My thoughts on Super Mario Galaxy got long enough that I spun the first part off into a separate entry. In short, we’re back to linear platforming, with tons of jumping, done very well.

One question that any platformer has to answer is: what non-core player abilities will it mix in? Jumping is great, but platformers always go somewhat beyond that: the fireballs in the original Super Mario Bros. to the suits in SMB3. There are different ways to handle this: in particular, you can add one pervasive theme (the waterpack in Super Mario Sunshine, which didn’t turn out so well), or you can sprinkle in different capabilities (SMB3 again).

Galaxy does some of both: they add one general capability, a spin attack, activated by shaking the wiimote. About which I have mixed feelings: it’s probably useful to have some sort of general mechanism other than jumping, and the small radius of many of the planetoids can make it a bit hard to judge offensive jumps accurately, so a spinning ground attack works well enough. But I don’t like having to shake the wiimote quite so frequently, and I wish the spin attack wasn’t quite as prominent as it is.

There are also a handful of secondary capabilities, accessible by wearing suits that are available in certain areas. (Levels or sections of levels that are designed around them.) I liked the gameplay choices here: it adds a pleasant variety and gives the designers new options that they can use to extend the basic platforming concepts without distracting you from what the game is about, or for that matter what individual levels are about. None of the suits are anything special, but that’s okay, they don’t have to be: they increase the variety of levels, and that’s enough. (And I am fond of some of the new puzzles that the ice suit allowed.)

What I really want to talk about, though, is the line the game walks between challenge and frustration. Any video game is trying to keep the player from getting annoyed while providing the player who wants challenge a way to get that challenge. (Providing interesting environments to explore is also a plus; Galaxy does that well enough, too, though (as I said before) it explicitly doesn’t do that by providing big worlds to roam around in.) And I’m very impressed with how Galaxy balances those two constraints.

The early levels are pretty easy; in a couple of not very long sittings, I’d accumulated about 40 or so stars. Granted, I’m a relatively experienced player of platformers; probably a less experienced player would find them more of a challenge. Even so, I didn’t feel like I was wasting my time getting to the good stuff: they were fun levels, well designed, throwing a grab bag full of concepts at you. They also provided an easy out for the non-completists, or for people who aren’t as fond of platformers as I am: you can reach the final Bowser challenge after you’ve finished 60 of the stars (out of the 120 that the game contains), so you can happily route around challenges that you don’t particularly enjoy. (Incidentally, for those of you who are completists, you should still beat Bowser early on: you need to do that to unlock some of the stars.)

They also avoided the cheap, annoying ways to extend replay value. Within each level, there are relatively frequent checkpoints, so you never get stuck having to repeat yourself too far: the levels are broken up into relatively discrete challenges, you have to accomplish each in one go, but you can die between challenges without serious repercussions.

And, speaking of dying, you’ll do that a lot – it’s easy enough to fall off the edge of many of the environments, and your life bar is only three units long. (Which was kind of shocking at first—I can’t remember the last game I played with that short a life bar—but was absolutely the right choice.) Except for when it’s six units long: in certain, well-selected places (usually before relatively tricky end-of-level boss fights), there’s a mushroom that temporarily doubles your life bar. (A great example of slightly tweaking the gameplay to enhance the design of a portion of a level.)

But dying isn’t a big deal: on tricky sections, there’s almost always either a 1-up mushroom near the star of that section or enough star bits that you can almost always collect 50 of them, earning an extra life, before dying. (Star bits are a minor gameplay addition that exist both to give a spectator something to do—a second player can optionally collect them for you—and to provide a less-heavy-handed way of giving frequent extra lives.) The result is that I have no idea how many hundreds of times I died while finishing the game, but I ran out of my lives exactly once over the course of my playing. (The purple coin challenge on the Luigi picture with disappearing/rotating floors, if you’re curious; I entered it with 25 lives, but that wasn’t enough!) The result is that dying, instead of a punishment, is simply a feedback mechanism, and manages to enhance the gameplay instead of detracting from it.

So the core gameplay works well for people who want to play some of the game, and see bits and pieces of it, but not bang their head against it for hours on end. What about those of us who want more? Here, too, the game provides a range of pleasing solutions. The most basic: the levels are collected into galaxies, and the main galaxies each have three paths in them. (Diverging almost from the start, but sharing at least themes in common.) On one of the paths, though, there are actually two stars, so you need to keep your eyes open for a place where you have two choices as to what to do. Often, you don’t have to keep your eyes very open—half the time, there’s somebody there offering to open up a path if you feed him star bits—but sometimes you have to look harder.

Which could suck if you had to look through all three paths to find which one contains a hidden route. Fortunately, you don’t have to: the game is happy to tell you which path contains the hidden route, so you can narrow your search. (If you don’t want to be given that hint, you also have that option; nice to be given that choice.)

Or what if you want to be given a harder challenge once you’ve proven yourself capable of beating a given star? There, too, the game has an answer: each of the fifteen key galaxies comes with one comet challenge, where you have to do some or all of a level you’ve played before, but with a new rule: maybe you have a time limit, maybe you can’t get hurt, maybe enemies are faster. All of which (well, almost all of which, the one full of top-like enemies annoyed me) are great examples of tough but fair level design: they’re hard, but when you fail, it’s your fault, you know that if you’d done some one thing a little better, you wouldn’t have died, and you’ve usually gotten an extra life somewhere along the path so dying doesn’t do you any permanent harm.

The best example of those are the purple comet levels: you also get one of those in each of the key galaxies. (They only open up once you’ve beaten the final Bowser level, so don’t wait too long before doing that.) In each of those levels, they give you a portion of one of your original paths, and strew it with purple coins; you have to get 100 of them. So the focus isn’t on, say, enemy/boss fights at all: it’s all about proving that you know your environment.

Which I fully support (and, if you don’t, that’s fine, they’re optional), but it turns out that there’s more to them than that. They start off with an introductory one where there are relatively obvious paths through the environment, and it’s easy to get all 100 coins. After that, though, the gloves are off. In some of them, the challenge is looking everywhere without missing anything or falling off the edge or getting hurt by the environment. (In particular, the ice level is a masterpiece in that sub-genre, with some remarkable jumps that you have to make to find them all; there’s nothing unfair about the level, but the challenges that it presents you with are wonderful.) And some force you to really learn your controls; in particular, there’s one jump in the ghost ship purple coin level that’s almost impossible to pull off.

Some are timed: one of the ones on a bee level has you going along an obvious path, but doing it without stopping at all. But, in the game’s commitment to fairness, not only are the coins all in fairly obvious places along that path, there are even bees at various checkpoints telling you “you should have 50 coins by now”, “you should have 70 coins by now”, etc. So you never have to worry about missing something: the level is about quickly going through it while picking up the coins, not about doing that except that you have to magically know that one extra one is hidden somewhere even though you don’t have time to search for it.

In three or four of the timed levels, you have a very short timer, but, to compensate, the level has 150 very tightly-packed coins, of which you only have to get 100. Those have their own joy: you have to frantically make your way through the environment, never pausing, always heading to the densest areas of remaining coins. Which could be a bit boring, but usually the environments are hazardous in some fashion, so you also have to not screw up while doing that. I wouldn’t have wanted every level to be that way (and, in particular, there was one of these that I probably died 50 times before I finished, without any easy access to extra lives), but having a few of them scattered in was a great capstone experience for that particular aspect of platforming challenge.

It’s really a remarkable game. It’s focused on a single gameplay theme, while working in an amazing variety of experiences around that theme. It gives a wonderful range of challenges, while never stooping to cheap tricks for “extending” replay. Because of its narrow genre focus, it’s not for everybody—shooter fans need not apply, for example—but it’s by far the best game so far on the Wii in any of the traditional genres.

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