IGN Review of Super Mario Galaxy
Mario may be short, but he's not short on starring roles in cherished Nintendo videogames. The iconic mascot's long resume features some of the greatest platformers to ever grace any home console or handheld, including hits like Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine - the latter of which was met by mixed critical reaction. The funny thing is, for its few flaws - a sometimes-troublesome camera and unpredictable framerate, not to mention some of the worst secondary character designs we've seen - Sunshine was still a remarkable game. In fact, as far as platformers go, it was unequaled on GameCube. And yet, as a follow-up to Mario 64, which simultaneously brought Mario to the third dimension and revolutionized the genre, it felt anticlimactic. Some gamers compared Mario 64 to the original Super Mario Bros. and Sunshine to Super Mario Bros 2, a sequel that, while very good, wasn't everything it could've been. Well, if that's the case, let us humbly submit Super Mario Galaxy as Wii's very own version of Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World. Just as these classics were the pinnacles of 2D platforming in their respective eras, so is Mario's trek through space and beyond the pinnacle of three-dimensional run-and-jump gameplay.
Galaxy would seem to be the odd duck of Nintendo's 3D Mario trilogy. Both Sunshine and Mario 64 before it took place on land and water and not within the depths of space. But when you really compare and contrast the three games, you quickly discover that Galaxy and not Sunshine has more in common with the Nintendo 64 classic. It's not just some gimmicky marketing term designed to boost sales - Galaxy really does feel like the "spiritual sequel' to Mario 64. Take, for example, the setting and characters. In Sunshine, Mario journeyed to Isle Delfino and met up with the very lame Pianta, big-nosed characters whose heads sprouted trees (don't ask because we don't know). Save for more traditional (and rare) bonus stages, the majority of levels in the GCN game featured an island motif and many of the places and faces from the Mushroom Kingdom were nowhere to be found. Not so in Galaxy. Although Mario does indeed soar over planets and floats between stars, he also visits locales seemingly ripped directly from previous outings. You will see recognizable characters, levels, upgrades and challenges, yes, but you will also jump, swing, glide, and fly your way through an overwhelming amount of completely new scenarios and objectives. It is a marriage of old and new - a theme that extends beyond presentation and into the gameplay mechanics - but we'll get to that.
Mario's new platformer romp was created by Nintendo's EAD Tokyo studio, whose first project was DK Jungle Beat, a critically acclaimed flop. (If you haven't yet played it, please reconsider because it's both innovative and pretty.) The developer's attention to detail is well represented by Galaxy. The title begins with a predictable, but thankfully brief storybook introduction and jumps you immediately into a gorgeous re-imagining of the Mushroom Kingdom at night. The Toads are all celebrating a great festival when long-time nemesis Bowser and his fleet appear in the sky above and wage war on the landscape. Before Mario can rescue the princess, her castle is literally ripped from the ground - she still in it - and whisked away into outer space; the Italian plumber sent falling back toward the atmosphere. In direct contrast to Sunshine, whose opening cinematic actually featured a sleep-inducing pre-rendered Mario idle animation, of all things, the intro sequence in Galaxy uses the game engine alone and it's far more dazzling. In fact, from the start, Galaxy is the first title that really shows off what Wii can do. As Mario dodges oncoming fireballs, the landscape deforms before him, particles explode in every direction, a nearby lake reflects and refracts light, smoke billows from ruined houses, and lighting effects illuminate the foreground. All of these visual effects are complemented by some truly outstanding art and choreography. The production values powering this latest platformer are exceptionally high. To quote Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, you will say wow.
Mario eventually comes to the game's hub world, which is more or less a giant spaceship equipped with several rooms, all of them doorways to different galaxies. A Peach look-a-like named Rosalina is the keeper of this place and she has a slightly-disturbing back story told through very basic and boring storybook cut-scenes. Frankly, her sad tale seems irrelevant to the game, especially since she's ultimately a bit player - Mario is out to find and save Peach, after all. Thankfully, though, the storyline is not forced upon you. If you want to know about Rosalina, you're free to visit the library room in the hub world, at which point you can sit through a series of Elebits-like reveals, all of them seeming to clash with the otherwise cheerful and colorful nature of the platformer. If you just want to play, hey, that's fine, too - just stay out of the library. That Nintendo has at least given you the choice is very much appreciated, as the snippets of exposition would have otherwise truly broken the momentum of the platforming.
So if you've read this far and you're still wondering what Super Mario Galaxy is, we offer you the simplest of explanations. It is Super Mario 64 in outer space. It is also a fantastic evolution of the N64 revolution and thus, you will not find a better platformer in this galaxy or the next. As Mario, you will explore some 40-plus highly different galaxies, each a contained world with as many as six or seven challenges, all resulting in stars. You will jump to platforms, glide across chasms, spin through star slings, speed into space, walk atop and underneath pillars, fight bosses and explore in different gravities with very different physics -- all of the above ridiculously entertaining.
Like many Nintendo fans, we had some initial concerns about whether or not the stages in Galaxy would ever amount to anything beyond tiny floating spheres in succession, but having finished the game with the majority of the stars (you can technically complete it with only 60, but you'll want to try for 120 and the ultimate unlockable), we can safely state that nothing is lost and everything is gained. The big open worlds are there, but you will love platforming between the scattered debris in the Space Junk galaxy just as much as you will enjoy buzzing up a massive green hillside as Bee Mario in the Honeycomb Galaxy. Indeed, whether you're ice skating down a frozen pond as Ice Mario, using a fire flower upgrade to blast through Goombas in a 2D sand stage, springing upward over skyscraper-sized hurdles with another upgrade in a toy-themed level, or traveling to wholly original galaxies, none of which ever look or feel repetitive, you will be perpetually blown away by the sheer selection and execution in Galaxy. Our single complaint is that the quest to 60 stars isn't nearly as challenging as we'd have liked. Worse, some of the boss fights, including the climactic final battle, border on easy. That being true, those who go for 120 stars will find the overall length and difficulty significantly ramped up.
When we first set eyes on and played Super Mario Galaxy, we were hooked. Here was a game that made use of Wii's features, but didn't abuse them. Too many times we encounter products that fall into the vast, gimmicky abyss because they are so concentrated on using the Wii remote that they fail to use the Wii remote well; or worse, in order to use the Wii remote, the games in question have been dumbed down to a point that they are too simplistic to offer any real depth. In Galaxy, you control Mario with the nunchuk's analog stick, but you can pick up star bits and influence objects in the universe itself with the Wii remote. Nintendo's remote is also utilized to execute Mario's spin, an integral maneuver in this platformer. It is, again, that careful marriage of old and new - in this case, classic analog control with new pointer mechanics that actually enhance the experience. The configuration offers a great deal of control over Mario, who can effortlessly run and jump through environments even as you point at and interact with items and enemies on-screen using the Wii remote. And very much like Mario 64, simply running from Point A to Point B can be fun due in large to how responsive the plumber is -- you will be stringing together triple-jumps and long jumps, not to mention mid-air spins, as you go.
Somewhat surprisingly, Galaxy also incorporates some genuine motion control and it too is well implemented. In a manta ray water race, you will hold the Wii remote normally and twist your wrist left or right as though turning a key into a lock in order to steer the animal. In another, Mario rides atop a glass ball and you maneuver the object by holding the Wii remote like a flight stick, pushing forward or pulling backward to advance or backtrack. Seldom will you encounter levels that require you to play so differently, but when you do, you will appreciate the dramatic change of pace.
Way back when Mario first made the jump to 3D, developers seemed unanimous in their support of manually controlled camera systems in games, but these days opinions on the subject are starting to change again. Some studios believe that games, like movies, should lead players and not the other way around. Galaxy not only functions, but largely flourishes using an auto camera system. The setup is partly a success because some of the levels in the game are comprised of smaller objects -- spheres, cylinders, random space structures -- and thus easy to navigate without fear of the view being obstructed, and partly because Mario can walk in any direction, be it left, right, or upside-down, and the camera will always follow. It's easy to downplay the camera system for the game. After all, when so many of the levels are in wide-open space, why would you need a manual camera? But Galaxy's auto-camera is highly intelligent, smartly following from the appropriate angle regardless of Mario's positioning and pulling back when necessary to show scope or to reveal points of levels that need to be seen in order to safely progress. Consider one of our favorite maneuvers, if you will. You're able to run and jump off the ledge of a world, at which point Mario will momentarily launch into space before the planet's gravitational force pulls him back to the ground -- on the other side, of course. The camera follows all of this without so much as a hiccup, cinematically going from right-side-up to upside-down and back up again. Seeing is believing and we highly recommend downloading our video review after you've finished reading our critique.
You can in some situations center the camera with the tap of a button, but not always, and as smart as the system is, it's not perfect. Every so often, particularly in larger environments, you will find yourself in a situation where the camera isn't quite right -- never bad, mind you, but just short of ideal. When that happens and you can't center yourself, you have no recourse, which is unfortunate. This happens so infrequently that were it a species, it would certainly be endangered, and yet we have to note it because it interferes with gameplay progression during those rare moments when, say, you have to run Mario toward the screen for a few seconds before the auto-camera wakes up again.
Unlike Zelda, which looked like a great GameCube game, Galaxy looks like a spectacular Wii endeavor. Never before have you seen a rendition of Mario so detailed and well animated, and the same is true of just about every character in the game, particularly Bowser, whose funky red fur waggles in the wind and whose fire distorts the screen. The galaxies are so incredibly varied -- floating grassy planets, lava worlds, ice worlds, space meteors, ships, deserts, water worlds, giant mechanical contraptions -- that you will regularly be amazed by the diversity and the presentation. These worlds are brought to life with incredible art and a host of cutting-edge (on Wii) graphic effects to create beautifully shimmering water, planets whose cracked surfaces are geometrical and not textural and whose skins are blanketed in specular highlights and reflections. Heat distortion is commonplace in hot environments and stunning particle effects drown out every occasion. The title runs at 60 frames per second with some dips and supports both 16:9 widescreen and progressive-scan modes. It is, very easily, Wii's prettiest game and hopefully a great teaser for products to come.
Unfortunately, Galaxy adheres to Nintendo tradition and features scarce voice work. A letter from Princess Peach is acted out, but even this audio is muted by the hub world's theme music. We tend to gripe about the Big N's refusal to voice its characters a lot -- it was a point we made in our review of Twilight Princess, for instance, and we deducted from the final aural score because of it. So if you're a die-hard fanboy, you're undoubtedly rolling your eyes now and waiting for us to launch into another tirade. It's not going to happen, though. This is because the music and sound effects in Galaxy are so exceptional that we're forced to ignore any voice deficiencies and award the game a perfect 10 in audio, anyway. Not only are Mario's traditional calls dead on, but sound effects are well designed and punchy. Meanwhile, the music, much of which is fully orchestrated, is absolutely superb -- some of the best in any Nintendo game to date (though we're sure Super Smash Bros. Brawl will ultimately take top honors). The title features a robust selection of old and new scores that so brilliantly complement the platforming action and shower you in nostalgia that we're still hoping for an official soundtrack release.
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