Super Mario Galaxy is Nintendo's attempt to restore dignity to 3D platforming, and at that it is a resounding success. In recent years, games calling themselves "platformers" have become little more than action games with jumping thrown in, a far cry from the ambitious template set out by Super Mario 64 in 1996. For some perspective, some of the best 3D platforming in the last generation was seen in the non-waterpack levels of Super Mario Sunshine--a game most regard as a bit of a misstep--and the excellent Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which would still be characterized by most as an "action/adventure."
Central to Galaxy is its non-stop sense of discovery and variety, paired with its impeccable control and feel. This is an absolute smorgasbord of platforming gameplay. It feels as if the EAD Tokyo team behind the game felt it needed to compensate on the part of the entire industry for a decade of weak 3D platforming.
Impressively, despite the insane amount of variety, Galaxy may be Mario's most thematically cohesive adventure yet, with the arguable exception of the beautiful and underplayed Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. Yoshiaki Koizumi, designer of Super Mario Sunshine, returned to helm Galaxy under the supervision of creator Shigeru Miyamoto, which speaks to the team's clear desire to right that game's wrongs. Sunshine's platforming control was spot on, but its overall gameplay theme and sense of world were way off-base, and those are easily the elements at the core of Galaxy's greatness.
The themes that tie everything together in Galaxy are its gravity system and outer space setting. Gravity permeates everything in Galaxy, sometimes overtly and sometimes more subtly. Many of the stages are spread out over a series of small planetoids, each with its own gravitational pull. The smallest of the celestial bodies have little influence over Mario, who retains his standard moves from 64 and Sunshine. Now the plumber can often triple jump into escape velocity, only to be sucked into another planet's atmosphere after reaching space. Sometimes you can even put yourself into near-orbit, spiraling around the planet before crashing back down to ground. The whole game is filled with that sort of thing, and it really never gets old.
But gravity as a theme goes deeper than that. Many of the game's levels contain explicit reversals of gravity, based on switches or other systems. Some levels feature gravity that is entirely relative to the angle of the ground, similar to the Milkman Conspiracy level from Double Fine's Psychonauts. No mechanic becomes overused and tired; it is always freshened up in some surprising way.
Some have expressed worry that the game would be nothing but planet-hopping; not so. Many levels take place on planets so large that they may as well be traditionally flat Mario worlds. You probably won't even think about that kind of distinction while playing, however, as you get sucked into the game and its nonstop barrage of constantly changing gameplay.
Each stage can be nearly anything--a long, involved 3D platformer, a traditional 2D platforming sequence with the twist of background-based gravity switches, a short but exciting tilt-based water race, or a battle that blurs the lines between boss fight and platforming level, like something out of Team Ico's Shadow of the Colossus. On that last note, boss battles are just about the best they've ever been in the series, again with the arguable exception of Yoshi's Island. There's a great deal of variety, and they are often suitably epic. Oh, and you've probably seen Mario's floating bee suit in the game's trailers--that's just the beginning. Mario has as many suits in this game as he's ever had.
Structurally, this game is in the vein of Mario 64, and feels much more like a successor to that title than to Sunshine. The universe is split up into a number of galactic clusters, each of which contains several galaxies, which in turn may contain any number of stages. On top of the six main clusters, there are many additional galaxies and stages to be found. You get a star for completing each stage, and as you acquire more stars, you can travel to more distant galaxies, allowing you to pick both the levels you want to play and the order in which you play them. Galaxy already has a great back-and-forth between difficult levels--although the game never gets particularly devious--and levels that are more about pure fun. Still, you can always modify the pacing yourself, since you have so much freedom in how you complete the game.
Some of the galaxies towards the end of the game are massive, interconnected structures, filled with nearly every major mechanic used throughout the game. If you have played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, you know that great feeling of anticipation and impending challenge you get when you approach something like this. In Sands of Time, the camera would pan up to reveal all sorts of chasms, spinning blades, and ropes; in Galaxy, Mario soars through the air towards a hulking dreadnaught festooned with pipes, rotating surfaces, gears, platforms, and gravity-reversing switches.
Nearly every level has some creative new mechanic or subtle presentational conceit. In one, the tempo of the background music dynamically scales to the speed at which you are progressing through the level; in another, you literally assemble the melody of a classic Mario tune in real-time as you dash through the level collecting musical notes. Even simple actions like jumping from platform to platform are made more exciting, as in one level where crystalline blocks materialize under your feet as you land each jump.
Control feels like exactly what a traditional game's interface on the Wii should be--solid, time-tested control that we know has been done about as well as it can be from Mario 64 and Sunshine, with Wii remote functionality that is helpful and transparent, never obnoxious. With a few exceptions, the pointer is basically used to gather and shoot star bits, little chunks of ammo that can be fired at enemies to stun or slow them. It's a great tool, one that coexists alongside your main control of Mario, and helps you out without being cumbersome.
The game's presentation is, quite frankly, unparalleled on the Wii. The system's relatively low power is well-suited to Galaxy's highly stylized visuals, which are colorful and vibrant and packed with a huge amount of variety. The outer space concept has cleverly allowed the development team to go completely nuts with the architecture and layout, having no real practical limits, while keeping everything closely tied into the iconic motifs of the cosmos. It comes together very well, allowing for galaxies that have distinct themes without feeling like they're from different games.
I imagine longtime Nintendo composer Koji Kondo, and his co-composer on this game Mahito Yokota, must be overjoyed at this point that Nintendo finally decided to spring for a real orchestra. While the 8- and 16-bit tunes of yore were immensely charming and still hold up today, Nintendo's synthesized scores of the GameCube era were often lifeless and artificial. No longer. Here, there are rousing Disney-like themes, enigmatic sci-fi textures, and great covers of classic Mario tunes including, but not limited to, the original Super Mario Bros. overworld and dungeon themes. In the level selection screen, the tone caused by your pointer cursor hovering over a galaxy even modulates to be in the proper key with the background music at any given moment. This game is a pleasure to listen to.
One of the most remarkable things about Super Mario Galaxy may be how normal its gameplay systems become. As you become more accustomed to its freewheeling sense of gravity and liberal manipulation of traditional platforming conventions, it all starts to form its own internal logic in your gaming sense. The inevitable flip side of this is that when Galaxy starts to seem normal to you, all of those less-inspiring platformers will now seem even more lame.
What is even more remarkable than that is how the game continues to stay utterly fresh, surprising, and inventive despite its fundamentals becoming expected. In another game, such a masterful grasp on this kind of platforming that is so in tune with both its roots and with the cutting edge would be plenty, but on top of that Galaxy keeps throwing more and more at you with every level.
Mario will be shot out of cannon, he will slickly skate around an icy torus suspended in space, he will move between two bodies of water floating across from one another. Entire levels will crumble around him, and architecture based around dark matter will...operate in ways too unusual to describe succinctly in text.
Some of Galaxy's platforming mechanics are utterly new and surprising; others have been seen in past platformers, Mario-based or not. The mind-boggling thing about Galaxy is that all of these mechanics coexist brilliantly in the same game, and they're not even relegated to separate themed levels--they're sprinkled throughout the entire game in a way that demonstrates true experience and craft within the video game form.
I am currently also writing a review of WayForward's Contra 4 (NDS) that begins, "They don't make games like this anymore." To tweak that familiar saying to be more appropriate to Super Mario Galaxy, "They really don't make games like this ever."