Given the hour, I'm assuming that a lot of you are likely waking up to this review. Perhaps some of you have fancies of Nintendo's latest flagship title Super Mario Galaxy dancing in your heads, holdovers from the dreams cultured while you slept. Some others are taking a pass, insisting that Nintendo's latest return to the well is one that you can certainly afford to miss, and reserve your anticipations for the remainder of the holiday season's big releases. I mean, Mass Effect has naked ladies in it, after all.
I'd like to think that no matter how hardcore we think ourselves to be, we haven't grown so cynical and jaded that we've become enemies of fun -- an element of our pastime that, loathe though we might be to admit it, is occasionally ignored in favor of other factors of a particular game. Consider this review a plea: You folks stuck in that aforementioned second group, put aside your apprehensions and get comfy with the blokes in column A. If you take nothing else away from the following deluge, just bear this in mind: Super Mario Galaxy is about as fun as gaming gets this year. Period.
Hit the jump for the specifics.
Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)
Developed by Nintendo EAD Tokyo
Published by Nintendo of America
Released on November 12, 2007
I remember thinking while I played through the opening hours of Super Mario Galaxy that Miyamoto and crew were making my job easy. I was having a gas. Zipping from planet to planet, dispatching baddies and collecting crap along the way, having an amazing time -- but as it turns out, this is one of the most difficult reviews I've ever written, and I hope you're all real happy that I'm still awake at six in the morning trying to articulate what I love about this goddamn game.
Slap yourself in the face. That's my pay.
Trying to drill down an experience like Super Mario Galaxy to its most essential components seems somehow contrary to its nature as one of the most complete, well-constructed games I've played in recent memory -- it truly is more than the sum of its parts. But since the parts and the discussion thereof is the stuff of reviews, I'm more or less obliged to dig into it rather than take the easy route, mumble "holy shit awesome" and haul my ass to bed. So what is it about Galaxy that makes it such a compelling, engaging game? Just about everything. If your hyperbolometer just went off the charts, well -- blame EAD Tokyo. Those jerks.
In a lot of ways, we've been here before. The game's plot is more or less lifted straight from every previous Mario title ever, gussied up and tweaked to suit Galaxy's interstellar digs. Bowser and a fleet of airships interrupt the otherwise peaceful goings-on in the Mushroom Kingdom (you'd figure they'd form up a military or something by now, wouldn't you?) to nab ol' Princess Peach by cutting a hole in the very earth beneath her castle and whisking her away to the deepest reaches of space. Mario takes after them, meeting a cast of helpful characters along the way and exploring a series of galaxies to collect stars and eventually unlock the path that will lead him to Bowser and a mighty final battle. The common conventions don't end there, but Galaxy's appeal and worth aren't about innovation or reinvigoration of the series with a heady dose of unnecessary gravitas; it's about adopting the successes of previous 3D Mario titles and pushing them to the limit.
Super Mario Sunshine wasn't a bad game -- far from it, I'd say. But those of us who yearned for an entire game stocked with the sort of fun packed into those all-too-rare and insanely difficult stages in which Mario ditched the FLUDD in favor of some pure platforming action will find a lot to love about Galaxy. This is platforming bliss, the genre at its finest. Spot-on control of Mario makes an anticipated return, fleshed out and refined to best fit the spherical level designs featured in the game. Mario moves, jumps, maneuvers and attacks with startling accuracy; Galaxy controls so well that it's hard to imagine anybody, veteran gamers or Wii-era newbies, having trouble getting the hang of things.
Galaxy also has the honor of being one of the few games developed specifically for the Wii that actually makes damn fine use of the controller without feeling forced or tacked-on. Pointer action is limited strictly to menu navigation and collecting star bits by hovering over them anywhere on the screen with the cursor, which can be used to knock away approaching enemies in a point-and-shoot fashion. Mario's trademark spin, his primary and most useful attack in Galaxy, is performed by shaking the Wii remote. There are a couple of levels that make further use of the Wiimote, but these tend to be extremely few and far between and serve as clever diversions as opposed to shoehorned Wii shenanigans so often observed in the platform's exclusive titles.
Having established that, what makes the control really shine is the fantastic (and at times, utterly insane) level design, most often structured in the above-mentioned spherical orientation. The emphasis on gravity provides ample opportunity for Nintendo to screw with your expectations and create some truly inspired moments in gameplay with creative twists, turns, traps and tasks to keep you busy. One star in the Toy Time Galaxy, for example, requires that the player scale a massive Mecha-Bowser and dismantle the robot as you move up its body. The game is chock full of "holy crap!" moments like this, and a consistent "wow" factor presses you ever onward rather than lulling between set piece battles or encounters.
The combination of these new and unusual schemes of gameplay alongside the now-standard control makes for some of the most compelling platforming action yet available. The game is challenging -- particularly in later stages -- but never unfairly so, though you can expect to lose a number of lives (no biggie, though; the game deals out 1UPs by the truckload). With 120 stars to find and a massive variety of stages in which to hunt 'em down, you can bet that newbies and seasoned vets alike will find a lot to love in Galaxy.
Maybe it's Nintendo's keen eye for a cute, colorful game, but despite the Wii's limitations as a not-quite-powerhouse in the graphics department, Super Mario Galaxy is one of the most beautiful games I've seen in years. The enemies are extremely well designed, the animations are fluid, and the environments (particularly some of the deep space vistas) are simply gorgeous. But one of the biggest aesthetic surprises in Galaxy is the music, which stands as the best in the series -- really epic orchestral tunes built to match the scale of the game.
What details detract from the experience are minor, but worth noting in that damn near perfect but not quite sort of way. The camera, though very much cleaned up and refined versus previous installments of the 3D Mario titles, still has a couple of issues, namely in the areas in which camera control is scripted to focus on the action. While it's a godsend to not have to worry about camera orientation in these areas and focus instead on precision platforming, you're often put a little bit too close to the action and can't get a good grasp on what's very nearly ahead of you. The various suits are a welcome addition to the game and shake things up similar to those found in SMB3, but Spring Mario -- though graciously uncommon in appearance -- serves as a jarring break in an otherwise excellent control scheme. The others are so well implemented that it feels as though Galaxy could've done without the spring suit altogether and not missed a beat.
This is the first game on the Wii that I can recommend without hesitation to gamers of any stock, from any background -- a truly must-own title. In creating Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo had the unfortunate task of besting itself at what it does best: platforming. To say that they've succeeded almost isn't enough; Super Mario Galaxy is so incredible that it improves upon flaws in Mario 64 that I hadn't even noticed until, y'know, Galaxy did it better. And though there's little in the way of "innovation" of the genre, it's the refinement of the genre that solidifies Galaxy as the most essential platforming experience yet created.