Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Heretic Machine Reviews: Super Mario Galaxy.

This year has been great for gamers, we all know that. It seems like nearly every big developer out there has stepped up with their very best and left us with at least a dozen games which could of taken home Game of the Year at any other time. Nintendo's primary offering, Super Mario Galaxy, is at the very top of this excellent crop of games, bringing to the table a proper sequel to the game which brought life to the genre of 3D platforming just over ten years ago.

The story starts off with Mario taking Peach up on an invitation to visit her castle, and enjoy a once-in-a-century meteor shower. As Mario approaches the town of Toads surrounding Peach's castle, strange colorful objects called starbits rain from the sky. All seems well until Bowser shows up to crash the party, riding in an oddly futuristic (compared to his airship armada) UFO. Using lasers from his new vehicle, he cuts out a circle around Peach's castle, allowing him to grab it (and the Princess) with a set of chains, and drag them off into space. Mario leaps onto the castle as it flies away, but is thwarted by Bowser and sent spinning off into space.

He is rescued by a new benefactor: Rosalina. She immediatly seeks Mario's help in restoring power to her Comet Observatory, which functions as the hub world for your adventure (much as Peach's Castle was used in Super Mario 64). Your job is to enter each dome, gather enough power stars to reach the boss of the dome, and then defeat him to rescue a Grand Star. Each Grand Star you receive brings power to new sections of the Comet Observatory, and with it, new domes. Rosalina claims that the Comet Observatory can act as a spaceship, and once at full power she'll be able to take him to the center of the universe, where Bowser waits.

Simply put, Super Mario Galaxy uses Super Mario 64's basic gameplay as a foundation to build upon. Mario still has nearly every move and action that he had in 64, and they mostly work the same way. He can still double, and triple jump, with the same sort of timing as before. He still does back flips from a crouching position, as well as a long jump. Using jump and crouch will produce a ground pound attack. This all seems very natural to someone who has played 64, and reduces the learning curve to almost nothing. Of note, Mario's life bar has been reduced to only three points, but can be temporarily upgraded to six by the use of a power-up.

The two major additions to Mario's arsenal are his spinning attack, and the ability to use and collect starbits. The spin attack essentially replaces the punch that Mario previously used to defeat enemies. It is, as it's name would suggest, a move where Mario spins in place and damages any vulnerable enemies near by. As well, it can be used to increase the height which Mario is capable of jumping by activating it at the top of each jump. This becomes key to much of the game, and fortunately, executing the spin attack is done very simply by giving a small shake to the Wiimote.

The second addition, starbits, are a new collectible within the game. The game describes them as food which Rosalina's companions, the Lumas, use to grow into other objects such as planets, galaxies, and even warp points to assist you in your adventure. Starbits appear in abundance, at just about every opportunity. Walk through a patch of grass? Have six starbits. Use a spin attack to kill an enemy instead of stomping them? Have three starbits. They are even scattered about the environments by the dozen. Starbits are collect simply by waving the Wiimote's cursor over them once they appear. Their primary function is to be horded and fed to hungry Lumas, but they also give Mario an extra life once he has collected an increment of fifty, as well as functioning as a sort of weak weapon to stun enemies and activate some objects on the field.

Mario also has an assortment of new power-ups available to him, as well as some classics. His Fire Flower returns, granting him a new color scheme and the ability to toss fireballs for a short while. The Bee Suit is introduced fairly early on, granting Mario the ability to fly in small bursts. A new Boo Mushroom takes the place of the Insubstantial Hat from Super Mario 64, giving Mario the ability to float in the air as well as become incorporeal and slip through grating. The Hyper Star will be familiar to all fans of the series, though formally known as the Power Star, and gives Mario temporary invulnerability. Finally, and likely the most interesting of all, is the Ice Mushroom. This turns Mario into ice for a short time, allowing him to freeze fluids (water and lava), creating his own platform to walk on, or even wall-jump up when given two closely placed waterfalls!

As noted before, the game revolves around powering up new parts of the Observatory by collecting Grand Stars. These appear in the Observatory's domes, which function in the same way as the various floors of Peach's Castle in 64. In each of the five major domes there are five galaxies, the equivalent to 64's paintings in that they are multi-goaled levels. Two of the five galaxies will be fairly large, having three normal stars (at least one of which will have a minor boss fight at the end), and three more stars activated by other means. Two of the other galaxies are smaller, and only feature one star, often with specialized gameplay involved. The final galaxy contains the grand star, featuring a long and perilous level to traverse, culminating in a major boss fight. Once you defeat the boss, you will be given a Grand Star, and a new dome to explore.

Galaxies, as the name suggest, consist of one or more planetoids floating in space. This provides a veritable feast for the eyes, as many of these planetoids offer their own gravitational field, allowing you to walk across them without fear of falling off, even when you're upside down! Each of these planetoids typically have one or more goals which must be completed to unlock the path to the next planetoid. This is one of Galaxy's best (and most interesting) new features, delivering short puzzles and action sequences on each planetoid, eventually leading to the ultimate goal of obtaining a star. Each planetoid takes anywhere from thirty seconds to a few minutes to finish before being sent off to a new one. These fun-sized bits of gameplay are much less prone to fatiguing the player, as your goals are usually very obtainable, while still challenging.

Galaxies are unlocked according to the number of power stars you have collected. Not every galaxy must be entered to beat the game, and only half of the power stars must be collected to enter the final fight with Bowser. This can be accomplished in fifteen hours for most players. But the fight with Bowser is ultimately only a device used to draw the player along the beginning of the game, and once presented with the full observatory to explore, many players will be drawn into collecting the rest of the stars. Every galaxy is worth exploring, and offer some of the most surreal and comforting environments a gamer is ever likely to of seen.

The themes of the various galaxies range from space environments, to haunted houses and water worlds, all the way to food and toy themed galaxies. Many of these themes are only used just a few times, always in new and interesting ways, offering a nice variety to the game's playing fields.

But don't be taken into the beautiful, cartoony world of Super Mario Galaxy with the idea that this game is a push-over, designed to offer a diversion for small children. This game is just as challenging as any other Mario out there, and will give even a Super Mario 64 veteran a run for their money. In particular, there are special challenges provided by comets which are extremely difficult. Comets show up in orbit around a galaxy occasionally after acquiring a star (though, not necessarily from that galaxy), and can also be shuffled about by bribing a Luma with starbits. The comets come in a variety of flavors, and each of these offer their own challenges. One kind of comet places you in a galaxy's boss fight with only one bar of life left, and without the ability to restore it with coins. Another asks you to race a ghost version of one's self to a power star unique to the comet's challenge. The most challenging of all of the comets, the Purple Comet, is unlocked after defeating Bowser. This requires a player to explore a level and retrieve one hundred purple coins (specially placed for this challenge) under a certain time limit. In total, there are 42 (by my count) galaxies to explore, and 120 stars to collect.

In the end, after spending four days with Super Mario Galaxy, I'm ready to say that this is at least the best Mario game Nintendo has ever produced, and will likely go down in gaming history as one of the best things this hobby has ever seen. It has set a new standard for what a 3D platformer should be, and a goal to which other developers should strive towards when they are making their own titles. On the basis that it severely outclasses all other games in it's genre to date, I give Super Mario Galaxy a 10/10, and my pick for Game of the Year.

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