At this point, it should not come as a surprise when I say that Super Mario Galaxy is an excellent game.
Every few years, Nintendo unleashes upon the gaming world an overall-clad testament to the company's continuing mastery of the platforming genre, and of game design in general. Every Mario platformer has either demonstrated untapped potential in the genre or demonstrated Nintendo's willingness to pursue novel, sometimes risky, design choices (many ended up doing both of these things):
- Super Mario Bros. defined (and many would argue continues to define) video games as medium
- Super Mario Bros. 3 showed us the possibilities of an overworld map and demonstrated that that 2D sidescrollers can have multiple layers of depth
- Super Mario World familiarized us with everyone's favorite mount and well as demonstrated how expansive and secretive supposedly linear levels can be
- Super Mario 64 ushered in the era of 3D gaming and created the scavenger hunt template that 3D action games continue to use
- Super Mario Sunshine gave Mario a permanent tool for the first time, and introduced new water and tightrope-based gameplay dynamics
Super Mario Galaxy re-introduces 3D gaming, expands the rules of platforming, and demonstrates how the judicious use of motion control can augment traditional gaming mechanics.
Galaxy's approach to 3D sets it apart from any other game. We live in a 3D world, one that relies on rules of orientation: the concepts of "right-side-up" and "upside down" define our perception, and have defined how we have constructed 3D games. Galaxy's spherical design aesthetic often alters this concept of orientation; when Mario runs around one of the planetoids, his direction is dictated by how the camera is positioned. With a simple button press, what was once "left" instantly becomes "up." Suddenly, the player must learn how to negotiate a new universe of game design, bringing back echoes of the delirious sense of freedom inspired by Mario 64.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nintendo demonstrates wisdom when implementing motion control. Instead of awkwardly trying to replace actions traditionally controlled by buttons with hand motions, Galaxy uses the Wii's powers to augment traditional skills. The most prevalent use of the Wii remote's motion sensing capabilities is found in Mario's spin move. Used as an offensive attack or a jump-boost, the spin is activated by the nearly ubiquitous "Wii waggle." Even a small flick of the wrist will activate the move, but more importantly, the form of the waggle is irrelevant: the move is performed identically whether one shakes the Wii remote like bottle of cheese whiz or a fishing rod.
Without having to worry about performing an oddly exact notion, the player can instead focus on linking the move together with button presses. Motion control is used inventively to eliminate the need for awkward thumb repositioning or unintuitive combination presses. This development lends itself well to new gamers while also introducing a new set of challenges for veterans.
Other motion controls crop up in racing and balancing mini games, but these sections are cleverly separated from the main platforming stages. Again, Nintendo understands that motion control requires new design conventions. Motion control is not yet refined enough to handle the precision jumps Mario is famous for, and so Nintendo does not force the issue. Instead, they use the novelty of tilt control and cursor pointing in unique challenges that benefit from those specific features.
I have marveled at the inventive platforming in games like LittleBigPlanet and And Yet it Moves, but Galaxy makes an even larger impression. It implements the concepts found in numerous critical darlings in fully realized way, often years ahead of other studios. Not only is Nintendo the best in the business, it also maintains its position in the vanguard of game design.
There is something special about the essence of Mario, even when compared to other beloved franchises. Mario either inspires creativity or attracts people willing to explore new ideas within the oldest of genres. Franchises like Pokemon and Zelda remain largely in a state of suspended animation that, while pleasant, makes them feel conservative when compared to Mario. A new Mario game not only finds the intensity to make my hands sweat, but does so in a fresh way each time.
Every iteration of Mario is crafted with painstaking care to inspire in the player a new way of conceptualizing the platformer. The title "Super Mario Galaxy" is fittingly poetic, as this game, like every Mario game, is its own independent reality: Galaxy's very being is justified and explained perfectly within its set of unified rules, fashioned specifically to reify it as the sole form of existence. Playing this game leaves one feeling that this is, and has always been, the natural way of things.
Super Mario Galaxy makes it impossible to imagine what will come next, just as each previous title made it impossible to imagine its successor. However, that game will come, and we will be surprised when we are dropped into that new universe. We will also quickly be unable to imagine anything else.