Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)
There are a set of constants that you can count on in a Mario game. You want stars. Bosses either die after you hit them three times, or they just get angrier. Things that are yellow need to turn blue. Mushrooms are good, except when they're walking. This sort of loving adherence to their own genetic memories is what makes Mario games such potent heartstring-pluckers. The best ones manage to hearken back to times when cutting-edge gaming meant something less cynical and more imaginative. Super Mario 64 embodied this ethos while at the same time spawning one of the most enduring expressions of gaming in the last 10 years. Super Mario Galaxy picks up where its legendary predecessor left off (and where Super Mario Sunshine may have stumbled), and propels itself to fanciful new dimensions that challenge the imagination, even whilst experiencing them firsthand.
The environments, characters, sounds and mechanics that have defined Mario's Technicolor worlds for ages have been extruded through a philosopher's stone, and the emerging hodgepodge feels both foreign and familiar. After Mario jumps, his feet will sometimes land on a surface opposite from where they took off. And when he kicks a koopa's shell, it might just circumnavigate the surface it's coasting on and hit him from behind.
Try as your senses might to be befuddled by all the surreal liberties the game takes with regards to space and perspective, the masterfully-implemented mechanics will keep you grounded all the way through. It's astounding just how solid and intuitive all this madness feels, and it's quite a testament to just how painstakingly the game's designers have built the fundamentals. The camera hardly ever shirks from the Herculean labors asked of it, and the controls stay keen in spite of the wildest spatial musings visited upon them by the levels. Any other platformer would kill for Galaxy's rock-solid mechanics. The fact that it flies in the face of their adherence to ordinary physics indicates at just how advanced a level the game is playing.
The "worlds" in Galaxy are quite literally worlds: planetoids suspended in space, often with unique physical properties, and always playfully designed. Some are vast, conducive to meandering, and laden with hidden stars; others follow linear paths plotted in the service of a single clever mechanic or self-referential gag. For every conventional world built from earth, grass, water, lava and honeycombs, there's another, more abstract one, cobbled together from Lego blocks, Erector bits, lights and shadows. Galaxy's most sincere nod to convention is the hub world that binds all these galaxies together. Part space station, part fairytale kingdom, and captained by a Princess Peach look-alike and her retinue of cuddly star people, this environment suitably serves its practical purpose -- to propel you toward your stars -- and houses a few diversions of its own. There's a plot somewhere in here, told via dialog boxes and saccharine storybook sequences, but it all flies out the window once you actually get to playing the game.
The throwaway story ultimately equates to an overall absence of narrative in the minute-to-minute gameplay. This is nothing new to Mario games, and in Galaxy's case, it's actually an asset. Every level stands on its own, maintaining a unique imperative, and their designs reflect this -- almost every experience is wonderfully realized and completely encapsulated from start to finish. Every time you complete a level, you feel like you've accomplished something, and there's never a niggling urge to finish what you've started beyond a simple desire to experience more of the game. In this manner, Galaxy begs to be greedily consumed in a few sittings, while nevertheless remaining very much conducive to a prolonged savoring. Yes, the number of stars that remain at large is displayed at your feet every time you start up the game, but that's the extent of the pressure. You can save Princess Peach as soon as you get around to gathering 60 stars. After you've done so, you may feel free to collect the remaining 59 at your leisure. Just don't let it get in the way of your fun.
Odd as it may seem given Galaxy's de facto status as the system's flagship title, the Wii's waggle functionality never quite feels crucial to the game. The sequences that feel most earnestly designed around the system's unique user interface -- the ray-surfing and Monkey Ball levels, specifically -- are in fact the only parts of the game that manage to feel aggravating. (These, thankfully, are mostly optional, as far as the critical path goes.) In essence, Super Mario Galaxy could have been released on any other system, and it wouldn't have been much worse for the wear. In spite of all the lengths to which Nintendo has gone in attempting to demystify the apparatus and empower the wider audience, its "hardcore" games don't appear to have changed much. You may just burn an extra calorie or two by playing them, though, especially if you do supersets of Wii Fit in between stars or Triforce pieces.
Who knows? Maybe a Mario game built expressly for the Wii would be a terrible idea, though my imagination is probably several orders of magnitude less expansive than those of the people whose jobs is it to design Mario games. And that's being generous. The sad reality, though, is that if the historic pattern holds, we get one great Mario game every generation, and that's not counting the ones that Nintendo decided to skip. So in all likelihood, Galaxy is going to be it for a good while. Sure, there are at least 120 ways to pass the time till Jumpman's star will again be emergent, but it's a sobering thought nonetheless.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game loaned by (and subsequently returned to) Nintendo's outside PR agency.