This is a difficult review to write. It’s a strange thing when you have been gaming for twenty-two years, nestled comfortably within your relatively static range of preconceptions of the quality and creativity of each new title, and then, suddenly, one game comes along and shatters even your most basic notions. It’s a bit intimidating to try and define a game that itself redefines the concept of a genre. Rarely does a high-profile title meet, and exceed, all expectations set by the astronomical hype that predates it. My friends, Super Mario Galaxy is that game.
The true-to-life sequel to 1996’s Super Mario 64, Galaxy challenges its predecessor in just about every venue—and succeeds. It is a platformer through and through, and yet it plays like no platformer before it. It embraces the delicate balance between challenge and fun that is typical of the greatest of videogames. And it possesses such a sense of imaginative freedom and outright inspiration that playing it puts one in a state of almost constant euphoria.
This all may smack of fanboy embellishment; rest assured that it is not. Super Mario Galaxy is just that good. Having said that, what is it that makes this game so amazing?
Where to begin…
One aspect of Mario games that has never been emphasized is storyline. Galaxy’s plot is, as usual, intentionally dreamy. The toads are celebrating their traditional Star Festival, a party which takes place directly in front of Princess Peach’s castle grounds, in the center of town square. No sooner than Mario arrives, however, does Bowser’s portentous fleet of airborne battleships begin firing upon the festivities and laying waste to the town. Mario, in all his heroism, makes a mad dash for the castle to protect Peach. But before he can reach her, a UFO appears and carves a circle around the perimeter of the castle, lifting it into the sky high above the Mushroom Kingdom. To make matters worse, a Magikoopa blasts our bewildered hero off the floating land mass as the castle flies into space, princess and all. When he awakens, he finds himself on a tiny planet, where three bunnies promise to reveal where he is if he can catch them all.
Before long, we learn that Peach has been taken to the center of the universe, and that in order to travel there, Mario will have to help the peaceful Luma people, a species of living stars, repair their mobile Comet Observatory (which, ironically, was also incapacitated by Bowser). The Observatory is powered by—predictably—Power Stars, which Mario must collect from throughout the numerous galaxies. Once enough Power Stars have been gathered, the Observatory will once again be able to function, and Mario can travel to the center of the universe to save the princess and the world once and for all.
In case you couldn’t tell by the plot summary, Galaxy is unapologetically imaginative, and while it makes for a silly and contrived storyline, it is perhaps the game’s greatest asset overall. The outer space theme serves as a perfect thread for tying together the designers’ vast assortment of outlandish ideas. There are dozens and dozens of galaxies in the game, all spanning different environments and styles of gameplay, and none of them ever feels monotonous or tedious. Why worry about the details? Why bother with logical explanations? Super Mario Galaxy doesn’t, and it shouldn’t. The game knows it is set squarely within the realm of fantasy, and it cherishes that position to allow for some truly wild concepts in gaming. It is this foundational principle that makes Super Mario Galaxy such a remarkable achievement.
Before we dive more into the rare creativity that fuels Galaxy, though, let’s talk about how it’s played. If you’ve experienced Super Mario 64, you already have a strong grasp of the style of gameplay found in Super Mario Galaxy. Many of the controls are the same, and nearly all of the techniques remain, from the long jump to the backflip to the triple jump. There are a couple of new ones as well, such as the ability to walk while crouching, as well as a spin attack (which replaces the traditional punch). The spin attack is a vital addition to the formula because it sidesteps inevitable problems with “aiming” your punches while trying to deal with the wicked gravity-centric challenges that make Galaxy so enthralling. To perform it, you simply shake the remote or nunchuk—and don’t worry; it never feels silly or inconvenient.
Spinning is a useful attack, but it also serves other purposes. Most notably, if you run across a Launch Star, you can spin while standing inside of it to launch Mario off the current planet, sailing through space toward a new destination. This is how you’ll do most of your travelling throughout the various galaxies, and it’s indescribably fun.
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