Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Case Against Super Mario Galaxy

On June 2, 2009, during their E3 press conference, Nintendo officially announced the sequel to what has surely become the most widely beloved Wii game so far: Super Mario Galaxy. The trailer that was shown seemed to confirm everyone’s hopes for what such a sequel would be like: more of the same, but with some new elements introduced, such as being able to ride Yoshi, who was prominently featured in the trailer. I have just one question, though. Why does anyone want another game like Galaxy? For that matter, why did so many people fall in love with the original? Numerous video game journalists sang its praises in reviews, and several web sites named it as their Wii Game of 2007, if not their Overall Game of 2007. Fan response has been much the same, with very few dissenting voices present. As of now, it is one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time, according to at least one aggregate review site, I, however, am genuinely unable to understand why so many were enthralled with it. In this essay, I will detail what I perceive to be Galaxy’s main problems and relate these issues to how they were treated by the majority of video game journalists who reviewed the game.

Before I begin, I must establish that I have nothing to say against Galaxy’s controls, graphics, sound, music, story, or any other similar element. Rather, my sole point of focus is Galaxy’s fundamental system of gameplay and the satisfaction that is derived from proceeding through that system of gameplay (that is to say, how fun it is to play through the game).

Many critics gleefully assured readers that Galaxy really was the “spiritual sequel” to Mario 64, which everyone had long been anticipating after being so soundly disappointed by Sunshine. They wrote such statements as “it is Super Mario 64 in outer space,” or “this is a straightforward spiritual successor to the N64 classic.” However, any close examination of these two games, as well as Sunshine, proves such sentiments to be patently and blatantly false. Mario 64’s core gameplay was based on the concept of exploring three-dimensional worlds (which, though finite, were still large enough to give players a sense of enjoyment through exploration and discovery) and completing challenges and fulfilling requirements to attain stars. Sunshine retained this basic model, albeit changing it slightly by giving Mario a water pack that allowed him to hover in the air for a few seconds. Galaxy, however, regardless of how many reviewers claim the opposite, almost completely dismisses the mechanic of exploration in favor of linearity. In Galaxy, the vast majority of gameplay revolves around circumnavigating rather small planetoids and, as before, completing challenges and fulfilling requirements so that Mario can travel to the next small planetoid and then repeat the process until he gets a star. Exploration as a core gameplay mechanic is almost completely nonexistent. Interestingly enough, before Galaxy’s release, at least some reviewers seemed concerned about the possible limitations of the fundamental gameplay system I just described. Strangely, though, after the game came out, all such qualms had seemingly vanished. Based on the content of multiple reviews, this most likely happened for two reasons.

First, because of the inclusion of some gameplay environments that were not just little spheres, many critics felt that their fears of limited environments had been alleviated and said as much in their reviews. However, these environments, being much smaller than a typical Mario 64 or Sunshine level, are positively cramped in comparison. Inscrutably, though, virtually no critics seemed to think this was the case, with many praising galaxy for having “huge expansive worlds to explore” and being able to instill “the sense of wonder and exploration [which] is as mind-blowing as you remember.”

The second reason hardly anyone seemed concerned about Galaxy’s relative linearity is that, quite simply, most critics didn’t care, or even recognize it, at least not in the written reviews. There were some that noticed, though. They wrote of Galaxy’s “pseudo-linearity” and the fact that “the majority of the platforms are formed by smaller and condensed structures requiring little exploration.” However, most reviewers, as mentioned before, extolled Galaxy for preserving the idea of having “several large, open levels for you to explore” and “large open environments.” Even the critics who acknowledged that Galaxy was linear compared to Mario 64 and Sunshine claimed that the mere inclusion of the aforementioned “large open environments” balanced this out. It doesn’t, though. The much-lauded “open environments” are pale shadows compared to those found in Mario 64 and Sunshine.

NintendoWorldReport probably came the closest to hitting the nail on the head in explaining this gap between perception and reality. It was their review that cited Galaxy’s “pseudo-linearity,” and they went on to say that it allowed Mario to “go back to [his] 2-D platforming roots rather than the wide-open, but less interesting seek-and-find nature of prior games.” Other reviewers, consciously or not, evidently agreed. (At least one wrote enthusiastically about how wonderful it was to not have to go on red/blue coin, or even regular coin, quests anymore, apparently not placing the “purple coin” challenges in the same category.) I, however, am less than thrilled with Galaxy’s linearity for one crucial reason: it makes the game too easy.

When getting stars becomes only a matter of moving from Point A to Point B by completing simple tasks and fulfilling requirements, with very little else to do otherwise, finding all the stars in the game, much less completing the main quest, becomes tragically routine, a foregone conclusion. Granted, there are a handful of exceptionally difficult stars, but the overwhelming majority are hardly taxing. What’s worse, 32 of the game’s 121 stars are not original missions. Rather, they are either variations of other stars—“speed run” (4), “daredevil” (5), and “fast foes” (2)—or “purple coin” challenges (17), most of which are quite straightforward and have exactly 100 purple coins, no more, no less. (The other 4 stars are “cosmic Mario” races, which are themselves rather simple and similar to each other.)

Stupefyingly, multiple reviewers commended these comet stars as proof that “the Galaxy team [refused] to take the easy way out in getting the most from the worlds they have created,” and that “things aren’t needlessly reused here to lengthen the quest,” and that they are NOT “just recycling the same content,” even though that is precisely what they do. Sadly, very few seemed to have any complaint against Galaxy’s overall difficulty level, with a few exceptions, notable among them Nintendo Power’s reviewer: “Unfortunately, Galaxy as a whole doesn’t seem to be able to overcome the industry’s slow, steady march toward easier games; in particular, the puzzle-oriented elements seem especially simple. The game is still challenging, for sure, but it won’t keep hard-core gamers up at night.” The fact that this is coming from Nintendo’s own magazine makes it all the more telling. Two other choice comments on this issue come from the Wiire—“Gamers raised on Mario platformers won’t find much of Galaxy to be terribly difficult”—and Cubed3—“The general difficulty of Galaxy is a bit questionable.”

If that weren’t enough, though, more evidence indicates Galaxy’s comparative lack of challenge. It was one of the many titles included in Nintendo’s “Wii would like to play” advertisement campaign. That such a “hardcore” game would be marketed in the same manner as titles that are supposedly being marketed to casual gamers speaks volumes about who the game is really for and the kinds of development decisions that were made to make it palatable for them. Finally, Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s own president, said something very interesting in an interview at E3 2009: “[I]f the first Galaxy was maybe more inviting in terms of all the audiences, what Galaxy 2 is going to be is maybe a little more Nintendo fan/harder gamer focused. A little tougher….It’s going to be, if you will, for more of that passionate Mario fan who grew up getting challenged with Super Mario World.” The very fact that he is making such an assurance, though, is next to an open admission of Galaxy’s comparative simplicity.

Nevertheless, Galaxy’s level of difficulty was a total non-issue for most reviewers. Quite the contrary, several of them had kind words to say about the challenge it presented: according to some, Galaxy is “a stiff platforming challenge” and it “definitely offers considerable challenge.” Those who did even mention difficulty as a possible problem usually dismissed it as minor. Based on the reviews, at least some of them did so because even if they found the game a bit easy, they still thoroughly enjoyed what it entailed. The thrills of the game itself—flying through space, platforming through multiple gravities, using fun power-ups, spin-attacking enemies, collecting star bits, and marveling at the game’s beautiful graphics, creative level themes, sound and music—made such issues as difficulty, or indeed, linearity, irrelevant.

Nearly everyone, whether they were conscious of the differences between Mario 64 and Galaxy or not, hailed the latter as varied and beautiful, even groundbreaking, but most importantly, deliriously fun. I, however, was left cold. I expected one thing and got another, something that was a lot like what I had been expecting, yet was also completely and horribly unlike it. What was worse, virtually no one else seemed to realize how different it really was. If people are aware of the changes and like them, I can accept that, but I cannot tolerate the idea that Galaxy is just “Mario 64 in space.” It is not, whether people realize it or not.

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