Super Mario Galaxy
Posted at 01:59 on 11th December 2007 - permalink

2007 has been a banner year for games. Not the best year ever, but at least the best year of this century, with each format seeing their share of classics. Having gotten out of the habit of playing regularly, I’m currently scrambling to assimilate as many of this year’s ‘must play’ games as possible, so it’s likely that I’ll only get around to writing about most of them retrospectively.

In the meantime here’s some thoughts on what will surely come to be seen as the game of the year, Super Mario Galaxy.

Where to start? Well, firstly, it looks like this:

So presumably Robbie Bach is feeling a bit silly right now.

I had expected Super Mario Galaxy to be good, but I had also expected to have to apply the Nintendo blinkers which came free with Sunshine, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess to be able to overlook the inevitable convention-bound shortcomings, rough edges and annoyances.

I was surprised and relieved therefore to find that Galaxy is a proper flagship game for a console. In terms of levels and content it feels several times bigger than Super Mario Sunshine, and in terms of production values it’s the most assured game Nintendo have produced since Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The initial impression that the game gives is one of quality (even luxury), with a classy orchestrated soundtrack and an art style so clean and shiny you could eat your dinner off it.

Galaxy is essentially a massive toybox containing several hundred small, finely crafted gewgaws and puzzles. This description could kind-of-sort-of be applied to Super Marios 64 and Sunshine, but with Galaxy the little bursts of fun aren’t padded out with repetition, filler and experiments that with hindsight didn’t quite work. For the first half of the game, the rate at which new treats are thrown at the player is perhaps a little excessive, hardly leaving a moment to process the information or to pick out single elements for closer inspection.

The last 3D Mario game (Super Mario Sunshine) was heavily influenced by the structure of Grand Theft Auto III. At the time, making huge sprawling levels was considered to be the ideal that all 3D games should be striving for, even though in the context of a platform game this resulted in largely empty areas which involved much trekking around to get to the next place of interest. (In Sunshine’s case they were frequently broken or unfinished to boot.) Galaxy does away with this dependence on monolithic, thematically consistent areas, instead allowing the player to be bounced around self-contained plateaus and planetoids which the designers were able to develop independently and then compose together into complementary arrangements.

There’s so much stuff in Super Mario Galaxy that it would take me many thousands of words to catalogue it all in any depth. As well as transmuting the idea of a 3D platform game environment, the chaps in Tokyo haven’t hesitated to realise that Mario is essentially a distinctively coloured marker in 3D space, presenting the player with a plethora of new interfaces that have nothing to do with platforming, from slinging Mario around like a billiard ball, to surfing, swimming, skating, performing a variation of Super Monkey Ball (except motion controlled, and fun), and at least four distinct methods of flight. (There are of course many ‘trad’ 2D and 3D platforming areas to get stuck into as well.) The game doesn’t wear out any of these new mechanics, usually featuring at most two levels based purely around each one.

For a long time I’d felt that I’d grown out of platform games, lacking the patience and manual dexterity to plug away at them for hours for little reward. Galaxy makes me realise that this was more the fault of the games available in the genre up until now than of a lack of enthusiasm on my part. For the average player it’s a challenging game, but one that never feels unfair. Towards the end of the game there are levels that will require many attempts to beat, but in nearly all cases each attempt didn’t feel like a setback, but rather another chance to improve my skills at the task at hand. If I’m being completely honest there are perhaps half a dozen stars in the game that just aren’t fun to endlessly fail at – most of which uncharacteristically focus on the shortcomings of the controls, or feature needlessly protracted platforming sequences where a moment’s unwariness results in instant death and a return to the start.

Anyway, you’ve probably read the reviews and don’t need to be told just how well Nintendo can put together a platform game. There is one other extremely important part of the game which doesn’t have a precedent anywhere in the Mario franchise, and which many (boorish, American) reviewers have overlooked or even expressed disdain for. I am referring to the Storybook, a trail of small, unassuming scraps of narrative that the game casually leaves for the player as they progress. It tells the fairy tale story of new character Rosalina (okay, bit of a spoiler but you surely figured that out), a space-faring girl who has become the ‘mother’ of a race of cutesy star people and gives Mario his star-hopping ‘powers’ relevant to the game’s premise. It’s brilliantly done, and even a bit subversive in a weird, anodyne, Nintendo sort of way.

The Storybook is striking as it introduces human interest into a game which has unswervingly presented its main cast as simplistic cyphers for twenty years. It is brave in its form of representation, being told in simple text overlaid on a series of static watercolour images. It is affecting in that it tackles themes of death, displacement, responsibility and emotional growth. It’s not particularly subtle or original, but if you don’t get a bit of a lump in the throat at one or two points, you’re probably some kind of heartless monster who laughed at Watership Down. It adds a little bit of resonance to a game that’s mainly about a funny little man jumping on baddies, and I hope that the game’s director gets some positive feedback about it among the braying of jackasses who have been conditioned to see such a thing as a ‘lame bonus gallery’ that doesn’t ‘win’ you anything in the game.

Railing against philistines aside, we come to the question of whether Super Mario Galaxy is the best game ever. Personally, I don’t think it is. Underneath all the variations on the central theme, the game is specialised (meaning, it’s a platform game rather than a game which transcends genres), and playing in its world demands skill from the player almost continually, even though it’s typically fun skill rather than robotic learning. You can indulge in some freeform play in the game, but not to the extent of something like GTA or Crackdown. (It’s better than either, clearly, I’m just trying to convey the point that it’s not the only game you’ll ever need.) Also, the hub level, while suitably pretty, is a bit inconvenient in the later stages of the game when you want to channel-hop between galaxies, and unlike Sunshine, it doesn’t contain any goals/gameplay in itself. If we’re really nitpicking, the camera occasionally misbehaves as well (especially underwater).

A while ago I linked in passing an article by Stuart Campbell which argued that the term “videogame” (his contraction) was now being applied to such a broad range of genres and specialisations so as to be almost meaningless, and that the original focus of games – the joy of skillfully and creatively controlling an agent in an abstract environment that couldn’t be done in any other medium – was getting lost in the scrum as developers tried to ape cinema and strive for ever greater realism.

I think we need a term for this which isn’t as pejorative as ‘retro’ and doesn’t reference the useless and misleading ‘casual/hardcore’ distinction. I’d suggest Classical Gaming, and Super Mario Galaxy is as good an example as any of it being done right. Everyone should play it.

At some point I will have to try writing about a game I don’t think is amazing. There are some, honestly.

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