Shining a light on noteworthy titles of old.
This time, Mario and Nintendo’s fearless journey into the unknown.
Following the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the 1980’s, Nintendo embarked upon an utterly unprecedented purple streak of quality game releases which they would maintain throughout the Super NES era and continue right up to the new millennium with the Nintendo 64.
From the original Mario, Zelda and Metroid titles, to the revolutionary SNES follow-ups Super Mario World, A link to the Past and Super Metroid (alongside new games such as Mario Kart, Starfox, Pilotwings and F-Zero) and then again with the N64, where Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time would redefine gaming in three dimensions. For twenty years nearly every first-party Nintendo release was a major event on the calendar of the industry. So many of these titles are regarded to this day as landmark moments in gaming’s history, and gamers of all ages have the fondest memories surrounding each. Waking up on Christmas morning to unwrap that beautiful golden Zelda cartridge is one particular memory shared by millions across the globe.
The consistency and quality of Nintendo’s output throughout this period was staggering, but this unwavering quest for perfection came at a price. Often, Nintendo would release only one or two first-party titles a year. If that. On consoles such as the N64 and the GameCube which were renowned for their slim third-party support, this was a real problem. As incredible as Nintendo’s individual games were in and of themselves, they just couldn’t compete singlehandedly with the sheer choice and variety available amongst the thousands of games being released on Sony’s PlayStation and PlayStation 2 consoles.
Enter the Wii
The Wii launched with a clean look and a friendlier, TV-remote inspired controller to appeal to a broader audience.
With the introduction of the Wii, Nintendo changed. No longer were they willing to compete technologically with the competition like they used to (its easy to forget that the N64 and GameCube were both powerful pieces of technology for their time) and no longer could they afford to release just a handful of games over the course of an entire console’s lifespan when there were so few other companies prepared to fill the gaps in-between.
Nintendo shifted their focus to creating a lower-powered console that was easier to develop for, and to smaller gaming experiences that could be made in a shorter timeframe and enjoyed by as broad an audience as possible. This move to increase their output may have had a negative effect on their once near-faultless quality seal, but it had a positive effect on their bank balance. As much as some gamers decried Nintendo’s “dumbed down” Wii console for its lack of traditional heavy hitters, it was immensely successful for the company, easily outselling Sony and Microsoft’s powerhouse gaming machines of the time – the PS3 and Xbox 360.
The more generic visuals and simple control schemes employed by games such as Wii Sports and Wii Fit weren’t what long term fans wanted or expected from Nintendo. From this perceived shift in stance and the huge success of these so-called ‘casual games’, a fear grew that Nintendo had moved away from their glory days of spending colossal amounts of time, effort and money on making each game perfect – often revolutionary – and would instead focus on their new quicker to produce, mass-profit, mass-market games for the mainstream.
Super Mario Galaxy, released an entire year after the Wii console itself, put those fears well and truly to bed.
It proved without a shadow of a doubt that even while Nintendo churned out some lighter, crowd-pleasing titles to fill out their line-up, when it came to their big guns they could still hit the ball out of the park. Mario Galaxy was a game for gamers. A remarkable piece of work that reminded millions of how it felt to have fun playing a game the way they did as children. Of how they used to feel when they slotted that brand new Nintendo-stamped cartridge into their console and didn’t move again until the noise of their stomach grew louder than that of their TV.
Mario Galaxy was pure joy, one of those all too rare games you’d play continuously, just for the sake of playing. Returning to the game now, this is even more apparent than ever. In an age of Achievements, super advanced graphics technologies and intense multiplayer competition, here is a game to remind you of a time when none of it mattered.
Nintendo’s designers, as they so often do, consistently dream up worlds and scenarios bursting with creativity.
This is Mario, so the fact that it controls like a dream is almost not worth mentioning, but there is a certain freedom, a certain stretched elasticity brought about by the space theme and the addition of low-gravity physics that feels different to other games in the series. If anything, the gravity makes the game even more playful, even allowing the player to hurl Mario off the edge of cylindrical planets just to watch as he orbits around to the other side.
Not having a unified theme to adhere to as they did in Super Mario Sunshine’s coastal island resort means Nintendo’s designers can let their imaginations run wild – and these are not designers known for their lack of imagination to begin with. They deliver stages of blinding creativity, with little purpose other than to delight the player and to test their platforming skills. There is no end to the surprises that the outer reaches of the Galaxy allow Nintendo to continuously throw at the player throughout the game.
Super Mario 64’s larger, more expansive levels are gone – and their absence can be missed – but in that game each level was host to multiple collectable stars hidden throughout. In Mario Galaxy the levels are smaller, but nearly every one is unique. Even at first when it seems as though a previous area is being repeated, a branch in the level or an environmental change will ensure that it is wholly different from the last time it was visited.
These bite-sized levels mean the sense of exploration and gradual discovery present in the N64 masterpiece is largely missing, but it is replaced with an incredible and relentless sense of momentum, where the player genuinely has no idea where they will be taken next.
The game is relentlessly paced, with new ideas introduced just as quickly as they are discarded for the next.
Unusually for a first-party title, but perhaps tellingly, Super Mario Galaxy made very limited use of the console’s defining feature set. The Wii’s unique control scheme provided no real benefits in Mario Galaxy that a standard Nintendo controller wouldn’t, but the careful, delicate implementation meant they didn’t distract from the experience or compromise the precise control scheme demanded by the game like they often would in lesser Wii titles.
The first half of Mario Galaxy can be triple-jumped through without too much resistance for those with any experience of Mario’s other 3D adventures; as with Mario 64 the game can be ‘completed’ by claiming only 70 of its 120 stars, and this too won’t provide much of a challenge for many seasoned gamers. But it would be unwise to stop at 70. For experienced gamers wanting a challenge, this is where Mario Galaxy really comes alive. From here, the levels and tasks get more expansive, they get more imaginative and elaborate, and come the end they will prove a test for even the most skilled players. For the hardcore, this is where the challenge is. This is where the sense of achievement is. This is where the real fun is.
The true genius evident in these levels from a design perspective is that they are always fair. You’ve been given plenty of time to practice with the skills you’ll require in the preceding hours (as always you have access to all of Mario’s abilities from the beginning – temporary power ups notwithstanding), nothing creeps in unexpectedly to change the mechanics of the game and artificially increase its difficulty. You always know what you have to do and how you have to do it. Whether or not you can do it, is another matter altogether.
Super Mario Galaxy was a major statement from Nintendo. A timely reminder for jaded gamers that the medium could still produce and cater for big budget, high quality gamers’ games that exist for the sole purpose of being fun. When some were fearing for the future of its flagship titles, it was a comforting reminder that when Nintendo were at the top of their game, they were still the best in the business.
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