Trite end-of-year thing #5: Super Mario Galaxy

I’m still working through Half-Life 2, although I have no idea why anymore. I have this constant sensation that the developers kept saying, “Hey, this part is starting to feel pretty fun. We’d better add something stupid and annoying to balance that out.” People talk about “balanced” games, but I don’t think that’s what they mean.

But maybe I should talk about a game I enjoy with barely any reservations to speak of, instead.

Super Mario Galaxy
Nintendo | Wii | Platformer

If Super Mario Galaxy were music, it would be a song by that one band you used to love — you know, the one that pretty much defined your tastes when you were growing up, whose every new release was a revelation that made you say, yeah, this is what music is about. But that band changed as the years went by. Maybe they decided to soften up and go the adult contemporary route, catering to the safe security of soccer moms and afternoon radio. Or maybe they simple settled for rehashing the same material over and over again, offering up competent work without its former bite. Or maybe they just settled for remastering and rereleasing their back catalog titles over and over again.

But then that band releases this one song, this single masterpiece, and suddenly you’re reminded of why you loved them so much — why you were so passionate about their music in the first place. For a few minutes, it’s all there: the old creative spark, the virtuosic sensation that this is what music is about. And while you’re happy, you can’t help but feel a sort of bittersweet regret. Because you know that this song is the exception, now, not the rule.

Still, though. What a great song.

Super Mario Galaxy is a game that has become unstuck in time — it is, seemingly, a relic of a very different era. One where running and jumping and simple, cartoonish play mechanics and aesthetics were what sold. One where Nintendo saw the Mario brand as the perfect receptacle for its innovative, forward-thinking concepts rather than by-the-numbers spin-offs. One where a game could feel at once wholly fresh and comfortably familiar. Mario Galaxy is too straightforward, too earnest for this world… but the world a better place for its having existed, albeit in a tiny, insignificant way.

It’s a game that begs many questions. For instance, how did they get the bumblebee so fluffy? No, wait, I mean… how is it possible to recapture the spirit of the classic Mario games, all the way down to the way the classic Mario games were so frequently inventive and unpredictable? Isn’t there something inherently self-contradictory about creating something so rooted in tradition yet so new?

If there is, Nintendo never got the memo. Super Mario Galaxy is quintessentially a Mario game, building on the definitive-but-dated gameplay of Super Mario 64 in the same way that Super Mario Bros. 3 built on the original Super Mario Bros. The fundaments are accounted for — in fact, the fundaments are largely unchanged, 11 years later. Mario’s move set doesn’t really feature anything wildly new or different. If anything, his abilities have been pared down from 2002’s Super Mario Sunshine. No jetpack, no water cannon. His punches are now effectively automated, a skill performed contextually when near a helpless foe rather than the rather un-Mario-like three-mash combo from 64. His one new ability is a spin attack… which is basically a more useful version of a technique picked up Super Mario World.

But Galaxy is smoother than 64 or Sunshine; the camera moves more intuitively, Mario himself moves more fluidly, and some of the basic issues of 3D platforming are quietly negated by subtle tweaks which minimize the frustration that defined the latter portions of his N64 debut. The game is considerably easier to play than its predecessors — not in a dumbed-down challenge sense, though, but rather in the sense that Mario always seems to do exactly what you want him to do. You may need to pay attention to what you’re doing in certain tricky situations, but the guesswork and trial-and-error have been purged from the gameplay. This Mario represents the work of people who really and truly understand how gameplay with a two-dimensional origin should work when thrust onto an extra axis.

The pure simplicity of moving Mario about freed Nintendo’s design slaves to making the world around him interesting. Galaxy has probably inspired more people to hate Sunshine than it really should have, but the newfound, revisionist disdain for the series’ previous entry comes down to this single core axiom. In Sunshine, Mario could do interesting things in dull places; in Galaxy, Mario can do fairly conservative things in increasingly interesting places. Sure, the action throws him a few curveballs here and there — high-speed underwater maneuvers via turtle shell, odd and sometimes impractical power-ups — but the joy of this adventure comes in seeing what unexpected things each new level will do. This ultimately includes (but is not limited to) flight, reversed gravity, 2D platforming, Mario 3-style airships and some of the best boss encounters to grace a Nintendo game in ages. Mario’s methods of negotiating these ever-shifting hazards never really changes throughout the course of the game, so you can spend more time appreciating the brilliant environs you’re attempting to conquer.

Ultimately, the content of the game is almost a moot point in this “favorites of 2007” listing. Galaxy’s true appeal is that it simply works. Despite the complexity of the worlds Mario explores, despite the game’s gleeful tendency to literally turn your expectations for a 3D platformer on their head, Galaxy is always intuitive, a pick-up-and-play experience for anyone. That makes it unique among the year’s big-name titles, and worthy of retrospective praise regardless of its actual content. But the fact that you’re picking up and playing through such engrossing, inventive and often deviously challenging worlds… well, that’s what makes it a Mario game in the truest sense.

And it even manages to integrate motion controls in a remarkably un-irritating manner. Truly, a thing of wonder.

37 thoughts on “Trite end-of-year thing #5: Super Mario Galaxy

  1. sup toastyfrog

    super mario galaxy i c … lol. thought that game mostly boring myself, lol … i can c y u mite like it but it was too much like the other mario stuff for me. it’s ur cite tho man so u pick what u want.



  2. It’s like Marbles really isn’t it? Or maybe one song off that CD, you think?

    Cliches or not, you’re on quite a streak. I’m seriously appreciating these end-of-year write-ups, because they’re written with the added perspective of having played and absorbed what the games are about. Not just a knee-jerk reaction or company-fellating box score out of ten.

  3. I haven’t played galaxy yet… I will at some point… your description reminds me of Klonoa 2. Essentially a 2D platformer in a very rich 3D environment. Einhander comes to mind too. Both games I enjoyed tons… all time favorites actually.

    Simple play mechanics, yet visually complex equals an amazing amount of fun.

  4. Galaxy is easily the best Nintendo game i’ve played since Ocarina of Time. Although, when I think back to this game. There are a few things I can nitpick about. You say it has some of the best boss encounters ever, but i felt they were mostly easy, (still fun, mind you) involving usual Nintendo stuff like hitting back projectiles. Also, did we really need to shake the Wii remote to spin Mario? A button would have worked just as well. The camera itself is brilliant, until the purple coin challenges that involve you looking everywhere on the map to locate them…

    I was shocked when one of my friends said it was too much like the other Mario games and found it boring. I guess you really have to have a love of games to appreciate what we really get out of Mario Galaxy. The amazing unpredictable level design, those perfect Nintendo controls which pale to any other platformer etc…

  5. For the record, *I* hated Mario Sunshine long before Galaxy came out. In fact, I was not at all excited about Galaxy, because of Sunshine, pretty much until your glowing previews started showing up. But uh, yeah, Galaxy is awesome.

  6. It’s like Halo 3 hahaha! (On the other hand, Shawn Elliot paralleled Mario Galaxy to Half-Life 2 on the last GFW podcast, so yeah, hm…) I’m one of those who sees no faults whatsoever with Half-Life 2. I’m lucky for that.

  7. How *did* they make the bumblebee’s so fluffy????

    that and, though the final bosses were great, they were also a little recycled.. I was mildly disappointed by the end boss.. but whatever, it was a great game indeed. just wish there were more hard levels, and fewer purple coin challenges, eugh..

  8. I really like the music analogy. In the

    mid 90s my favorite bands were the

    Smashing Pumkins and Foo Fighters. Billy

    Corigan turned into some techno-loving

    Nosferatu. The Foo Fighters got

    increasingly bland, and then The Best of

    You sucked for different reasons. I’m

    still waiting for that One Song.

    Unfortunately I’ll have to settle for


    Hurray for Mario Galaxy. One way Galaxy

    is better than Sunshine is the return of

    the long jump (run, duck, jump). Although

    it is slightly less effective than it

    was in SM64, it is my favorite move and

    almost seems overpowered in some

    instances (I think you may be able to

    beat the game without it). It is so

    awesome that Valve copied it for the

    second half of the original Half Life.

    I really like the ability to play the

    game for 10 minutes and get something

    acomplished (1-2 stars) but some stars

    are way to easy, like that beach ring

    race with galactic mario, which takes

    less than 30 seconds).

    I kind of like the slightly looser

    control of SM64, Mario slid a very small

    bit more and it felt a little more solid,

    and the jumping cartwheel felt a little

    better. This is not a complaint, just a

    preference. I am sure most people prefer

    to stop on a dime, I’m just an

    Asteroids/SNES Mario Kart fan. Sometimes

    when I use the spin attack I feel like I

    am cheating. I guess this is why you get

    a life-replenishing coin for stomping,

    and star bits for spinning.

    I was about to write Nintendo off after Sunshine and then the good but unoriginal Twighlight Princess, not to mention the outsourcing of Star Fox and F-Zero, but Galaxy really brings back the insanely inventive fealings of Mario 3 and Mario World.

    BTW, if you download either the DirectX 8 or 9 SDK (free), there is an example with source code that shows pretty much the same effect as the fluffy bee. It is applied to a cube instead of a sphere. I think it is fill rate intensive. For nerds only.

  9. Is that supposed to be poetry? It’s… sort of annoying.

    The fuzzy bee effect is called fur-shading, and it’s something Nintendo did on GameCube, too. I just can’t see that bee without thinking of the European press guy at E3 who opened a Miyamoto Q&A on the game with that precise question: “How did they get the bumblebee so fluffy?” I was sitting in the front row so I couldn’t see reactions, but I’m willing to wager that everyone in the US press was slapping their forehead as everyone from the EU press nodded and thought, “Great question!”

  10. For the record, Sunshine was a letdown for me (admittedly after giving it some time to gestate after my first playthrough). I didn’t hate it, and I didn’t think it was a bad game, but it didn’t hold that surreal mario magic (and I’m thinking a lot of folk are with me on this).

    But on to the important stuff; I agree completly with this particular arcticle. This the first Mario game since Mario World that I can honestly say I’ve finished 100%. All I can remember of my first playthrough was this drunken haze of non-stop oldschool-in-newschool clothes heaven.

    *spoiler* I’m presently playing through as luigi, and I’m playing it as I originally intended to play this game in the first place; couple stars here or there every time the urge hits me (to maximize the length of my enjoyment). Scratch that… it’s not an urge that hits me, it’s just any reminder that I’ve got this killer game that’s presently not being played.

    My one (admittedly small) complaint is the hub world. I miss the endless mysteries that Peaches Castle held, and I miss the real thoughtfulness that went into the majority of the level entrances. Small complaint, especially when you factor in the Mario franchises track record of taking ideas from one game that I loved and completly scrapping them for the sequels, but the starship didn’t hold much magic for me.

  11. Even though this game has a few minor issues, it really hit my sweet spot more so than any previous Mario game. You read that right. I loved Mario 3 and World and delved into them often. I never felt compelled to do EVERYTHING there was to do, though. Well, I haven’t done the second playthrough, but I’m saving that for a return trip some day.

    Is this the best game of all time? Nah. Is it _my_ favorite Mario game? A thousand times, yes!

  12. I feel a lot better knowing that a game journalist that I respect so much feels the same way I do about Half-Life 2 (I often feel like I must be missing something when I don’t like a game that everyone else deifies). I never played it until I got the Orange Box for my birthday, and maybe it was truly remarkable back in 2004, but I just can’t get into it (and I play a ton of FPSs). I wanted to quit at least 5 times during the way-too-long airboat sequence, and I finally stopped playing altogether about halfway through Ravenholm, after I got sick of running around on the rooftops. Maybe it gets better after that, but from what I’ve played, it seems like a game full of great ideas that were executed in such a way as to make them boring, drawn-out and often maddingly frustrating.

    Now Portal, that’s a good game.

  13. Nice write up, as always…

    Let’s see, I’m guessing Crackdown will definitely be on the TEoYT list, then maybe Metroid Prime 3 and maybe Mass Effect. The 4th title I have no clue…

    I need to get back to Galaxy…

  14. Oh yes. As for Halflife 2, I couldn’t agree more. Someone once remarked on The Clash’s triple Album Sandanista! that there’s one truely great album in there, among those three records (along with a lot of other stuff). This is how I feel about Halflife 2.

    A lot of people tend to talk crap about the Halo franchise, while trumpeting games like HL2. In my (potentially volatile) opinion; Halflife 2 stands to learn quite abit from the pacing of a game like Halo 3. I’m by no means saying that Halo 3 is perfect and Halflife 2 is crud, but I am saying that if you trimmed the fat off of HL2, maybe leaving 1/2 or even 1/3rd of it’s premium content, you’d have a short but incredibly memorable experience.

  15. Very sorry for the spacing, not sure what happended there. I was posting at work, we have a wierd, slow expensive setup. I would never post poetry on Billy Corgan, he has done enough damage himself.

  16. Galaxy turned out to be one of the best games I’ve ever played. I spent basically all of 07′ waiting for it, and usually when you hype yourself up for something, the end result never works out. Galaxy though, for me, surpassed my already high expectations and turned out to be a true masterpiece. Only one thing bothers me about it: what the hell are they going to with the series now?

  17. Whats the deal with Half Life 2? I dont get what is so special about it. I played when it was new up to airboat and gave up. Now I am playing through on OB and I am at sandtraps, and the whole thing just doesnt live up to the unending praise heaped upon it. I remeber thinking that being able to pick most things up was super cool… is this why everyone thinks the game is Jesus? I hear alot about the story being rad, but I dont get that either…

  18. AgentNein: I think I agree. I liked the pacing a lot better in the better in Episodes 1 and 2. A lot of it is similar stuff to HL2 (which I don’t dislike as much as most here) but in a much shorter package. Overall I find them much more enjoyable. More games need to embrace that concept instead of packing in needless filler to lengthen the experience.

  19. Virulent: Definetly. Probably my favourite part of Portal was that it was literally no filler. Every single point in that game was meant to either A better illustrate a gameplay mechanic or B (later on) put your mind to the test.

  20. I will NEVER understand all the Sunshine hate. I loved everything about it except for the punishing platforming parts with no jetpack. Everyone else seems to think it was unworthy of the Mario name in the worst way with the sole bright spot being the delightful platforming parts with no jetpack. Am I crazy for loving the everliving shit out of Sunshine? Delfino Plaza was the best hub level in anything, ever. It’s the only thing the game has on Galaxy, except for the relaxing atmosphere maybe.

  21. I loved Half-Life 2, but maybe that’s because I played it on easy? The only part that infuriated me was that damn strider battle. Oh, and Ravenholm was a little annoying, but that’s only because I’m a big weenie.

  22. I definitely agree on Galaxy having a pretty sucky hub level. it dumbed down the greatness of the hubs in 64 and Sunshine in the same way NSMB dumbed down the awesome Mario World world map. tears! :{

  23. One part of Sunshine I’ve never seen get any love is the fruit-spewing slot machine boss. The segment where you have to clean the giant eel’s teeth would be on the same level if the underwater controls weren’t the most infuriating thing ever.

  24. I wrote a similar article about Galaxy a while back on my blog. I also really like the musical metaphor you color these articles with.

  25. I’m kind of afraid I’ll jinx something, but is anyone else secretly suspecting that this series is going to peter out without a proper finish?

    like halflife2 amirite????

  26. Sorry, I spent the weekend wrestling with one of my periodic impulses to delete the site. Inertia won in the end, so expect the remainder of this list by the week’s end. Probably.

  27. Bah, just when the site’s starting to get some positive press? Besides, any numbered list that’s not complete will by definition look a little lame, and audiences will forgive something mediocre that really knocks the ending out of the park (see: Transformers.)

    Although I can’t help wondering why I’m trying to make an argument for not deleting everything indiscriminantly when it’s your site. The words ’emotional blackmail’ also keep wanting to come out even though they don’t really apply. I think I just like using them, like ‘Schenectady’.

  28. Half-Life 2 and Episode are both mediocre games with great ideas and Episode 2 is where Valve takes those ideas (except the gravity gun, which remains one of those “why didn’t anyone think of this before” ideas that goes on untapped)and blows every other game out of the water. Its like going from Bleach to Nevermind. You have to play Episode 2.

  29. Yay, Vonnegut prose FTW.

    Oh, and my wife’s working on a Luma plushie, Gredlen. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

  30. I like your song metaphor, but I would make it an album metaphor. The band would be Metallica.

    When I first heard Metallica’s …And Justice for All album it was a foriegn and alomost unpleasant experience that I didn’t enjoy at first. The more I listened though, the more it grew on me and in a short time I realized how brilliant it was. I went back and listened to their earlier albums and while they were all great I liked them more and more the more recent they were; so in fact I felt …And Justice for All was their best achievment. Not long after they realeased the Black album, as it is known, and while it was good, I thought it was a step backwards for them. And in the ensuing years it only got worse with the release of Load ReLoad and St. Anger.

    So to carry the analogy over I’d liken the post ‘Justice years to Sunshine. ‘Justice would be Mario 64. Problem is that I have nothing to compare Galaxy with. I guess I’ll just have to wait; and it may be a while.

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