A game light-years above the rest. Careful: minor spoilers ahead.
It’s evident right from the beginning just how much effort was put into the reinvention of Mario, a task of galactic proportions. The game looks amazing, sounds incredible, and is a true joy to play. Super Mario Galaxy’s presentation easily surpasses anything available on the Wii system. For starters, Mario Galaxy includes more cinema scenes than previous games, beginning with the Mushroom Kingdom’s Star Festival and Bowser’s subsequent Doomship attack. The scope of Bowser’s plans is much bigger in this game. He doesn’t just want to rule the Mushroom Kingdom; he wants the whole universe, with Peach at his side. The sinister Koopa king bombs the Mushroom People with fire and ice and employs a UFO to carve out Peach’s entire castle with a laser and lifts it into space.
After a failed rescue attempt, Mario wakes up on a small planetoid high above the Mushroom World where he soon meets a mysterious woman named Rosalina, who is in charge of the mobile Comet Observatory and is accompanied by numerous star-shaped creatures called Luma. Rosalina tasks Mario with recovering Power Stars to repower her Observatory in order to travel to the center of the universe to stop Bowser and recover Peach. Rosalina gives Mario one of the Luma, which grants him the power to spin (by shaking the Remote). Besides this power, Mario has the same abilities as previous 3-D games, with the only other notable additions being the amusing ability to walk while crouching and the ability to skate on icy surfaces. However, the game also includes a star pointer, which is controlled by the Wii Remote and can be used to interact with the environment independent of Mario.
Mario Galaxy loosely follows the structure of previous Mario games with multiple stars found in various stages. However, there are fewer stars per stage, or galaxy, which range from just one to as many as seven. Galaxies are accessed from various observatories found on Rosalina’s sprawling spaceship. Galaxies vary widely in size, and some are made up of sets of planetoids linked by launch stars, while others include much larger landmasses, along the lines of a traditional Mario level. Unlike its predecessors, the large majority of the game’s 120-plus stars require the completion of unique challenges that span scores of galaxies. Even when stages are revisited, a completely different path is taken the majority of the time, so they could essentially be considered separate stages. Later in the game, players are challenged to revisit the major galaxies where the rules of the level have been altered.
The game still maintains the tradition of secret stars, which can be found along unconventional paths, providing an incentive for exploration even along the more directed stages. Some of these stars even open up secret stages. What Mario Galaxy sheds is a 3-D platformers’ tendency to devolve into a collect-a-thon. This is perhaps because the pseudo-linearity, aided by the automatic camera, makes it possible for the game to go back to its 2-D platforming roots rather than the wide-open, but less interesting seek-and-find nature of prior games. Occasionally, a handful of Star Shards must be collected to progress, but there is nothing approaching the tediousness of the blue coin collecting in Super Mario Sunshine. Players will absolutely want to collect all of the Power Stars.
Even regular gold coin collection takes a backseat and coins are primarily only used as a means of recovering health. Star Bits, on the other hand, are found everywhere, and several thousand of them are necessary to unlock certain stages by feeding them to hungry Luma, which form new planets and galaxies. The rainbow-colored Star Bits double as an attack, targeted independently with the Remote. Star Bits can also be collected by passing over them with the Remote pointer, unlike coins. The dual-use is an interesting idea, though their plentifulness negates nearly all of the strategy involved in collecting and using them.
The space environment is perfect for a Mario game for several reasons. First of all, it allows for an unchecked range of environments with no need to tie them together in a logical fashion. Mario Galaxy pushes the bar on what can be expected from a platforming stage, and really anything goes. Yet, as nonsensical as the stage elements may be, they don’t feel contrived and are simply fun to play on. The Alice in Wonderland-inspired sense of ordered zaniness is more prevalent here than ever before. Stages incorporate a wide assortment of classic elements such as fire, ice, water, and desert; but there are also galaxies made up of giant toy robots or baked goods. The variety found in Mario Galaxy evokes a sense of freedom from the strictly-themed worlds of previous games. Less serious stages are full of retro Mario references and music, yet everything is carefully polished so that nothing feels arbitrarily thrown together.
Super Mario Galaxy introduces a new automatic camera system that works well, but is far from perfect. It smoothly tries to position itself in the proper perspective, a sort of compromise between 2-D and 3-D gameplay, and usually does this well. At times, the game even shifts to a strict 2-D view. In the previous 3-D Mario games, I often found myself repositioning the camera behind Mario due to the camera’s natural poor positioning. In Galaxy, this is usually impossible. The camera follows a defined view, and though the C button can re-center the camera, it usually has no effect and rarely repositions in the space you’d like it to. You can use the D-pad to enter a first-person perspective, but I never used it, instead adapting to the new perspective of playing, which is still far superior to Mario’s other 3-D outings. The camera’s biggest flaw was that it adapts slowly to rapid movement, and didn’t always change perspective when I wanted it to, which made navigating Mario around objects more troublesome. This was especially true when trying to swim or fly—you really have to fight the camera to get going in the intended direction, and it is easy to get disoriented.
Spawning from the spherical world concept first unveiled in the Mario 128 demo, the key new gameplay element in the game is gravity. The game fully explores variations in this theme, which breaks all preconceived notions of how platformers are supposed to work. Obviously, on spherical planetoids, Mario can run over the entire surface without falling off, but even on oddly-shaped objects, Mario can run right off of the edge, but instead of falling to his doom, he continues to stick to the surface, sometimes finding a completely new environment on the underside. With some skill, Mario can slingshot around and among various floating objects. To make up for the lack of customary bottomless pits, menacing black holes are used. This means that rather than worrying about falling off the bottom of the stage, players can be sucked to their doom in any direction.
In some stages, gravity fields dictate where Mario’s feet will plant. Jump into another field and you might find yourself walking on what you thought was the roof or walls. Many of these levels take the form of 2-D sub-stages, complete with moving platforms and firebars introduced all the way back in 1985. It’s 2007 now though, and Mario will find himself running, jumping, and dodging up, down, left, and right at any given moment. Gravity-generating pull stars are generally found in groups and represent yet another appealing use of gravity. These stars pull Mario towards themselves when activated with the pointer and can be used to slingshot Mario through space debris to collect bonuses or reach new areas.
Mario Galaxy contains a number of influences from other games, and not just ideas from standard platformers. Some of the concepts, coincidentally or not, borrow from games as obscure as Mario Clash and Bubble Ghost, as well as more modern games like WaveRace and I-Ninja, while adding Wii motion control. There are surf racing stages that take place on impossibly suspended tracks of rough water. These courses are navigated by tilting a horizontally-held Remote and pressing A to accelerate. The choppy water and lack of walls make for bigger challenges than they first appear. Other stages put Mario in a bubble where the pointer takes the form of a nozzle that blows air at the bubble, which is used to navigate Mario around spiky obstacles. In yet another stage, Mario climbs atop a ball controlled by a vertical Remote-tilting scheme, and must roll to the goal without falling off of the stage.
Some of Galaxy’s stages are extremely inventive and include elements that you might not expect to see outside of a Star Trek episode. One example is the concept of “dark matter," which dissolve any normal matter, including Mario. The patches of space create ever-changing holes in objects. In another stage, the opposite is true. Matter phases in and out of existence and platforms appear and disappear. This might not sound new, but we’re not talking about whole objects here, just regions of space that may include temporarily solid ground, and is one of many unique gameplay ideas that you’ll have to experience for yourself.
Mario has several new power-ups at his disposal. Unfortunately, nearly all of the power-ups are limited in some way, and rather than rewarding the player by making the game easier, power-ups are used to create new challenges. Joining the return of the classic Fire Flower is the Ice Flower, which turns Mario to ice, allowing him to freeze the surface of water by walking on it. To throw fireballs with the Fire Flower, players jolt the Wii remote as if they are throwing the balls of flame themselves. Both flower types, like the invincibility-granting Rainbow Star, are annoyingly time-limited, with levels designed to provide just enough time to use them, provided you go in the right direction.
Galaxy also introduces four new mushroom types, each granting Mario a special suit or ability. The Bee Suit allows Mario to hover for a short period of time (indicated by a meter). He can also stick to honey in honeycombs and walk on the surface of flowers without destroying them. However, he can’t touch water or he will lose the power. The Boo Suit turns Mario into a Boo with the ability to pass through certain walls, much like the Vanish Cap in Mario 64, but with the added ability to float. However, like a Boo, he can’t be touched by beams of light, and other Boos instantly fall in love and pursue him. The Spring Suit is one of the most maddening “power-ups" ever created. Mario is wrapped by a giant spring, which makes him bounce erratically. Pressing A at the instant that Mario is compressed against the ground will make him bounce higher, which is necessary to reach high platforms, but a control nightmare otherwise. The star-covered Mushroom grants Mario three extra hit points. However, if Mario goes below four hit points, he will revert to the standard three-hit-point maximum. There is one additional power-up, which will remain nameless.
Mario Galaxy has no qualms about handing out death, and Mario only has three hit points. On the other hand, it also has no problem handing out extra lives. This means that even though some levels may take ten or twenty tries to complete, you likely won’t have to worry about seeing the Game Over screen. Not that this matters much. Levels have unmarked checkpoints, so the only thing you’d lose by losing all of your lives is the ability to start at the last checkpoint. Speaking of death, Mario has a range of death animations a little more extreme than you might expect from the generally happy nature of the game. For example, when electrocuted, his flesh burns off and his skeleton falls to the ground. When he drowns in quicksand you can see a hand reach up from the ground, accompanied with muffled suffocation.
Super Mario Galaxy pays attention to detail in some of the smallest ways. Besides the little graphical elements like butterflies, the game looks to the original 2D games and keeps things consistent such as the fact that holding a shell allows you to swim faster in Super Mario World. In Galaxy, this idea is made more logical by giving the shell an apparent motor along with a headlamp and brake lights. In a few bonus rooms a stream of notes pops out. Collecting these notes plays one of several classic Mario tunes, each note playing a beat in the track. Question blocks make a return and in general, many elements from the 2-D Mario games are artfully meshed with components from the 3-D games.
Many characters return from previous Mario games spanning the entire series from Goombas, Koopas, and Bob-ombs, to oft -forgotten characters like Rocky Wrench. Water and fire nozzles found through the game are comically based on the design of FLUDD. The Toad Brigade is more active this time around, actually building spaceships and traveling into space to battle with the Koopa army. However, they’re still cowards at heart, and stop short of actually attacking, leaving the dirty work to our hero. The penguins and bunnies are back and ready to race. There are also plenty of new characters, many of which have big goofy eyes more in line with a Rare-developed game. Even Luigi plays a somewhat prominent role in the game, setting off to collect Power Stars himself and invariably getting stuck, requiring multiple rescues by his brother.
The game also includes a large number of mini-bosses, most of which follow the traditional pattern of requiring three hits. Bosses are as diverse as the environments, including Dino Piranhas, Magikoopas, giant angry moles, sea monsters, giant spiders, and mechanical beasts, to name a few. Each boss requires a different strategy. While some enemies are attacked directly, others require resourcefulness in figuring out how to make the bosses hurt themselves. The Bowser stages were some of the most fun stages platforming-wise, and never before has battling Bowser been this intense and engaging.
The only portion of the game that feels out of place is the odd inclusion of storybook chapters, which provide the background of the space-faring characters. As these chapters are unlocked, Mario can enter the library where Rosalina will read the story to an audience of Lumas.
A two-player pseudo-cooperative mode is introduced in Galaxy known as Co-Star Mode. The second player controls a secondary star pointer, which can interact with the world in much the same way as the primary player’s Remote. The second player can also make Mario spin and jump while pointing to him and interfere with some enemies. Finally, Mario can perform a super jump with the carefully combined combination of actions from both Remotes. While perhaps not as interesting as true co-op play, it does add a level of interactivity to what would normally be a single-player experience. The game doesn’t include online features, but it does allow players to take snapshots of their score summary screen. These shots appear as JPEG attachments on the Wii Message Board where they can be sent to friends or copied onto SD card.
Super Mario Galaxy is more than just a new Mario game; it’s a giant leap for the platforming genre. Freed from the shackles of traditional 3-D platforming, the game is much more than just Mario 64 set in space. I never thought I’d describe a Mario game as “epic," but that’s exactly what it is. Despite showing a bit of a darker side, Super Mario Galaxy is still full of happy-go-lucky attitude and bright characters, and the magic of Mario is as strong as ever.