Sunday, April 10, 2011

Super Mario Galaxy Analysis

(Original publish date, Mar 2009)

This game was a very mixed blessing. It starts off simple enough and never really gets ridiculously hard. You can easily obtain the minimum required 60 stars before the game hits the infamous "Stops being fun" wall. However, it suffers from numerous design choices that seem arbitrary and capricious. The first of which is the evil, satanic, posessed camera.

During the height of 2D gaming, the camera was a non-issue. You never even thought about it; the game showed what was on the screen and you could see it. The closest thing we had to the camera being an enemy was scrolling levels where you could get crushed behind walls, and leaps of faith where you can't see the landing. But with the onset of 3D games, the camera suddenly became a living entity. Super Mario 64 knew this and not only anthropomorphised the camera as the oft-underrated Lakitu, but gave the players full control over where it pointed. For some unknown reason, this control is missing from Super Mario Galaxy. Suddenly, full 360 degree control of the camera becomes the exception, rather than the rule.

The most frustrating aspect of this limitation is that it comes with no reason or logic behind its constraints. You will want desperately to turn the camera around in order to search for hidden ledges or line up a particularly difficult jump, only to be told "bernp!" by the sadistic little camera icon on the top right of the screen. Why? It's not like there's a tree or a wall in the way. It's just empty air! Other times, the camera will immediately swoop around to give you a different viewing angle when you're in the middle of crossing a narrow platform or trying to stick a landing. The player can usually use the C button to recenter the camera, but this too has a strange path of logic when it comes to where it believes "centered" to be. This can often mean looking up at the ground. Timed levels and Luigi's inherent lack of traction only magnify how frustrating the worst parts of the game can be.

Another issue present in this game started to develop in Super Mario 64, and continued in Sunshine and Galaxy. This is not a problem with the game itself, but the direction of the series in general. While it is not necessarily a bad thing, it is misleading. The problem comes from the concept of powerups. Super Mario Galaxy boasts numerous "powers" including Bee Mario, Boo Mario, and Spring Mario (One of the lamest powerups ever, by the way) as well as the Fire Flower, Ice Flower, and everyone's favorite, the invincibility star. While these powerups do change the way Mario moves and grants him new abilities, as well as new limitations, it's all simply a tease.

Look back in Mario's history, back to the original Super Mario Bros. How many ways were there to defeat Bowser at the end of World 1-4? If you were small, you could jump over him or run under him and grab the axe. If you were big, you could try to jump through his barage of hammers, or even simply run through the lizard directly. If you were Fire Mario, you could stand back and take him out with a few well-placed projectiles of your own. Or, if you were lucky enough to find a star near the end of the level, you could kill him that way. Super Mario Bros 3 took this idea and expanded on it even more, giving you frog suits, tanooki suits, hammer bros. suits, raccoon mario, fire mario, even super P-wing mario. The game simply gave you a goal, and didn't care how you got there.

Now look at Super Mario Galaxy. Almost every level has the exact same path through it. You solve the puzzles on one planet, or find your way through a maze or platform gauntlet in order to get to the fling star and jump to the next planet. Every powerup you recieve is only there to help you solve a puzzle. Every boss has a single correct method to defeating it, with one or two minor variations if you're lucky. Strangely enough, the flat world of Super Mario Bros. gave you more freedom than the free-roaming 3D environments of modern Mario games.

The next Mario game should get back to the series' roots like New Super Mario Bros. on the DS did. Give Mario a goal and let us find our own way to get him there.

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