Nintendo mascot Mario finally gets back to the business of saving princesses in full 3-D (instead of the 2.5-D of Super Paper Mario) on the Wii. It has been five years since Super Mario Sunshine on GameCube, a game which, while competently executed, didn't exactly win over fans of the classic series. Whatever Nintendo missed in Sunshine gets put right in Galaxy, an innovative platformer that pays homage to the Mario of old while throwing in just enough new tricks that keep things fresh from start to finish.
Just like any other Super Mario game, Mario's arch-nemesis Bowser nabs Princess Peach in a daring daytime abduction, and the do-gooder plumber sets off to save her. This time around, Mario goes where no man has gone before, starting on a deep space observatory, where he meets Princess Rosalina. The Princess, a self-appointed keeper of the stars (any less likely than a plumber who never actually does any plumbing?), tells Mario that the only way he can rescue Peach is by recovering several Grand Stars. Once they've been captured, the observatory can fly into deep space where Bowser is keeping Peach hostage. The story alternates between charming and nonsensical and at times, and, as always, the dialog is just plain eye-rolling.
The lack of anything more than a cursory plot serves to highlight the game's strength -- imaginative layouts that we'd call level design for the Ritalin generation. Instead of long levels that take hours to complete, the game is broken up into galaxies, which are further divided into smaller galaxies. Each smaller galaxy contains its own terrain, platform and theme (e.g. Space Junk Galaxy, Rolling Green Galaxy, Battle Rock Galaxy) and requires Mario to endure a series of obstacles to collect a star, which ends the level and sends him back to Rosalina's observatory.
In the larger galaxies (each comprised of around five galaxies), one of the planets leads to big boss battles, which get more challenging as the game goes on. Like all Mario games, beating these big boys requires figuring out a boss' attack pattern and then using a combination of the environment and Mario's attacks to defeat them. Some of these battles are just downright difficult and will require a combination of patience, determination and a steady hand to conquer.
These short and sweet galaxies keep the game moving at a rapid clip and, with a few exceptions, there's little level fatigue. Some galaxies require repeat trips to find all of the stars and others just require one go-round to collect the star and head back to the observatory.
New game mechanics also lend to the game's fresh factor. With a firm nod to Super Mario 3, specially powered costumes give Mario special abilities. For instance, a bee costume lets Mario take flight. Mario can also turn into Fire Mario (allowing him to throw flames) and the ghostly Boo suit lets him glide through walls. Even though the game takes place in space, nostalgic touches like swinging fire barriers and pipes that lead to secret underground bonus rooms give off that distinctive Mario vibe.
It wouldn't be Mario without coin collecting, and as in the rest of the series, coins can be used to restore health, or hoarded for bragging rights. Keeping with the space theme, Mario also collects star bits that can be saved or used to stun enemies. Hoarding star pieces has its fringe benefits -- each 50 collected equal an extra life and the rest can be used to feed "hungry" stars which then transform and create new galaxies -- often more challenging levels that serve as a chance to collect more star pieces and extra stars.
The game uses both the Wii controller and Nunchuck attachment. Use the thumbstick on the Nunchuck to move Mario and the 'A' button on the Wii-mote makes Mario jump. Shake the Wii-mote back and forth allow Mario to spin. Aiming the Wii-mote at the screen vacuums up the star bits, but that's about it -- disappointing, considering the possibilities. While the controls are responsive, the Wii-mote/Nunchuck combo can feel awkward at times -- we could just as easily played the entire thing using a more traditional game pad.
Galaxy tacks on a two-player coop mode, which is probably the weakest aspect of an otherwise solid game. Player one goes about his business, while player two is limited to using a second Wii-mote -- picking up star bits and helping Mario jump. This might work for a parent trying to play with a young child, but for older Mario fans, it's not much fun.
Super Mario Galaxy succeeds in tweaking the classic formula while keeping the game experience that keeps people coming back for more Mario, time and time again. The series' strengths -- inventive 3-D platforming and colorful environments -- are still there, but so is the cloying saccharine dialog and supporting cast -- an exercise in infantilism we could do without. While not perfect, this adventure will not only be on thousands of wish lists this holiday season, but will likely make it harder to find Wii console in stores over the next few months.
Our Score: Excellent 9 out of 10