Monday, January 28, 2008

Game Review: Super Mario Galaxy

A wonderful sounding game is reviewed by our guest blogger, Thomas McDonald. This game sounds much like the ones that we bought for our kids when they were little ... the sort we wanted to play ourselves after they'd gone to bed. As Thomas pointed out in an email to me, "... parents should be in touch with this material. This is the imaginative landscape of this generation, much like Lovecraft, Poe, sci-fi, Planet of the Apes, Universal Horror, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc were for mine. Parents should understand that. My kids are exposed to a huge range of material (they love the classics, audio books and old time radio), but things like Mario and Zelda will be part of the well of imaginative memories they draw from. They could do far worse. There's a real sense of wonder in some of these game worlds."

Super Mario Galaxy

Nintendo, Wii: $50, Rated: E

Content advisory: Absolutely nothing any reasonable person could find offensive, except maybe for the brutal and unfair caricature of short Italian plumbers.

People play games for many different reasons: the challenge, the cathartic effect, role-playing, exploration, or just plain escapism. Simple, exuberant joy is a rare reaction to most games, but it can be found, most frequently in the family-friendly titles produced by Nintendo.

I came late to the Nintendo party. I was past console gaming and into computers when the first Mario games hit. (When I was a kid, we had Pong, and we liked it!) It wasn’t until I began writing about video games as a regular beat that I started to get familiar with the Nintendo family of characters. At first, Mario, Link, Kirby, and the rest were cute cartoon characters without any depth or appeal for an adult. As I dug deeper into the actual gameplay of titles like Super Mario Bros. or Legend of Zelda, however, I started to appreciate the depth and skill of the design. Beneath the cute veneer, Nintendo’s major games are masterpieces of imagination and puzzle-craft, and Super Mario Galaxy is the best one yet.

This is the game Wii Watchers have been waiting for. Ever since the system was announced, Super Mario Galaxy was one of the titles that got people itchy to grab the controller. We’ve waited a year for it, but it was worth it.

Year ago, I committed to never spending more than one sentence talking about the plot for any Mario game, so here it goes: Peach is kidnapped by Bowser, and Mario has to save her. Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

Bowser is Mario’s perennial enemy, an old-school hissable villain who does everything but tie Peach to the railroad tracks and wickedly twirl his moustache. He’s pretty much Nintendo’s version of Baragon, one of Godzilla’s old foes, with a spiky turtle shell, a pair of horns, and a mouthful of razor sharp teeth. He spends most his time fighting the plucky plumber by proxy, leaving Mario to take on wave after wave of lesser miscreants before the final boss battle.
As always, it’s the setting that distinguishes these games, whether it’s a haunted mansion, a sun-drenched paradise, or a paper world. In Galaxy, the setting is the entire universe. Bowser has disappeared to the far reaches of space, and Mario needs to hop from planet to planet collecting stars to power his way to the rescue.

Each of these tiny planets is a small self-contained puzzle. Mario can walk around the entire surface (and often inside), sometimes traveling upside down and being pulled in different directions by the forces of gravity. On each planet, Mario needs to unlock a launch star to shoot him to the next planet, but there are plenty of obstacles to overcome and tasks to complete along the way. There are about 50 galaxies, each containing anywhere from one to seven little planets. Some aren’t really planets, but dazzlingly imaginative challenges, such as racing on the back of a skate (the stingray kind, not the roller kind) on a water track suspended in space, or flopping your way through a pill-shaped planet with constantly shifting fields of gravity.

Along the way, Mario uses his basic skill set (jumping, spinning, sliding, climbing), but also picks up a number of costumes along the way to add new skills. Dressed as a bee, he can fly; as a Boo (a ghost), he can float and pass through certain objects; made of ice, and can freeze water; and so on. These add a bit of diversity to the levels and help solve certain puzzles while keeping things fresh.

As Mario completes each galaxy, new galaxies with new planets are unlocked, with the difficulty level increasing very gradually. The game is designed to be a pick-up-and-play experience for the new gamers, but ramps up to the harder challenges which Mario fans expect. Challenges never get too hard, and the Wii controls aren’t gimmicky or cumbersome. Everything is designed to keep you in the game with a minimum of controller fuss.

All of this seems to come short of explaining just why this is one of the best Mario games ever, and certainly the finest title Nintendo has released in years. But the thing that keeps bringing us back is the simple “joy factor”. Game should make you happy, and everything about Mario Galaxy—all its little touches and characters, its wild imagination and casual cleverness—brings a smile to your face.

Watching my son kick around inside Super Mario Galaxy drove that joy factor home for me. He seemed to almost levitate with happiness at the pure, nonthreatening environment and unbounded imagination and invention on display. “Nonthreatening” may seem like an odd word for a game full of life-threatening traps, challenging puzzles, and plentiful foes. But consider, for a moment, our violence-saturated, porn-infused culture, where a game like Manhunt 2 lets you mutilate people and Grand Theft Auto is little more than a carjacking sim. A game where kids dispatch polka-dotted piranha plants by butt-bouncing them with a plumber dressed in blue overalls and a jaunty red cap becomes the very definition of “nonthreatening.”

With some games, kids simply zone out and grimly watch the screen as they twiddle their thumbs. With Mario Galaxy, they smile, they laugh, they wiggle the controller, they solve problems, they’re engaged. That doesn’t mean this is one just for the kids. Any adult who isn’t charmed by a game like this has a stone for a heart. There’s something here for any age.

When Mario shrinks to access a hidden room, or grows to stomp his ways through an obstacle, or turns into a bee and takes flight, he’s living out every childhood fantasy, for both kids and adults. We put too much emphasis sometimes on “putting away childish things.” For a little while, even in the rectangular looking glass world of a light hearted video game, we can access a bit of that childhood exuberance, and be happier for the experience.

And hey, Mario is Italian, so he’s gotta be a Catholic, right?

Thomas L. McDonald is Editor-at-Large of Games Magazine. He has covered games as a writer and editor for 17 years for numerous magazines and newspapers. Among his books are Tom McDonald’s PC Games Extravaganza (Sybex) and Sun Tzu’s Ancient Art of Golf (Contemporary, with Gary Parker Chapin). He’s also a certified catechist in the Diocese of Trenton and teaches 8th Level Catechesis and Confirmation.

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