Super Mario Galaxy is impossible. Don’t get the wrong idea – it’s not a particularly difficult game, although it does have its moments. What we mean is, it obeys no rules, contradicts everything you know, and has no right to exist.
Mario Galaxy turns 3D into 2D, and 2D into 3D. It takes complex spatial ideas and makes them simple and instinctive; it takes the most basic, most familiar acts in gaming and makes them strange, finger-twisting and fresh. It resurrects the pure platform game in a universe where it’s hard to fall off things. It rewrites its own rules in almost every level, sometimes more than once. Super Mario Galaxy rejoices in turning the world upside down.
It really ought to feel more familiar than it does. Mario’s basic controls work almost exactly as they did in Super Mario 64: a supple range of clumsily exuberant acrobatics, distilled to the manipulation of one stick and two buttons. Exactly as last year’s New Super Mario Bros did for Mario’s 2D incarnation, it serves as a reminder of how his peerless controls have been widely imitated, but never successfully copied. The timing is slightly more forgiving, and the sense of inertia is mildly restrained (in normal gravitational conditions – which are rare enough). But the elastic, chaotic, joyfully expressive freedom is as it ever was.
So far, so reassuring. But after a clunky and cutscene-ridden intro has laid out a needless backstory for Super Mario Galaxy’s sheer nonsense, the game dumps you on its first little spherical planetoid. As you hare around, you run down its flank, and along its bottom; you plunge through a pipe and pop out on the other side. Left becomes right and down becomes up in the blink of an eye.
Confusion and disorientation slowly melt into surprise and delight; your brain baulks at the message from your eyes, but your fingers know, instinctively, that Mario will just go where you point him. It’s an identical feeling to steering Mario’s first steps in 3D over a decade ago; the hesitant thrill of understanding that what was absolute has become a matter of perspective. Only this time, that feeling never goes away.
Since a fourth dimension of space doesn’t exist, Nintendo has found it necessary to invent one. It has wrapped Mario 64’s bas-reliefs around spheres, cylinders and lozenges. There are planets with prongs, planets in the shape of a mushroom or of Yoshi’s head, planets made of interlocking beams, planets that double back on themselves, planets that are just globes of water you can swim through. The ground keeps shifting, your faith keeps being challenged, the sense of amused wonder at each rewiring of your brain never fades.
Incredibly, these mind-bending spatial concepts – so much more complex and elusive than anything seen in thirdperson gaming to date – are displayed by a camera that’s nothing short of perfect. Nintendo has stepped back from user control and let its own code and careful direction do the talking. There are larger, more traditionally designed flat planets too – a welcome change of pace, for the most part, though one ice world veers dangerously close to cliché – and here basic rotation of the camera is allowed. It speaks volumes that you will very rarely think to touch it.
Thanks to its host platform, Super Mario Galaxy has another perspective twist in store. Its use of the Remote is more subtle, but more pervasive, than the vigorous literalism of Twilight Princess. Shaking it for a spin attack, or to activate the star gates that send you soaring ecstatically between planets, gives you that now-familiar tactile buzz. But as a pointer, it does so much more.
It lets you reach into the screen, collecting and shooting the star bits that litter the universe, grabbing on to tractor beams, steering bubbles through mazes, twanging Mario and Toad out of catapults. It lets you play the game in two ways and two places at once, and breaks a hitherto unseen barrier between the player and the action. That you can both be Mario and help him is another of Galaxy’s initially strange dislocations, but it comes to feel so comfortable that losing this godlike power is like losing an arm.
Galaxy’s spirit of wild invention could finish there and you would hardly feel short-changed. The first few galaxies you visit lay out the game’s extraordinary ideas so cogently, develop them with such easy confidence, that you can see every consequence of these basic principles being stretched out for the rest of the game with the thorough professionalism Nintendo has become known for. But Mario games didn’t used to be like that; Nintendo didn’t used to do that. And Galaxy doesn’t go that way.
The ideas, jokes, twists, surprises, new games, rules and interactions simply never stop coming. In fact, they intensify into a ceaseless torrent of absurd details and insane conceptual leaps. ‘Matter-splatter’ stages reduce your grip on reality to shifting spotlights of solid matter in an ocean of void. Gravity traps and switches turn the most basic 2D and 3D Galaxy stages into head-spinning puzzles. Unexpected power-ups appear, from the ancient fire-flower to a skating ice-Mario and the hilariously slapstick spring. Like the well-publicized bee and boo suits, these are disposable toys rather than deep new mechanics in their own right, but frankly, after FLUDD, a concentration on Mario’s native abilities is welcome.
As hard as it can be to believe, it’s in its second half that Galaxy takes flight and shoots for the stars. Super Mario Sunshine lost sight of it, partly, but Mario has always been about creating a space where games can leave the real world behind, and explore their limitless potential for realizing the surreal and impossible. That has never been more true than it is of Super Mario Galaxy. It’s an overused phrase, but if this isn’t a riot of the imagination, then nothing is.
Structurally, it’s a little more conventional – 120 stars, split into six areas comprising several galaxies each, with the ‘final’ boss coming halfway through, is an entirely familiar arrangement. So is the now-unfashionable hub world, a space-faring observatory belonging to the enigmatic Princess Rosalina and her impossibly cute tribe of star-people, the Lumas. When you discover that major galaxies consist of only three star stages each, and that many of these are spun out with hidden stars, Luigi rescues and trickster comets, you begin to fear that Galaxy’s content is spread a little thin.
The reverse is true. Every inch of Galaxy’s galaxies is so dense, so rich, that a little recycling has to be excused. After all, it’s what has afforded Nintendo’s designers time to explore a vast number of one-off ideas in special galaxies scattered all around the game. These range from delightful novelties exploring diverse control systems – ray-surfing and ball-balancing and more – to focused platforming challenges of breathtaking intensity and scale, like the unforgettable Buoy Base Tower.
That’s before you even step beyond the design to consider the impeccable audiovisual polish. Excepting one or two drab areas, Galaxy is an extremely beautiful game; vivid colors edged in starlight, every surface finished with a candied sheen you can almost taste. Its soundtrack is simply one of the all-time greats, mixing electro breakdowns of Mario tunes past with thrilling, lyrical orchestral pieces and outlandish effects.
It’s all too much to take in; it’s more than you thought possible. Since the end of the N64 era, as Nintendo has explored new pastures and methodically tended old ones, it’s been easy to forget the times when every major release from the company felt like this. It’s a bravura piece of design that pulls off stunts no one else has even thought of, and makes it look easy. But its greatest surprise is a very simple one.
Super Mario Galaxy is a platform game, pure and simple. More so than Mario 64 is; more so than any truly 3D videogame ever made. For all its countless diversions and bizarre ideas, it keeps coming back to running, bouncing, scaling, exploring, teetering on the brink, taking your heart in your mouth and jumping off the edge of the world. For others, space is the final frontier, the furthest you can go; for Mario, it’s just like coming home.