Super Mario Galaxy — Nintendo’s Claustrophobic Cosmic Corridor

We must begin, as any good retrospective piece in 2020 should, with an apology to the Nintendo Wii. Despite over a decade of near universal critical praise I have been unable to enjoy Super Mario Galaxy, and for the longest time I assumed this was a symptom of jerkitude towards the Wii controller setup. I didn’t enjoy having to sit up to use the pointer in an action game, I hated having to shake the controller to attack and assumed maybe this is one of those deals that makes more sense if you’re right-handed, and I found holding two separate objects with a wire drooping across my crotch uncomfortable. I dared to dream that maybe someday I would get to play this game with an Xbox controller and maybe then everything would click.

Well it took Nintendo a somewhat disturbing 13 years but that dream has come true! Super Mario Galaxy has received the half-hearted remaster treatment as part of the Super Mario 3D All Stars collection for the Nintendo Switch complete with 1080p presentation, 60 frames per second and the option to use a delicious dual-analog Pro Controller. After collecting all 120 stars in what I thought would be the optimal way to experience the game a familiar decade old feeling washed back over me. Mario feels slow, he comes to a halt with near laser precision, you can’t feel the dirt on his shoes, you drag him on top of Goomba with the camera placed directly overhead like a moustachioed mouse cursor and you wince as his hips creak straining to do a backflip. Turns out after all these years it wasn’t the constant need for fresh batteries or waggle induced wanker’s cramp that made playing Super Mario Galaxy uncomfortable; it was Super Mario Galaxy that made playing Super Mario Galaxy uncomfortable.

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It’s surprising that more players don’t find that something is wrong when they gain control of Mario for the first time. Both of Galaxy’s 3D predecessors were slippin’ and slidin’ frictive playgrounds, with Super Mario 64 featuring a run cycle where Mario would lean into his turns like a motorcycle and Super Mario Sunshine strapping a custom waterslide creation tool onto the character’s back. It’s unlikely that the movement of Galaxy was a conscious choice during development but more something born out of necessity to accommodate the mind-bending game design concept that Shiggy and the Crew decided to give themselves several years of headaches and hangovers trying to get functional. Unlike Super Mario Bros in 1985 where the game design spoke for itself, Super Mario Galaxy blew its audience away with bombastic presentation, a potpourri of hot baked ideas and pure old fashioned guts. It’s important to start off ragging on the movement of Galaxy, not (just) to be a snob about the intricacies of player control , but to demonstrate how Galaxy’s huge ambitions lead to an overall experience that is riddled with compromise.

Bearing in the mind all the ingredients for this cosmic cocktail: the perspective flipping gravity of the Planetoids, having to launch from planet to planet, having non-frustrating challenges within a space that’s difficult to comprehend or sometimes see, tweaking the movement for slower precision to make all of this work and of course being on the god damn Wii…they were forced to decide on one big compromise from the start. They decided to not make an action game.

Barring a few exceptions for the sake of variety the vast majority of Mario challenges and designs up to this point of the series were primarily based around running and jumping, which was important because the running and jumping were perfect and hey that’s why we were there in the first place. Sometimes there were “puzzles” or “exploration” incorporated into progression, but these were still built around the core idea of running and jumping only presented in a different context. With this in mind, it’s hard to pinpoint what Super Mario Galaxy is about at a fundamental level; it’s riddled with locks and keys and inane puzzles that have more to do with figuring out what to do than the act of doing it, or more often (and worse) doing the only thing the designer has allowed you to do. Here’s a simplified structure of the majority of the star runs for the main galaxies:

  • Mario flies into the galaxy, lands on a small planetoid that introduces the gimmick for this level…let’s say ground pounding for example. You are trapped on this planetoid until you can demonstrate you understand this gimmick, maybe you ground pound three random tree stumps to make a launch star appear to fly the next part of the stage.
  • You’re launched into what is usually the “meat” of the stage, often a mini puzzle that’s immediately obvious since the game has already demonstrated to you what you need to do to beat this level, or you’ll get a gauntlet of enemies that you’ll have to clear out with said gimmick to advance
  • if you’re lucky you’ll get a combination of this stage’s gimmick with another concept from a different stage, or the game will get bored and swap to something else for the last run, on rare occasions the stage just ends here if the idea isn’t interesting enough to develop further.

This is a flippant oversimplification for sure, but it demonstrates Galaxy’s key problem and philosophical nightmare in terms of identifying as a Mario game. The planetoid system is a visually impressive concept, but it also acts as a justification to make the level design a Bunch of Stuff in a way that makes the use of 3D space feel wasteful, and what space you are allowed to engage with is presented as a series of locked doors with abstract and contrived solutions. We’re presented with a game that asks us to be mesmerized by the infinite potential of exploring the universe, but despite the unending void around us we’re yippeeing and yahooing through an experience that feels more restrictive and claustrophobic than any Mario game before.

To be clear; “claustrophobic” is not the same as “linear”, the problem is not with the course being a straight line but more on how we’re forced to hyper-fixate on one specific game design concept at a time. No-one ever made us wipe out the goombas in a neat chain by sliding down the hill in World 1–2 in Super Mario Bros 3 to unlock the warp pipe that takes us to the next part of the stage, the verbs were simply shown to us in a manner where they naturally formed into lyrics inside our mind. Galaxy without any visual aid can only be described via bullet points in a monotone newscaster voice.

You can also observe the drawbacks of Galaxy’s structure by how limited Nintendo were in designing new powerups for the game. First of all, powerups in Galaxy aren’t powerups whatsoever because they are always mandatory for completing the section of the stage you’re on so it’s more accurate to refer to them as alternative modes of play. “Powerups” are always either time based or stripped away the second you don’t need them in case anything organic or off-script dares to strike a match in the player’s mind. They also have this other minor issue where they all suck.

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The first “suit” introduced to you will turn you into Bee Mario, who strips away a lot of Mario’s jumps and mobility in order to replace it with the function to bumble around the air for a limited time for the noble cause of making the game even slower. On the galaxy where this ability is introduced it’s utilised for a “puzzle” where the star is on top of flower pellets that only Bee Mario can stand on, and the flowers are placed at a height where you require most of your fly gauge to reach as your mandatory key for this particular lock. You also crawl around a Queen Bee’s tum pulling out launch star pieces, this is fine. After this galaxy the suit disappears for large parts of the game, only returning for more of the same later with additional gimmicks such as sticking to honey walls which is a pointless considering Galaxy’s regular use of altering gravity. There’s also a stage where a bonus star for a fast paced swimming race track level involves you bumbling around above the water as Bee Mario presumably as an ironic celebration of Galaxy’s meandering inanity at its worst. We can only imagine how not-fun developing and designing around this suit must have been.

Then we have Boo Mario, actually let’s not even focus on Boo Mario because it’s not worth the energy. Instead let’s talk about Ghostly Galaxy, the stage where this powerup is introduced 30 seconds before the finish line which can be read as an admission that the designer’s knew this was a horrible idea. Deep into the stage you see Luigi through a crack in the wall of a jail cell and you’re asked to save him. You enter the house, two enemy Boos block the corridor positioned close to spotlights to remind you that the Boos hate light, you find yourself trapped in the next room behind a grate, just out of view of the default camera there’s the Boo Mario powerup ready to transform you into a ghost, you are still trapped in this room until you figure out Boo Mario’s waggle ability to fade through the grate to advance. Now you find Luigi once again, and since the game has already forced you to demonstrate that you understand the ability you are hardwired to assume that you must fade through the grate of Luigi’s cell. Ruh roh, Luigi is scared of ghosts! So you put together the last two pieces of information presented to you and use the spotlight inside his cell to transform yourself back to regular Mario trapping you inside the cell but that doesn’t matter since Luigi now gives up the star he has which teleports you back to base.

How does this make any sense?! The blanket answer for enquiries like this is “bruh it’s a videogame” which flies in most circles sure, we can accept the abstraction of getting the star (the goal) ending the level and warping us back to the starting point after some fanfare so we’re set up to take on the next challenge. But here with the focus shifted away from play to weird specific internal logic we’re asked to ask questions that don’t need asking. Why couldn’t Luigi use the star to launch himself? Why can Mario get out of the jail cell when he’s in the same situation? If Luigi doesn’t have the means to get back to base why is he looking for stars at all? Why couldn’t Mario find a way to unlock the cell from the outside? This is not to say there aren’t answers to these questions, nor is it an accusation of the game committing continuity “sins”, but this is a prime example of the brand of brain bumble you get when you write an action game using a language of puzzles.

The Luigi Boo puzzle wouldn’t be so worrying if it wasn’t for the fact that 95% of players will figure it out instinctively despite it making no sense. The game designer holds a death grip on everything that can happen within the space while the player is cheerfully distracted by direction towards the one thing they are allowed to do. It’s The Legend of Zelda “light the four torches to open the door” puzzle (which itself appears multiple times in Galaxy, because there’s no way the Fire Flower was going to appear and not be used as a puzzle item) back to haunt us once again. At least in its original context the “four torches” was somewhat cute and based a form of ritualistic logic, but decades later we still celebrates games that leave us unable to do something, contrive the existence of an object we need to do said thing and then do the one thing we’re instructed to do to obtain it to trick us into believing we’re making progress or achieving something. Many people will argue this is good game design, I will agree it is very good at making live service games Scrooge McDuck approved sacks of money.

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You have to wonder why Nintendo felt the need to litter Galaxy in these banal little pieces of context, with the space rabbits stealing star bits, Rosalina’s bedtime stories, the bee colony and the garbage robot who doesn’t want to take out the garbage. Why wasn’t even the simple thematic justification of Sunshine that the game was about cleaning and you would sometimes meet people who wanted their stuff cleaned good enough? Perhaps it wasn’t so obvious at the time considering Nintendo’s omnipresent marketing for the Wii and proud declaration that normies had been dragged into the living room, but looking back on Galaxy now the presentation comes off as both patronising and dripping in faux sophistication. We get the usual Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach setup, but since dad is here now and won’t tolerate that baby toy crap there’s full dialogue to expand it into an epic space narrative…only none of it is voice acted as that would disrupt tradition. Dad also probably wouldn’t put up with the repetitive clown parade music that has plagued the series ever since Koji Kondo ran out of Tatsuro Yamashita mixtapes and stopped taking on the role of lead composer, but maybe he would tolerate it if it was played by a full symphony orchestra.

This is the part where those of you who have gritted your teeth trying to give this hot take a chance close the tab for good; the music in Super Mario Galaxy is mostly trash. Not to say that it’s poor quality, but it’s inappropriate considering very little of the composition or action in this game is begging for the grandiose of a full symphony orchestra. Most galaxies require half a dozen runs to get all the stars so it’s not like you don’t hear their themes a lot, and maybe will say this is a personal problem but despite over a decade of hearing people rave about this soundtrack and the constant avalanche of remixes even after playing it again and obtaining all 120 stars I can’t remember anything from this game…except the earworm that is the beach theme and Rosalina’s theme. Hey! That second one was one of the handful of tracks that was composed by Koji Kondo!

Not that Nintendo were wrong to think the orchestra might work for Super Mario Galaxy at a conceptual level. There is a window to another dimension where it worked as envisioned present in the game’s famous Gusty Garden Galaxy course. The soft humming of violins accompanies Mario fluttering through the wind gliding using a giant flower might resemble Fantasia…or at least Fantasia 2000…if you squint a little. Only the game design gremlin shows up to trip the presentation up once again; the flower is launched in a straight line and the only control you have is to spin it a maximum three times to regain altitude. The gaps are spaced so three is exactly the amount of times you need, your brain is winched in the vice of the claustrophobic corridor once again. That’s my personal experience of Super Mario Galaxy’s fantastical untouchable orchestrations; waiting at traffic lights, solving puzzles and straining to get one sluggish backflip while drums and horns explode all around the TV.

The fancy gyroscope in the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller may be to blame for this, or it may be a symptom of grading a game I’m not a fan of on a curve, but for whatever it’s worth the often maligned motion control segments turned out to be a highlight of the game. It’s not the ideal place for them to be hiding, but a lot of the inertia and friction that’s missing from the rest of the game can be found doing cling film tight turns around a floating water track in space, pulling back to stop a (super monkey) ball flying off the side of a golf course or flinging yourself through space by tugging on blue stars. A lot of these segments overstay their welcome in attempting to justify the usage of the Nintendo Wii controller for a 3D platformer, and some of them grate when they get a little too cute, but we must applaud the team for taking ideas that could have easily been worthless gimmicks sitting on top of the experience like oil on water and integrating them in a way that makes them feel like the “Mario” take on motion controls. Even the use of the Wii cursor to collect and shoot star bits is harmless and cute, although you have to wonder if its inclusion was inspired by the fact that Miyamoto frothing at the mouth when he noticed that Mario launching himself from planetoid to planetoid was the most visually spectacular part of the game and it had zero player control.

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Super Mario Galaxy is but no stretch of the imagination a failure, but it’s difficult to think of it as anything other than a compromised and philosophically confused experience. It’s a game that invites you to seek out the endless wonders of space and then traps you in a corridor of red-light green-light, locked doors and Brain Age puzzles. Perhaps this was a developmental issue, but it’s damning that the no-brainer ability to fly freely through space only appears in this game as a powerup used to screw around the hub world…and even there they lock you onto a timer. It’s fair to say that the game did succeed at inciting the player’s imagination, presenting enough fresh ideas and concepts to envision the dream version of this game and pay less attention to the version that we have in reality where you spend as much time waiting for a Bullet Bill to launch to slowly herd it into a thing than you do leaping from planet to planet.

Still Super Mario Galaxy remains a popular choice for “Best Super Mario” lists and polls and it doesn’t appear this remaster or any level of revisitation looks to change that anytime soon. We can only hope that most people aren’t only drawn to it because it’s the LOUDEST Mario, or because Rosalina is hot, but it speaks to how natural the progression of this series has been that most of the mainline games are so distinct with different appeals despite originating around the same basic theme and aesthetic. Super Mario Galaxy feels like a misstep for the series in terms of the execution of its concept as an action game, but when accepted on its own puzzly meandering terms you could argue it was successful in presenting a portfolio of intriguing gift wrapped ideas to the audience.

Either way there’s no beef here, it sits on the Mario timeline simply as a game that I don’t personally like. Playing a full 120 star run in Super Mario Galaxy wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but a lot of the concept feel uncooked in an “oh, that’s it?” sort of way with many of the stages feeling more like a pitch for the idea than a finished execution of said idea. Still despite their huge success Nintendo didn’t need any assistance from jerks to notice to drawbacks of the Galaxy format with their future projects either with Super Mario Odyssey and especially Super Mario 3D Land cleansing themselves of every single complaint in this piece. Even Super Mario Galaxy 2 was a massive improvement, sure is a shame that it doesn’t exist anymore!

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