Not long into Super Mario Galaxy, the player will become quite accustomed to, maybe even fond of, seeing Mario enter each level with his arms spread as he flies around and lands on a safe spot, shouting “yes!” on his success. About 20 stars in, it dawned on me; the next time I entered a level, I really wanted to see Mario scream “yes!” as he performed a greased landing, hitting the ground running at top speed, not stopping until he got to the end (or came up to some tricky group of hazards).
This might sound like I am really looking for Sonic the Hedgehog Galaxy, and I suppose that is the point. Back in the day, it was always Sonic who was considered cool and edgy, while Mario was the gentle goofball. And yet, while Sonic games were not terribly easy, those Power Rings meant that even a rookie player could make it to the halfway point after the first night playing a Sonic game.
Mario, on the other hand, had to move his pudgy ass through a fleet of ships, a squad of tanks and planes. Mario’s games were often tougher, their attempts at scary and daunting levels were always effective. In both cases, the appearances of each game somewhat betrayed how they actually played.
Later on, with the advent of 3d, style and substance began to align. Sonic felt not just speedy but urgent. He was running down the side of buildings and snowboarding down a street to escape captors. Sonic wasn’t always fighting for his life, but even running down the beach he made you want to get done in a hurry. Meanwhile Mario has offered a flurry of challenges, and endless lives to go along with it. Even when death faces in every direction, you no longer feel afraid or pressured in a Mario game. You will always have another shot at success, and if you screw up you may not wind up far from your goal (Sonic would have to restart the stage).
Forget for a moment all the talk about innovation versus tradition. Right now Mario’s biggest problem is that he feels neutered. Safe. Non Toxic if you will. There are several possible causes for this scenario, ranging from keeping the games accessible to anyone, to modern gaming’s general tendency to shy away from punishment. Whatever the cause, it is hurting this franchise.
Mario games used to offer thrills abound, even after you had played each stage to death. Meanwhile the Mario World games succeeded with their large levels that encouraged exploration. Galaxy’s world’s can be massive, but always do you find the cookie crumbs that lead to the “right” direction, and the paths to secret stars aren’t hidden so much as they peek out from behind the window, giggling as they wait to see if you can catch them.
When I couldn’t beat the Time Trial in the first stage of Sonic Adventure, it felt like the game was taunting me in my failure, even if the challenge was useless overall. Meanwhile, my diligent work in Mario Galaxy’s first two observatories allowed me to skip past all but the final Galaxy in the Kitchen and the Bedroom. Way to entice me to skip out on all that content Nintendo.
If Mario wants to continue to do great things, the player has to be able to lose. We all know that won’t happen any time soon, so we’ll settle for that aforementioned sense of urgency. Make Mario do some serious running. Tell him that all the missing stars are tearing this particular galaxy apart, and if he doesn’t clear this big, nasty platforming course in enough time, his chances of saving the princess are gone (or at least a lot slimmer). Then watch Mario jump, flip and spin like a bat out of hell to his destination in a flurry of speed and aggression that knocks every Goomba on his ass. When it is all said and done, we will all be reminded as to just how good the plumber is at his job. When saving the world means jumping around, you better have Mario in charge.
Hell, it would even work well in the scope of Galaxy as a whole. The game’s overworld is one of the most peaceful, beautiful staging grounds Nintendo has come up with. It looks sharp and it is easy to navigate. Between this and the relative gentleness of the levels themselves, I have described this game to staff writer Pat as “the most peaceful and relaxing game of 2007”. Imagine however a dualism between the peaceful hub world and the challenging stages. Bust your ass in the harsh conditions outside, claim your prize, and come back for some 1ups and a bedtime story.
Hell, take it one step further. Each level has several stars, but to beat the game at its bare minimum, you only need to grab a fraction of them. Instead of hiding them away and offering them sequentially, throw them all out on the table. Tell us “this galaxy has six stars; two easy, two medium, and two hard. You only really need to get two of them here to progress, so take your pick.”
This would allow everyone to play, but old school players like myself looking to have our asses kicked could do so, and those “hard” stars would give Nintendo license to get real ballsy with how they play with gravity and orientation in the game, which in its current form is actually quite tame after you get used to it. Mario games have never been keen on explicit difficulties, which some might try and attribute to Miyamoto’s simple and elegant designs. By my watch however it has been a long time since a Mario game has been pick up and play. That died with NES.
The worst part about all of this is that I didn’t think this up in a vain attempt to convince you that Mario should be more mature. No, it was Nintendo who planted the idea in my mind. In his mainline games, the plumber is always quite jolly and jovial. When it comes to his spinoffs in the sporting world, Nintendo wants you to know one thing; this guy plays for keeps. He might put on the happy face for the big public outings where nostalgia is an important factor, but in the competitive arena, Mario is going to kick your ass. Nintendo should run with this in everything the character does.
They won’t however, because Nintendo is too afraid to branch out, and the fans don’t want them to. I wondered some time ago whether people would react to Mario Galaxy like they did Twilight Princess, and my fears were confirmed. Like Zelda, Mario’s 64-era exploit is now the series “canon” in the minds of so many gamers, which is why they clamor so much for Galaxy. They may tell you they want innovation, but give them a Mario sequel without those damn penguins in it and they’ll string you up. And since this allows Nintendo to create a sense of identity and a general air of approachability, you know they will go along with it.
Mario can soar to still farther heights. The good news about the franchise is that unlike Zelda, I can think of new and bold things for Mario to do in the future without having to think too hard. Hell, just get Miyamoto drunk one night and tell them that his games suck and Portal does it better. Two and a half years later he’ll take the Portal concept and make even Valve look silly. We got our true sequel to Mario 64, and that’s great, even if it looks and feels a little too close to 64 for my liking. We still got a very good platforming experience out of it. Now it is time for Mario to spread his wings. Will we let him fly, or will he be clipped and grounded, forced to dance his jolly little dance until he is exhausted and lonely on the roadside zoo of the Information Superhighway?
Couple more bullet points about Mario Galaxy:
– According to my brother (who is generally far from a lying liar), when the very first episode of Zero Punctuation came out, I said to him “This guy is going to take off until he slams one of their sacred cows.” Lo and behold, Yahtzee has reviewed Galaxy, and despite his overall enjoyment with the game, a few harsh words has caused a tizzy in some internet circles, or at least caused a few to go from “this guy is 100% accurate all the time” to “hey guys, these reviews are for entertainment more than anything”. Always nice to see some backpedaling, especially when it is overreaction to an overall positive review. I’m almost hoping that Zero Punctuation goes away in a few months, not because I dislike Yahtzee, but because it would be hilarious if his fanboy’s demand for more caused him to ultimately burn out.
– This year it was easy to find games that fell victim to hype induced inflation/deflation. Bioshock, Galaxy, Halo 3, and other genuinely good games were showered with love upon release, only to find themselves on the receiving end of scathing comments two months later. At least in the case of Galaxy, it has been less of an issue of scorn as much as some people have realized it is a little too close to Mario 64. Still, for a game that was jostling on for the number 1 spot on gamerankings, you have to wonder if something is wrong here, and if so, who is it? Reviewers being too kind? Fans being too swayed? Or perhaps fans reacting incorrectly after realizing they were swayed? I doubt we will have to worry about Galaxy dropping down to Mario Sunshine levels of anger (a sight I hope my children never have to see), but I am curious as to whether Mario 64 will reclaim its throne five years from now. I vote that it should not.
– While I am glad that Nintendo is finally letting us play as Luigi again, I am still waiting for the day when this is an option from the start. He really does have quite the cult following in America, and I think it is time he gets the spotlight he deserves.