Super Mario Galaxy Review

August 30, 2008

Let's get serious for a moment and discuss the latest major Mario game, of which much has been said.  Now it's my turn to weigh in.  Super Mario Galaxy is the third installment in the mini-series of Mario's 3D adventure titles, following the much beloved Mario 64 and oft-criticized Mario Sunshine.  Galaxy has been said to restore the mini-series to its former glory and to be a must-have title for the Wii, but will it pass a close inspection by this well-traveled gamer?  Let's see, as I put this out of this world adventure through its paces.

I'll score on a scale of 10.

Gameplay: Let's get to this score later, m'kay?

Like Mario 64 and Sunshine before it, Mario Galaxy is a 3D adventure in which Mario will have to travel to a series of mini-worlds in search of Stars, of which we'll need a certain number out of 120 in order to access the final area.  As in Mario Sunshine, when Mario enters a world you'll have to select the Star he wants to quest for off of a menu, and then only that Star will be available as the world will change accordingly.  Each world is made up of missions, and to access a later mission you'll have to clear the previous ones, so each world has a definite progression.  Unlike in Mario Sunshine, where Mario needed to collect the first 7 Stars in all 7 worlds, Mario is free to collect any of the Stars in Galaxy until he has attained the necessary number, so while some Stars may remain inaccessible until you collect previous ones, you won't be stuck in this game if a particular Star remains out of your reach.  This gameplay mechanic, of being able to collect the Stars you want, returns from Mario 64 and is very much welcomed back.

The Star-collecting concept may be familiar, but the mechanics of going about doing so are quite different.  Mario 64 and Sunshine typically threw Mario into large worlds and challenged him to find the Stars that were scattered around.  Oftentimes the act of actually reaching Stars was not too difficult, but figuring out where they were and what to do once you'd found them was the bread and butter of those games.  Mario Galaxy takes a much more linear approach.  Much of the time, there's only one path that Mario can take.  This path may be riddled with challenges and obstacles, but there's little question of where he was to go.  If he can overcome the barriers in his way, he'll get that Star, with no search time involved.

Those gamers looking specifically for an open-ended treasure hunt will be disappointed by this, but the fact is that this style of gameplay more closely mirrors that of the older titles like Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World than Mario 64 did.  The older titles were also linear; it was primarily a matter of jumping over pits and enemies as you moved left to right, level after level.  Mario 64 is a classic in its own right, but by removing many of those challenges and replacing them with a "figure out where you need to go" atmosphere, it really changed up the series formula.  I think the case could be made that if the familiar characters were removed, Mario 64 would be difficult to identify as being in the same series as older Mario games.

Not so with Galaxy.  It doesn't often require the same kind of precise sequences of jumps that the older Mario games did, but it does mostly have gamers following a set path.  The game does a great job of masking this fact, though.  Even though Mario is funneled along in a particular direction, the game still feels very 3D... in fact, possibly even more 3D than any other game.  Not only can Mario move left and right, to and from the screen, but he also can run completely around platforms in many of the worlds, each one of those platforms being its own tiny planet.  It's a very creative and well done gameplay mechanic that also serves to disguise the fact that ultimately there is only one direction you can progress in.  Even with my pointing it out to you, it still is going to feel as though Mario Galaxy is large and full of possibilities.  Super Mario Galaxy may just be the ultimate combination of 3D and 2D adventuring, with the grand expanse and wonder of a 3D world, but the careful guidings of a 2D sidescroller.

Mario Galaxy combines many familiar concepts with new gameplay mechanics.  In addition to being able to run all around platforms, there's the new Star Spin move, activated with a simple shake of the controller, that just seems to fit like a glove with the Mario series.  There's also special control schemes such as when Mario is riding on a manta ray down a water slide and you must use the Wii-Mote like a joystick, new and returning power-ups, and Star Bits.  And oh, those Star Bits... For such a relatively minor element of the game, I could spend a lot of time talking about those.  These are essentially little glowing lights that can be collected simply by pointing the Wii-Mote at them, which is super convenient and never a hassle.  They're attractive, often forming delightful constellations in the distance, and are rewarding to collect.  In addition to being able to fire them as projectiles or feed them to certain characters, Mario also will receive an extra life each time he collects 50... which should be pretty often.  The bottom line here is that all these innovative gameplay concepts work well with the game, rarely feel forced, and combine to create this great package.  Just the fact that I can gush about a minor element like Star Bits, while almost entirely passing over power-ups, just shows you how many wondrous things are held in this game.

So what score would I give Mario Galaxy's gameplay?  That may be obvious by now, but let's keep some mystery in this and leave that to the end...

Story: 4

One day as Star Bits are falling from the sky, Bowser comes 'round in his airship and kidnaps Peach, taking her into space.  Oh, and he stole all the Power Stars from this Cosmic Observatory thing and wants to rule the universe.  Mario is blasted into the nether-regions of space by a Magikoopa, and ultimately makes it to this Observatory.  Then he spends the rest of the game collecting Stars so that he can power the Observatory, confront Bowser, and rescue Peach... and save the universe or whatever.

It's the same story once again, even if it is on a more epic scale, so I can't give it a great score.  It certainly does serve to get the player going, so it's functional.  Despite the linear gameplay, there's not a lot of checkpoints Mario has to pass through where Nintendo could've done things to expand the story, like could be done in a game like the recent Zelda titles where Nintendo knows where the player will go and in what order.  Mario is required to clear stages belonging to Bowser and Bowser Jr. in a fixed order, so the chance for story-furthering cutscenes did exist, but that's just not what these Mario games are about.  I wouldn't play this game for the story, but it's not a deterrent from the fun in any way.

Graphics: 9

The terrain and backgrounds are just beautiful, and there's a ton of color in the game, not the least of which is those brilliant Star Bits that can be found everywhere.  The character models don't seem to have been updated very much since Mario Sunshine, and in the few scenes where you get a super closeup, Mario looks fuzzy, like his skin is actually skin-colored fur.  I took off a point to denote the imperfections in the character models, but really, there's not much to complain about here.  It's as close to jaw-dropping as I've seen on the Wii.

Music: 8

Well, I'm very tough on the music section because I'm always looking for great videogame songs.  Mario Galaxy has excellent sound quality and orchestrated music, but it doesn't have many really great songs.  It does have some, most notabley the final Bowser stage and the Bowser battle theme, but for most of the game the songs I actually enjoyed most were the remakes of classic themes, like when I accessed the Sweet Treat Galaxy early in the game and was greated by the obstacle course theme from Mario 3.

All the music fits the area where it plays really well, and there's a lot of variety.  As opposed to Mario 64, where four of the worlds all had the same theme, most of Mario Galaxy's 15 major worlds have a theme that does not play in any of the other major worlds.  There also is a number of songs that will play in specific spots in the major worlds, so the music changes on the fly, or in the many minor worlds that you'll come across.

For having a lack of songs I can add to my list of videogame greats, I'm giving only an 8, but when you play this game you won't be cheated on the tunes.

Control: 10

Control is so seamless in this game that I almost forgot to write about it all.  I was up to Fun Factor at the bottom before I remembered to come back and do this.  Mario Galaxy does a lot of innovative things with the controls.  Innovative as it relates to control can often equate to unnecessary or clumsy, but everything works in Galaxy.  It's a joy to shake the Wii-Mote or Nunchuck to pull off a Star Spin - a versatile new jump move that feels like it could be added seamlessly to any other Mario game - and in terms of funcionality, it has never been easier to pull off strings of wall jumps, long jumps, and backflips.  There are numerous instances in this game that feel like they ought to have been difficult, and really look impressive, but you can pull them off in a snap just because the control works so well.

The ability to shoot Star Bits as bullets does seem a little forced on the series, as shooting projectiles other than fireballs is not a common element in Mario games, but it does have its uses and even allows for a second player to help out.  One fun new control scheme is that when Mario collects a Fire Flower (Yes, it's finally back and is part of the most robust roster of power-up items since Mario 3), you can throw those flaming pyrospheres with a flick of the wrist.  This is another feature that would work well in any other Mario game.  Mario Galaxy is flawless in terms of having the controls work the way they should, being innovative, and feeling like all the moves belong in the series.  The best controls quickly become second-nature, and these definitely do that.  If you think about them at all, it's only because pulling off the Star Spin is so fun.

Characters: 8

Mario Galaxy has a better cast of characters than either of its predecessors.  Mario 64 had a bare-bones cast that really did not include very many returning characters just due to having a general lack of characters overall.  Mario Sunshine had a larger cast of characters than Mario 64 and gave us series mainstays like Bowser Jr. (though that's a bad thing), Toadsworth, and Petey Piranha, but replaced familiar characters like Goombas and Troopas- big mistake!  Galaxy returns to using familiar characters in addition to new ones, and has more familiar characters than Mario 64 did, including characters like Magikoopa and Dry Bones in their first 3D adventure.

Unfortunately, those characters I just named, who I knew about before playing from the promos, are pretty much the only familiar characters making their first 3D adventure appearance.  I was disappointed that there were not more such characters.  There's a decent cast of newcomers, but I don't know how many of them were interesting enough to appear again.  Rosalina, guardian of the Cosmic Observatory, already has made an appearance in Mario Kart Wii, but I actually don't care for her as I think she bears too striking a resemblance to Peach, both in appearance and in her pure, noble character.  She was decent enough in Galaxy, but she's not especially interesting and I'd be fine with her not appearing again.

On the bright side, Galaxy does include a certain character who has been conspicuously absent from this game's predecessors.  I knew about this, too, before playing, but still was very happy to see this.  Big yayz for that.

Worlds: 9

There's a ton of variety in the worlds, both in terms of landscape and gameplay.  In terms of landscape, worlds range from familiar themes like grassy or desert to original themes like a world made up of space debris and a world made of cake.  In terms of gameplay, 15 major worlds contain 3 main missions and some other Stars to be collected, while a host of minor worlds contain just 1 Star each but may confront Mario with just about anything...

The variety of worlds in this game is just astounding, as it should be, since this game takes place all across the universe!  Given that, it might be argued that there should only be original landscapes, because we could have had deserts and such back on a familiar planet.  But I don't think it would have been wise to discard all familiar level concepts in favor of only new ones, which might have come to seem unreasonably random if not for some grounding.  Mario Galaxy has an excellent balance of new world themes and classics, and it's not as though the classic landscapes lack any originality.  Mario Galaxy's original gameplay makes those world entertaining in new ways as well, as with so many new gameplay elements, this game carries with it an anything goes dynamic.

Mario Galaxy does take a lot of criticism over the size of the worlds, which, it is true, appear to be much smaller than in Mario 64 and Sunshine.  Mario Galaxy doesn't have the sprawling worlds that its predecessors did, as it turns away from the mechanic of having to search over large terrain in favor of simply having to overcome the challenges in the way.  Mario Galaxy doesn't lose any length over this, as I'll discuss later, but yes, it does not have the large open spaces that series veterans have come to expect.  It makes an attempt to have some larger areas, which adds variety to the game but may also highlight the facts that even these areas are not really that expansive.  This may cause some gamers to understandably rank Mario Galaxy's levels as being worse than that of its prequels, but it's not due to lazy level design but rather due to a new direction in gameplay.

Difficulty: 7

Mario Galaxy definitely comes in on the easy side.  Most primary missions are pretty simple - not short, but not all that challenging either, especially considering extra lives are easy to come by and Mario will respawn close to where he failed.  In addition to many missions being easy, the number of Stars that Mario needs out of the 120 isn't likely to force gamers to struggle through to get Stars they were having trouble with, just to reach the minimum requirements for beating the game.  Even the final battle is not much of a struggle.

Collecting all 120 Stars is, of course, a more difficult feat than just scraping by, but not as difficult as in Mario 64, where the difficulty of later worlds really got ratcheted up.  Mario Galaxy does have some legitimately difficult challenges, but they're pretty few.  This makes it a great game for casual players, as it is easy to go get into, but it could leave players looking for a challenge feeling as though they've been overlooked.  Mario Galaxy could have presented tougher challenges late, and Nintendo did miss a real chance to deliver a tougher final battle.  In order to see the full ending, you must clear the final level and battle again after getting all 120 Stars.  Since Nintendo makes you do this after you've competed all other challenges, it could have been a chance to revamp the final level for one last major obstacle in your way of achieving total victory over the game; but instead Nintendo left the final area just the same as before.  The difficulty, then, may be a disappointment to experienced gamers, though it's hard to deny that this is a fun experience even as experts will effortlessly sail through.

Lifespan: 8

This is not a short game, offering up just as much gameplay as Mario 64 despite the fact that the worlds do not look large.  Despite the lack of expansive areas, there are many small areas in each world, and they add up.  After you get all 120 Stars there is something of a second mode, which to be honest there's not a ton of good reasons to play through, but hardcore Mario fans probably will.  There's not a lot to be done other than collecting as many Stars as possible, but still, that's going to take you plenty of time.

Where the game falls short is the replay value.  Other than possibly that second mode, there's little reason to come back to the game after finishing.  The main problem is that a lot of elements from early in the game, such as bosses and specific challenges, make a comeback later in the game.  One boss has to be fought four times over the course of getting all 120 Stars.  While playing through the game the first time, there continued to be enough elements to keep things interesting so that I did not feel like the game was becoming repetitive, even if I did feel some minor disappointment at times that there could not have been all-new challenges.  Mario Galaxy remained a delight to play all the way through the first time, but then, when thinking about playing it again, it is difficult to rationalize doing so when I've already completed many of its challenges multiple times.  Like Super Paper Mario, but for different reasons, Mario Galaxy is a game that leaves me wanting to replay it, but doesn't give me enough reason to actually do so.

Mario 64 really does remain the best of the three in terms of lifespan, and it may be that it will be very difficult to surpass it.  That game doesn't get as repetitive on the way through and keeps a very light atmosphere, so even as I've played it many times already, it feels like something I could very easily pick up again.  As weird as it may seem, glitches and rumors also play a huge factor in its longevity.  Mario 64 is full of odd errors that don't impact the main gameplay, but it's a lot of fun to come back and exploit being able to jump up through bridges and get Mario's polygonal nose stuck in a door.  That game also has more rumors about it than perhaps any other, including of course all the supposed ways to unlock Luigi.  Most of these rumors are surely false, but it still can be a lot of fun to try.  Mario Galaxy may not have been around long enough for many rumors to sprout, and the lack of glitches probably creates a much more seamless adventure the first time through, but it's a game you'll play once or twice, and then, though you'll remember it fondly, may never touch again.

Fun Factor!: 10

Well, this section that I stole from Nintendo Power is really mostly the gameplay with some possible adjustments from the other sections.  Among all other sections there was just one perfect score, but that was in control, a very important category that could easily ruin an otherwise well designed game.  Certainly that was not the case with Galaxy.  Although the other sections received deductions, with story getting a paultry 4 out of 10, they all were for minor gripes.  And the gameplay?  Had I scored it up top, it would have been a definite 10.  Some players might have preferred the explore on your own style of Mario 64, but whether or not you think Galaxy's format is ideal, the execution of it is brilliant and certainly has merits of its own.

Super Mario Galaxy was a joy to play from start to finish, with more awe-inspiring moments than just about any other game I've played and nary a frustrating instance.  My biggest gripe of them all is that there was not more of it.  240 Stars, all of them original, would've been good!  We didn't get that, but a perfect score for fun is absolutely deserved.


I was very much amused by Sgt. Fly's comment that it makes as little sense to own the Wii and not Mario Galaxy, as it does to own Mario Galaxy without the Wii.  I would not go so far in my recommendation just because I understand the wide demographics of people who own a Wii, but that statement is not too far off the mark.  If you consider yourself a fan of games, you must buy this one, and it makes no difference whether you're a Mario fan.  This game may just make you one.  It's not a hardcore game and may not be what all gamers would say is their most preferred, but it has the kind of entertainment value that all gamers should be looking for.

New and unconventional gamers, who have the Wii for titles like Wii Sports, may be reluctant to make the jump, but if you're going to do it, this would be a fine game to start with because it's not very difficult, is very easy to control, and really shows all aspects of adventure gaming in as positive a light as can be.  These gamers could be excused if they choose not to add Galaxy to their Wii collection, yet I find it difficult to imagine anyone who has played a videogame with any level of satisfaction, and who would not get enjoyment out of this game.  If you don't think you care for these kinds of games now, your first step into this game's first major galaxy may just make you change your mind...

Super Mario Galaxy, at least on the initial playthrough, is one of the most fun games of all time.  With this game alone, Nintendo would have dispelled many of players' concerns about the Wii.  Probably I still will retain a healthy skepticism about gameplay and control innovations, even with other Wii games, but there's nothing to scoff about here, and anyone who thought the Mario series was waning after Mario Sunshine will certainly have to think again.  I would recommend this game to anyone, and at this point can only wonder, what's next...?

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