No Nintendo console would be complete without a revolutionary sequel to the Super Mario series. The iconic plumber not only defines Nintendo, but home video gaming itself.
The Super Mario series of games provides a “you are here” marker for the evolution of video game technology. Most gamers have their favorites, but all can remember the “wow” factor of playing certain incarnations that brought in a new era to the series, like when SM 3 introduced new and unique environments, or when Super Mario 64 brought Mario into the third dimension and allowed the player to have a virtual first-person experience of Mario’s world.
With Mario Party and Super Smash Bros, Nintendo proved it could throw the Mario characters anywhere it wanted to – a Disney approach to mixing marketing and fun. But Nintendo knew that the newest crop of Mario fans, those young ones in the “tweens,” never had a chance to enjoy that experience of discovering Mario in a new and exciting way, in the same manner as the previous generation did the first time it snapped in the SM 3 or Mario 64 cartridge into the console and started kicking Bob-ombs around.
For instance, my own 13-year-old daughter’s experience with the series began with Mario 64. Sure, she enjoyed playing Sunshine on the Gamecube, but Sunshine was a bit of an anticlimactic entry in the Mario series, and her interest was never fully piqued by the title. With Super Mario Galaxy, however, I have been able to witness my daughter’s first “Wow! Cool! This is new!” experience as a Mario fan, and it gave us something else to have in common.
Plot and Theme
In Galaxy, Nintendo has brought the character formerly known as Jumpman into the 21st-century. As usual, the plump plumber finds himself being asked to rescue the Princess, kidnapped again by the ever-antagonist Bowser.
During a festival celebrating the return of a periodic comet, Bowser arrives in airships and literally chains up and hauls away the Princess’s castle. Bits of shooting stars are raining down as Mario races to save the Princess, and after failing to catch up with the receding castle, he finds himself stranded on a large floating space platform.
Mario walks to an observatory on Rosalina’s space platform.
The platform is the equivalent of the “outside” world of SM 64. Unlike that game, however, Mario isn’t alone as he walks around looking for worlds to jump into. There are multiple characters for Mario to interact with on the platform, including the helpful Lumas and their maternal caretaker, Rosalina, who bears a striking resemblance to Peach.
Rosalina’s platform has been damaged by Bowser, and she agrees to help Mario rescue the Princess if he helps her fix the platform with the power from the Grand Stars (which are, of course, lost).
Scattered around the platform are a handful of observatories. Each observatory has a fixed gaze on a group of distant “galaxies” — really more like solar systems — and when Mario enters the observatory, he chooses the galaxy to which he wants to travel.
After being launched toward the galaxy, Mario lands on the initial planetoid and must begin his challenge. Typically, a galaxy challenge has Mario go from planetoid to planetoid, solving a puzzle or fighting enemies on each before jumping through a star gate to the next one. The final planetoid is where the toughest puzzle or largest enemy lies. After successfully completing the challenge, Mario is given one of 120 game stars. Each galaxy has multiple challenges, so Mario will travel to most galaxies several times during the course of the game.
Like every other SM title, Mario collects coins as he runs, jumps, flies, swims, and surfs (!) around on these worlds. However, a new wrinkle in Galaxy has him also collecting tiny pieces of jewel-like Star Bits that are continually raining down from space or getting flushed out of high grass. Star Bits are used to feed hungry Lumas or as weapons when thrown to stun an enemy.
Galaxies are unlocked as Mario earns stars (just like the locked doors in SM 64). The final galaxy that gets unlocked in each observatory is the world where Mario will fight Bowser or one of his underlings. Beating these challenges earns Mario a “Grand Star,” which he must return to Rosalina so she can use its power to partially repair her damaged space platform. The more Grand Stars Mario takes to Rosalina, the more repaired the platform becomes, and the closer he is to rescuing Peach.
Galaxy requires both the Wiimote and the Nunchuk attachment. The Nunchuk’s analog stick controls Mario’s motion and camera angles. The buttons on the Wiimote are used for jumping and throwing items.
The gameplay with the Wiimote itself is the most innovative angle to the Mario universe. A brief, violent shake of the Wiimote is used to either stun enemies in the near vicinity or launch Mario through a star gate. Most importantly, though, the Wiimote is used to aim a star-shaped cursor that is on the screen at all times. Mario “collects” star bits by pointing the Wiimote at them. It’s a very unique experience when you realize that you’re running Mario in one direction and picking up star bits with your pointer in the other. Dividing the attention between the character and the star cursor sounds difficult, but after a little practice it becomes second nature, and adds a fantastic element to the experience. The closest analogy would be the dual-control present in most first-person shooters, where one hand controls the character’s feet while the other moves the head around. We all struggled with that at first, but quickly adapted.
Still, for those who find it frustrating to (or don’t want to) adapt, Nintendo has made it practically optional. Star Bits are used for unlocking certain bonus rounds or for getting 1ups, but collecting them with your Wiimote is not mandatory. So if collecting them while running Mario around is too challenging or distracting to your experience, you don’t have to do it at all.
In many worlds the Wiimote — and not the Nunchuk — is used to control Mario; for example, when tilting it to control Mario’s direction and speed as he surfs down an interstellar river on a manta ray. The play is at times fresh and exhilirating. Galaxy isn’t a Mario game with motion sensitivity “tacked on,” it’s a game desiged with the Wiimote in mind.
Nintendo has done an excellent job once again making a Mario game that covers a large range of difficulty. Some stars are quite easy to get; others will have you cursing at your controllers in frustration. But even the most difficult galaxies are generous with their “save points,” so if you lose a man, the game will resume close to where your death occurred and you won’t have to repeat the same things over and over again.
Mario dodges cannon fodder on his way to unlocking another star
Galaxy mixes the methods of success the player needs to use more than previous titles did. In past Mario games, most success was earned through a mastery of timing. A perfectly-timed jump or dodge & counterattack was usually enough to advance through the levels. With Galaxy, those types of challenges are still present, but puzzle solving is used to a greater extent than in previous incarnations. At times you will be asked to precisely control Mario as he tiptoes on a giant ball across a world full of holes (in an obvious tip of the hat to the Monkeyball franchise), or walks a narrow tightrope path without falling off into a literal black hole of oblivion. But at other times Mario will only advance after solving a problem or puzzle of some sort. These latter challenges serve to slow the game down, to make sure a player stays immersed in Mario’s world and doesn’t just blast through the levels on “autopilot.”
Graphics are very Sunshine-ish, if not a bit more refined. You won’t experience any goose bump panoramas, but this is Mario, not Halo, where it’s not important that each individual blade of grass is sharply defined. With this title, the experience is entirely about the gameplay, and the visuals stay secondary to that goal. Still, seeing a Super Mario game in 16 x 9 format on a widescreen display is beautiful and loads of fun.
On a similar note, the game’s score is immersive enough to be noticed, but “transparent” enough to not be annoying. Nintendo has taken the themes from the original Mario music and opened them up orchestrally, so that the auditory experience is “Zelda-esque.” By that I mean that the score always seems to match the feel of the visual scene: an open, airy, wide feel to the music as Mario soars from moon to moon, or a softer, quieter melody that plays when Mario is underwater.
Until now, part of the Wii experience was in the fresh novelty of the device. Swinging your arm like a golf club or bat in Wii Sports is fun for a little while, but after the newness of the gameplay wears off, it’s just a restrictive, repetetive set of games that gets boring. But Super Mario Galaxy is an innovative game that doesn’t feel “novelty-ish” at all — it feels as natural and innovative as Mario 64 game felt the first time you snapped it in. Nintendo finally has a top-notch Wii title that will sell consoles.