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Whilst it is unlikely that this is the first Mario Galaxy review you have read, and less likely still that you are unaware of the sort of scores it is amassing, you may be less familiar with some of the more intimate details of Nintendo's latest outing for their superstar plumber. So we'll leave the hyperbole and Mario love for the masses, choosing instead to pin-point the highs and lows of this undoubtedly uplifting game.
It is testament to Nintendo's understanding of their own game that they knew all along what was missed in the move from the densely populated vistas of Super Mario World to the wide open lands of Mario 64. With Mario Galaxy, Nintendo have put the exploration back into their platform game.
If you weren't playing close attention you probably didn't even notice it leave. But when Nintendo managed to pop-out Mario World's lovable two dimensions into 64's impressive three, a more limited world was invented. Whereas Mario World encouraged you to explore every inch, and go for broke on every jump, Mario 64 dissuaded such abandon from the simple fact that reality now had edges. Falling to your death a few times was enough to make the most ardent player throttle back on their exploration and focus on the platforming. This was accentuated by the technical fact that these three dimensional worlds could only be peopled with relatively less enemies and items. They had an unavoidable sparseness about them which subconsciously deterred players from pushing the exploratory boundaries as they were simply less likely to make discoveries.
Even Mario Sunshine didn't seem to have the will to really tackle this thorny issue. Sure it was now able to provide a denser habitat, but at the same time it still took platforming rather than pioneering skills to progress through the levels. It was all about the jumps and balances and backpack rides. There's no doubting the stature of Mario 64, or the subsequent Super Mario Sunshine, but these games scored highest for platforming prowess rather than delivering the exploration and discovery that was a lynch pin of the two dimensional Mario experience.
Still better is the ability of a second player to pick up a Wii-mote and dabble in the game world, helping and protecting the main player on their way. This has proved an exactly tool for parents to play keeper for their younger kids as they have a go on the game.
I'm aware saying this may well be unpopular, but as someone who has ploughed more hours into Mario than another moniker the modern world has to offer, it is my genuine experience of these later games. There is no escaping that seminal Mario experience of bashing through the ceiling in world 1-2 of Super Mario Brothers and discovering, with spine tingling consequences, that you could push the very boundaries of the game and find hidden coins, lives and levels.
To return to our point, in one fail swoop Super Mario Galaxy ingeniously answers the long unanswered absence of exploration from the series. Coming to the new game is entirely different to Sunshine or 64 for one simple reason: gravity. Both the people and the terrain of the game now exert a force on each other that transforms your interactions. Mario's movement is now freeform, gone are the old prescriptive rise and fall of each jump, now when you press A the results depend upon your environment. If jump from a large land mass you will rise and fall as before, but on the smaller bodies you find you can jump higher due to their effect on their diminished gravity. Find a suitably tiny world and you can literally jump off and orbit round it to your heart's content. This breaks the sense of operating in a bounded world, and opens up the environment to be pushed, pulled and (crucially) explored into an inch of its physics.
We see this most clearly at the borders of each level. Now, if you tiptoe over the edge of the land, rather than plummet to your doom, you often find you can walk right round to the other side and discover a whole new part of the level. A new glee besets you as you can again happily skip around the levels, pushing and pulling at the design to see where those hidden zingers are to be found. All this adds up to a world that is not only more engaging and believable but ultimately a better play space.
This ingenious play mechanic is delivered in the game proper through a thousand bite sized lozenges that are the different galaxies and land masses there in. Each of them takes the basic tenants of the game, (platforming, exploration, gravity and dimensions) and remixes them into enticing puzzles and conundrums. Some are simply fun to run around and present no more challenge than that, whilst others stretch the genre to breaking point and have you struggling to keep pace and process what your eyes, ears and hands are telling you.
Again true to form, great care has been taken to meter out each experience so as not to overwhelm or stagnate. The game expands at a steady pace, and although the seasoned (hardened?) Mario gamer will find the earlier levels somewhat trivial; the majority of players have been well catered for. That said, this is not an experience that starts with a big bang. Mario Galaxy leaves the bravado and postulating to the likes of Halo 3 and Call of Duty. Here we find a slow steady dawning realisation that this is a place where you will want to spend a lot of time. In fact, we found it wasn't until halfway through that things really started to sing. Maybe it just took our psyche that long to catch up with what was on offer, either way we were impressed that Nintendo could maintain the quality and momentum right through the game.
Visually, this is quite easily the best looking Mario game to date, and probably one of the better Wii titles. It oozes quality, from the opening use of your Mii to mark a save file, to the first glimpse of each new sumptuous environment. The art style is cartoony without being overtly cell shaded. It walks a tight rope between a stylised and realistic rendering of reality, and in the most art delivers. There are occasions when you notice a shadow pop in or out in an untimely manner, but these hiccups are a rarity and with so much else to appreciate on screen will most likely go unnoticed by the majority of players.
We can't move on from the graphics without a substantial mention of the game camera. In the past this has been the bane of 3D Mario experiences as you found yourself jostling for control with the automated framing, often struggling to get the ideal angle for the next jump. Here however, you rarely reach for the camera-adjust controls because the game itself gets it right 95% of the time. This camera really is the unsung hero in Galaxy as it affects ever aspect of the game. The delivery of a water tight solution has removed one whole barrier to entry for a swath of more casual gamers.
This ingenious play mechanic is delivered in the game proper through a thousand bite sized lozenges that are the different galaxies and land masses there in.
Other controls are implemented with equal slick-ness. When you hear about the combination of point-and-stick you may be a little sceptical. But although the metaphor in the real world would present a problem, in Galaxy it makes perfect sense. Still better is the ability of a second player to pick up a Wii-mote and dabble in the game world, helping and protecting the main player on their way. This has proved an exactly tool for parents to play keeper for their younger kids as they have a go on the game. They can use this second Wii-mote to stun enemies and protect the main player from coming a cropper. It brought back memories of the similar novice/expert co-op in Mario Kart double dash. Whilst the controls baffled most hard-core gamers, parents praised the approach that enabled them to play with their novice children (or vice verse).
We then come to the music, which doesn't usually accrue too many sentences in our reviews. It either serves its purpose or causes a problem. But in Galaxy the score (and yes we do need to talk about it as a score) is as uplifting and orchestral as something from Final Fantasy. We are used to the usual little Mario ditties, but what we have here is something that genuinely adds an emotive quality, and dare we say grand-ness, to the on screen action. This is all delivered without straying too far from the hum-able classic tunes that have punctuated Mario platformers through the decades. The music also forms an occasional function in the game design itself. There is one classic moment where you are collecting notes, and you can tell if you have missed any because the classic Mario tune is produced as you gobble them up. Skip a note and the music goes awry, simply genius.
All these elements (visuals, music and physics) come together to make a bottomless lucky dip of levels that never cease to amaze. There is something of the short intense level experiences from Super Mario Brothers 3 that provided a more constrained outing that Super Mario World. Each bit size level may not be very long, but is certainly intense and enjoyable. Furthermore, they are able to both sustain and very the deliver through the entire game. Whereas Mario Sunshine started with a whoosh, but never managed to perpetuate the inventiveness, Galaxy starts slower and paces itself superbly.
The final ingredient to go into the pot is Nintendo's prize jewel, their cast of characters. Whereas some other developers have invented instant pop-up histories and back stories for their game avatars, Nintendo have actually put the hours in to genuinely understand how to use and leverage each and every one of their famous cast. From the halcyon days of the Game and Watch products they have been tending their character-garden of topiary, and it shows.
So how do we sum all this up? Super Mario Galaxy is certainly a return to form for Nintendo. Not since the original Super Mario Brothers or the expansive Super Mario World have I had such a spin tingling experience with the diminutive plumber. This may be the crucial game that will bring back to the fold those who never really 'got' Mario 64, and yes there are quite a few of us out here.
Galaxy opts for a slow strong confident delivery rather than the showy tricks of its impostors. This may mean it takes a little while before you are really convinced. But spend a little time and we are sure that you will be coming back again and again, just to be reminded of what it takes to make a great platform game in every sense of the word: running, jumping and exploration.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: