Each console generation I become more and more of a holder out. I usually make it to the first price drop, and sometimes farther, but there’s always that one irresistible title that drives me to dust off my wallet. For the PlayStation it was Doom. For the Xbox it was Silent Hill 2. For those of you who have pitchforks that need brandishing or tomatoes tossing, I will confess that I STILL don’t have a PS2. And for my beloved GameCube, it was Zelda: Tact of Wind. Of course Wind Waker, in all its glory, was unchallenging to the point of insult. Even following my personal no-boss-heart rule, it was damn near impossible to die in that game. I felt empty, disillusioned and betrayed, and when the Twilight Princess came along attempting to seduce me, I turned my head away and folded my arms, feigning indifference, making sure she couldn’t see my deep, still-warm love for her even as I desperately tried to glimpse as much of her fading visage as I could from the corner of my eye.
But Mario—he’s never let us down, right? Not only were his main series games amazingly high-quality, there was always so much meat to sink your teeth into beyond simply beating the game. Special road? The last 20 or so stars? The no-FLUDD levels? What bliss they were! So when a new Mario game came out, it was only about a week before I buckled and bought a Wii. One solid week of 10+ hour gaming days and 242 stars later, I can safely say that Mario has lived up to his legacy once again.
Super Mario Galaxy shares its premise with all the other 3D Mario games. In order to save the princess, you need to travel to a number of areas, each of which contains a half-dozen-or-so stars, which in turn are used to open up yet more areas and eventually the final boss level. In addition to the standard triple jump, long jump, side and back somersaults, ground pound and wall kick, Mario has a new spin attack that is activated by shaking the Wii remote. Because of this remote flick’s singular function and the secondary nature of using the pointer function to collect star bits (the game’s currency) by simply pointing at them, Galaxy is fundamentally not a Wii-specific game. The gameplay could have been as easily done on the GameCube. In fact, a good portion of the gameplay is almost indistinguishable from the previous titles. There are plenty of large areas to explore, and long, uninterrupted bouts of familiar 3D platforming.
However, the equally Wii-nonspecific hook of Mario Galaxy (with which I’m sure you’re already familiar) is that the other half of the gameplay takes place on small spherical planetoids with gravity. Walk forward on one of these and you’ll quickly find yourself standing upside-down, then back where you started. Once you look past the obvious physics issues, this gravity mechanic is very realistic, and it’s also just plain fun. Try doing a long jump on a planetoid about the size of a van. If there’s another source of gravity nearby, Mario may gravitate toward it and fall to it. If not, watch him come close to achieving escape velocity, start to orbit the planet, then come plummeting back down near (or past) where he started.
Furthermore, the fact that gravity follows you takes the focus off of falling into pits and allows for a series of mostly self-contained puzzles. These range from the standard “collect five doo-dads to make something appear” and “kill all the enemies” to more creative tasks, including coaxing a Bullet Bill to follow you to the other side of the planet to break open a glass case. Once you finish a planetoid or set of them, you will often use a cannon-like star thingy to blast off to the next, making for a pretty linear experience—that is to say, an experience largely free of needless backtracking and collecting, which some would say was the bane of Sunshine.
But once this hook wears off, what truly make this game so stellar are the level design and the variety thereof. In the span of a single hour you may well find yourself hopping over moving platforms Mario 64 style, fighting a robot so huge it comically eclipses the floating sphere on which the battle takes place and becomes the level itself, walking around on a ball by tilting the Wii remote in a suspenseful Monkey Ball-esque sub-stage, flinging yourself through outer space using a series of Mario magnets, and swimming through surreal tropical seas floating in the middle of nowhere, only to be tossed into a humble but solid old-school 2D platforming section. This variety means the pacing is immaculate—it never gets old because there’s nothing to get old.
Along with the Wii remote “gimmick” levels that break up the gameplay, which include the aforementioned ball walking, a few tilt-controlled surfing races, and some overhead segments where you blow a bubble-encapsulated Mario through obstacles using the wind from a little fan, there are several suits and powerups worth mentioning. They range from the obvious invincibility start, to the belated Boo costume, to the unexpected honeybee suit—a creepily detailed cosplay indulgence allowing you to buzz around in the air and scale walls like an insect. You may be excited to see the return of the fire flower, but in all honesty it plays like tacked-on fan service and is surpassed by its more relevant frozen counterpart, which allows you to walk and skate on water by turning it to ice.
The main path through the game has the Nintendo curse of being a bit too easy, but this is mitigated by two things. One is how amazingly fun and unique the gameplay is in spite of this easiness, and the other is the spattering of “hard parts,” specifically the comets. At some point, each of levels will face impending impact with a comet. Going to the level at this time will give you a challenging task to complete in the level, depending on the color of the comet. For example, it’s really satisfying to get a chance to fight a boss in sudden death mode (one hit kills and no health reserves) who had you rolling your eyes at him few minutes before. You also get to race shadow Mario through a level or set out to collect 100 coins, as in Sunshine. However, the latter challenge presents perhaps the two absolute hardest levels in the game, which require you to get all 100 coins while riding a moving platform—no second chances and no check points. Mario it may be, but I can’t remember the last game that had me literally frothing like these levels. On the other hand, other fluids produced by my face while playing included the small tear I cried when I realized that I had just fought Bowser’s final incarnation (the first time and without getting hit once), and that he wasn’t coming back for one more surprise battle. But again, there is enough challenge to be found elsewhere in the game, and its accessibility to all players is to be lauded…I guess.
The lack of a proper controllable camera doesn’t feel like as much of a step back as it sounds—you sometimes have access to some basic rotation, and almost always a first person view to fall back on. But god damn me, after playing this game inside and out, I still can’t figure out “which way is up” when Mario stands upside-down. Intuitively, I push the stick up to make him walk away from the screen, but half the time he walks toward it—right in the face of the most very basic principles of 3D gaming that he himself is largely responsible for establishing! I later confirmed that when sticking to the ceilings in Twilight Princess, Link in fact walked the way I wanted him to. So I’m clearly not crazy, and this single flaw, though miniscule, truly baffles me.
The graphics are gorgeous and impressive, but it’s hard to be impressed considering what you are expecting from Nintendo here. The attention to detail is marvelous. Every character is so full of life and…um, character. Also notable is the visible distance. You can actually see the far-off planets and the characters objects thereon going about their business—no blurry static low-res replacement cop-outs. This, along with the increased use of textures as opposed to Nintendo’s traditional gouraud-shaded solid colors look and the advanced technical effects such as the heat-blur and camera focus really show what the Wii can do (that the GameCube couldn’t quite).
If you’re of the loyal camp who respects Mario’s silence, you’ll be glad to know that the game’s atmosphere still hasn’t been tainted by voice acting. The usual SFX cast makes a showing here, but what really takes the lead in the sound department is the music. Rather than mining only the first game for inspiration, Galaxy also features full gorgeous orchestration of many themes from SMB3! I plopped down the Club Nintendo points and got a copy of the soundtrack, and the tracks truly stand on their own.
Take a look at the box art for Mario 64. In retrospect, do you notice something? Super Mario Galaxy is Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine with less fat, gigantic production values, oozing nostalgia and unrivalled variety. It’s almost like the game has been there to whole time, just waiting to slowly reveal itself in a series of revisions. Galaxy is everything a 3D Mario game—no, a 3D platforming game—should be.
And Zelda, since I had to go and get a Wii now anyway, I was thinking that we could maybe, you know, hang out again some time.…