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Super Mario Galaxy

Entry 5: Plumbers in Spaaaaaace…

This past week I had a house guest most of the week, leaving me with less time than usual. My guest is a fairly solid gamer, but not the kind to play the hardcore sci-fi strategy niche games I’d reviewed the last couple of weeks. So I decided to break out Super Mario Galaxy. I’d played the game a bit before, but sadly I hadn’t had access to my Wii in a long time. In fact, that system never made it out of my house; I purchased a new one when I moved here to Atlanta. New Wii meant new save file so I handed my friend a Wiimote and we got to playing.

Super Mario Galaxy

Mario. This short, chubby, Italian plumber has long been been gaming’s #1 ambassador to pop culture everywhere, having eclipsed the previous title-holder, Pac-Man, ages ago. Pac-Man ruled the arcades once, but it was Mario who conquered our home TVs in 1985. The bright, colorful, side scrolling world of Super Mario Brothers was truly a revelation to us children of the 80s. SMB was not Mario’s first game, of course, but while Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. Where both excellent arcade games, SMB was really the game changer. And I believe there lies Mario’s continued appeal; though each new Mario game in the core series builds on what has come before, Nintendo’s designers (including of course the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto) have always been willing to try new things with the ultimate mascot of gaming. And frankly, no matter what else one might think of Nintendo’s marketing strategies and corporate policies, the fact is that their core brand games usually succeed brilliantly, even when they do try new things.

Mario 64 was arguably as influential a game as the original SMB. It was hardly the first 3D game anymore than SMB was the first sidescroller, but for whatever reason it was the game that heralded the arrival of 3D as one of the primary ways to design games. By comparison, Super Mario Galaxy is perhaps not as revolutionary or influential, but it still manages to wonderfully embody the best aspects of Nintendo’s current strategy while at the same time succeeding at being an excellent “pure” gaming experience.

SMG’s “gimmick” is multi-sided, spherical worlds. Apparently inspired by the notorious Mario 128 GameCube demo, it is this “spherical” gravity centered gameplay that sets the game apart from other platformers and its own predecessors. The game is a level designer’s ultimate fantasy; every conceivable shape becomes a surface to play on. While the early levels seem inspired by The Little Prince’s tiny homeworld B-612, things quickly get ever wilder from there. Aside from the odd angles at which the action often happens, gravity manipulation and distortion quickly becomes a factor, and soon Mario is traversing spacescapes that would give MC Escher vertigo. Actually, perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the game is how quickly one adapts to the strange space it inhabits. Any feeling of discomfort at the weird angles and strange circumstances quickly passed. The game has been criticized for being too easy, but in truth I think that is a testament to the excellent level design and very tight controls. At one point I remember getting to a level that looked so insanely challenging I laughed out loud; partially at the absurdity of the setting, but partially at the realization that I was about to run through that at full speed and I also knew that somehow I’d make it; perhaps not at the my first try (I didn’t) but soon. That tightness of control, combined with the bright colors and beautifully rendered cartoony environments (truly impressive on the Wii’s hardware) makes the game a joy to play. And that’s what I meant when I called the game a “pure” gaming experience; there is a pleasure to be found merely in experiencing and traversing the environments that I can compare only to the PS3 title Flower; except that where Flower was serene, SMG adds a constant element of danger and challenge.

I must admit my gaming preferences usually steer me towards games that are high in drama or have rich, deep story lines, there is something very nice about going back and enjoying the basic pleasure of interacting with something so stimulating on a purely sensory level. A basic example of this is Mario’s spin move. It is multi directional to subtly help the player cope with having to hit enemies coming from many possible directions; it is accomplished by quickly shaking the wiimote, a gesture that works consistently, and it is accompanied by one of Mario’s yips of joy. Nothing in that basic action is revolutionary, but its plain and simple good design from start to finish.

There’s one more thing I would like to mention about the game: the cooperative multiplayer. Its an asymmetrical mode, with the primary player still playing Mario as in the singleplayer, but the second player can sit in and help by grabbing things, stunning enemies with star bits, collecting more star bits, and in general being helpful to the first player. It does make a relatively easy game even easier, true, but I cannot think of a better way to involve a casual or non gamer in a core franchise like this. My friend is not a fan of platformers or Mario in general, but she genuinely was having a good time helping me out as I tackled the game; for new players or players who frustrate easily this is perfect; they can be very helpful, but they can’t really hurt the player no mater how badly they play, and they have no avatar on screen that can be hurt by the enemies or environment. I’m hardly advocating this kind of multiplayer be added to every game, but its different and fun and very successful at doing what it was meant to do.

My hat is off (once again) to Mr. Miyamoto and the rest of Nintendo’s designers. If he continues to star in games of this caliber, I’ll be happy to allow Mario to continue his ambassadorial duties on behalf of gaming in general.

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