Super Mario Galaxy!
Due for Release: 03/15/2007
Everybody knows Mario.
The lovable caricature of the infamous Italian plumber is without doubt one of the most recognizable animated faces in the world. Mario is the iconic avatar of gaming culture: a depiction of fun, adventure, and ingenuity that has always been symbolic of console entertainment and synonymous with Nintendo. For many gamers, the success or failure of Nintendo consoles has been defined by the quality of their Mario titles. It goes without saying that Nintendo's new console will need a flagship Mario game to steer the system's way towards profitable seas.
It is, then, of little surprise that the upcoming Nintendo Wii will host Mario's newest adventure, but what is surprising -- and very welcome -- is the return of ingenuity to the franchise. The Gamecube's Super Mario Sunshine was certainly a fun game, but it was little more than a glorified sequel to Super Mario 64. While few innovations could hope to approach the scope of Mario 64's magnificent transition into three dimensions, Sunshine offered none at all. There were modifications to gameplay, to be sure (the return of Yoshi and the addition of a jetpack could not be ignored), but it is difficult to classify those additions as anything more than cheap parlor tricks when compared with Mario 64's rich overhaul.
Not so with Super Mario Galaxy. While our knowledge of many of the specific details of Mario's latest adventure remains somewhat cloudy, we have been able to cull from disparate sources a few tantalizing motes of information. Here's a run-down of everything we know thus far about Mario's upcoming galactic romp.
At first glance, it would seem that we know very little about Galaxy's plotline other than the fact that a) Princess Peach has been captured, and b) she's in space. After a small amount of consideration, however, it becomes apparent that there probably isn't much more to know anyway. Galaxy is a Mario game -- thus, like all its predecessors, it's a platformer with almost no semblance of story other than the desperate need of a crimson-clothed plumber to chase after some mutated animal (usually a turtle) and rescue a princess from certain doom. We don't complain about the story's threadbare nature simply because we've come to expect it.
That Galaxy's storyline isn't evolved is acceptable, to us, on the condition that the gameplay more than compensates. The best way for the game to do that is to take the next logical evolutionary step for the franchise. Two marked alterations to Galaxy's mechanics embody that step: the reorientation of gravity and the rethinking of controls.
Mario doesn't have much of a choice: if he wants to save Princess Peach, he'll have to head for the stars. And once he gets there, life becomes very, very different. The environments in Super Mario Galaxy will be based almost entirely (if not exclusively) on small spheroids or moderately-sized islands floating in the void. What's very cool is that those spheroids and islands will be traversable on all axes.
Run all the way around moons; hop along platforms at right-angles to each other; slip over the sides of vertical cliffs to run along their sheer walls; follow pathways that reverse their orientations -- in Super Mario Galaxy, gravity is no longer an overarching constant, but is rather a dynamic factor in gameplay
The results are spectacular: puzzles twist in multiple dimensions, pathways fork around planetoids, and Mario rides the sky, shot from island to island by star-shaped catapults that propel him where he has never gone before. By integrating the ability to roam freely around space into the game, Nintendo has done away with the soon-to-be-archaic concept of planar gameplay. All that remains is potential; the potential for twisted puzzles, inventive environments, and engaging battles.
But by allowing Mario to walk on walls and ceilings and reorient himself to his environment on a whim, Nintendo has created for itself a dilemma: How is it possible for players to quickly, effortlessly, and intuitively navigate around this metaphorical world, while at the same time interacting with it on a level that would be expected from the next generation of Mario gaming? The solution, of course, was already in place: by using the Wii remote, they could provide us with precisely the means of interaction we sought.
Nintendo's inventive control scheme for the Wii -- the combination of the Wii remote and the nunchuck attachment -- is perfectly suited to guiding Mario through his new locale. The analog control stick on the nunchuck moves Mario in the same fashion it always has. However, with the addition of the Wii remote, players can now control a second icon on the screen: a star-shaped cursor, which can directly manipulate objects in the game world.
Slash the cursor by a trio of bells and they move and ring. Hover the cursor over an enemy creature and it will pin the monster in place. Spin the cursor around Mario and he will spin in-game, blocking and reflecting attacks. Pass the cursor over items close to him and they'll pull to his form as he's passing by.
The cursor is more than a way of controlling Mario or interacting with the game -- it is a helping hand, allowing you to reach into the game world and clear his path while directly guiding the squat plumber at the same time.
It might sound a bit cumbersome, but in reality it's an incredibly easy control scheme to master, and it opens up brand-new mechanical possibilities. You can have Mario leap into a tree (he retains all his classic moves), then use the cursor to pull the tree back and slingshot him clear across planetoids. You can use the cursor to encase Mario in bubbles void of gravity and steer him through space with the help of hovering star markers. You can do any number of things -- and don't forget, we've only been able to glimpse the surface of the game's potential. There's no telling what the final version will incorporate.
For a game that doesn't even have a release date other than "sometime in 2007," Super Mario Galaxy is already turning heads. While it certainly won't be out soon enough to be a system-seller, it nevertheless promises to be one of the Wii's must-have games next year. That Nintendo is taking its time releasing the game is somewhat positive -- as much as we may want to play Galaxy, at least we know that once it is released, it will have been well worth the wait.