Plumbing the depths of space.
The late great Douglas Adams has a bit in his novel So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish in which protagonist Arthur Dent ‘angrily’ demands (of an understandably-startled waitress) “Why’s this fish so bloody good?” He’s not really angry at all, of course—quite the opposite—it’s just that he’s so momentarily overwhelmed by pleasurable sensation that he’s at a loss for any kind of composed reaction. Maybe he’s envious of the chef’s God-given skill to create such a delicacy, I don’t know, exactly—but after playing Super Mario Galaxy, I totally get it.
[image1]Mere minutes into this game, I was smiling uncontrollably, aghast with admiration… and pretty much simultaneously cursing Miyamoto-san’s name for the next fifteen hours or so. Super Mario Galaxy is so polished, solid, engaging, (re-)inventive, visually-dazzling, good-natured, and all-the-while evocative of the standard-setting Super Mario 64 that it’s almost…well, irritating. How does he keep creating these kinds of experiences? Shouldn't we be sick to death of the Italian plumber by now? To put it another way: Why is this fish so goddamned good?
It’s a typical setup (although in Miyamoto’s hands, it doesn’t feel ‘typical’): Long-time baddie Bowser has chosen a millennial star festival as the moment to launch his perennial assault on the Mushroom Kingdom—but this time, he’s dreaming Big. His fleet of ships rips Princess Peach’s castle right out of the ground, and hauls it away (you’d think the Princess would have filed a restraining order against the old Bowmeister by now). Bowser’s nefarious goal is nothing less than the creation of his own splinter universe. Time to don those time-honored plumber's duds—plus some new ones—and kick some candy-colored ass. In new ways. In space. Can you gimme Hallelujah?
The summation “Mario 64 Redux, in space, but cooler” might seem facile…but it’s also true. Super Mario Galaxy has the same sprawling, magical feel of that ancestral game of yore—lots of inventive gameplay, lots of places to go, and environmental charm to burn. With the help of starlike whoozits called Lumas, Mario meets Rosalina, the keeper of the Comet Observatory spacecraft - a base from which the player can view and travel to distant galaxies - with the ultimate goal of chasing after Bowser, beating the various galaxy boss stages, and retrieving 120 Stars (in the age-old fashion, it’s possible to squeak through the game by acquiring as few as 60—however, you’ll be missing much of what the game has to offer).
From the Observatory, you can access multiple galaxies containing space-based sub-environs, including a vast variety of gameplay offerings: Clusters of small planetoids with hazardous black hole centers (think The Little Prince, with a Schwarzschild radius), Golf courses in the vein of Super Monkey Ball, 2-D side-scrolling challenges, constantly-reconfiguring computer-chip platforms, massive galactic honeycombs (with Mario dressed suspiciously like Bumblebee Man), challenges against (or as) Boos…the roster is satisfyingly, mind-numbingly diverse.
The game makes the most of the space-based/planetoid environments by focusing on camera-based and gravitic elements. As Mario runs south of a given planetoid’s ‘gravitational equator,” he’s sometimes actually running upside-down in relation to the camera and the player. It’s fun to watch some players start to unconsciously tilt their heads in response to this orientation-based upset, like bowlers in an alley trying to nudge an errant ball to the left by leaning to the right.
[image2]In addition, other planetoids have features like carved channels with opposing gravitational fields (for you grizzled video veterans, think Gravitar), outsized enemies that tower over their home planetoids’ very horizons, weird geometries menaced by rolling threats, constant salvos of circling, seeking projectiles, and special star-structures that fling Mario up to higher platforms, or even hurl him out into space (in a way very redolent of the dreamlike ‘flight sequences’ of the classic Super Mario 64).
Every time you remember to breathe, Super Mario Galaxy introduces some new, wonderful, weird-ass mechanic that keeps the experience fresh and interesting - even the opening sequence has an engrossing, magical, stars-falling-from-the-sky quality which owes as much to The Starry Night as it does to anything Nintendo or Mario. Whatever Miyamoto-san is taking before he goes to sleep and dreams his strange and wonderful dreams, I want some.
In addition to the aforementioned Bee getup, Mario has a variety of other costumes he can don for new abilities, including the ability to launch fireballs, freeze water, and springy-sproing himself to higher elevations. His coolest one allows him to take the insubstantial form of a ghostly Boo—still wearing the signature cap, of course—cruising around in discorporeal form and ignoring seemingly-solid barriers.
The controls are responsive, even the shake-the-Wiimote scheme that activates Mario’s base spin attack. In addition to some scant-but-servicable motion-control gameplay elements, the Wiimote can be pointed at the screen and used as a sort of candy-colored particle accelerator to fire star bits (both ammo and money in the Super Mario Galaxy ‘verse) at enemies.
[image3]In an admittedly-thin (but arguably-functional) bid for multiplayer value, a second, less-committed ‘player’ (i.e., a half-comatose drinking-buddy or girlfriend who doesn’t feel quite right about leaving you alone with a videogame for whatever remains of the night) can use an additional Wiimote—of course you have an additional Wiimote, you dork, you—to provide some pinpoint star-bit support-fire. It’s not a deep or forced ‘multiplayer’ element…and the game as a whole is more-or-less unaffected by it.
The negatives? They’re few, far between…and something of stretch to even bring up at all. There’s the traditional Mario-esque lack of voice-work (beyond the occasional effortful sound-byte) for all the characters in the Mario ‘verse—but even if they were there, they’d probably seem lame and wrong (if not downright blasphemous) by this point. Control of the ‘Spring Suit’ is a little wonky…but a ‘Spring Suit’ would be wonky, wouldn’t it? The player’s control of the camera is limited…but the fact is, it works superbly most of the time on its own. It might be ‘too easy’ to squeak out of the game with a mere 60 Stars rather than the full 120 Stars…but then again, whose fault is that? Damn straight.
Bottom line, in primary colors, it’s the best Wii game going, period (surpassing even the recent, excellent Zack & Wiki—no small feat). It’s got megatons of style, inventiveness, playability and replayability…and all the while, it still manages to feel like sunshine, candy and the glory days of 3D console videogaming yore. Why is this candy-colored fish so bloody good? Pick up your Wiimote and find out for yourself—you won’t Wiigret it.