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Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) artwork

Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) review

"Here’s what you know. You know that when you tilt the analog stick, Mario will run in that direction. You know that pressing the A button makes Mario jump, and that if you land on top of a monster, that monster will disintegrate and drop a coin. You’re probably aware that Mario is frequently tasked with collecting stars, and that this endeavor will eventually lead to the rescue of Princess Peach from the clutches of the ever-persistent Bowser. These are the basics, and they are likely the only a..."

Here’s what you know. You know that when you tilt the analog stick, Mario will run in that direction. You know that pressing the A button makes Mario jump, and that if you land on top of a monster, that monster will disintegrate and drop a coin. You’re probably aware that Mario is frequently tasked with collecting stars, and that this endeavor will eventually lead to the rescue of Princess Peach from the clutches of the ever-persistent Bowser. These are the basics, and they are likely the only aspects of Super Mario Galaxy that won’t take you by complete surprise.

At any moment in Galaxy, you could look up and probably see the place you were standing only moments ago, now upside-down, suspended in the vacuum of space far above your head. Then you could pan the camera to the left or right and locate another spot where you’ll set foot relatively soon, hanging at an entirely different angle. You level the camera and notice that the chunk of land you’re standing on is rather small. There’s sky all around you, and it’s often difficult to tell where the shades of daytime blue morph to pitch black, where the clouds become stars. You run off the end of the platform and realize that there is no end, that the miniature planet you’re standing on has its own unique gravity well that pulls Mario to its center at all times, at least until he launches himself to the next in a long succession of independent, celestial bodies.

This is Galaxy. When the game begins, Mario finds himself standing on a sward next to a pair of cottages. There are several patches of flowers in sight, a few tree stumps here and there, and a couple of Mario’s familiar warp pipes. The only peculiar thing about this scene is that the landscape has been shaped into a perfect sphere and is hovering in space, just outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Mario could be perched on one end of this tiny planet, run around to the other end, and still be standing upright. There are no barriers; there is no “end.” This is platforming in infinite directions, and the entirety of Galaxy takes you, at rapid pace, from one such pint-sized world to the next.

Galaxy’s first full-length level drops you into a small, circular field. A couple of Goombas in spacesuits waddle in front of you, a sweeping orchestral score unlike anything you’ve heard in a Nintendo game thunders in the background, and the entire scene is rendered with enough colorful, jovial beauty to make you shrug off the Wii’s technological inferiority to other current consoles. There’s not much in immediate sight, but run off the rounded edge of the platform and Mario remains afoot, as the camera inverts itself and reveals a massive stone tower jutting out of the other end. You’re able to direct Mario with little trouble to the top as he remains on his feet even while he’s scaling the vertical incline of the tower. This is space; go with it. Once you’re at the apex of the structure, you jump into a star-shaped portal and give the Wii remote a little flick, and Mario takes off to one of the many miniature planets that dot the vacuum around you. You don’t control where he flies, but that’s part of the fun.

You touch down on a sandy piece of terrain that’s shaped a bit like a peanut, with two rounded ends. The game asks you to collect the five pieces of the next star portal in order to continue, and a threat is established in the form of several wheeling boulders that circumnavigate the planet. The challenge seems easy at a glance, yet so much of what makes Galaxy fun is the need to constantly adjust your playing dynamic to match the game’s interminably shifting laws of gravity. This is a game in which there is often no “up” or “down,” in which a direction on the analog stick could mean one thing now and something else entirely in a few seconds. Movement controls are often inverted, because Mario is frequently upside-down.

Many levels in Galaxy progress in similar fashion to the first one, with Mario soaring from one planet to another, spending minutes on one and mere seconds on the next. It’s a game of astonishing variety, never committed to simply one idea but more than happy to test what can be done with the concept of setting a platformer in space. You may touch down on a spherical planet and enter a warp pipe to find yourself treading on the inside of the hollow orb, gravity now bewilderingly pulling you away from the center. Other ideas are dafter still: You land on a large, glass cylinder, you find an opening, and you jump inside. Gravity now draws you towards the base of the tube, and Galaxy briefly turns into a side-scroller as you traverse the maze that wraps around the outside of the cylinder. The catch is that the ever-changing gravity fields yank you in the direction the arrows on the walls behind you are pointing. You’re walking along like normal, you step into a zone with inverted arrows, and suddenly Mario flips over and starts running across the ceiling.

That's how you design a game: by constantly surprising us, even when we can relate to the established rudiments. Galaxy abides by a set of rules – anything seen on-screen can be instantly, and correctly, interpreted – but it’s constantly twisting and bending those rules to suit its own means. There is rarely a time when the game isn’t throwing you a massive curve ball.

For example, how do you apply the concept of bottomless pits to a setting that is defined by its bottomlessness? By throwing black holes into the mix, of course. Every once in a while, Mario will set foot on a planet that’s hollow and rife with narrow walkways and treacherous gaps, all shot from tricky (but certainly not unworkable) camera angles, and one missed jump or poorly-placed step could send a yelping Mario tumbling into the black hole that rages in the body’s empty core. Repurposed tropes such as this establish familiarity in a universe that is altogether unfamiliar; we’re fooling around with outlandish gravitational physics the likes of which we’ve never seen, but it’s still indisputably a Mario game. Galaxy is frequently an exercise in platforming at its purest, but it just as often represents platforming at its most bizarre.

Amidst all of this chaos – the flying, the floating, the spacewalking – Galaxy occasionally reverts back to more traditional segments which showcase significantly more old-school jumping puzzles and are often accompanied by the usual ice, desert and woodland themes that we’re used to seeing. It’s as if someone made a direct sequel to Super Mario 64, physically ripped a couple of the levels out of the ground and suspended them in space. These dips into normalcy aren’t detrimental; if anything, they play the straight man to the wilder stuff that dominates the core experience of Galaxy. A typical level plays out like a blazing succession of awesome ideas, and it would almost be overwhelming if we weren’t given the opportunity to cool off every now and then.

I note with just the slightest tinge of regret that Galaxy is hardly a showcase for the Wii hardware itself. Aside from a few gimmick-based stages involving motion control and several moments of inspired brilliance in which players guide Mario from one grapple point to another at zero gravity, very little is done to make the Wii remote an integral aspect of the experience, and I can picture the game functioning well with a more traditional controller. But that, in turn, is why Galaxy works. It takes the basic mechanics that we’ve spent over a decade adapting to and applies them in ways we’ve never seen, boldly casting aside the novelties of the Wii controller in favor of longer-lasting innovations. The resulting experience is one that feels unmistakably familiar and, at the same time, unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed before. That’s Galaxy’s feat: It whisks us away to a whole new world and makes it feel every inch like home.


Suskie's avatar
Featured community review by Suskie (July 08, 2010)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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JANUS2 posted July 09, 2010:

Excellent review. I've never really felt like I've understood Super Mario Gakaxy before, but in your opening two paragraphs you set out clearly what to expect and how this game works. The rest of the review stands as a great example of how to describe platform gameplay in a way that is both easy to imagine and makes the game sound like a lot of fun. I also liked the way you analyse why the concept works rather than simply offering generic praise (this gave the review depth).

So yeah, I'm glad you wrote this. Definitely going to pick the game up this weekend.
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Suskie posted July 09, 2010:

Thanks! To answer the question you asked in my blog a while back, you can pick up SMG2 and not have to worry about catching up on much (as True did), but there's really no reason to skip the first one. It's just as brilliant.
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jiggs posted July 09, 2010:

i'm replaying this game again after beating Mario Galaxy 2 and this review is fantastic.

you can't go wrong with both games, but i like the original a tad better just because its bit more epic and fighting Bowser is more fun and challenging.
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zippdementia posted July 10, 2010:

I'll admit I was underwhelmed by Mario Galaxy 1, but you've really sold me on this.

Of course, you sold me on Alpha Protocol first, and I only have so much money...

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