Mario is one of those gaming characters that needs no introduction. Alongside Sonic, Space Invaders and probably Asteroids, plonk a picture of Mario in front of almost any age group and he will likely be recognised. And with good reason. Ever since his first foray as ‘Jumpman’ in the original Donkey Kong, Mario has been a central figure in gaming. Indeed all recent Nintendo consoles have launched with a Mario game at their heart, from Odyssey on to Switch to Mario Kart on Wii U back to Mario 64 on the N64.
Alongside both New Super Mario Bros and Mario Kart, Super Mario Galaxy was one of the standout Will games to feature our titular hero. Drawing plaudits from gamers worldwide it was a commercial and critical success with 90%+ scores across the board. Indeed I bought and completed it and now my kids are even asking to have a go. The enduring appeal of Mario lives on.
The thing is though, and I feel a little awkward saying this, I didn’t really enjoy it that much. Well I did, but I kinda didn’t at the same time. Bear with me here.
Let’s set the scene. My first experience with Mario / Jumpman was via the brown, clamshell Game & Watch version of Donkey Kong. Yes folks, I’m that old. So old that I played the original Donkey Kong in the arcade too. But as an Amiga owner as a kid, I didn’t have a NES or SNES and so had no direct experience of Mario’s platform antics during the formative Super Mario Bros years. I enjoyed extensive time with the original SNES Mario Kart courtesy of my flatmate, and certainly Amiga magazines made copious references to ‘Mario clones’ but otherwise, a few snatched minutes on my buddy’s machine apart, the whole series would pass me by.
Fast forward to the Wii and DS era and that soon changed. The DS was a gift for the wife and, despite my limited time with the series even I was smart enough to recognise that picking up Mario on handheld was a no brainer. I also grabbed New Super Mario Bros for the big brother console, a traditional side scrolling Mario adventure, tough as you like and full of the series signature bells and whistles. Again, the kids have recently given it a second lease of life, including me stealing surreptitious glances at the You Tube walkthrough videos they insist on watching, taking mental note of how to reach the trickiest stars.
With its universally favourable reviews, I could not resist picking up a copy of Mario Galaxy. I played it through to completion a couple of years ago and, after the kids caught a glimpse of it on (*sigh*) You Tube, I decided to give it another play through.
Spoiler alert – I’m going to be giving a personal critique here of a game that has been hailed by critics as a gaming masterpiece. It feels almost sacrilegious in some respects but hey, it’s only my opinion. However despite some issues I had, I still recognise this as being a incredible technical achievement and it is worth spending some time talking about what makes it great.
The thing that leaps out immediately is that it’s in 3D. It isn’t the first Mario game to explore additional dimensions but it was the first for me and represented a real departure from the series that I thought I knew. The change in viewpoint opens up all sorts of new obstacles that would simply not be possible in the traditional 2D environment. But Mario has a further trick up his sleeve. By way of a stupendously convoluted plot, Bowser sets off a space race, Mario somehow turning into a human warp drive as he takes to the skies and traverses the stars. Each planet he lands on becomes a puzzle in and of itself, built around gravity and physics, Mario able to travel up, around, over and under the level, often appearing upside down or disappearing down a tube and reappearing on the other side of the world. Some of the puzzles built around this mechanic are deviously fiendish whilst enemies have never felt so real; from a pack of wild Goombas to heat seeking Bullet Bill. Being set in space there is always the danger of being sucked into a black hole. It bends the mind the first time you do it but Mario can run or jump around the world, gravity keeping his feet planted, but the threat of falling to your doom still very much present and correct with one mistimed movement sure to spell game over. Some of the old Mario favourites are given a new spin, such as the flip-switch levels, the alternative viewpoint quite literally adding an extra dimension to proceedings.
Mario also comes equipped with various powers he can pick up, such as a bee suit that lets him fly and climb up honey or the spring suit that lets him jump to higher areas. He also comes armed with a spin attack, an acknowledgement from the developers that attempting pixel perfect jumps to take out enemies in the 3D plane is a fools errand.
Replacing the traditional map from his 2D games, levels are accessed by a hub, a quirky little area that you can explore in safety. Progression is effectively linear in nature although as you move through the game, bonus areas and challenges are unlocked, providing either side quest missions or the chance to repeat a level against a new set of parameters.
All in all then this is a comprehensive package, one that continually delights in its sense of creativity and ingenuity. Surely only a fool could find fault with it. Right?
Look, I did enjoy it. I don’t play a game through to completion if I don’t. But at the same time it became a case of grim determination to finish what I had started rather than a genuine love of the experience and once done, I had little desire to go back for more.
One of my biggest challenges was around the controls. In 2D games, Mario is spritely and nimble. Reaction to your instruction is immediate, allowing deft negotiation of obstacles. in Galaxy, his movement is a little sluggish. It takes a few heartbeats to build up to full speed, which can leave you vulnerable to an incoming attack. As noted previously, judging jumping distances can be a real pain and whilst the freedom of movement generally is impressive, the camera swings around wildly trying to keep track of you. Given that Mario is often running from top to bottom of a level, or floating across space between worlds, it can become disorientating, those difficult to judge jumps becoming ever more frustrating as you try to perform them with Mario upside down. Appreciating that it lacks the gravitational challenges of this game, Super Mario 3D World achieved the perfect blend of open, 3D environments and lithe, responsive movement.
The level structure meanwhile is based around a set of planets within a galaxy with a number of stars to find within each. There might be 3 stars to collect within a planetary system and what this means in practice is that you keep revisiting the same area. Sure, the pathway through the world soon changes but there is an element of consistent repetition and it soon becomes tiresome.
Clearly I am in the minority here, and that’s fine. I enjoyed the game and it was satisfying to beat but it was an experience that I respected rather than loved.