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It's been a decade since Mario 64 revolutionised the platform genre; now, Miyamoto and his team have done it again...
- Thoroughly compelling experience.
- Stunning presentation.
- Triumphant orchestral score.
- Slightly disappointing co-op.
- The first & last Mario platformer on Wii?
- Princess Peach gets kidnapped...again.
The first 'true' Super Mario title on Wii, and the first Super Mario platformer on a Nintendo home console since the lacklustre Super Mario Sunshine on GameCube in 2002 (though some would argue that Super Paper Mario fitted the bill very well earlier in 2007), Super Mario Galaxy finally lands in Europe with a fanfare of advertisements and rousing success in both Japan and the United States. It's been a long time since Nintendo heralded the dawn of a new age with Mario 64 back in 1996, with the pint-sized one putting his fingers in so many pies since then that it looked like brand Mario was irreversibly watered down only a couple of years ago.
But a lot can change, and since then Nintendo has undergone something of a renaissance, first with Nintendo DS and then with Wii, once again returning the Kyoto company back into the industry's stratosphere. The Big N however always needed a positive platforming turn from its mascot however, something that Miyamoto and his team have been working very hard in the last couple of years. A year after Wii launched, the studio's output, Super Mario Galaxy, has always promised to deliver on fan expectations and innovations since it was first unveiled at E3 2006 - and it doesn't take much time to realise that they've done that on both fronts.
But our princess is in another castle
Right from the outset Nintendo ensures that fans of the twenty two year old Super Mario franchise will find themselves on largely familiar ground. After receiving an invitation from Princess Peach to attend the Star Festival, a centennial event where the Toads of the Mushroom Kingdom gather together falling stars to form 'Power Stars', Mario finds himself catapulted into deepest darkest space, and the Princess kidnapped by Bowser. But all is not lost, as Mario finds himself in the company of 'star children' called Lumas and an enigmatic woman called Rosalina, who travel the universe on their 'Comet Observatory'. Powered by a bunch of 'Grand Stars', now stolen by Bowser and the source of his newfound intergalactic ambitions, Mario is tasked with travelling the known galaxies, tracking down enough Power Stars to go deeper into space, and recover the Grand Stars from Bowser and his offspring...and rescue Peach in the process, of course.
Each of the Grand Stars power up the Observatory in stages, unlocking new sections such as the spaceship's Bedroom and Kitchen - allowing Mario to fly off into some of the strangest looking galaxies and planets devised in video gaming. Every galaxy is filled with between one and six levels, depending on whether Luigi has discovered the secret whereabouts of Power Star on an already visited area of the galaxy, or if a comet is in the vicinity - more on those shortly. But if you thought the change of perspective from 2D to 3D in Super Paper Mario was original and refreshing, just wait until you get your mitts on Super Mario Galaxy. Poor level design has rarely been an accusation that could be thrown any Super Mario title, and Galaxy is no different, offering an astounding variety and mix of designs. Though themed with the sort of environments long since associated with the Super Mario franchise, from quicksand infested deserts (with pyramids to boot) to haunted houses and grassy piranha plant strewn plains, Galaxy's creativity does go beyond mere replication. Inspired by the 'Mario 128' experiment, Miyamoto-san melds low gravity with spherical planetoids to produce micro circumnavigation that would make Phileas Fogg envious. Mario leaps between them with the help of Star Slings and Pull Stars, which more often than not are broken into five fragments and have to be found before resorting to their true helpful states. Not only a puzzle dynamic, using the reformed stars also help to create an epic feel to Galaxy in a way that other recent platformers, such as the recent PS3 outing of Ratchet & Clank, fail to produce. Playing with gravity is taken beyond just moving between neighbouring bits of floating rock however; Super Mario Galaxy also features Gravity Arrows that change the direction of gravity within single levels. With all these mechanics working individually or in various combinations, Super Mario Galaxy is real head spinner, with tumbling walls and puzzles that can take a minute or two to figure out - though they never become frustrating or hold up the pack adventure built into every imprint of the game disk.
Bottom bouncing of course makes a return to Galaxy, but Mario is also aided this time around with Star Bits, star dust, which can be used as a projectile to daze enemies. Quite handily, they're also loved as treats by the Lumas, especially the hungry ones, which turn into new galaxies to explore when they've had their fill. It's also quite handy that an extra life is added for every 50 collected, in near age-old tradition for the franchise. Thanks to a helping Luma, Mario can also daze enemies with a spin attack activated by a quick flick of the Wii-remote (or nunchuk if you prefer), quickly followed up by a quick punch to finish them off. The spin can also be used in conjunction with jumps to cover higher or longer distances, or used to loosen or tighten screws in the game's endlessly brilliant sequence of puzzles. Not to be outdone by the new features, Galaxy also includes a fresh selection of superpowers for the plumber to contend with, including Ice Mario, Spring Mario, and the always-reliable "old as Super Mario himself power" (though now temporary) Fire Mario. The game also sees the introduction of Bee Mario, following the tradition that has already seen the plumber turn into a Frog and Raccoon, enabling players to clamber up vertical walls of honeycomb and endowing Mario with the ability to fly for a short time. None of the powers are put to waste at any point of the game however, with each used during the appropriately designed levels, whether that's getting to otherwise unreachable heights as Spring Mario, or skating across cold water in an Iceman style as Ice Mario.
Adding a further sliver of variety to the Galaxy experience, as if there was any grain of doubt that the gameplay would sink into a mire of repetition, is the use of comets that affect galaxies as they pass through their orbit. These 'Prankster Comets' affect the galaxies in a number of ways, from the Speedy Comets that limited the amount of time Mario has to find the Power Star (in good ol' Super Mario fashion) to Cosmic Comets (where Mario has to race against a 'cosmic' version of himself), and Daredevil Comets (which reduces Mario to a single segment of life). Another way of collecting the number of Power Stars necessary to travelling to the centre of the universe and rescuing Princess Peach, the comets also act as Galaxy's own interpretation of the Star Roads, used in past instalments of the franchise. Often more challenging that a lot of the main missions, the Comets throw in an extra layer of difficulty for players who require the chance to lose a few lives in the process of completing the game (or collecting all 120 Power Stars).
A Super Mario game of Galactic Proportions
Following in the footsteps of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, the control system developed for Galaxy manages to weave both a sense of the familiar and the new into a satisfyingly intuitive experience. Deft flicks of the Wii-remote are used throughout the game to activate Mario's spin attacks, together with the pointer to collect Star Bits, with the accelerometers also used to balance on top of balls, spin up Sproutle vines to access higher areas, and direct the Ray during Ray Surfing races. Both Corruption and Galaxy act as guiding lights for third-party developers to follow, and show that Nintendo may just be thinking about their traditional fan base more, after all.
Beyond the mechanics of the puzzles and a typical plot that finally takes Mario to one of the few environments left for him to encounter, Galaxy also sets a benchmark for Wii visuals. Fluid and full of little details including the glow of starlight shining off the plumber when he's deep into a space walk and use of lens flares in a way that would make a NASA home movie jealous, Super Mario Galaxy just goes to show that slick presentation doesn't have to rely on parallel processors or trillions of floating point calculations per second to deliver a jaw-dropping experience.
Nintendo has evidently pushed a lot into ensuring that the production values of Super Mario Galaxy are the highest ever for any of their platforms, and that's going beyond the original gameplay and best looking visuals on Wii. For the first time ever, a 50-piece orchestra has been assembled to record the score, offering not only new versions of some classic Mario tunes, but creating a warmth, atmosphere, and a sense of adventure that won't fail to astound. The synth work of the past has been left firmly in the dark, with Galaxy's score at times generating the sort of electricity that could be used to power a small town. In addition to all that, extra details like synching up musical sound effects to the background score - for instance when Mario uses the Star Sling to fly to other planets in a galaxy - create a extra depth to the audio that fits so well it's difficult to detect unless you listen for it.
For all the superlatives, the praise, and the near worship levels of commendation, Super Mario Galaxy does have the tiniest speck of imperfection. The inclusion of co-operative play is perhaps the weakest element in the whole game, with the second player relegated to collecting Star Bits and helping Mario to jump higher. That said, Nintendo deftly avoids too much of a ear-bashing by describing Super Mario Galaxy as 'primarily a solo player game' within the pages of the game's manual. What the co-op does highlight however is just how much a 'Super Mario Bros' and not just a 'Super Mario' title would be welcomed by the fan base - let's just hope that is what Miyamoto will have up his sleeve next time.
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