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E3 2007: Hands-on Super Mario Galaxy

The plumber is back, and he means business.


This is the Mario you've been waiting for. We're at E3, we're months from the final review, and we can tell you with absolutely no hesitation that Super Mario Galaxy is the real deal, and that any self-respecting Nintendo fan will buy this game on day one, beat it by day two, and continue a daily ritual of replaying it over and over starting day three. During an E3 gameplay session with Nintendo of America today we had a chance to sit down with a few of the Big N's hottest titles, and two of them hooked us so much we needed to return tonight for more. Metroid was one of them, and Mario Galaxy was the other. Read on to find out why.

For starters, Super Mario Galaxy is a return to former glory. As Reggie stated to day in the press conference, it's the closest Mario title to Super Mario 64 that Nintendo has created, and that means platforming, wall-jumping, and beautiful environments to play in. Many hardcore gamers (myself included) met the original Galaxy footage with a hint of skepticism. After all, it's different from what nostalgia tells us it should be, right? We've all seen countless videos of Mario leaping from planet to planet and pulling off larger-than-life acrobatics in outer space, but where're the larger full-world environments? Where's the traditional level design? Super Mario Galaxy still has it, and it still rocks.

In today's demo we had a chance to take a look at four different stages, each set within a different "Galaxy." We headed first to Star Dust Galaxy to check out "The Beam Star Trail", moved from there to Egg Planet Galaxy to battle "The Prehistoric Piranha," fluttered our wings to Honey Bee Galaxy for "Bee Mario Takes Flight," and wrapped it all up with Gateway Galaxy's "Imprisoned Grand Star." Each galaxy rocks its own fully-realized theme, made up of different gameplay elements, enemies, and missions very similar to the painting system on N64.

Despite what you encounter though, you'll have the same basic controls to work with. Players can control Mario with the analog stick, duck and crawl (as well as the trusty backflip) with the Z button, jump with A, and shoot stars at enemies with B. In addition you've got the spin attack with a simple shake, camera manipulation with C (centers it behind the pleasantly plump plumber) and d-pad, and use the IR with the A button for context-sensitive controls.

As far as general gameplay is concerned, Mario feels pretty dang good, but it isn't quite perfect in our eyes. Maybe it's the pulled back camera, or maybe it was a design choice by Nintendo due to the generally smaller levels, but Mario seems a bit slow. Perhaps the wee little man put on a few pounds since his last outing, but whatever the reason Mario feels like he could use a speed boost, as his acceleration is perfect, but his top speed is lacking. True, this could turn into one of those debates among hardcore players, but we'd be down for a bit more quicks. Aside from that, the plumber is golden in our eyes.

Speaking of golden - and yes, we hate to use that transition, but we will - you've undoubtedly seen Bee Mario make an appearance in the E3 video footage. This was another area where we were a bit worried at first sight (I recall shouting "What the hell is that!?" during the conference), but Mario has again won us over, as Bee Mario is the new frog suit. Just like in Super Mario 3, Mario has the ability to rock some magical transformations in Super Mario Galaxy, including everything from bee, to boo, to who the hell knows what else Miyamoto can think up. It works though, and it made Honey Bee Galaxy stand out from the others in a big way. As one of the larger levels we've seen, "Bee Mario Takes Flight" is played like a traditional Super Mario 64 level, having the world mysteriously floating in space, with a wrong step meaning eternal falling. Since the world is more immense, you'll need a few new tricks, and that's where Bee Mario (official name) makes an appearance.

After activating a power-up spot, a black and golden mushroom will show up. Touch the mushroom, and you go into Bee Mario mode, where Mario dons a new sleek bee suit, and can now hover for about five seconds. Once you jump, holding A will put you into fly mode, where Mario will actually gain height over time, allowing him to reach new areas. In addition Bee Mario can also land on gigantic flower petals that normal Mario falls through, making for some decent low-gravity platforming. As the yang to Bee Mario's ying, a simple drop of water will strip Mr. Overalls from his cute little suit, sending him crashing to the ground in regular-Mario fashion. Honey Bee Galaxy uses that to its advantage, putting huge waterfalls and tons of pooled sections all around the level's star.

As another interesting mechanic to Bee Mario, he can also climb on giant honeycombs or other surfaces (a gigantic bee friend, for example) and free-climb up them. Wall climbing isn't some never-before-seen mechanic in platformers, but we sure as hell haven't seen an overweight plumber do it while in a furry suit, and it's downright hilarious. Call it immature; we call it entertainment. Bee Mario can also combine the wall climbing with jumps and hovering, making for some amazing potential for level design in the future. Yes it's a little odd, but we're a fan of Bee Mario.

Moving to the other galaxies, there's still a ton of ground to cover. As one of the highlights of our many playthroughs "The Beam Star Trail" in Star Dust Galaxy was a hit, combining tiny chunks of floating levels with the blue gravity orbs that suck Mario freely in space, tons of star warps that send him blasting from planet to planet in flight, and an awesome level-building mechanic that gives the world its own soul. During a few key moments of Star Dust Galaxy, Mario walks out onto a seemingly dead-end chunk of level. Out of nowhere gravity kicks in, and starts sucking chunks of off-screen debris into view, literally building the level seconds before Mario steps off the ledge and into a black hole.

As you run, the level pulls away behind you and is built in front of you (or on branching paths, depending on the situation). You're on a set path, but you can't see where you can and can't walk until new pieces fly in, which is again based on how close you are to the ledge. At the beginning we took this area slow, as it was freaky and pretty damn intimidating. Once we started to get the fell though, it was a dead on sprint as we went with the flow and ran though a level that literally built itself as we explored it, and it felt great. Galaxy is truly next-generation Mario because of moments like these.

And they continued on and on throughout the playthrough. In just these four levels we navigated a gravity-flipping pill-like world, fought a huge plant boss (shown in the E3 trailer), crawled around on some creepy giant bee's body to find star pieces, dropped into holes that took us through the middle of a planet only to slingshot back out the other side, traversed a cool looking (though small) pirate ship in the middle of space, and dropped into warp pipes for self-contained gravity puzzles inside of larger planetary masses. Four levels showed off all that gameplay, and for that reason we're dying to see what Nintendo has in store for us in the final version.

Even the two-player mode, which is still basic and a little buggy at this point, was a neat addition to the demo. Nintendo hinted about this one for a while, but we saw it in effect today. With just an extra Wii-mote a second player can jump into the action and take control of an additional IR pointer. The IR can be used to hold enemies down, destroy some obstacles (such as annoying rolling boulders), freeze Mario at any time, collect the mini star gems, or fire those same gems to stun enemies. The system isn't perfect, as we had player two accidentally freeze Mario multiple times in the process of aiming for an enemy or messing around in the world, but it's still pretty fun. We even got into screwing the other player over for the fun of it with the Wii-mote, freezing Mario until player one threw a hiss fit. It still seems like there could be more though, as you still can't grab coins or other items and drag them to Mario, or give the plumber a friendly grab-n-toss every now and then. It's a neat addition, but it's still kind of gimmicky too, and is more of an entertaining distraction from the main game as opposed to actual two-player co-operative play.

As a final note on our playthrough, Super Mario Galaxy is shaping up to be one of the prettier games on Wii, and this demo was no different. Subtle effects such as reflections in crystals, distortion in the water, puffs of smoke when Mario runs, and some of the best textures we've seen in a Nintendo game all help make Galaxy a simply beautiful Wii showing. The lighting is fantastic, and the world seems full of ambient animations that really add to the experience. Character models morph and stretch in classic Mario fashion, and the overall presentation is bright and crisp. There are still a few oddities with the camera, as you'll sometimes have quick glitches when dealing with smaller worlds or strange gravity changes, but we're more than confident that it's just one of those "E3" things, and that all will be well for the title's release.

We could talk all day about what makes Super Mario Galaxy a must-have title for Wii, and come review time (or future hands-on) I'm sure we will, but in reality it's about one major thing: Super Mario Galaxy is fun. When we're finished playing it, we think about playing it again. While we explore the world we're half playing, half admiring the level design and gameplay concepts. Nintendo may be reaching out to casual players and basing its new system on things like Wii Sports and Wii Fit, but the fact of the matter is that the company is still all about the gamer, and all about the games, and Super Mario Galaxy is pure living proof of that. This is the Mario you've been waiting for.

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