[25 November 2007]
It’s clear now that Super Paper Mario was merely a stopgap. It was an extremely fun, well-written, and cleverly designed stopgap, but a stopgap nonetheless, never meant to play the role of “the next true Mario game” on the Wii, Nintendo’s little system that could that was still, at that point, just getting its bearings. Since then we have seen the release of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, perhaps the first game to both test the graphical limits of the Wii and effectively utilize a control scheme that takes advantage of its innovations. Still, that game weathered some criticism, in that it is essentially the same game as its two Prime predecessors, and the parts that are different (lots of dialogue, the new hint system) aren’t necessarily welcome. As such, while Metroid Prime 3 is a fantastic game in the shape of a much-needed bone thrown to Nintendo’s dwindling hardcore gaming audience, it too could be seen as a stopgap on the way to Super Mario Galaxy.
Super Mario Galaxy is an event, you see. It’s the first time since perhaps Super Mario 64 that Nintendo’s implied goal of being everything to everyone has actually been entirely fulfilled.
You can play it in spurts. Ever since the star-collecting dynamic of Super Mario 64 took hold of gamers’ imaginations all those years ago (an experience you can now relive thanks to the Wii’s Virtual Console), its inclusion has been instrumental to Mario’s success ever since. It’s a way of maintaining the short spurts of play that each level of Super Mario Bros. brought, while immersing the player in a world that maintains threads of consistency, all while allowing you to save your game whenever it feels as though it’s the appropriate thing to do. The constant saving of the game is convenient, as you never get stuck in a spot where you’ve been making progress for an hour-and-a-half and suddenly you have to go eat, or you have to feed the baby, or class snuck up on you. It’s a mechanic that’s worked for so long, and that convenience combined with the “gotta catch ‘em all” motivation of a scavenger hunt means that there’s no reason this aspect of Mario should have changed. Still…
You can sit down with it and lose yourself in it for hours. Sure, you can save it and shut it down whenever you want, but good Lord, why would you want to? Each galaxy has its own unique identity, to the point where, after playing for some time, you will find yourself instantly remembering galaxies based on a single photo clue. You’re bound to develop favorites (the airships are utterly spectacular) and, well, less favorites (anything involving swimming can be difficult, if still intuitive), but you will remember all of it. It’s this instant memorability that makes the prospect of exploration so exciting. Exploring every nook and cranny of every galaxy out there is a treat, not to mention utterly necessary if mastery is your desire. Speaking of which,
It can be quite difficult. You very well may curse at the presence of hidden stars, though they provide the necessary motivation to do the exploration referred to above. Some worlds mess with the play mechanics in purely Mario ways—the surprisingly difficult Sweet Sweet galaxy may well inspire a bout of virtual insanity, what with its hole-infested moving floors and distractingly bright colors. Other worlds require some basic puzzle-solving, a mechanic that never really gets more complicated than insert item X into hole Y by traversing path Z, though it can be difficult to think of X’s, Y’s and Z’s when you’re avoiding bloop bloops or tossing bombs at belligerent cacti. Give the remote and nunchuck to a small child, however, and you quickly realize that…
Ever since Super Mario Bros. 3, giant goombas have been
awesome. They still are.
It’s easy in all the right ways. The controls are responsive and intuitive in a way that pretty much nothing on the Wii has been since Wii Sports. The emphasis on exploration means that it can be quite fun to simply run around Super Mario Galaxy‘s space station-style hub in no danger of losing a life, jumping off of ledges to see if there’s anything below, occasionally finding well-hidden extra lives in places you never would have suspected. The two-player mode, for its part, is utterly perfect for intergenerational teaming up, as the second player’s job is to grab a remote and point at the screen, collecting stars for our hero and shooting those stars at enemies who might be approaching. The second player isn’t at all necessary to enjoy Super Mario Galaxy or to feel like you’re getting the most out of it (as is the case with many of the most popular modern gaming series, such as Guitar Hero and Halo), but it’s fun as heck to have that extra helping hand around. Besides, having a helper means more time for you to look around and realize…
It’s beautiful, and it sounds good too. The graphics simply look “next-gen”, further evidence that only Nintendo, thus far, knows how to push the technical aspects of its machine past the point of “two GameCubes duct-taped together” (an attribution actually made in a public forum by Maxis developer Chris Hecker). The music is fantastic, to the point that one of the hottest imports out there right now is the two-disc soundtrack provided by the Japan-only Club Nintendo. It’s sensory overload at every moment, in the best possible way, and yet,
The graphics, while wonderful, are never distracting. Despite the obvious care put into the presentation of the game, it’s obvious that the beautiful visuals on display are there to draw us in, not to distract us from the gameplay. We become Mario, eager explorers, ready to set the universe right once again.
The bee suit is no Kuribo’s Shoe, but it’s still
Further exposition of the skillful line-treading that Nintendo has done in Super Mario Galaxy would be overkill. Suffice to say, they get the balance right.
Those of us who could be considered “old fogey” gamers at this point often lament the loss of the “fun” in modern gaming. We desire simplicity, we desire pick-up-‘n’-play mechanics coupled with immersive gaming experiences, games where the controls are not the primary obstacle to success. We complain that so much emphasis has been put on the graphics of modern games that everyone seems to have forgotten what makes gaming fun.
Super Mario Galaxy might just be the game that turns that tide. While gamers who weren’t around for the privilege of seeing the dominance of the Atari 2600 might simply conclude that they’ve finally found another game for the Wii that they can enjoy long-term, those who have been around since Mario first started chasing that big monkey might have a more revelatory experience. Namely, Super Mario Galaxy might be the first time we have to accept that, y’know, maybe gamers these days do have it better than we did. Three dimensions was never even a remote possibility back when we were young, and look at the landscapes that an imaginative designer with a three-dimensional sandbox can come up with. Every one of the levels is intuitively designed, and every one is utterly gorgeous to look at; sure, you’ll never get to see these galaxies in HD, but you’ll never notice. So-called “jaggies”, the byproducts of an “only” 480p display, are inconsequential when a game feels this good.
When sites like GameRankings.com and Metacritic.com, which compile opinions from around the web into single, normalized scores, find that Super Mario Galaxy may actually provide a challenge to the most critically admired game of all time (a designation generally given to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64), the urge is great to be contrarian. When the game is this good, however, it’s simply impossible to resist the urge to join the choir. So, join it I shall. Super Mario Galaxy may well be the greatest game to hit this generation of gaming, if not generations to come.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/super-mario-galaxy/