Saturday, August 18, 2012

GOT 'IM - Super Mario Galaxy

I began this game while house-sitting in December of last year. It was shelved for awhile, but I decided to revisit it now that I have my own place and a Wii set up. Super Mario Galaxy, after the jump.

My history with 3D Mario is... checkered; I never owned an N64 and I didn't have a GameCube until around 2006 (blah blah blah broken record). I didn't like Mario 64 DS, but I do remember thinking "holy ****" when I first saw the game in action at my friend Jay's house around 16 or 17 years ago. Seeing those bold, colorful 3D polygons for the first time was a major visual impact. But... I never experienced them on a real console (again, SM64DS has a few issues). Bottom line, while Super Mario 64 was really impressive, I had never played through or really enjoyed a 3D Mario game, although I love several of the 2D games in the series.

Then Super Mario Galaxy happened. Look, this is one of the best motherfucking Mario games ever. My most basic criterion for a platforming game is that the basic running and jumping should be fun and this is absolutely true in Galaxy - jumping, running, and flying is smooth and... well, exhilarating. There is a real, palpable feeling of joy when Mario uses one of those launch stars to zoom from planetoid to planetoid ... maybe I should explain some things.

Super Mario Galaxy begins with a Star Festival at Princess Peach's castle, commemorating the appearance of a comet every 100 years. Bowser and Bowser Jr. crash the party, abduct Peach and her entire castle, and speed off into he heavens on a pirate-spaceship flanked by flying saucers. Mario tags along, holding on to the castle for dear life, and eventually crash-lands on a place called The Observatory. The Observatory is populated by chubby star-like beings called Lumas, and presided over by the stately Princess Rosalina. Rosalina informs Mario that Bowser has been wreaking havoc throughout the galaxies far above Mushroom Kingdom recently, and Mario agrees to help restore power to the damaged Observatory by exploring nearby galaxies, eventually enabling the Observatory to travel to Bowser's headquarters and save Princess Peach. And the universe.

So that's the basic plot framework. From there, things play out not too differently from Super Mario 64 - you have a central hub with several jumping points into interesting, varied stages. The stages themselves are called Galaxies, and are generally clusters of floating islands and spherical planetoids, ranging from water galaxies to fire galaxies to haunted galaxies to candy galaxies to what have you. Each stage's objective is to obtain Power Stars, which unlock new areas in the Observatory and more galaxies to run through. There are 120 Power Stars for Mario to collect in SMG, but to challenge Bowser to a final battle you only need 60.

These galaxies are where the real fun is in Super Mario Galaxy. Running and zooming between spheres and across floating islands not unlike a delightful mash-up between Super Mario 64 and Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, and their variety is tremendous. Some galaxies can be visited multiple times for different objectives and possess secret paths for additional Power Stars, while others are good-sized obstacle courses for a Star and that's it. Later on, "prankster comets" can create new, more challenging objectives on the larger galaxies for more Power Stars (you can manipulate their appearances somewhat, but comets are generally random). As I've mentioned, the 30+ galaxies vary wildly in action, appearance, and mood, and that's awesome. I think that quality and variety of stages and environments is extremely important in almost every type of game, and Super Mario Galaxy excels in that regard.

The galaxies are great, but how is Mario? Well, now he spins. One of Mario's new Luma buddies accompanies him in his cap for Super Mario Galaxy, and he grants Mario the ability to use a spin move (a quick 720 with arms extended)that can punch enemies, activate launch stars that allow interplanetary travel, and in general is the chief "action button" in SMG other than jump. Jump is the Wii's A button and a quick shake of the Wiimote executes the spin. My wrist was fine after several long SMG sessions and you get used to the controls quickly; before long you're backflipping, triple jumping, ice-skating, and spinning on a dime. The controls work splendidly, and the platforming stays fun through the whole game.

Mario's arsenal of mushrooms, flowers, and stars takes a turn for the wacky in Super Mario Galaxy, with new items that give him ice powers, transform him into a bee, and turn invincible but harder to control. This is in addition to traditional fire flowers and mushrooms that boost Mario's health (similar to Mario 64, you have a health pie-chart that is healed with coins). Mario also collects Star Bits, rainbow-colored gems that can be exchanged to unlock new galaxies (by overstuffing Hungry Lumas) or fired using the Wiimote's trigger button, good for knocking over a Goomba or something. There are the traditional Mario question blocks and regular enemies, plus a few new ones that... probably aren't interesting enough to warrant an observation.

So there are (at least) 120 main objectives available in a game that controls well and has great variety in action and environment. Anything that falls short? Yup - boss battles. Look, the bosses are often interesting in appearance, but ALL of them are defeated with either opportune butt-stomps or spinning to knock around charging enemies or projectiles. The Bowser battles (of which there are at least four) are the same pattern of knockdown-throw-spin that are made gradually more difficult with tricky stages and faster movements. The boss battles aren't *bad*, but they're samey and never offer the variety of a rogues gallery that you'd see in a Zelda or even a Mega Man game. Mario's never been known for inventive boss encounters, though, so this isn't really a major downfall.

My biggest beef with SMG is in a few specific stages that can definitely be skipped over if you're only going for 60 stars and not the full 120 (I totally did exactly that). Any stage where you gain the power of flight to collect floating coins or need to use the Wiimote as a balance tool to run on top of giant spheres is... annoying. You forgo SMG's great normal controls for a 3D-axis motion guide that is probably fun if you're into PilotWings, but not so much if you just want to run and jump with Mario. But like I said - other than boss battles and maybe the very first few galaxies, almost any stage in Super Mario galaxy can be skipped over if you're having trouble with a particular Power Star. You only need 60, and there are 120 available (with at least 80 or 90 unlocked intuitively). Not a bad design call, Nintendo.

Before I wrap, I gotta tell you about the visuals and audio. Super Mario Galaxy is fucking gorgeous. Mario looks bright and textured, the details of the galaxies and starry backgrounds are flashy, and really everything is a beautiful candy-colored wonderland. The music, which is about half-orchestra and half-electronica, is probably my favorite Mario soundtrack ever. There are some new renditions of famous Mario songs, but my favorites are the new tracks, especially the standout Gusty Garden Galaxy theme. Everything is that around that level of quality, and I downloaded the game's soundtrack before I was even at 20 stars.

I know this sounds less like a review and more like a glowing recommendation, but that's because this is just a goddamn blog and I loved this game. I have a new favorite 3D Mario game, and maybe even an overall favorite Mario game. If you love games where you run, jump, fly, and collect MacGuffins to save a princess, then Super Mario Galaxy is the stuff of dreams. What a way to break in my Wii.

Games Beaten: 2012 Edition

1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
9. Journey
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution
13. Red Dead Redemption
14. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
15. Persona 3 FES
16. Final Fantasy XII
17. DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue
18. Super Mario Galaxy

Targets: 6/12


I'm in the very early stages of my next target game; it's been six months since my last adventure in Hyrule, so I'm refreshed and ready for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. On top of that, I'll probably still mess around with Hexyz Force on the PSP. Silly little RPG, that.

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