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Critical Essay Series: Super Mario Galaxy

In this piece we dissect how Nintendo merged the familiar with the revolutionary in Super Mario Galaxy.

Can a game be both revolutionary and nostalgic?  This has been the paradox that has stifled game developers for many years.  The art of excellent game design is to try to introduce something totally new that the player has never done before, yet make sure the player does not feel overwhelmed by the overall experience or in other words make the player feel comfortable by giving them a sense of familiarity while playing. 

That perfect balancing act of innovation versus familiarity is what separates those games that remain timeless classics from those that age with time.  In the case of Super Mario Galaxy it not only achieves that state of Zen like balance, it thrives in it.

As most of you who are reading this know, all Mario games live and die by their platforming qualities.  Whether it is the many jumping techniques used to reach far off platforms or measuring the draw distance to ricochet off of a goomba onto the moving platform; jumping is the very backbone of any Mario game. 

Thus what makes future Mario games different from its many iterations is the innovative variations of the jumping mechanic.  Regardless if it is Mario gaining the ability to fly in Super Mario Bros. 3 or the ability to use the FLUDD cannon in Mario Sunshine, Mario’s interaction with the environment around him dictates the platforming capabilities of all of his past games.  For that reason what makes Super Mario Galaxy so completely different from all other Mario games in the past is that the jumping mechanic of Mario is not affected the the player, but by the various environments.  In the case of Super Mario Galaxy the element of gravity really changes those preconceived notions of platforming elements.



The use of gravity in Super Mario Galaxy dictates where Mario can go in the world.  By now many of you have already played the game may have noticed that the designers went with smaller planetoids as well as huge open worlds.  On some stages (or galaxies as the game calls it) planetoids are littered usually throughout the level and for the most part are used throughout the game as platforms. 

So in the case of completing a level in Super Mario Galaxy you have to jump from planetoid to planetoid completing the specified objective to get the power star.  Hence what you always have to keep in mind from going planetoid to planetoid (aka platform to platform) is the element of gravity in each stage. 

For example when you jump up in between two celestial bodies (whether they are planets or sheets of metal floating in space) you have to judge if gravity will take you where you need to go.  If by jumping up you get closer to the other planetoid, you have to question if the gravitational force from the other planetoid will be strong enough to carry you to the new planet. 

Other times more traditional platforming sections are present where you have to mind the gap between two platforms, because in the middle of the planet a gaping black hole will be present basically acting as the bottomless pit in past Mario games. 

Regardless of what ever situation the game puts you in, gravity always seems to play a very important mechanic in the game’s overall design, yet surprisingly enough it never feels forced on to the player through out the whole game.  By making Mario have his basic jumping moves, the same from Mario 64, the player feels comfortable in controlling Mario through some very tough (yet innovative) platforming segments; while at the same time encountering obstacles that have never been attempted by any other 3-D platformers. 

This in turn gives the player the sense of familiarity while playing the game even though they are facing challenges that are new to the platforming genre.  At the same time, this theme of the yin and yang balance of rock solid gameplay mechanics is present throughout the game, whether it is Wii-mote centric objectives versus basic the more traditional platforming controls or exploring a large vast planet versus many small planetoids in a galaxy. The balancing of the game always seems to keep a constant variety that keeps players from getting fatigued from too much repetition.


Like many other Mario games before it, story plays second fiddle to the game’s excellent play mechanics.  However that does not mean those elements do not come into play with the game’s brilliance.  The playfulness of flying through space when traveling through a galaxy and the different homages (few of them paying service from Mario games past) really add to the whole light hearted aesthetic to the game. 

The graphics, even if they are not in High Definition, convey a certain atmosphere of being inviting for both casual and enthusiast players.  With the strong foundation in gameplay, the balancing of the many styles/actions within the game, as well as the overall playful aesthetic of Super Mario Galaxy comes down to one thing; it is just plain fun.


With games this day of age being so focused on story driven sequences or convoluted mish-mash of gameplay elements; they sometimes forget what games are supposed to be about.  In fact in a Mario game the story never really mattered, nor in fact do the characters. 

The whole idea of a Mario game is to be basically present in a virtual playground.  From the different suits you use throughout your objectives to infuriatingly hard platform challenges on certain levels, this game in many ways is all about the experience of playing the game itself. 

Even after you reach the two major objectives, in finishing the main game or getting Luigi as a playable character, you still will want to get the rest of the stars and see all the galaxies not to be a completest, but to genuinely want to experience everything the game has to offer. 


So when earlier I asked can a game be both revolutionary and nostalgic, from games like Super Mario Galaxy, the answer is that they can be.  For many developers it is finding that perfect duality in the game that separates the Nintendos and the Valves from the rest of the crowd.  After all, at the end of the day all games come down to one basic principle, how it plays.  Thus like most Mario games in the past, the experience of actually playing the game is the reward itself.          


[Super Mario Galaxy is developed by Nintendo and is available on the Nintendo Wii.]

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