One Giant Leap, 2007: Super Mario Galaxy

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we blast off into space in Super Mario Galaxy

Last month we looked at New Super Mario Bros. and found it wanting, a hollow retread signaling the definitive end of 2D Mario as a vital force. And although it didn’t merit headliner status in this column, the last 3D Mario game, Super Mario Sunshine, wasn’t particularly hot either, deeply unpolished and often unpleasant to play as a result. By 2007, the flagship brand of the platformer genre seemed past its prime. Of course, Mario is also the flagship brand of Nintendo, which was itself in a bit of a rough spot. The Nintendo 64 was a decisive second to the PlayStation, and the GameCube was a diiiiistant second to the juggernaut PlayStation 2. And so, against this backdrop Nintendo decided to strike a bold new direction. As rivals Sony and Microsoft were deploying powerful new consoles capable of lifelike HD graphics, Nintendo released the Wii, an unassuming machine barely more powerful than the GameCube before it, but with a revolutionary motion controller.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this choice was a massive success for Nintendo. The Wii massively outsold the PS3 and Xbox 360 and became a legitimate mainstream social phenomenon. People well outside of the traditional gamer sphere, people who had maybe played Pac-Man before, were getting in on Wii mania. Dual analog sticks are hard, “swing this remote like a tennis racket to swing your tennis racket in the game” is easy.

International law requires that any discussion of the Wii’s success outside of the Gamer demographic include at least one picture of old people playing Wii Sports bowling.

All this to say, Super Mario Galaxy exists in this specific context, on hardware and as part of a company ethos meant to appeal to people who maybe don’t play all that many video games. And we immediately see the impact on Galaxy‘s design. While 64 and Sunshine were open world affairs, SMG pulls the focus back, making most of its levels more linear obstacle course setups more similar to Crash Bandicoot. At the time, I assumed this was in reaction to the flaws of the 64/Sunshine approach, expressing a desire to go back and nail the basics, because that’s how I felt about those games, it’s what I wanted out of Mario, and I was 15 and still didn’t quite get that other people weren’t me1. More likely, it was simply a necessary logical progression from the limitations of the Wii’s controller.

See, as part of its appeal to casual players the Wii’s controller is massively scaled back compared to the DualShock template that had become industry standard elsewhere. The base controller was a simple remote control, with a d-pad and 62 buttons, with many games really only using the A and B buttons in addition to motion controls. And while this could be expanded with the Nunchuck peripheral, this only added one stick and two buttons. You simply couldn’t pull off a “normal” 3D action game on the Wii, since the genre by this point essentially required two analog sticks. And so, Super Mario Galaxy focuses on linear levels because, in a linear level you always know what the player’s supposed to be looking at, and you can hand-script the camera to always look that way. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.

But what is perfect is how Super Mario Galaxy makes this hardware-imposed choice feel so natural and correct that you don’t even notice how it’s technically a limitation. Part of it is how the 3D Mario games honestly needed a little simplicity; the sprawling moveset of SM64 is significantly pared back3 without losing depth, and getting booted out of a level after every star no longer feels jarring when the levels are so linear.

And by far the best change is how this format encourages creative asides. 64 and Sunshine certainly had their moments, but Galaxy really makes these levels shine. I love the way Flipswitch and Sweet Sweet Galaxies feel like obstacle courses from a Nickelodeon game show. And naturally, gravity is a primary focus. From the very start, Super Mario Galaxy has you running all around planetoids, with naturally shifting gravity, and from there features more artificially screwy gravity. Playing with gravity wasn’t exactly new in platformers4 but it usually felt janky and unnatural5. SMG really makes it feel smooth and essential, something that’s equal parts mind-blowing and thoughtless.

The “matter splatter” levels are also incredible. And tricky to explain, so enjoy this explanatory gif instead!

True to its console, Super Mario Galaxy is also pretty cleanly the easiest Mario game, relying more on novelty than challenge to drive interest. The fact that the game can pull off this swap really says it all. It would have been so easy for SMG to feel pared down and unambitious compared to the open worlds of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, but instead it stands head and shoulders above them. Especially when compared to the contemporaneous New Super Mario Bros. it’s amazing how much verve this game has. Even ideas borrowed from its predecessors are recontextualized in interesting ways (such as the Fire Flower, here not an extra life/attack method but rather a time-limited puzzle solving tool). There are no more revolutionary technological leaps to make; Super Mario Galaxy shows we don’t need ’em anyway.

Stray Observations:

  • Super Mario Galaxy also streamlines the health system. Instead of the 64/Sunshine system where you have 8 HP but many attacks deal 2 or 3 damage, in Galaxy you have 3 health and attacks always deal 1 damage. There are mushroom powerups that temporarily boost you to 6 HP6, which can be used to make bosses and such easier. So, instead of trying to make one health bar serve two masters now we have a more clearly bifurcated system which is also cleaner to read at a glance. It’s little things like this, just as much as the big things
  • This game introduces beloved character Rosalina, mother of the stars and operator of the Comet Observatory. Her sweet-then-sad picture book backstory is such a beautiful moment in this game, which I think is at least part of why Rosalina’s stuck around as a fan favorite ever since.
  • Star bits are great. They’re viscerally satisfying to collect, and they’re a really interesting use of the Wiimote controller that is at once something you couldn’t easily pull off on a traditional controller and yet non-intrusive to the “real” gameplay.

Other 2007 platformers of note:

AAA scale platformers will become scarcer and scarcer in the HD era, for reasons we’ll explore soon. But for now we’ll highlight one of the exceptions to this trend: Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction brings the series into the PS3 era with appropriate bombast. It also subtly reboots the series; the E10+ ESRB rating is slightly lower than the PS2 games’ T ratings, and this is reflected in a change in tone, aiming more for “mischievous” and less “also-ran Animation Domination show”. Plus the whole “Ratchet is the last Lombax in the galaxy and it’s a whole Thing” element which caused some fun continuity snarls with the PS2 games.

Pictured: A Lombax who is not Ratchet. Oops!

Elsewhere, freeware game I Wanna Be The Guy is a half-love letter half-piss take on classic NES platformers. As a freeware game it directly uses art and music from its inspiration with gleeful abandon. It’s also not just hard but trollish, deliberately fucking with the player. The game’s very first screen infamously features some apple trees. Walk under the first apple and it falls down and kills you. But if you learn from this and choose to jump over the second apple, you’ll find that this one falls up, and also kills you. This is a game meant mostly for in-jokes and playing in front of friends, but watch this space. The twin ideas of “very hard platformer” and “in the style of the NES” aren’t exactly going away.

Next Time: “Are Video Games Art” – the greatest thread in the history of forums, locked by a moderator after 12,239 pages of heated debate, some of which, presumably, were about Braid