Superb level design. Suffers a bit from the Wii control scheme
With the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 pushing technology more and more each year, observers and both lamented and praised the Wii for eschewing the technology race and focusing instead on value and gameplay. A lot of Wii games, unfortunately, have failed to live up to the promise of delivering great gameplay to make up for the Gamecube graphics. Super Mario Galaxy is one shining example to the contrary. It won't be confused with Crysis or Assassin's Creed anytime soon in the graphics department, but the game's focus on level design and pacing pays off in spades. It is a great platformer, it is arguably the best game on the Wii, and anyone who owns a Wii should be playing it. It is only held back by some lackluster presentation elements and a few control issues that show up in the game's harder levels.
For the record, Super Mario Galaxy is not an ugly game. It is probably the best looking game on the Wii and it runs perfectly without any hiccups. The loading times are extremely brief and covered up very well with short cutscenes, an impressive feat, considering how large the levels are. Some excellent art direction and terrific animation make up for the Wii's outdated technology. The graphics are also bright and full of color. Color – remember that concept? It's the tool that developers used to use to enhance their games before God decreed that every title with great graphics has to be gray or brown. Alas, I digress.
If only the audio was as charming as the colorful graphics. Like just about every other Nintendo first party game, there is little to no voice acting, so information and story are exchanged through scrolling dialog. The music is simple and somewhat lighthearted, but not very memorable. There are numerous audio references to old Mario games dating back to the NES – it makes you wonder how long Nintendo intends to just recycle old content as much as possible and appeal to nostalgia without creating. As someone who never got into Super Mario Brothers, the appeal is lost on me. Nintendo doesn't need to compete with Metal Gear Solid 4 or Gears of War 2 to make a great game, but could they at least update their presentations to what was standard for other games six years ago?
The true strength is in Mario Galaxy's incredible variety in level design, enemies, and challenges. The goal of each level is to grab the star at the end, and once you gather about half the stars in the game, you can progress to the end level. The levels are perfectly paced, so that you never spend more than about 10 or 15 minutes on one of them, unless it is hard and you get killed a few times. Boss battles are relatively short and usually fun. No two levels are the same, and they are all bursting with inspiration. There is simply not one mundane, uncreative level in this game. It never fails to impress you with each new location.
The challenges also vary tremendously. Some levels are full of gravity tricks. Some levels require use of the bee suit. Some levels require a lot of swimming, becoming a ghost, or floating around in a bubble. There is also a huge variety of enemies in the game, drawing from more than two decades of Super Marios. The game is the polar opposite of a game like Doom 3 or Gears of War, which are technologically impressive, but suffer from repetitive design. Some of the frequent camera angle changes and gravity tricks can be disorienting, but it adds to the game's charm.
With up to 120 stars to collect, Super Mario Galaxy is a very long game, and for at least half of it, it is a lot of fun. There are a few problems that creep into the picture, however, during the game's more challenging moments. The biggest issue is that the combination of mediocre controls and oblique camera angles creates a lot of frustration. The Wii nunchuk, since it is not a true analog controller, is only marginally suited for tough platforming gameplay. Combined with the lack of precise camera control, the Wii's limited setup makes the challenging levels impossible. A lot of jumps require very precise direction and timing, something that is not always available with an 8-direction control stick. Some levels take place on circular disk or rings. Running around them causes the camera to change constantly, throwing off your aim when you suddenly need to make a jump. Sometimes, you might even find yourself accidentally running right off of a narrow platform because a change in direction happens too quickly. The swimming portions of the game are not as well executed as the rest, and some portions (such as the ones where you morph into a giant spring and bounce all over the place) will have you dying over and over again, really testing your patience. Fortunately, the harder levels are usually optional, and even if you only find half the stars in the game, you can easily get 20 hours out of it.
The complaints about Mario Galaxy are ultimately minor. The bottom line is that it is a great game, thanks to some fantastic levels, charm, and creative design. Unlike a lot of Wii games that are simply ugly and not good, Mario Galaxy makes up for its lack of pixel shaders or anti-aliasing with great gameplay. I am not much of a fan of platformers, but I enjoyed the game immensely. If you have not yet played this game, you owe it to yourself to give it a try, regardless of what kinds of games you usually like to play.