Mario in the sky with diamonds
For the longest time, it seemed like something was amiss from Mario games. I would argue that it has been at least a decade since this “it factor” vanished. The product of this missing “it factor” was soulless gimmick titles like Luigi’s Mansion and Mario Sunshine. For awhile it seemed like Nintendo acknowledged this too, with shameless reaches at nostalgia like New Super Mario Bros and Yoshi’s 2. These were titles struggling to recreate the magic of better games by imitating them, step by step. I’ve spent a long time attempting to figure out what this “it factor” was, but now I have an answer. The “it factor” isn’t innovation, or a gimmick hook, or good game design. It’s not a catchy theme song, or blind nostalgia for younger days. It’s not even the connection of being the major console launch title.
No, the secret to the success of the early Mario games is drugs.
Lots and lots of drugs.
Look at those early Mario games. Walking turtles with giant eyeballs. Polka-dot venus fly traps with carnivorous teeth, spitting fire spheres. A giant freaking shoe with a wind-up-dial that you can climb into. A dinosaur-steed that eats fruit with its tongue and spews fireballs or dust clouds based on devoured shell colour. Bullets with faces and arms. Bigger versions of the bullets with faces and arms. Sober minds did not come up with these ideas, folks.
Perhaps the Nintendo 64 era was one collective stage of rehab for the programmers at Nintendo. Perhaps Super Mario 64 was such a near-death experience that the family members all demanded they stop with their hallucinogens. Maybe the cameras were rolling on the E! True Stories of Shigeru Miyamoto. I don’t know. I do know that the period of sobriety between Super Mario 64 to now led to some lame attempts at recapturing the magic of the early Mario games. I can believe that a talking water-spraying backpack was their lame, sober idea of recreating the glory of their drug-addled youth.
With Super Mario Galaxy, however, it looks like the Nintendo staff has caved into their addictions and returned to their vices! All of that wacky, drug-induced creativity that made those early Mario games so inventive have not only returned, but taken to new highs. Programmers, thank you for ruining your lives and families for my personal entertainment!
So the game begins in usual, kind of drab Mario affair. Mario gets invited to the Princess’s castle, presumably to play with Barbies or something. Then Bowser comes to kidnap the Princess, presumably to play Barbies with her or something. And Mario is off. With the big difference being that Bowser has somehow obtained godhood, and is attempting to reshape the galaxy as he sees fit. Presumably to play intergalactic Barbies. So Mario has to, err, go to space and deal with the intergalactic turtle alien menace.
Critiquing a Mario game’s story does often feel like critiquing the story of a Three Stooges episode. I know it shouldn’t matter, that gameplay comes before plot, but the guise of “it’s tradition” really shouldn’t be an excuse for lazy storytelling like “Bowser naps the Princess.” And the game has some text dialogue about some Space Princess that I could not be made to care about, yet am unable to scroll through. And be warned – do not ever enter the library! Ever ever ever! You cannot skip the background story dialogue that follows entering the library! It is quite literally Storybook Exposition Hell!
So you’ve got the overworld spaceship-castle that acts as your hub for your various intergalactic destinations. From there, you have access to the various worlds, or rather…galaxies. And the developers are very much playing loose with the idea of what a “galaxy” can consist of. These include such locales as the “Loopdeloop Galaxy”, the “Toy Time Galaxy” and the “Hurry-Scurry Galaxy.” And these galaxies exist for no other fathomable reason than to be veritable playgrounds for Mario. They can consist of a series of floating platforms, a series of floating platforms containing a single big tree that houses talking bees, a watery race track in the middle of space, a haunted house…also in the middle of space. How such geological formations can be created defies all sense of science and common sense. The 65 million years of erosion and formation taken to create, for example, the galaxy of floating switches, is beyond me. Or what kind of alien/slave effort was required to create the various floating pyramids in the desert. Shiguru Miyamoto has successfully dismembered the Big Bang Theory.
But when you don’t question the nature of things like you’re David Suzuki, you do realize what fun platforming levels you are about to undertake. Gone are the expansive, open (and boring) spaces of Nintendo 64 platformers, in favor of more interesting…structures? The paths to each star (I forgot to mention that you are once again collecting stars) are laid out, but each path can have some strange obstacles. Any given sequence can include; spherical mini-planets with self-sustained gravity and the diameter of your bedroom, a series of switches that appear and disappear, a serpentine path consisting mostly of fast-moving quicksand, a group of apple-planets connected by giant worms, a wall of honeycombs…you can see why developing game concepts on LSD would be so advantageous. There are occasional nods to past Mario games; a familiar tune here, wrench-throwing mole there, but nothing resembling the overbearingly desperate reach at nostalgia that was New Super Mario Bros Wii. Mario Galaxy’s nostalgia is more charm than cheap.
The bigger surprise of Super Mario Galaxy is just how amusing these levels are. Rare is the annoying fetch quest or dud mini-game. (Okay, there is one lame mini-game, involving exploding crates under the façade of “garbage disposal.” Why must there be a time-limit for this game, wherein a failure results in the garbage-robot replacing the crates he’s trying to eliminate?) Many of these star-missions are self-contained stages of platform-action glory, with more than enough diversity to keep the space quest interesting. Even the comet missions, which comprise of replaying a sequence under a handicap (a time limit, a health limit, a patience limit, etc) wind up being more worthwhile than they have every right to be. This is the rare game where striving for 100% completion feels less like a game-lengthening chore than an inviting excuse to keep experiencing more.
I should perhaps discuss the gameplay at some point. Mario handles mostly like he did in Mario 64, complete with all of the various jumps, long jumps, wall jumps and other wacky jumps. I’d favour a Mario 64 veteran will have an easier time completing this game on virtue of knowing these sacred zen techniques off heart. Contributing to the sense of variety are the return of various, temporary suits, such as the ghost outfit (for floating and transparency), the bee outfit (for floating and looking like a rank fool) and the good ol’ fire flower. While they’re all level-specific as opposed to Super Mario 3, which let you beat the game with the frog suit on if you were feeling capable and insane, they do contribute to the sense of diversity and strangeness.
However, the redundant three-punch-combo of Mario 64 is replaced by a universal spin attack executes by waggling the remote. Waggle truly is the most evil of gameplay innovations in the new millennium. While the Mario Galaxy waggle isn’t quite as annoying as waggle in just about every single Wii game in existence period end of story, I still yearned for the accuracy and reliability of a good old-fashioned button press. I theorize Nintendo’s next console will feature true 1:1 input control by introducing the evolutionary “controller” and “control pad” to render the Wii Motion Controls obsolete. How I can’t wait.
Though that Wiimote does get used to unusual effect regardless. You can use the laser pointer to control a star onscreen to catch coloured star bits, and subsequently fire star bits to stun enemies. Being that all of the in-game enemies are about as intelligent as bits of rocks themselves, you will never need to use this as an offensive maneuver. Rather, you can feed these to wand-waving star people that experience such orgasmic joy from eating star bits that they transform into planets! Yes, really. There are creatures in this game that aspire to become planets (giant land formations) or stars (gaseous spheres.) If you have a naïve girlfriend that wants to feel like she is participating, you can grab a second Wiimote and have a second star fly across the screen, collecting star bits and making little to no contribution to the action.
I really do like Mario Galaxy. A lot. There’s something inspiring about the sheer force of imagination that went into the game’s level design, and the game almost never feels drawn out or repetitive…even when it should. I’ve beaten it 100% on several occasions, and it’s the only other game of this generation that I would consider worthy of a perfect rating. And it’s the only one to do it without Batman.