A worthy sequel to Super Mario 64
If there is one thing I remember from Super Mario 64 it's the atmosphere, the awesome feeling you get when exploring the beautiful castle and discover new worlds. Would a second round in the same castle give the same feeling? I don't think so. Instead of the classic castle, we now get to explore space itself. Mario is taken to a giant observatory in space and has to visit various worlds to gather stars. The observatory and indeed all the levels still have a very entertaining atmosphere though, especially the observatory which functions as a HUB-world has a very soothing feel to it.
Because Mario has been taken to space as part of Bowser's latest plans, the designers of the game weren't limited to earth logic anymore. This results in all the levels been galaxies with various planets in them, each planet has its own gravitational pull, so Mario can freely explore the many areas. The designers also went all-out with the creativity, so the game boasts roughly thirty stages with various themes. Not having to make much sense anymore has clearly done the designers some good, as the depths of outer-space can contain literally anything. Aren't you excited about the prospect of been able to explore a galaxy where everything is made out of candy?
The controls have remained relatively unchanged from Super Mario 64 with only a few small tweaks. The first is, of course, the integration of the Wii-remote. By shaking the remote you make Mario spin. This can be used to knock over enemies or damage them, depending on which enemy you are fighting. It can also break scenery and when done near an interactive object (launch stars, vines and underwater) it will use that object. You can also use the remote to pick up "star bits" (which function as currency or ammo) or use some special items.
Every major level has a special challenge that randomly shows up as you play the game. These challenges will slightly alter the level and rules. Daredevil challenges will have you going through a level with only 1 hitpoint, Cosmic challenges will have you race against a clone, speedrun challenges will put you on a timer and Fast-Foe challenges will give opponents a speed-boost. If you're a real man, like me, you of course go for the 100% and do all of these extra challenges. Even if you do just a few of them, you'll notice that they are quite fun and give a good incentive for players to get better at the game.
Each galaxy only has five or so stars in it and some minor galaxies only have one. Why is this a plus? Well, I actually found that most of the levels in Mario 64 were fun, but started to get annoying very fast after you went for star number eight in that level. It would still be a good level, but the minor changes that game made for each new star were not impressive enough to keep me interested. Galaxy instead limits itself to three main stars, one hidden and a challenge star, resulting in much shorter, but also more plentiful levels. There are also no "6 red coins" missions and collecting a 100 coins is only used as an unlockable bonus mission after completing the game.
Finally, I must say that the characters in this game are genuinely enjoyable. Mario games have never been focused much on their characters, we all know and love Mario, but it's still no Shakespeare. Galaxy however does have some cool upgrades in this field though. First of all is the character of Rosalina who, despite her design been kind of a lazy Peach-rehash, is pretty awesome. If you want you can go into the library and read a whole book about her back-story, it's a nice lore, but not the most convenient way of telling it. The familiar Toads have also been upgraded and are now a core-part of the missions. They go to locations on their ship and track down stars for Mario. They are helpful, but never lose their characteristic cowardice.
Because each planet has its' own gravity and is pretty small, you can go upside-down and walk all around the planet. It sounds good, but when you try to do this, the game runs into a few problems. Going upside-down is not a familiar angle for the Mario engine and it isn't sure what to do with it. The controls are sometimes reversed, but the camera can get stuck or the other way around. A Problem I ran into a lot was trying to go under a planet, but the second I got there the controls would reverse and Mario would turn around and walk up it again, going in an endless loop of reversing controls. You can also freak the game out a bit by long-jumping near the edge of a planet, this has allowed me to skip sections of the game on occasion.
The game wants to introduce a little story into the series, which isn't inherently a problem (Sunshine did it too), but the execution is very lacking. Every time you start a new game you'll have to sit through this very long story for children with some kind of lullaby in the back-ground. It's very obnoxious and it serves only to scare away older people who might be playing this.
The power-ups in this game are not terribly fascinating. By finding mushrooms and flowers you can transform Mario into different versions of himself (other suits), it sounds okay, but it isn't. The only three suits are a bee-suit, boo-suit and spring-suit, all three of which serve only for having Mario fly or at least jump higher. The boo-suit also allows Mario to pass through walls, but this is rarely used for good puzzles. This means that in a situation in which you are put into the spring-suit, you think something along the lines of "I could have done this same puzzle with those other two suits too". The flowers are an ice and fire suit for Mario, pretty basic, but functional.
Some of the hidden stars can get very obnoxious in this game, in the sense that the method of obtaining them is very vague at best. In one level you had to travel from planet to planet using the wind, but this was in a linear fashion, so once you went somewhere, there would be no way back. Some brilliant mind looked at this and figured "let's make the item you need appear only after the player has picked up five random coins in these winds". Can you see where this goes wrong? You have no reason to think the coins will give you the item and even then you'd have to do this all in a perfect shot or restart the entire level.
The game is a little too easy if you ask me, there are a total of 105 stars that you can obtain in a single play-through, but you only need 60 of them to unlock the last boss. This means the game can be finished in maybe two days time and you'd never have to worry about getting stuck along the way. I did this the first few times as well, but now that I went for a 100% completion, I suddenly found levels that I had never visited before and which happened to be totally freaking awesome.
The use of a live-system has perplexed me ever since I was little, it makes sense in arcade halls where you need to pay to play the games, but why use it on a console. What is the point of sending me back to the title screen after I die an arbitrary number of times if I can just click start and resume from where I left off? Here it's even more weird because Mario loses lives when he loses races... why? Do the lives represent Mario's ego? Also strange is that you can't save your lives, whenever you turn the game on and off you're back to four lives. This means that you can farm yourself crazy for hours and leave with maxed out 1-ups and lose it all with a literal press-of-a-button.
The Bottom Line
Mario Galaxy is, like I said, the true sequel to Super Mario 64 for me. Unlike Sunshine the gameplay felt much better, the atmosphere was a lot more enjoyable and the missions were all very fun and clever. I had a lot of fun with this game to say the least and getting a 100% completion is a recommendation for the fun of it alone. There are some flaws, naturally. power-ups aren't very fun, the physics are somewhat dodgy and the story could be better implemented, just to name a few.
I can recommend this game to many people; children, die-hard gamers, Mario fans, parents... just consider this a global recommendation.