my childhood, I had also devoted hours pouring over the intricacies of miniature toys.

But curiosity is such a mercurial quality, lost quickly if not encouraged. To keep it going in Super Mario Odyssey is a feat, but thankfully it has curios in spades. We are first introduced to its worlds via a panning shot of entire kingdoms, allowing sharp eyes to spot a few trinkets wedged in tight fissures. One of the first places Mario sets his boots in is Fossil Falls, a prehistoric-themed land that’s home to a slumbering T-Rex. Collectibles like Power Moons, rare purple currency, and bountiful amount of coins are strewn across the field, with some cleverly buried at inconspicuous corners. Fossilized walls and bricks—which can be easily shattered—also hide secrets in plain sight. These are a nod to the influence of hakoniwa gardens on the game; even though we can now inhabit these miniature-like worlds, we still have to hunt and toil for our surprises. I remember having to chip away at these breakable objects, only to expose secret passages and pipes that lead to separate rooms, housing collectibles in sheer abundance. Discovering these delights drove me giddy with excitement.

The ordinary scenes that take place in extraordinary worlds

Unlike hakoniwa gardens and other miniature art, Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t keep us at arm’s length, instead equipping us with the tools to excavate and closely examine every detail. These are extensions of a child’s eyes and fingers, firing up our instincts to inquire and explore. As children, we experience and experiment with our surroundings by sticking our stubby little fingers into cavities, filling our mouth with objects that probably don’t belong in there, and taking in the wonders of our environment with our eyes. In Super Mario Odyssey, our sense of sight is magnified by binoculars that are stationed at key locations. By capturing them with Mario’s soul-ensnaring magical hat, we can propel ourselves towards the sky to survey our surroundings. Mario’s hat-toss is also our primary means of discovering more about the world, functioning as our sense of touch. It’s through this maneuver—chucking his hat at multiple obstacles—that we discover the depths of his capabilities and the landscape’s elaborateness. Toss it at a pole and hear the delightful chime of coins. Throw it at an upright log and yank it off the ground, which sometimes yields an explosive fountain of coins or reveals a concealed path. Lob it at a winged Goomba and inherit its ability to fly towards hard-to-reach places. With these mechanics, we prod at the inviting worlds of Super Mario Odyssey, learn about their infinite delights, and play in them with wild abandon.

Undoubtedly one of the most memorable kingdoms is New Donk City, a caricature of the bustling New York City. At first glance the metropolitan level may seem drab, but its true portrait lies underneath layers of towering buildings and amongst commuters in grey business suits. You can take part in a radio controlled car race tucked away at a quiet corner of the street; trot up to a lone businessman sitting on a bench, as he lamented his loneliness in this overcrowded city; or sit silently next to a self-professed aviphile, as pigeons swoop down to rest around and atop you. These scenes are just a smattering of a wide plethora of fleeting experiences, all of which we can be privy to as long as we are inquisitive enough. They inject a warm yet invigorating vibe to a populous concrete jungle—an environment which typically brings to mind the cold tedium of modern urban life. While these acts aren’t any grander than the happenings of a great expedition, but again, so are the humdrum sights encapsulated in hakoniwa gardens. As if looking in from the outside, we grow to be endlessly enthralled by the ordinary scenes that take place in extraordinary worlds.

To young children, every impression is new, every sight a captivating object for reaching out to

Every kingdom has a particular brand of charm (although Tostarena’s lingering charm quickly dissipates in the face of its crude Mexican stereotypes) but Shiveria—or otherwise known as Snow Kingdom—delivers another perspective alongside existing worlds. Its underground village, well fortified against the initial blizzard that raged on the surface, is reminiscent of a cottage that nestles in the sanctuary of a snow globe’s miniature landscape. Safe and snug within the village, I dived into helping the townsfolk overcome their predicament and later on, partaking in their races and festivities. Mimicking snowfall in a snow globe requires its observers to give it a rattle, and as if letting us integrate into its virtual space completely, Mario and the player have no control over the weather. The harsh gale doesn’t let up initially, while freezing waters threaten to afflict Mario with frostbite. Fortunately, the climate relents towards the level’s finality, and it is then we enjoy an unclouded overview of Shiveria’s caches, free again to roam the lands in search of these treasures. This pattern of contraction and expansion gives a particular rhythm to this world.

For a universe inspired by the smallest of worlds, Super Mario Odyssey presents a colossal amount to discover. All these details compose a vastly expansive experience for the explorer, with each bustling kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey teeming with secrets and life. Like hakoniwa gardens, it’s not the size of virtual worlds that determines how absorbing explorations can be, but the greenaries, ridges and constructions that are home to prosaic yet unexpected encounters. From our elevated viewpoint we gaze down into these worlds, but the rules of look, don’t touch have been stripped away.

If you enjoyed this study please consider supporting the Heterotopias project through purchasing our zine. Issue 003, which deals with how games reflect, distort and represent the spaces of reality is available here.

Thank you for your support.