Super Mario Galaxy lives up to our outrageously high expectations, our hopes and dreams of what a Mario game should be.
The story of Super Mario Galaxy is really nothing new. As the game begins, it's the night of the Mushroom Kingdom's centennial Star Festival, and Mario is on his way to the castle of Princess Peach when, shock of shocks, Bowser crashes the party. He says some scary stuff about creating a new galaxy and tears Peach's castle right out of the ground, then flies off into space with the castle in tow. In order to rescue Peach and defeat Bowser, Mario will need to recover stars that have been scattered across numerous galaxies. As you progress through the game, you'll learn a bit more about Rosalina, the keeper of the Comet Observatory from which Mario sets out on his star-rescuing missions, but don't expect a lot of cutscenes or voice acting or plot development. You won't find it here.
What you will find is lots and lots of really amazing gameplay. Super Mario Galaxy may not be the obvious leap for the serious that Super Mario 64 represented, but in its own, less immediately apparent way, Galaxy is just as innovative, and in terms of level design and gameplay, Galaxy is the better game. In fact, it's quite simply the greatest platformer of the 3d era. It's not easy to pinpoint why this is, because it's actually the result of so many elements coming together so brilliantly. While Super Mario 64 felt liberating because it gave Mario the freedom to move in three dimensions, Galaxy feels similarly liberating for the freedom it gives you to soar through the sky with the help of launch stars and leap between the gravitational fields of nearby worlds.
The game controls perfectly, and makes terrific use of the Wii's motion-sensing abilities. As you move through the levels, you can aim the Wii remote around to gather up star bits, which you'll need for various things like gaining access to the occasional new galaxy. This adds another layer of activity to the game without distracting from the strength of the fundamental action of just moving Mario around, jumping, spinning, soaring through the air, swimming, butt-stomping and doing all the other things Mario does so well. There are also other elements, like pull stars and sling pods, which incorporate the motion sensor in simple, fun ways.
There are a total of around 120 stars in the game, and you'll need at least 60 of them to take on Bowser. That may sound like a lot, but the challenges that collecting the various stars present are so varied and so consistently enjoyable that you won't find yourself growing the least bit tired of star collecting. More likely, the game will still be surprising you with its fiendishly clever level design all the way to the end. (And the game doesn't have to end at 120 stars if you don't want it to. If you make it to that point, you'll unlock a neat little bonus that may give you some incentive to play even more.) Some stars are easy to get. Some are quite tough. But nearly all of them are a whole lot of fun, and even the really hard levels are more likely to have you trying them again and again with a grin on your face rather than getting frustrated, because although some of the levels are diabolical, they never feel unfair.
This game isn't just a pleasure to play. It's also an absolute joy to behold. The sharp, vibrant, colorful worlds of Super Mario Galaxy's galaxies look better than anything else we've seen on the Wii so far, and create environments that exude the infectiously happy mood this game aims to create. The sound isn't as consistently impressive as the visuals, and the fact that every mushroom retainer sounds a bit like Marge Simpson can get a bit grating, but the music is solid throughout and periodically outstanding.
Super Mario Galaxy is a joyous experience, and even those who have no nostalgic emotional investment in the Mario games will have an absolute blast with it. But perhaps its greatest achievement is that, for those of us old enough to remember the sense of wonder and fun to be had in Mario's earlier adventures, this game lives up to our outrageously high expectations, our hopes and dreams of what a Mario game should be. That is no small accomplishment. Super Mario Galaxy is the best game of the year.