Super Mario Galaxy
Mario Galaxy is here. Maybe you've been anxiously anticipating it or maybe you've written the series off after the frequently criticized Sunshine. Well, consider coming back one more time because Galaxy really gets it right.
The game has some excellent visuals, going beyond Mario Sunshine with it's level of detail and blowing it away in artistic style and variety. Contrary to what a lot of online video might show, you spend only a small part of the game in space areas. Just like other Mario games, you'll explore tropical paradises, the arctic, dangerous lava worlds, a ghost house, and many new areas, all looking better than you've ever seen from this series. Flying through space from one location to another, or speeding through the air across the surface of a full size level, the view and the complete lack of slowdown never fails to impress.
In playing Galaxy, your basic goal is similar to previous entries in the series. Bowser has captured the princess (and is looking especially fearsome this time around). Explore levels to find power stars, to unlock more levels with yet more stars. Find enough to reach and defeat Bowser and you win the game.
I think that what really makes the gameplay work is the fact that they decided to work in a lot more linearity within each level. Rather than being given a clue and being left to explore a large 3D area to find a star, the levels have more of a beginning, middle and end progression. You may be able to wander slightly to get extra coins or powerups, but the level design subtly funnels you into the area where the designers want you to be, allowing them to have a Mario game that's almost as action and platforming oriented as the sidescrollers were. That's not to say you won't ever have situations where you can freely explore a level, but that's no longer the primary gameplay style and is mostly reserved for after the main game is completed.
Gravity is considered to be a big aspect of the gameplay and generally speaking, it works okay. I don't necessarily think they accomplish much that they couldn't have done with traditional mechanics but it does at least set the game apart somewhat. While the camera does an excellent job in general, some players might find some small sections disorienting, such as exploring tiny planetoids while held by their weak gravity or riding a moving platform and then walking over the edge and either to the rim or to the other side to avoid obstacles. But it's something you quickly adjust to and some levels open up into larger areas where gravity rules don't tend to matter as much. And in stages where you might be disoriented by something, Galaxy tends to be pretty forgiving about not letting you fall to your death just because you're confused.
Which brings me to one of my favorite things about Galaxy. Falling to your death! And the many other ways Mario will meet his end. Somehow, they actually made this game somewhat challenging, and with a much steadier progression than in Sunshine. With the more linear levels, a lot of classic design elements that have been left ouf of recent games make a return. Thwomps (now with insta-kill), bottomless pits, swarms of enemies or projectiles, so much stuff I never thought I'd see implemented (successfully) in a 3D Mario game make an appearance here. They've even thrown in a nice variety of bosses. They aren't all terribly hard but they definitely keep you on your toes and you'll likely get more than one Game Over from them alone. Adding to this, Mario can take a lot less damage than before. Three hits and he's done. You might find the occasional powerup that temporarily increases it to six, but that's usually left for right before a tough boss. It's possible to stock up on extra lives if you want to spend the time, but they do not carry over after you power down the game.
It seems like the most challenging of all has been left for after you beat the main game, which could be considered unfortunate, but at least there's no way to get enough stars to beat Bowser without going through some of the more intense areas. And by the time you do defeat him, you're probably going to be hooked enough to get all 120 and the secret that awaits.
Another negative is that they didn't really do much with star bits. Star bits are basically jewels that are scattered all over each level and can be obtained by beating enemies with a spin attack. Collecting enough lets you unlock some special stages. All you have to do is wave your remote so that the cursor passes over them to collect. It feels like it was only there to give a second player something to do while watching and adds nothing to the game.
Fortunately, the controls are excellent, and for the morst part, it feels like playing any other 3D Mario. You've got the usual jumping, ground pounding, long jumps, triple jumps, wall jumps, and there's now a spin attack you use by flicking your wrist a little bit. Trust me when I say that it's not annoying in any way to pull off and that it's nice to have one less button to worry about.
I feel I should mention music, even though it's a section I'm never any good at discussing in my reviews. I know that Galaxy has a soundtrack with a lot of orchestrated pieces and that most of it was pleasant, and even gave the major cutscenes a more epic feel when necessary. But memorable, it wasn't. I distinctly remember all of the classic Mario songs that were remixed here but the only original song I have any memory of is the one for the tropical islands. And for all I pay attention, they might even be reusing something from Sunshine for that. The game also loses some points for Mario screaming out "SUPER MARIO GALAXY!!!" every time you start but gains points for anything Luigi says.
Okay, so here we are at the end. Am I going to tell you to run out and pay whatever it takes to get a Wii so you can play this game NOW? No, I'm not. It's just one game and you can live without it. But when you do find yourself with a Wii and wondering what to get for it, this should be the first game that comes to mind if you've liked any Mario game before it. It's beautiful, it's challenging, it combines the best of old and new, and it's one of the best in the series.