From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Game Review: Super Mario Galaxy

So imagine this. I am standing on the surface of a planet that is entirely lava, fighting a giant magma-based octopus (with a crown, no less). The platforms I need to jump between are floating on the surface of the molten rock (which will kill me) and they slowly sink under my weight (but they do pop back up again once I have left the platform). On top of this, the octopus is alternatively firing either a single green coconut (which I have to hit and send back at him to destroy him) or three flaming balls of rock (which will, again, kill me). On top of that, the octopus has sent out a horde of small, semi-intelligent, flaming minions, any of which can kill me AND someone offscreen is dropping large flaming meteors into the mix (again with the killing hazard). So under the weight of at least five separate variables, each moving in a different, unrelated pattern I need to track, hit and send back a single green coconut multiple times, like a psychotic game of tennis.

During all this my three year old watches in the absolute conviction that Mom can beat the tar out of any digital creation as long as he says “pretty please” and gives me the pouty-lip look that is doubtless written into the DNA of every living human-being. Welcome to a weekend at the House of Unger…

Super Mario Galaxy really is Nintendo’s tour-de-force on the Wii console. As console products, the platformers had all but vanished in the face of the grittier, more realistic shooters and RPGs that pervade the store shelves these days, but Mario has remained the quintessential Nintendo property for the past three decades, and with reinventions always welcome, it has evolved in ways that no other IP, even equally venerable ones, has managed to pull off.

Were you to be thrown into the level I was busy conquering early in the game you would likely chuck your Wii Wand at the screen and swear off the game entirely, but Nintendo, with the care and feeding of its core customer base they are known for, walks you through each new critter, each new hazard, each type of gameplay one at a time over the course of the game, ensuring that, by the time you reach the giant, flaming octopus (which is only ¾ of the way through the game and by no means your final end-boss), taking on the aforementioned variables is a challenge but not outside the realm of something you can handle.

Certain precepts go along with the platformer genre, basic tenets that Super Mario Galaxy not only follows but occasionally turns on its ear. For example, the existence of “collectables” in a game like this (Nintendo produced or not) is a given. There are basic elements like coins (or in many games hearts) that recharge your character’s health after you’ve taken a hit or two, there are usually some sort of minor collectibles (in SMG’s case we have “Star Bits”) that will give you an extra life or perk if you get enough. In addition, you have power-ups that give you special, well, powers. These range from total invulnerability to the ability to set things on fire or even bounce about like a giant, somewhat erratic, and mooshy spring. These power-ups are often essential to solving the puzzles that go with the level design. As an example you may need to set objects on fire to open a door, or to freeze the water under your feet to reach an end-boss.

One of the delightful things about the Mario titles, and especially this version, is the evolution of the in-game elements. Things that may be a hazard or a pain in the a** early on in the game, can have a complete role reversal and become an essential tool at your disposal later on. As an example, take the water jet. In the lower levels, the water jet is a little pressurized gun that shoots a big fat ball of water over and over in a timed, repeating pattern. It won’t do any damage, but poor little Mario can get caught in the ball if hit and he will be carried along until you either “spin” the character (by flipping the Wii wand) or the water ball hits something with a collision cylinder (in some cases it will merrily shoot you off into space as well).

The interesting thing is that, later in the game, you are given the opportunity to use these little water jets for long-distance travel. There is no obvious instruction in the game, the water jets just start appearing in strategically placed locations to send you on to the next portion of the level. With no other options, as a player, you naturally start getting wacky, and discovering that the stars we have become used to as elements of long-distance transport have been replaced by the water jets opens up a whole new realm of possibilities in-game, not only allowing you to progress forward, but encouraging you to go *back* and explore other areas where you bypassed these little jets thinking they were merely another obstacle to overcome.

The levels, by and large, are linear. You can try to disguise this fact by having the player go left instead of right, by allowing them the freedom to run around in circles, jump up, jump down, you simply cannot get around the fact that you need to solve the level’s challenges, in a certain amount of order, to progress towards the end goal.

SMG does a fabulous job of bending this idea as far as it can go. The levels are in many cases comprised of multiple small planetoids that seemingly have their own gravity. The player can, in most cases, walk all around the surface, where you solve a puzzle and get sent on to the next spinny planetoid.

As a game, this product is tight. There are no issues, no corrupted save-games, no clipping errors, no issues with badly designed levels or bosses that take a billion run-throughs to beat down. All in all Nintendo has put out a title that is *just* challenging enough to make it interesting, but not so challenging that you’re going to give up a quarter of the way through the title. If you have a Wii, this is the one must-have title out there right now.

After nearly 8 years working in financial services powerhouses like Morgan Stanley and Paine Webber, Kimberly Unger left to pursue her passion for videogames. As a producer she helped develop an initial proof of concept for a USAF operative training program using UT2k4 and has worked in both the entertainment and videogame industries as a texture artist and 3d modeler/animator on such projects as the IMPACT: Motion Simulator ride currently in residence at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the award winning You Don’t Know Jack: Mock II, Tetris Worlds for all consoles and a host of smaller handheld and mobile titles. She is now the CEO of the Bay Area videogame startup “Bushi-go” and has begun expanding her game writing and design expertise into other more traditional venues. You can follow Kimberly on twitter @ing3nue or find her blog at www.ungerink.com

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