a review of Super Mario Galaxy
a videogame developed by nintendo
and published by nintendo
for the nintendo wii
text by tim rogers
There comes a point in every high-profile game-reviewer’s life when he has to put down that can of Red Bull (which has likely been empty for minutes now) and start banging out the words. Here at Action Button Dot Net, we don’t have the rigorous deadlines and tight schedules of videogame magazines, who employ what must be the hardest-working souls on earth; without them, we wouldn’t exist, for better or for worse, though forget about that. This paragraph is meant to indicate that it is only after great consideration and much stewing in my own juices that I finally decide to talk about Super Mario Galaxy, a month after tearing all the way through it from start to finish, a year and a day after the Wii’s launch in Japan, a year and two days after deciding that it couldn’t be released any sooner, and nearly twelve years of praying that, some day, it would come, and that it would be great.
Though I was yet a teenager at a time, Super Mario 64 did not excite me precisely in the way it excited Chris Slate of Ultra Game Players, who said (and this is off the top of my head) “Right now, today, Super Mario 64 is the best game I’ve ever played”. I appreciated his use of the commas around the word “today” — very literesque — though I didn’t quite share his enthusiasm. I was a boy gifted with the experience of having played Super Mario Bros. for only a few short months before God brought us Super Mario Bros. 3. I hadn’t had years of habitual Super Mario Bros. under my belt, and if anything, this made the refinements of Super Mario Bros. 3 all the more crisp.
In other words, upon playing Super Mario 64 for ten minutes, I was already anticipating the game that would play Super Mario Bros. 3 to its Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Sunshine, released for the Gamecube, was more or less a one-off. Around the time of its release, Nintendo had already been parading Super Mario left and right, in party games, puzzle games, golf games, tennis games. Sunshine seemingly existed to prove that Nintendo could put Super Mario into another action-platform game, if they wanted. It was like they were saying, see, we’re not scared to make another Super Mario game. I’ll admit that I was rather crushed with how just-decent it was, though now that I look back, I wish that people like me had just let it slide. What Mario — the person — needed was a bloodletting. He needed to cool his jets. He needed to star in one action-platform game a year for, I don’t know, five years. Sunshine had the tropical island theme. Maybe they could have set the next one at a ski resort, had Mario sliding down lots of hills.
Instead, a million slighted fanboy hearts beat in unison; the drumming on the horizon scared Nintendo’s creative geniuses back into their shells. When, eventually, Super Mario Galaxy was announced, Nintendo’s American face kept no secrets: lovable buffoon president Reggie Fils-Aime was proud to say that Galaxy would be the “true successor to Super Mario 64“. We — the proverbial “kids at home” — filled in the blanks: “Just like Super Mario Bros. 3 was the true successor to Super Mario Bros.“
And now here it is, and I don’t like it. I mean, I really, really, really, really don’t like it. It just about makes me nauseous how little I like it. What went wrong? Really? Oh no — I’m not asking these questions about the game’s development process. I’m asking them about myself. Why does disliking this game depress me so much? When I at first emerged on the other side of Super Mario Galaxy, feeling deflated, I thought, if I write a review of this on Action Button Dot Net, people are going to accuse us of being controversial, of hit-baiting, of attention-cravery. People are going to accuse us of trying to heck up the Metacritic score (even though we don’t submit scores to Metacritic) or trying to drum up ad revenue (even though we don’t have ads). More importantly, I’m going to get literally thousands of greasy-fingered hate mails from people telling me that I’m not human, that I have soul cancer, that I’ve forgotten how to have fun.
And maybe these things are true. Maybe I have forgotten how to have fun, though I’ll be darned if I can’t still see some flickering shadow of fun on my bedroom wall late at night, just before I fall asleep. It is the Rosebud of my every barely-waking moment. When I close my eyes, I can see the shape of how, exactly, I selfishly wanted Super Mario Galaxy to be. It would have been miraculous. At least, for me, it would have been.
Instead, we get a weird, cloying, conflicted jumble of good concepts, amazing concepts, genius concepts, brilliant concepts, and junk. When I try to focus on the game, I end up distracted by all the floating debris.
This is not “schtick”. This is not this website’s “thing”. This is just how I feel.
I had envisioned this game as a joyful rope — a straight shot from planetoid to planetoid, with multiple ways to “solve” each planetoid, resulting in varied, multiple paths through the game. I blame this impression on the ten-minute demo I was able to play at a Nintendo Wii showcase event in Tokyo just before the console’s launch in Japan. In that demo, well-placed Mushroom Retainers give you simple control instructions (jump, triple jump, squat-jump, wall-jump) as you make your way up a mountainside. Eventually, you reach a mountaintop that’s well into the stratosphere, where you choose to go left or right. Either path leads to a star that blasts you off toward a series of planetoid challenges.
This left a strong impression on me; I was instantly fascinated with the game’s subtlety. Maybe this could have been the “difficulty selection” — maybe the only place to learn that the left path was “hard” and the right path was “easy” would be to look it up in the instruction manual? In this day and age of non-gamers welcoming Nintendo back with opened wallets, who knows what craziness is in the air? Maybe people can actually be trusted to read instruction manuals again?
In an interview some nine months after my initial, overjoyed impressions of the game, Shigeru Miyamoto told Weekly Famitsu‘s editor-in-chief Hirokazu Hamamura that his team’s “main goal” in Super Mario Galaxy was to make a game that was easy enough for anyone to pick up and play — a game that could be embraced and played to completion by non-gamers, all while never once making the hardcore gamers feel like they’re being “patronized”. He actually used the Japanese verb “being licked” (like a mommy kitty licks a baby kitty, to help the image along) — he was well into meaning-business mode. Maybe he’d played the latest Zelda games, where a blasted text box will scream at you about the function of a key every single god damned time you pick up a key: “You got a magic key! . . . This is a magic key! . . . It can be used to unlock one door! After unlocking one door, this magic key will vanish!”
I took Miyamoto’s “No Licking” stance to mean that he was against the source of the licking as well as the act of licking itself. Maybe he’d stopped and asked himself two questions, regarding the keys in Zelda: number one, why can’t the game show you what a key does? When you use a key to unlock a door, maybe we could just see the key hover up above the hero’s head, fly into the lock, click, turn, and vanish into a puff of smoke as the door rumbles open? Then we’d know, deep down, “Hey, that key’s gone now.” Number two: why does the key have to disappear after we use it? The answer to the second question has something to do with how the key isn’t a “key” so much as it’s just “something to do” in order to progress deeper into a dungeon. On a deeper, weirder psychological level, the key is imprinting our children with obsessive urges to always look for the solution to the problem before their eyes in the most far-flung place. In this way, it can be construed that games aren’t running parallel to real-world logic so much as they’re scribbling poisonous crayon circles anywhere they please.
Yet Super Mario Galaxy licked me plenty of times, up and down, all over. At a certain point about three-quarters of the way through the game — this almost scarred me for life — I was swimming in a giant liquid sphere toward a floating tower, when a penguin sidled up to me out of nowhere and with a hateful snippet of a sound effect, his text box took up the greater part of the center of the screen: “PRESS THE A BUTTON TO SWIM”.
It occurs to me once again that no one in any Japanese office anywhere, precisely, has yet been able to construct a Powerpoint presentation that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that though the people who forget to use the one button on the controller to do almost everything, or else forget that keys unlock doors are forgetful enough to also have lost the instruction manual (and possibly box) of every game they own, they are probably also forgetful enough to misplace the game disc and/or the console.
Someone should really get on that proof. This could be the Pythagorean Theorem of the 21st Century.
The cloying and the down-talking penetrates to only the most bizarre strata of Super Mario Galaxy. The hub world is the most visible offender. In Super Mario 64, we had a castle, where everything was laid-out in an easily understandable fashion: the first mission you complete nets you a Power Star; you remember a door with a star logo and a numeral “1” on it, you stand near the door, Mario yields a star in his hand, and the door opens. Many doors with stars and numerals exist; each stage has seven stars for you to earn; from so very close to the beginning, you’re on your own.
Super Mario 64, though purchased at a one-to-one attach rate with the Nintendo 64 hardware, was not considered a success in Japan, because the Nintendo 64 hardware was not considered a success. A Nintendo fanboy could tell you that this is because the World Was Wrong, that They didn’t know what was Good for Them. Nintendo took a bath on the Gamecube as well; some would say that they decided to change their policies after that, though I would argue that they didn’t. I would argue that the success of the DS, of the Wii, and of new president Satoru Iwata is grounded firmly in Iwata’s bold decision to stick with the company’s guns, to emphasize rather than mute the little conceptual quirks (like connecting your Gameboy Advance to your Gamecube so each player has his own little handheld screen) that had possibly turned off the gaming populace. The Wii remote is very much a direct continuation of the DS stylus, et cetera. And if Wii Sports has proven anything, it’s that Nintendo’s games are successful with non-gamers because they’re presented and packaged well, not because they’re more simple than other games or because they’re similar to real-life actions — or even because they’re actually fun.
In other words, I find it vaguely unsettling that one of Nintendo’s ideas for making the game “simple” enough for the “wider audience” to “understand” involved gutting the hands-on “exploration” element out of the hub world; instead of a living, breathing (yet empty — for a reason) castle, we’ve got a floating fortress / spaceship thing with loud creatures buzzing all around and these ugly rooms with fixed camera angles, where all of the levels are contained. Clear a mission, and you’ll see a load-masking cut-scene of Mario flying back to the hub; he’ll land, and the Burnoutitis will commence: a big menu pops up, telling you “NEW HIGH SCORE”; it counts down how many coins you earned, then it switches to another menu, and tells you how many star bits you picked up, then it switches to another menu to tell you you’ve opened a new stage, then a map pops up, and a star logo in one of the various rooms of the ship blinks loudly. Go inside a room — say, the kitchen — and arbitrarily point the remote at a blue star and press the A button, which will pull Mario toward it; the screen switches to a planetarium view; select the galaxy you want to fly to — galaxies you can’t enter are marked by a star icon and a numeral (the number of stars needed to unlock it) — click on it, and you’ll see a little cut-scene of Mario flying out in space. Now a screen pops up with a list of star goals for the selected galaxy. Choose the one you want, and there’s another triumphant “WAHOO”. With a “YES!”, Mario lands in the galaxy, and there you have it: you’re finally playing a videogame.
Why put all this bullstuff between the action set-pieces? I mean, at the very least, could we not have the “YAY! Look at this numeric representation of how YOU’RE SUCH A GOOD BOY“? All the original Super Mario Bros. had was the timer countdown and the fireworks; that seemed to do pretty nicely for most people. That game sold, like, literally 20 million copies! Here we are in the twenty-first century, and here we are with all this stopping and starting. I wanted to play a rope. I wanted the game to just keep going, keep evolving, keep crunching. I wanted it to be a delicious buffet dinner, not a room full of bottles of multi-vitamins.
To be both more concrete and more abstract, I wanted the game to get more difficult as it went along. Instead, the game’s difficulty level stays numbingly even from beginning to end. The bosses are all little puzzles with obvious solutions. (It usually involves using the spin attack to knock back a projectile.)
The thing is, if you want Super Mario Galaxy to be challenging, you have to want it to be challenging. You only need sixty stars to complete the “main” game, though if you’re an acquitted kleptomaniac, you can get sixty more, and then a nifty little reward.
And this isn’t the most of it. I’ll tell you what’s the worst. The game, as a series of challenges, isn’t even about anything so much as it’s about itself. Literally halfway through the game, you arrive in a “galaxy” that you need thirty stars to unlock (you can complete the game with as few as sixty stars). The first mission in the galaxy is called “The Rabbits Are Looking For Something”. You land in the galaxy, where a big, fuzzy bee immediately gets all up in your face. “The rabbits are looking for something!” he says. Walk down the only path before you, and you’ll come up to a rabbit who is, maybe, looking for something. Get too close to the rabbit, and he automatically talks to you. “Where could that [STAR CHIP] be?” In place of the “[STAR CHIP]” is a Star Chip icon. Star Chips are these blue fragment things; if you collect five of them, they join together to make a star-thing that teleports you somewhere else, so you can once again feel the orgasm of progress. The camera floats up softly. We see a Star Chip floating high above the ground. The rabbit remains oblivious. (Compelling side-question: is Mario, too, oblivious?) We now notice that the rabbit is standing in the middle of a peculiar arrangement of three wooden posts. We may remember, from earlier missions or worlds or galaxies, that Mario can perform a hip-drop if we press the Z button while jumping. Do a hip drop on a wooden post, and you can hammer it into the ground. We see these three posts, and we hammer them all in. Out of nowhere, a rotating star-gate-thing appears. We stand in it, remember that we have to shake the remote to use it, shake the remote, and Mario flies up just high enough to grab the Star Chip. He doesn’t not inform the rabbit that he found the Star Chip. (This is crucial.) The next rabbit we find is standing near a large wooden box. “I can almost smell a [STAR CHIP ICON]”. The camera pans slyly right, highlighting the wooden box. We might remember from earlier missions that we can shake the remote to make Mario do a spin attack move. Spin attacks can break boxes. We break the box. We collect the Star Chip that had been inside. Again, Mario does not inform the rabbit that he has found the Star Chip (double crucial). The other challenges in this mission require you to remember how to jump on enemies or remember that Mario has to ability to perform a wall jump. None of these challenges are laid-out as set pieces. They just wobble there, hunks of pineapple in lime Jell-O. When at last you assemble the Star Gate Thing and blast off to the final portion of the stage, there’s Mario on a planetoid with a rabbit. The rabbit has the star. He says he’ll give it to you, if you can beat him in a race.
. . . Like, what the heck? Are these rabbits not all on the same side? If this rabbit had the star from the beginning, why were the other rabbits looking for star chips? Is he a rogue rabbit? This is why Shigeru Miyamoto says they shouldn’t put stories in these things.
The important analysis to make of the above example is that Super Mario Galaxy is a game that, as far as halfway into its duration, continually rewards the player with something the game has contrived the player to need after the player remembers a thing that he can do, and then does it.
You might remember the first time you walked into a room in a Zelda game to see a locked door and four unlit torches. In your inventory you had a lantern that was capable of lighting torches. Somewhere deep down, you knew the truth, only you would never be able to put it into words: “If I light those four torches, that door is going to open”. Sometimes, the door would just open by magic; sometimes, a key would fall from the sky. Sometimes, you’d light the four torches, and enemies would fall into the room: kill them, and the door opened magically. This is sick, people. This is a mind-killer. Grand Theft Auto doesn’t turn kids into prostitute-killing car-jackers, because it looks real enough to be ridiculous. Super Mario Galaxy, however, with its slick, abstract, kid-friendly cartoon exterior, stands a pretty good chance of turning all of our children into kleptomaniacs (or, at the very least, obsessive-compulsives).
Most reviews of this game cite this as a sign of its generosity, of its deep bounty. I’ll admit that some of the harder missions are indeed What I Crave when it comes to platform games — time attacks, speed collection, more enemies — though they really are just rehashes of the same levels you’ve already played. And some of those levels are terrorism; replaying those levels for time is about as much fun as organizing data into a spreadsheet while riding the fastest train in the world. I’m not saying that reusing / rehashing is the devil, necessarily, just that I kind of miss the days when the difficult parts of a game were, you know, actually included in the game. For example, in Super Mario Bros. 3, if you wanted to finish the game, you had no choice: you’re going to have to go through that amazingly tough castle. You’re going to have to platform-hop across that ridiculous fleet of jet-plane airships.
Now, though, when we’ve invited grandma into the living room, games have to act civilized. Everyone has the right to witness the full curve of a game’s content, these days. To be fair, Nintendo’s been moving this way ever since Super Mario World, where the best part of the game, the Special World, is very difficult, quite hidden, extremely optional, and rewards you, when you complete it, only by making the game graphically hideous. Sunshine only turned the gain up (that’s a guitar term) on certain missions within each level, though with the way the game was structured, you didn’t always have to play them. If you did, though, it’d put you in a better position for progressing through the main game. Nonetheless, the hard parts of Sunshine were immediately visible as such: Mario was stripped of the water-blasting backpack that served as the game’s main gimmick, and the background music switched to an a cappella riff on the original Super Mario Bros. theme. And there you were, alone with floating platforms, tricky jumps, and a relentlessly all-encompassing deathvoid.
The high-difficulty segments of Sunshine were amazingly brilliant, most of the time, and Shigeru Miyamoto, himself, was quoted shortly after the game’s release as saying he’d love to make a whole game in that style. (I really wish he would.) What’s most important here is that they were all new and unique parts of the game. It seems, now, that Nintendo’s design philosophy has shifted: to deny anyone, even grandpa, a chance to romp around without fear of death in any unique part of the game is a serious crime. (Or, perhaps, judging by the fact that you can’t skip the “How to Fasten the Wii Remote Strap” screen until it’s been displayed for ten whole seconds, maybe the legal team advised them of the danger of a class-action lawsuit from widows of old men with overloaded pacemakers.)
(At any rate, at least Super Mario Galaxy‘s optional difficult segments are better presented than the “hidden” worlds of New Super Mario Bros. You know, how you have to take it upon yourself to defeat a boss The Hard Way just so you can be slotted down a path to a slightly different, maybe-more-difficult world. Like, why should World 6 be harder than World 7, really?)
The phantom lurking behind all this is called “Story”. Galaxy‘s developers knew that they couldn’t make a Mario game without a story, even though the story would have to be the same old thing it always is. Any deviation would result in tired groans all around the internet: Bowser has kidnapped the princess. Go get her back. The ending is no secret from the very beginning: Mario’s going to beat Bowser, get the princess back, and save the day. (And he’s so obviously not going to get laid.)
People of all ages loved Super Mario Bros., way back in the day, regardless of their grasp of the story. All they had to know was that this little guy had a quest, a quest that lurked somewhere to the right of where he is when we first meet him. Maybe they read the full story in the instruction manual, or maybe the neighbor kid explained it to them: “This dragon kidnapped a princess, and you’ve got to save her.” Whether you know the story or not, the enigmatic “Our Princess is in Another Castle” at the end of every four stages has never not been something pop-cultural enough to put on a T-shirt. There’s nothing similarly pop-culture-event-like about Super Mario Galaxy; just a fetishistic puppet show of squealing CG and mishmashed production values. Like, why have CG cut-scenes, if the characters aren’t going to talk? The first three seconds of Bowser’s “speech” in the opening scene are cute: he’s making this huge robo-dragon grumbling sound, while subtitles indicate that he’s speaking actual words. Then, once the grumble has looped for maybe the sixth time, it starts to get disturbing. Your ear becomes accustomed to the peaks and valleys in the individual sound waves, and maybe it all starts to seem a little off. Princess Peach, who is offered the courtesy of the only full sentence of dialogue in the game (in her letter at the very beginning), is revealed as typically speaking a language consisting of high-pitched pouts; Bowser’s right-hand magician speaks entirely in hyecking cackles.
Why not put voice-acting in? It’s a tiny, trite issue, I’ll admit, though really, why not go the extra step? It seems to me that Nintendo knew the story to Super Mario Galaxy was so totally not the point, and didn’t want to bother putting too much effort into the cut-scenes. Why have them in the first place, then? My dad taught me long ago: even if he knows the right fielder is going to catch that pop fly, Pete Rose keeps running for first base, and he doesn’t stop there. That’s why they called him “Charlie Hustle” — because he hustled (ironically, his name wasn’t Charlie) no matter what the circumstances. In other words, yes, maybe Nintendo should have just gone ahead and put voice-acting into Super Mario Galaxy, even if they were convinced that the story was filler nonsense; or maybe they should have just not put any story into it at all. Or at least no dialogue — do we really need subtitles to know that Bowser is threatening Peach, or that his assistant is threatening Mario? Pictures speak a thousand words, and CG — especially when it’s as colorful and sweet as in Super Mario Galaxy — speaks a million. Right?
One thing we don’t need, for sure, is the mysterious Princess Rosalina, who has absolutely no function in the story other than to stand around and explain the mechanics of the game — over and over and over again. I don’t get it — I kept thinking that maybe she had some sinister motive, though by the end of the game, when it’s revealed that there’s nothing to reveal, I was scratching my head. It was something like the end of Dragon Quest VII, during the course of which you can build a huge casino-centric metropolis on a tropical island as a side-quest, though no matter how awesome the city is, the main character goes back to being his fisherman father’s assistant at the end of the game. Princess Rosalina is a lot like that — too much time was spent designing her character, with no payoff. And all she does, for the most part, is recite lines from the instruction manual, or else describe things that the cut-scenes have already pretty much succeeded at getting across: every single time we earn a “Grand Star” from beating a boss, the Grand Star flies into the core of the hub, thus increasing the size and color of the core; a quick look-around scene shows energy flowing through the veins on the floor, demonstrating that power is being restored to another part of the hub. Why, then, must Princess Rosalina tell us, “The Grand Star has powered up the core, restoring energy to The Kitchen!” Why tell us that the room we’re about to go check out is a kitchen? For god’s sake, let us figure it out for ourselves; Grandpa’s Pacemaker isn’t going to explode because “Holy stuff no one told me it was gonna be a kitchen!!” Princess Rosalina feels simultaneously underused and tacked-on — which I guess isn’t all that amazing. Someone at Nintendo designed her, and they figured, hey, let’s put her into this game. What you end up with, though, is a symptom of the weird non-terminal illness infecting every Nintendo universe these days: hundreds of man-hours spilled into the task of painting a sign. Assigning a police officer to every STOP sign in town, so he can remind every motorist personally that “STOP” means “Stop”. Et cetera. Princess Rosalina is Nintendo using their assets because their assets are their assets. It’s the same thing they were doing back with Super Mario Stadium baseball, when they let Goomba be a selectable player even though Goombas have no hands and therefore can’t hold a baseball bat. It’s a spliter of the weird fever that gave birth to The Lightning Bolt in Super Mario Kart — a power-up that the person in last place, who is in last place for a reason (the reason being that he sucks at playing the game), has a much higher probability of receiving than anyone else. The Lightning Bolt will shrink and severely handicap every other racer, so that the person in last place might catch up. What happens when the Lightning Bolt wears off? We can say that, most of the time, the sucky player is surpassed once again. Why offer them that hope, then? Isn’t that kind of, you know, sick? Why not teach people to live with their mistakes, and regain their footing thanks to actual skill? Someone at Nintendo must have recently made a similarly pointed hypothesis, resulting in muted difficulty curves and more screen-filling help messages. Princess Rosalina is a lingering figment of Nintendo’s “let everyone play” mentality, only she’s not a real human being, and she’s not serving any purpose.
She certainly is, however, a lot hotter than Princess Peach. Why bother rescuing Peach, if you’ve got a hotter Princess right here? Go ahead and accuse me of being shallow, if you want, though really, how much do we know about Princess Peach and Mario’s relationship? Under the best circumstances, the earliest players of Super Mario Bros. didn’t know what the princess looked like until they got to the very, very end of the game. It would have surprised them if there hadn’t been a princess, though only because they’d been expecting one, even if the promise had never had any visual confirmation. If Super Mario Galaxy were made perfectly — and it’s not perfect — we would need no dialogue, no hub world, no Princess Rosalina: just a look at Princess Peach, a visual confirmation of the tyranny of the dragon, an unassuming launch into outer space, and it’d be hard not to hit the ground running from there. Instead, when the game opens, we’re chasing rabbits on a little planetoid, rabbits who, though they don’t want to be caught, are also telling us to “Press the A button to jump!” Whatever happened to teaching the player how to play through context? In Super Mario Bros., there’s a Goomba right there in front of us. There are blocks with question marks, which produce shiny things when hit, there’s a mushroom we can eat to grow large, there’s a pipe we can’t progress over without jumping. There you have it: crushing enemies, breaking blocks, earning coins, surpassing obstacles, all taught to us right at the beginning. Mario’s been likened to Charlie Chaplin before; why not make his games play like silent films? If there absolutely must be a tutorial involving a hecking rabbit, why not make the rabbit show us how to jump instead of tell us? Again, when the controller has only one button, it’s kind of unforgivable. Let’s watch the rabbit jump, once, twice, three times. He can teach us how to wall-jump, all on the way up a mountain, like in that demo I played last year. And then the game can commence, the beautiful rope I yearn for even now, the beautiful rope I cannot have.
Instead, Nintendo’s way of supposedly making the game more friendly to the mainstream is to give Mario as many complicated moves as possible. Shake the Wii remote to initiate Mario’s ridiculous spin attack, because
1. Mario needs an attack
2. it’s not a real Wii game if you don’t have to shake the remote.
For God’s sake, that the current most-anticipated Wii game is Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which will not use the Wii’s motion-sensing functionality, should probably say something, though I’m not totally sure what.
Mario’s spin attack is a real limp noodle stuck to the center of your TV screen. I could never shake (no pun intended) the tackiness of it. After Mario spins, there’s a lull, during which he can’t spin again. This is clearly to limit the player’s ability to shake the controller like crazy, so that Mario is always attacking, wherever he goes, which would make any “advanced” playing session of the game look even less like art. You’ll know Mario is able to attack again when the little star pops out from under Mario’s hat and makes a little doggie chew-toy noise. The little star exists mainly so that the player can feel some tiny intangible debt to Princess Rosalina, thus validating her existence as a character: see, it’s Rosalina that gives us the little magic star, which grants us the spin attack and the ability to fly through space. Personally, I would rather none of this be explained at all, though clearly Nintendo continuity fetishists would fall apart at the seams if there weren’t plenty of slow-moving dialogue windows to seal all the holes, to keep it all air-tight — never mind that the explanation is a flaming load of bullstuff, if a guy with a mushroom for a head says it, it must be true.
I would rather Mario just punch and kick the enemies in the face, the way he did in Super Mario 64. Maybe that was considered Way Too Violent for Grandpa’s Pacemaker, I don’t know. Either way, I hereby declare my strict stance against normal attack actions that require the player to shake the Wii remote.
Besides, there’s the cute little star-bit-collecting/shooting thing to fill the waggle quota.
Before playing the game, I remember thinking that man, it looks like it’d be a lot of fun with a Dual Shock. Now that I’ve played it and experienced the star-bit collection firsthand, I have to say it’s kind of nice — in concept. I’ve always fantasized about a game where you control two characters at once — part of the reason I love the right-analog-stick controlled RC car in Ape Escape — so the extra-peripheral weirdness of collecting star-bits with the pointer while running Mario around is really welcome for me. All throughout Twilight Princess, I was wishing there was something to do with the fairy pointer as Link was running around. (Speaking of Twilight Princess — I suppose enough people complained about the ear-grating tinkling sound of the pointer moving for Nintendo to make Super Mario Galaxy‘s pointer gracefully silent.) Then we have the star-bit-shooting function: aim the pointer and press the B button to launch a star-bit at an enemy to stun — or possibly kill — it. There’s a precious little disconnect between pressing the fire button and the launching of the star-bit; the angle at which the star-bit enters the screen is ever-so-quaintly off; this functions a lot like the momentum of old-school Mario’s run: it’s a quirk that for some reason makes perfect sense, and getting used to it is ninety-something-percent part of the fun. It’s more than clever enough to fill the waggle quota, though I guess the design document template for a flagship title demands both Wiimote shaking and precision pointing.
Either way, there’s not enough execution of the star-bit-shooting. If used effectively, it could make the game like a Gyromite where you control the professor and the platforms at the same time. As-is, it’s too optional. It’s something you can do if you feel like it, or forget about if it’s too hard for you. It’s also the sole duty of the second player — Japanese Housewife Mode — and probably the feature Weekly Famitsu had in mind when they said “It’s even fun just to watch!” I’m all for Active Watching as a trend in future videogames; its infancy, as seen in Super Mario Galaxy, is intriguing, though ultimately kind of empty. Then again, I guess, if you’re, like, actually mentally handicapped, shooting stars as player two could be the most fun you ever have in your life. For me — I wrote off the validity of the mode the second I saw that player two’s pointer — which is a very different color from player one’s (play the game to find out which color!) — has a very large “2P” attached to it. The presence of 2P also means that player one’s pointer now gets a “1P” by it. Obviously, this hasn’t been thought through very well. Seriously, people.
Though there are just-about-breathtaking moments in almost every other stage of Super Mario Galaxy, the overall amount of standing around and waiting (or otherwise dinking around) involved ultimately crushed my fun factor. Before the game’s release, I saw an amazing screenshot of Mario walking on a floating stone corkscrew, with giant Thwomp blocks grimacing down at him; when actually playing this part of the game, I was dumbfounded by how slowly the giant blocks move up and down, by how the only “solution” to the “puzzle” of the moment is to stand there and wait for the block to stand there in the down position for several seconds before slowwwwwwwwly going back up. Huge safe zones in the obstacle courses make a majority of the platform segments feel weirdly jerky and redundant.
And then there are the floaty parts.
Early on, there’s a “Wind Garden” galaxy, where the very first thing you’re expected to do is perform a spin attack to knock these dandelion spore things into the air. Then you jump up and grab one, and now Mario is floating on wind currents. Line yourself up with the right wind current, and be prepared to switch to another one within ten seconds. The thing is, if you’re going to fail, you’ll know it maybe ten seconds ahead of time. There’s no split-second action that can be employed to avoid it. It’s all just a matter of waiting. (Spur-of-the-moment game idea: survival horror story where the main character is locked in a solid granite room just before what would be the final boss; the room very slowly begins to fill with water. The character screams at the top of his or her lungs while the player tries in vain to escape. An hour later, the main character is dead.) In the pyramid world, there’s a similar part where you have to keep jumping into tornadoes, sending Mario spinning through the air very, very, very, very, very slowly. Line him up with the platform and do a hip drop to land — or else, if you miss the mark, just float helplessly until you’re dead, or else do a hip drop to give up already. I don’t like any game — especially Mario — having “just give up already” situations.
The game shines brightest in retro-style 2D segments, which is kind of ironic, and kind of sad, though ultimately the retro-2D segments made the hemispheres of my brain figuratively rotate in place, grinding against one another loudly, because for some reason, though the perspective switches to 2D, the controls are still 3D, meaning that if you’re tilting the stick a tiny bit upward, Mario will get stuck to walls, though only just as he’s about to jump. This level of imprecision — in addition to Mario’s overall amazingly slow movement speed — is kind of just not allowed in a platform game if you expect me to take it seriously.
Super Mario Bros. 3 was just . . . so sharp. It had perfected Mario’s nuanced momentum, in addition to birthing a handful of power-ups with their own nuances. The awkward hopping of the frog suit made it horribly difficult to play on land, though swimming was a breeze. Raccoon Mario had the series’ first head-to-head melee attack (the tail attack). Tanooki Mario could turn to stone, avoiding damage from enemies. Hammer Mario’s deadly hammers flew at a curious, difficult-to-master angle, and his shell (when ducking) was impervious to fire.
In Super Mario Galaxy, a game conceived on the notion of Mario having no power-ups at all, all we get is hecking Bee Mario and hecking Boo Mario. Bee Mario can fly. You just hold down the A button and YIPPEE, that abstract representation of you, on the television screen, is flying. Boo Mario — oh my god, he can fly too, and also pass through walls, because he’s a ghost, a hideous ghost.
Ice Mario can walk on water, and his ice-skating (which makes Mario move at double his top speed) is actually the most finely nuanced movement in the game, by far. However, that the power-up is only usable for a limited time — and that each time you use it, the goal is merely get somewhere you couldn’t get otherwise, in a short amount of time (which is usually way too long) — makes it kind of useless in the long run. And unlike Super Mario Bros. 3, power-ups don’t carry over between levels, which is a real let-down, because it’d be really awesome to try to play other levels as Ice Mario. Everything has to be time-based now, and of course, if you run out of time, you just go back to the respawn point for the power-up.
Fire Mario — another time-limited powerup — is so nuanced he’s a mess. The only goal you’ll ever have as Fire Mario is the ridiculously Zelda-esque and touchy task of lighting two torches with his fireballs, which bounce like ping-pong balls on a bed of mousetraps. The only way to truly ensure you’re going to hit the target is to stand as close to it as you can before shaking the controller. Trying to hit the torches from a distance of more than two scale feet is like giving your last hundred dollars to a puppy and telling him to go play blackjack. You never know — the little bastard might make you a millionaire.
The best parts of Super Mario Galaxy are the wholly optional segments where you’re tilting the controller to steer a manta ray down a fast-paced waterslide, or where you’re rolling on top of a ball, down a huge playing field littered with holes. These games are so pure, and so technical, that I really wish these, Nintendo’s highest-paid game designers, would just make me a full game out of the slide segments from Super Mario 64, or the deathvoid stages from Super Mario Sunshine, already.
Instead, we get a game where large segments of the action involve pointing the remote at a little blue star, holding down the A button, and watching Mario get sucked in. Keep pointing at the next star and clicking — sometimes quickly — to keep moving. (It’s also very similar to Donkey Kong: King of Swing, which was made by the same developers.)
There you are, floating in space. How do you feel? Do you feel like you’re in space?
Eventually, my ability to enjoy Super Mario Galaxy withered away under the iron fist of the maybes. The first time I saw one of those blazing black-hole cores, my eyes popped open — so that’s how you do a bottomless pit in zero-gravity. The first time I saw a rubber ball at the core of a planetoid, half of my brain exploded. So, so many times, I kept thinking: “This would be so awesome if it were in a videogame”. And by the end of the experience, I had a flickering reflection in the back of my brain of the game I had wanted to play:
Call it Super Mario Acid. Here’s Mario, on a sphere made of acid, floating in space. He’s standing on a block. The block is being eaten by the acid. Where’s he going to go after the block completely sinks into the acid? you wonder, just as another block, sucked in by gravity, slams into the acid planetoid. This repeats for eternity — sometimes the blocks have flagpoles on them, sometimes it’s ladders, sometimes they’re long enough to get a running start so you can do a long jump or a triple jump, sometimes they have little overhangs to get caught under if you’re not careful. As you play, the speed of the blocks’ appearance gently increases, though the goal never changes: get to the high ground, whatever the high ground is.
Or maybe it’s just Super Mario standing on a block, floating in space around a black hole. Yeah, maybe that’s better — that way, you’d be able to see all of the orbiting platforms at once. Platforms keep entering the orbit of the black hole, and you have to keep jumping on them. You know a block is about to get sucked into the black hole because it starts shaking, faster and faster.
There’d be no way to win; like in Tetris, the only way to “win” is to be still playing the game. The existential dread and lack of a story didn’t stop Tetris from becoming the most popular videogame of all-time, you know, even among housewives. (Maybe it had something to do with the lack of a human protagonist. (Though in a way, we can say that the player is the protagonist, and GAME OVER represents their failure to live forever, which is kind of a lot more creepy than merely witnessing third-person the torment of a cartoon character. (Especially one with a mustache and overalls.))
The game would, ultimately, be a celebration of Mario Physics: the only true goal would be to enjoy existing in the world.
Instead, with Super Mario Galaxy, we get a load of filler leading up to a too-late climax; we get penguins teaching humans how to ride manta rays — animals teaching humans how to ride other animals — and all the half-assed production value that entails — no voice acting, a story that fully understands its own insignificance, lavish orchestral recordings of banal one-note compositions, and a “new” Mario voice from Charles Martinet, which I suppose is meant to represent Mario’s thrill upon finding himself in outer space. It ends up sounding more like cocaine hitting a ceiling fan. Then the terrible aspects: the music ranges from evocative of the image of ritualistically defecating Teletubbies to post-Jock-Jam, pre-apocalyptic trash that plays when you pick up the Ice or Fire Mario power-ups (it sounds like the song that’s playing on the radio the night you drive home from an overtime shift and find your refrigerator full of cockroaches), and the absolute terror of the washing-machine-buzzer-like sound that indicates MARIO IS ABOUT TO DIE. I’ve always despised such sound effects. Whatever happened to Super Mario? The only power-up mushroom in Super Mario Galaxy that makes Mario stronger just increases his ethereal “life” meter from a “3” numeral to a “6”. Maybe that says everything, right there.
Now that I think about it — really, what did happen to Super Mario? In this age of Katamari and Shadow of the Colossus, why not make a 3D Super Mario game where you can eat a mushroom that makes you bigger? Eat one to grow twice as big, eat two to grow four times as big, et cetera. Each one you eat makes you bigger, makes more areas of each stage accessible to you. Every time you get hit, you drop one size. Where’s this kind of thinking, in Super Mario Galaxy? Sure, planetoids represent a significant challenge for programmers and designers, and I respect that, though I’d appreciate either some actual originality or (not “and”) some really tight focus. This right here is a big jumble of yammering parts, and it could have been absolutely perfect if only someone knew how to apply a god damned scientific calculator. It could have been a rope, it could have had flow. It could have been gorgeous.
It could have been a cultural event, like the original Super Mario Bros. As what it is, though, it’s just another videogame.
Not that I have anything against videogames.
Just recently, though, I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles. No guard rails, no lights, no reflectors, a brilliant ocean pounding on rocks 2,000 feet below, stars filling the sky late at night. It was terrifying and visceral. A sign at one point in the road showed a squiggly arrow — used to indicate bendy roads — and a sign beneath it read: “NEXT 74 MILES”. Nine hours later, we were on Hollywood Boulevard, looking for a parking space for a half an hour. What I’m saying is, we need more games that are about driving down the Pacific Coast Highway with a hot blonde, and less games that are about looking for parking spaces. Super Mario Galaxy is ultimately a blue-baller; I will never play it again. I’ve parked that car two hundred and forty times, and eaten the keys.
And that’s it, people. We’re done. And more importantly, we’re also adults. Go home, tape some glow-in-the-dark plastic dolphins to the walls, and make heroic love to your wives, for God’s sake.