Completion level: 100% completed
This is NOT a spoiler-free review. In fact, in the next line I plan to spoil the entire plot of the game.
Okay. So there's this princess, right? And she gets kidnapped by a giant dinosaur named Bowser. I know you're shocked by this. I was too. But luckily, help is on the way! Some guy named Mario – who is apparently a plumber – rescues her.
That's the plot.
It may sound familiar to you.
At the moment, there are, as I would count them, three major lines of Mario games. First, and best-known, are the Mario sidescrollers, starting with Super Mario Brothers and continuing up through Super Paper Mario. Second are the roleplaying games, which I believe started with Super Mario RPG and somewhat branched with the Paper Mario series and Superstar Saga series. And last, there's the 3D exploration games, including Mario 64, Mario Sunshine, and Mario Galaxy.
You'll notice a bit of confusion – I'm calling Super Paper Mario a sidescroller, but I'm also mentioning how the Paper Mario series is a roleplaying game. Super Paper Mario is an experimental intersection of sidescroller and roleplaying game. Nintendo has never been one to keep its games locked in tightly-defined precise boxes – Nintendo's built around fun. They make games which are fun, and if a certain convention gets in the way of making the game they want, the convention gets thrown away.
For example: lush, spectacular graphics. Mario games don't have those.
Their graphics certainly aren't bad. The art is always good, and it's always reasonably high-end by the standards of the console. But it's designed to be effective. it's not designed to be spectacular. it's not designed to be flashy. it's designed to convey how the world is constructed, and hold to a theme, and be consistent. All of which it succeeds at, quite nicely, but nobody will ever say "Oh man, did you see the latest Mario game? I didn't know video games could look like that!"
We all knew video games could look like that. We saw it in the last Mario game. This one just has more triangles.
Plot is another thing that, with the exception of the roleplaying line, Mario games just don't do. There's a princess. She gets kidnapped by Bowser. Mario defeats Bowser. Everyone lives happily ever after, inevitably including Bowser, who, don't worry, will try again next game. I don't even want to think about how many times Peach has been kidnapped – I suspect she's playing along with it at this point. Nothing else could possibly explain it. (At some point I should write about how Mario isn't based in story, it's based in myth. This is not that entry.)
So. "3D Exploration Game"? What's that?
The Mario 64 series has a gameplay style which I honestly can't say I've seen in any other game ever. Your goal ("save the princess") is governed by a very simple game mechanic: a series of things you must collect. In Mario 64 it was stars. In Mario Galaxy, well, it's stars. In Mario Sunshine you had to defeat Shadow Marios, and the way you got to them was by collecting "shines" . . . which look exactly like stars.
The game inevitably consists of a number of major areas – from seven up to around fifteen – and each one contains a number of stars, generally from six to eight. On top of that there's some number of minor areas that include one or two stars each. In order to unlock a new major area, you collect a bunch of stars. In order to unlock a new minor area, you collect a bunch of stars.
You can probably see a theme here.
There are some variations. Mario Galaxy divides its "galaxies" up into six groups, and to unlock the next groups you have to collect the single Grand Star. There are green stars, and red stars, and comets, and star bits, and hungry Lumas who eat star bits and explode forming into new galaxies which you can travel to and, surprise surprise, get a star. But fundamentally, the game comes down to:
- Collect a star.
- Can you fight the end boss? If so, go do it.
- Can you fight a midboss? If so, go do it.
- Return to step 1.
And this is one of the series's greatest strengths. There's never any question on what you should do next. You should go find another star. The game is carefully balanced so that, once you get past the first few stars, you always have several options on where to go next. If you get stuck on one particular zone, or decide that you don't really want to dodge fireballs today and you'd rather go play with flowers or space stations, you can always take a break and try another area.
It's a brilliantly simple game mechanic, but unfortunately I think Mario Galaxy missed one of the things that made Mario 64 great.
As I mentioned, most areas contain multiple stars. But in Mario 64, you can frequently pick up the "wrong star". Maybe you're meant to go ice skating, but instead you explore in the wrong direction and end up on top of the mountain. There's a star on top of the mountain, but despite the fact that the game said "Time for ice skating!" you haven't done any ice skating. That's okay. We can work with this. You can grab the star, and head back into the zone, and it'll say "Congratulations! You found the MOUNTAIN CLIMBER star! Your next star is: ICE SKATING." And then, when it would have normally said "Let's go climb a mountain!", it just skips that one – after all, you already found the mountain star – and sends you off to fight a Yeti, or collect a ton of coins, or race a penguin or something. Many of which you could have done instead of ice skating or mountain climbing.
In Mario 64, exploration is heavily rewarded. Each zone has several stars you can get at any point, and while you're encouraged to get the "next one", there's absolutely nothing forcing you. In Mario Galaxy, this is no longer the case. The vast majority of the time, only one star even exists in an area at a time. There are a small number of hidden stars – precisely one per area – but that hidden star only exists if you choose the right "non-hidden" star to go after. If you choose ICE SKATING you can get to MOUNTAIN CLIMBER also. If you choose YETI SLAYING you're going to go slay that yeti, or fail, and there simply aren't any other options. Have fun, good luck.
And that's sort of sad. In Mario 64 I felt like I could just wander wherever I felt like. Some feature of the landscape look interesting? Chances are good there's a star there. Find a wall that looks challenging to climb, but still possible? Probably a star at the top. Whereas Mario Galaxy, once you choose what star to retrieve, is an annoyingly linear game. The exploration is gone, and for a game that balances right on the edge of having a glorious sense of wonder about it, Mario Galaxy stops just short of what I was hoping for.
(As I'm imagining the game I wanted Galaxy to be, I get much of the same feeling as I did with much of Aquaria – the feeling that there's a small universe out there just waiting for me to find it. I didn't get that feeling at all in Galaxy.)
There's two other things I want to mention, but they're both pretty short.
Like most Mario games, the developers have decided to spend the time to write quite a large number of minigames and game mechanics that only show up once or twice. There's a section with you balancing on top of a giant sphere, for example. There's a racing section with riding stingrays on top of a (completely awesome-looking) floating water course. There's a quite neat segment with "spotlights" that cause matter to exist – if you jump in an area without a spotlight, you fall endlessly to your doom. In fact, there are exactly two sections of each of these. Despite all the trouble that these are to implement, the game designers saw fit to only use the code twice, in the entire game.
Partially this is annoying. Racing is fun. I want to do more of it! But on the other hand, it also neatly prevents burnout. I'm sure everyone reading this has seen a game which was fun at the beginning, but frustrating at the end. (Puzzle Quest is my most recent example of this.) Mario Galaxy doesn't do that. It doesn't even come close.
"Leave the audience wanting more." There's no other way to say it, and there's no better way to get the player excited to try out your next game. After all, maybe there'll be more stingray racing!
And finally, I noticed some neat subtlety with the music. The music actually changes depending on what you're doing – some tracks fade in, some fade out, and the music rapidly morphs to emphasize whatever you're currently doing. This is an amazingly powerful and beautiful technique, and I do not know why more companies don't do this. Nintendo's been doing this ever since the Super Nintendo (go jump on Yoshi in Super Mario World, the music is slightly different if you're riding Yoshi) and it's something I never see in other games. For a simple example, enter any Bowser boss fight – if you didn't notice this when playing, I recommend checking it out. It's worth it.
Good game. Polished to a phenomenal level. Effort and money was spent on gameplay gameplay gameplay – not spectacular special effects, not a riveting plot, but on making sure the game was fun in every possible way. Game lacks the exploration sense that Mario 64 had, which I feel is a loss, but gets just about everything else right.
There's a reason Nintendo is doing well right now, and Mario Galaxy is a great example of it.