Thursday, November 15, 2007

Super Mario Galaxy

If Halo 3 and its embarrassing ad campaign complete with Mountain Dew Game Fuel have taught us nothing else (and they haven't), it's that the launch of a video game is a "cultural event," comparable to Woodstock, landing on the moon, or the fall of the Berlin wall. Yet as much as I mock this media blitz right now, my very own beloved Mario was guilty of equal or even worse crassness back in 1989, when the introduction of Super Mario Bros. 3 through the movie The Wizard went over like the third coming of Jesus. Since then, Nintendo have forgotten how to market themselves out of a wet paper bag, and the Mario brand has been diluted by an endless parade of spin-offs that have become franchises of their own (of varying quality), but suffice it to say that there's still a sizeable number of people for whom the prospect of a new Mario platform game creates a great deal of excitement, and quite a few of them grew up to be video game journalists.

What all this means for you, the consumer, is that if you're looking for a "fair and balanced" critique of said game, you may encounter some difficulty. Reviews of this game tend to be several pages of gushing hyperbole with a couple of token complaints thrown in to offset any accusations of bias. Look, I like Mario as much as anybody, but a review like that isn't going to do anyone any good. So with this revue I hope to balance some of that out and give you a better idea of what playing the game is really like, so you're not too disappointed when you play it and it's not the end-all be-all of human existence.

Don't get me wrong, Super Mario Galaxy is a great game. But that's all it is, and it's not perfect. I put it to you that if it were not a Mario game but a game starring some anonymous new characters, we as a society would be considerably less forgiving about some of its flaws. A lot of people raved about Super Mario Sunshine at first too, and now it's the bastard redheaded stepchild of the series. So I implore you, let's skip the "OMG a new Mario game" stage and go straight to looking at it critically.

The story of Super Mario Galaxy, if you really need one, is that Mario gets a letter from Princess Toadstool (Peach) inviting him to her castle because she has something she wants to give him. Wink wink, nudge nudge. Advanced readers may notice that this is exactly the same setup as Super Mario 64, except that this time there's an additional element of mystery because you don't know whether the thing she wants to give him is a cake or some other baked good, possibly a pie. Hell, it could even be a quiche -- this game breaks all the rules. Anyway, before Mario can actually approach Peach's castle, Bowser shows up in his airship (the disturbance you just felt was a million Mario fanboys ejaculating at once due to the return of Super Mario Bros. 3's airship motif) to kidnap Peach again. This time he just picks up her whole castle and takes it with him -- you know, kind of like what he did in Paper Mario. Kind of exactly like that. The one new element is that this time he's enlisted the help of a UFO, and they warp away after hitting Mario with a magic missile that knocks him onto some planet.

There, some little star creatures turn into rabbits and make you chase them around to teach you the controls, after which they introduce you to their "mama," the cyclopean (I can only assume) Princess Rosalina, who explains that, as you could probably have guessed, rescuing Peach will require collecting a bunch of stars, which will also gradually get you access to additional levels and open up the dark areas of this game's "hub world," the Observatory. If this sounds oddly familiar it's because it's the same tired level structure they've been using since Super Mario 64 more than ten years ago. Not a criticism... just an observation.

Okay, so with all that out of the way we can finally get to the meaty stuff: the game mechanics. Setting the game in space is a way to justify having Mario run around on small spheroids, which is a bigger deal than it sounds. When it's used effectively I would say that this is almost as big a change as going from 2D platforming to 3D in Super Mario 64. It's kind of like 3 1/2-D. Being able to explore every side of a surface and jump out of the orbit of one planet and into another opens up a lot of level design possibilities never before seen in a game like this.

It doesn't always live up to its potential, though. Like a little girl with a little curl, when the level design is good, it's very very good, but when it's bad, it's slightly less good. The problem is that the levels that make use of these new gravity-based designs are so fun and new that they make the other, more conventional levels feel quite drab in comparison. Too many levels in Galaxy are just large landmasses floating in space that you can only walk on the top of (which makes no sense, which is part of a separate issue I'll talk about later) -- they wouldn't be at all out of place in Super Mario 64. I suppose Nintendo didn't want to alienate people who preferred the more traditional level design, but seriously, fuck those people. And yes, these levels are fine by those standards, but after being tantalized with the more "galactic" ones, it's kind of a bummer to have to go back.

Besides the level design, the other big change to the Mario formula here is the physics. Maybe the problem here is just my own expectations, but for a game involving a bunch of free-floating stuff in space, I really thought that gravity would be more important. I mean, it's there; it stops you from falling off the planetoids. But that's about it. I do still have a ways to go before finishing the game, but so far, the amount of gravitational force has been the same on every planetoid, regardless of the size, and while you can sometimes do cool tricks like long-jumping around the edge of a planetoid (I haven't managed to get into orbit yet), I haven't encountered a situation where you actually have to use anything like that to your advantage. Which is okay, I guess; I mean, it's not really necessary, but it sure would be cool. Just strikes me as another case of potential not being used.

The other thing about the gravity is that it's somewhat inconsistent, by which I mean, sometimes you can walk around the edge of a planet and sometimes you'll fall off the edge to your death, and it can be hard to know which to expect. Even within planetoids, there may be some walls you can walk up and others that are just walls; some platforms you can walk all the way around and some you'll fall off, with no way to tell which is which. Sure, you can figure it out through trial and error, but if you're expecting Galaxy's gravity to be anything like the universe's gravity, let me disabuse you of that notion right now, my friend. The game uses black holes to justify all of its "falling in a chasm" deaths, but even if you can see a black hole nearby (which is a big "if" anyway due to the automatic camera), it's not always clear what will cause you to fall into it and what won't. In some situations the black holes work fine (it wouldn't be Mario without some jumping across chasms), but other times it seems like the designers didn't feel like making a planet that goes all the way around, so they just made a "flat Earth"-style planet and chucked a black hole under it to keep you from exploring the bottom. I guess it makes more sense than the invisible walls at the edges of levels of earlier games, but not by much, and unexpectedly falling off the world is quite annoying.

The last thing I want to talk about is the camera. I have actually seen a few reviews mention it, but they seem to be focusing on times when it doesn't automatically move to the best position -- which does happen occasionally, but I haven't found it to be a big deal. It does sometimes make it hard to judge the jump distance for stomping on things, and it's probably for that reason that jumping in this game has actually been downplayed quite a bit in favor of a spin attack, which feels like a bit of a kludge, but it gets the job done. But no, what I want to talk about is running around upside down (something you'll have to do fairly frequently). There's a problem that always plagues games where you switch from moving around normally to moving around upside down while the camera stays in the same orientation (something that happens surprisingly often in Nintendo games; see also the spider ball in the Metroid Prime series and the iron boots in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess). It's kind of hard to explain, but basically, once you're upside down, your directional controls are inverted, to an extent. I.e. you were pressing up on the analog stick and moving away from the camera a second ago, but now you've walked up the wall in front of you, but because you're still pressing forward you're now moving toward the camera. So now you need to turn right. Which direction should you move the analog stick? I don't know. I guess to the right would make the most sense, but then you're pressing right and your character is moving left on the screen. Pretty confusing. If pressing left makes your character go left, then the left/right axis corresponds to what's on screen but the up/down axis doesn't. Also pretty confusing. But to make things even more confusing, if you stop moving and let go of the analog stick, then start moving again, pressing the same direction might not have you moving the same direction you were a moment ago, because while you stopped moving the controls re-calibrated themselves so that analog stick direction will correspond to screen direction. Which is probably what you want to happen in the long run, but to press the same direction twice and have your character go a different way each time is a bit disorienting. In Zelda and Metroid, walking upside down was such a minor part of the games that this problem was pretty easy to ignore, but it's considerably more prominent in Galaxy. I don't know what the solution is, but keeping the camera more or less behind Mario at all times as he walks around a planet seems like a good start, although it might make it harder to get a feel for your environment.

So all of these are areas in which I think the game could be improved. Do they stop it from being fun? Hell no. Pretty much every other element of the game more than makes up for these minor quibbles, and it's easily the best 3D Mario game, even if the formula is starting to show its age. Still, when the worst thing you can say about a game is that sometimes it feels like playing Super Mario 64, I think you're in pretty good shape.

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