Super Mario Galaxy is a bold declaration of Nintendo’s commitment to innovate, even in the face of enormous risk. Nintendo could have simply revamped Galaxy’s GameCube predecessor — Super Mario Sunshine — with streamlined graphics and a handful of hokey Wiimote functions, and the result would have been an excellent game with a guaranteed profit margin. In fact, Sunshine was a meager technical update over its forerunner and was still highly rated and successful.
Nevertheless, even Nintendo loyalists were slightly disappointed with Sunshine, because — while it was a tightly constructed game — it failed to progress the Mario series in the way that the first 3D incarnation, Super Mario 64, did years before. Nintendo, never resentful, internalized these criticisms and with them galvanized its creation of the radically innovative Galaxy. At the risk of alienating players with a distinctly un-Mario interstellar game design and previously unseen mechanics, Nintendo has succeeded in creating the pinnacle of the Mario series and the yardstick against which all future platformers will inevitably be compared.
Galaxy does not trouble itself with story: Bowser captures Peach and Mario undertakes to rescue her. In the process, he will journey through more than 40 galaxies, a motley lot ranging from desert wastelands to interstellar garbage dumps. The variety in level design is staggering: Each galaxy stands unique, whether due to its own texture sets, musical cues or novel gameplay — and often enough a combination of all three. Galaxies are accessed through an astronomical observatory that functions as the hub world. It is also the most uninspired environment in the game, but this speaks to the quality of the galaxies, not the shortcoming of the observatory.
Controlling Mario is sinfully easy; he navigates via the Nunchuck, and his jumps and ground pounds are button-mapped accordingly, as is the camera control. The Wiimote is used to collect star bits scattered around each galaxy and then, once collected, to shoot them. Several special functions are controlled with the Wiimote as well, such as climbing up vines, unscrewing objects or spinning Mario rapidly. In certain instances, the Nunchuck is removed from the equation entirely: In one galaxy, Mario races on a manta ray through the water, its direction controlled by the tilt of the Wiimote. In another, the Wiimote is gripped like a flight throttle and inclined to accelerate a rolling ball while the music speeds and slows according to the ball’s momentum. Regardless of the function at hand, Wiimote integration is seamless, always responsive and completely immersive.
In all technical aspects this is the Wii’s crowning achievement. Environments are crisp, expansive and appealing. High polygon counts, bump-mapping, dynamic lighting, superb anti-aliasing — every wrench in the graphic toolkit is employed. Nintendo’s petite Wii can never compete with the hunky 360 in pure processing power, but creative art direction accomplishes more than an extra shot of RAM: It ensures that each level is pleasurable to observe.
Nothing is boring in Galaxy, and the graphical flares inspired this player to stop playing and simply look around on numerous occasions. As in any Mario game, the sound effects are goofy and splendid. The music is the real champion, though: an abundance of fully orchestrated tracks composed by Nintendo’s resident Beethoven, Koji Kondo. The instrumentation always suits the environment, with heavy organ and lugubrious sitar during a boss battle but chipper, beaming violins in a grassy world that inspired one onlooker to describe it as the enthusiastic overture to a John Williams score.
Playing Galaxy is pure bliss, but not merely because of refined graphics or efficient controls. The most significant innovation is the gravity system. In many levels, Mario can maneuver over the entirety of a spherical planetoid, which makes each environmental exploration incredibly fulfilling — essentially no area is out of reach. The first experience jumping over the edge of a seemingly horizontal planet will make players sympathetic to the crew of the Santa María: an alarming free-fall until Mario lands standing on the underbelly of the planet.
The gravity mechanic works almost perfectly. Occasionally there are black holes littered about that will suck Mario into oblivion, and sometimes it is impossible to discern when they are around. When cruising underneath a planet and bouncing around objects, the camera might get momentarily obstructed. Despite these minor foibles, playing in gravity is a euphoric experience.
More than an incredible game, the importance of Super Mario Galaxy to the Wii cannot be overstated. The Wii’s two previous high-caliber titles proved a tad underwhelming; Zelda’s Wiimote integration was superficial, and while Metroid’s controls redefined console first-person shooters, the game was not unilaterally fun.
But Mario has been Nintendo’s strongest standby since day one, and Galaxy has proven unequivocally that games built bottom-up for the Wii can be technically resplendent, well-controlled and stupendously entertaining. Third parties take note: You now have a benchmark against which the 13 million Wii-owning households will compare your lackadaisical releases. And to anyone with lingering doubts: The Wii has been vindicated.