Super Mario Galaxy is a highly polished, professionally produced platform game, with much to recommend it. Unfortunately, it is also a product of the tensions in the videogames marketplace – stuck between continuing to court the support of the gamer hobbyist, and meeting the play needs of the wider mass market audience, and this creates certain problems which cannot easily be overcome. As of the end of March this year, this title has sold some 6.1 million units, making it the most successful standalone game on the Wii, and given that this sales figure has been achieved in less than six months, it still has a reasonable chance of outselling its seminal predecessor, Super Mario 64, which sold 11 million units.
This is not a review of the game – I am not trying to suggest who will enjoy this game or otherwise, although this information may be derivable from the following analysis. Rather, I want to examine the game design of this title and consider some of the implications that these design choices had on the game’s audience, largely with the goal of demonstrating how fiendishly difficult the process of creating AAA videogames for a mass market audience has become. Some familiarity with the game is assumed, to save describing all of the game’s details completely.
Emotions of Play
At their heart, the Mario games have always been rushgames – capitalising on vertigo to generate excitement, and offering challenges of sufficient difficulty to provide the emotional reward of fiero (triumph over adversity) such that the game also operates as something of a wargame as well.
Unfortunately, it has become quite difficult to create rushgames for an audience that will include both gamer hobbyists and mass market players, because of an ever-widening gap in game literacy and control skills. Gamer hobbyists can complete absurdly difficult platform challenges without batting an eylid, while certain mass market players can feel a sense of reward just at correctly working out how to get through a linear task sequence in a tutorial!
This basic problem haunts Galaxy throughout, with many reviews commenting that it is too easy to reach the main ending (which occurs at 60 stars – about half-way through the content), and overlooking the necessity of the end point being in-reach for a mass market audience who lack the skills of their game-obsessed counterparts. The later challenges are difficult enough to satisfy any gamer hobbyist, however, and to complain at the end point being placed too soon is to unreasonably assume a greater obligation on Nintendo’s part to satisfy the gamer hobbyist over the mass market player.
Relating to this is a problem which cannot be overcome: the success of the platform game genre in the 1990s came on the back of new kinds of platform game that while copying many of the elements of the successful Super Mario 64 formula recast the genre closer to the “virtual tourism” vibe which is well suited to a mass market audience. This shift gradually caused the gamer hobbyists to abandon the genre in droves for other genres that were better pushing their buttons (FPS games, for instance), and without the hobbyists to proselytise to the masses the platform boom of the nineties collapsed.
Galaxy does not evoke this “virtual tourism” vibe very well – although its environments are inventive and engaging. I believe the strange miniature worlds and odd gravity effects of Galaxy will be somewhat off-putting to the mass-market in general, being weird and unfamiliar (things the mass market seldom connects with). Because this game necessarily draws directly from the well of prior Mario games, and not from the wider canon of the platform game genre, there is a lost opportunity to appeal to a wider audience with a more explorable sandbox world, rather than the chain of challenges that is employed.
Verbs of Play
The previous title in the 3D Mario platform games, Super Mario Sunshine, attempted to revitalise the ailing genre by the addition of new player actions involving a special water-squirting backpack. This was not enormously successful, and many players felt this was a clunky addition. (This earlier title also suffered from imperfect level design, probably as a result of time pressure during development).
In Galaxy, Mario’s moves are not significantly different from their classic roots – a suite of different jumps, along with requisite supplemental moves such as dive attacks, plus a spin attack achieved by shaking the Wii remote. This kinaesthetic control element works nicely – it’s one of only two gesture controls that make use of the Wii’s motion sensitivity (the other being an odd ‘screwdriver’ gesture) and it’s used both to fight enemies (including Boss enemies) and to activate the “Sling Stars” that link the end of one platforming section to the next. This works nicely: it’s an easy control to activate, and adds a nicely visceral aspect to the play of the game, especially in Boss fights where the feel of thumping Bowser or his son becomes quite tangible.
Another unique feature is that the player collects “star bits” (an additional economy that has been added to the game beyond Stars and Lives) by pointing at them with the Wii Remote cursor, and can then fire these star bits at monsters to stun them. This doesn’t enormously contribute to the main gameplay (although it can be useful), but is significant when a second player is involved (see below).
It has been a feature of the Mario franchise for many years that extra abilities that he gains are temporary – either time limited, or lost when Mario takes damage. This element remains in Galaxy, although some of the new abilities such as the Bee Suit (essentially a jetpack) and the Boo Suit (a ghostly alternative jetpack) are restricted by avoiding water and light respectively. There is something fundamentally unsuccessful about the way this is dealt with in Galaxy – some of the new abilities provided to Mario can be fun, but they are often rather frustrating, and frequently underused.
For instance, the Ice Mario power-up is time limited. The ability it grants is good fun – skating across water that freezes as you go is satisfying, and wall jumping up frozen waterfalls is especially rewarding. But the time-limited aspect of these abilities contributes to the rushgame goal of excitement at the expense of the greater player agency that could have been afforded. It’s hard to appreciate that the time limitation is being used to add excitement, when what one is feeling is the frustration that one does not have the time to experiment with the new toy that has been given (a freedom that other platform games would have more willingly afforded).
Additionally, some of the toys on offer are not much fun – the manta ray is a pain to control, as is Spring Mario and to some extent Rolling Ball Mario, and there are other similar niggles lurking in the corners. These are used sparingly, which is a good thing, but perhaps the game would be better if they had been excised entirely: the time used in their implementation could perhaps have been better spent in other ways.
The big revolution that came with Super Mario 64 was the camera object – this allowed for the flourishing of 3D worlds in videogames, and is perhaps the single most important design innovation of recent decades. In Galaxy, the game provides little camera control, and instead uses a fixed-camera mentality to ensure there is a good view in every situation. Often, the viewpoint defaults to side-on, making the game into a “two and a half-D” platformer – these segments of the gameplay work nicely, as most players can interpret a 2D environment more easily than a 3D world.
There are places when the camera specification can be confusing – especially when flipping between one plane of gravity and another, since Galaxy is set on odd-shaped worlds which the player can stand on either side of (most of the time). Certain players will find their control stick doesn’t work in the manner they expected when experiencing the gravity flips, but for the most part this problem is manageable.
Some gamer-hobbyist players will lament the lack of camera control, and find it frustrating – however, these will be in the minority of the game’s overall audience. The mass market players will mostly be thankful for the assistance the game provides them in taking away the demand to control the camera object (although most will lack the game literacy to recognise this state of affairs). A considerable amount of time must have been invested in specifying the fixed camera views – this is increasingly becoming a necessary element of games targeting a mass market audience, because of the vast skills gap between the hobbyists and the more “casual” players.
The game features a co-operative mode in which a second player can assist Mario. This probably should not be considered a “Two player mode” as the second player is not granted sufficient agency for this appellation to be justified. Rather, Co-Star Mode is more like a support mode – and indeed, the game is much easier with the second player assisting simply because the extra player has the ability to ‘hold’ monsters in a glowing white field, fixing them in place and rendering their attacks ineffective. This doesn’t work against everything, but there are sufficient places where it is helpful for it to be worth having a second player if one is struggling with the game.
The Co-Star Mode has received considerable criticism for not being a particular effective two-player mode – the second player is not nearly as engaged in events on screen as the player in control of Mario, and may in many cases feel that they are not being enormously helpful (since the opportunities to assist come intermittently). Nonetheless, I believe some praise is due to the team for the inclusion of this feature: a support mode allows for players to play together (which is a vital play need for many players, and especially in the mass market) and the fact that having a second player makes the game easier provides a unique difficulty balancing mechanism: hobbyists seeking challenge can play unaided, while mass market players who are struggling can get a friend or family member to help them through the tough parts.
In Co-Star Mode, the main player does not need to point their Wii Remote at the screen most of the time, and can focus on the platform elements while the support player can sweep up star bits with their cursor, and interact helpfully with the monsters. This split, which divides the game actions between players, further contributes to the game feeling much easier in Co-Star Mode. The mode is far from perfect, but as an attempt to incorporate a social play form in a genre normally toxic to this kind of co-operation it is laudable.
Additionally, the Co-Star Mode represents an excellent Tutor mode – an already experienced player can take the support role, and even has the opportunity to cause Mario to jump when necessary for added assistance. Allowing experienced and game literate players to use their skills to help the less experienced players get to grips with Mario’s world helps spread the appeal of the game, at least in principle.
The strangest aspect of the game design is the use of lives. I am not wholly of the opinion that “the time for lives has passed”, although there is a certain zeitgeist towards this viewpoint. In fact, when I have challenged developers I work with on their choice to include lives in certain games, the common response is “we needed some kind of economy” – that is, without lives for the player to win, developers struggle to find rewards to offer the player for their game actions. A detailed discussion of this argument would require more time than we have here.
The problem is not that the game chooses to use lives – there are sound reasons for wanting to do so, over and above this being traditional to the Mario form. For a start, players who are doing terribly on a particular challenge should arguably be required to take a break, rather than getting more and more angry about failing to pass the challenge – limited lives provides this escape clause in a natural manner. What is odd about the lives is the way they are implemented: when the player comes into the game, they start with exactly 4 lives (they also get 5 extra lives in a letter from Peach most times they return to the game). This means, no matter how many lives you stockpile during your game time, you will return to the game next time with either 4 or 9 lives.
On the one hand, this is liberating: a lot of players (including myself) would have felt obligated to stockpile a vast number of lives had the number of lives accumulated been ‘banked’. The fact that it is not thus frees the player to focus on the gameplay, and as it happens there are sufficient extra lives in the hub area that the player can easily stockpile the lives they need for a particular day’s gaming (plus, in the most difficult parts of play, an extra life mushroom is almost always provided – so pragmatically players can repeat challenges as many times as they need to just by collecting the mushroom each time they make the attempt).
On the other hand, this is incredibly confusing. When you leave the game with (say) 20 lives and return with just 4, it is natural to feel cheated. The fact that the static number of starting lives liberates the player from the logistical chore of stockpiling lives (putting aside the fact that some players would have enjoyed this task) is not clear at first, and I suspect that for most gamer hobbyists it will take some time for the reality of this situation to settle in.
It’s hard not to feel, under the circumstances, that it would have been possible to push beyond the lives mechanic and find something new and more suitable to the circumstances. However, perhaps it is necessary to afford some grace in this instance simply because the Mario franchise has such a long history it is difficult for it to step away from certain features, including lives, without thwarting expectations. Plus, it must be said that the limited lives does contribute excitement in certain situations, thus shoring up the emotional goals of the play.
This is a videogame which succeeds admirably on many fronts – it is good looking, plays well for the most part, and has a genuinely inventive collection of levels, almost all of which have been very carefully tweaked and balanced. The progression mechanic – collect Stars to unlock new Galaxies to collect more Stars – is tried and tested, and works as well as it ever did (although it is worth nothing that for the first time since Super Mario 64 itself, the player is allowed to find a Star other than the one they originally selected to try for, which is a welcome return to the structure of the older game). However, there is some softening of the dependencies since wide scale progression is dependent upon completing Boss levels, and not simply upon collecting Stars. Fortunately, the Boss fights use a common set of mechanics, making them much more accessible to a wider audience.
Some concern must be raised about the repetition: the checkpoint system that is employed does allow for some ratcheting of progress, but the sensibility behind the positions of these checkpoints is very "hardcore" - that is, the player often has to repeat a section of play many times before overcoming it. This is traditional to the Mario franchise, but it is not enormously friendly to mass market players (and, for that manner, the great many gamer hobbyists who have emotional needs beyond fiero). There is a sense that this repetition makes more sense in wargames (with their explicit focus on fiero) than rushgames but it is a fact of the market that the general demand for fiero among the hobbyists makes it hard for any game incorporating this vital part of the audience to eliminate potentially frustrating elements as these can be the very challenges which lead to the biggest emotional payoff in victory. Indeed, one can argue that the factoring out of this element in the platform games of the late nineties contributed to the genre's demise.
It’s biggest problem, the handicap it is largely unable to throw off, is that it is the latest in a long line of Mario games and must struggle to balance not only the varied play needs of the modern gaming audience against each another, it must do this against the backdrop of a franchise history unparalleled by any other game in existence. The weight of this history is too much to be overcome in some cases. Between these competing forces, it was always going to be difficult to innovate and amaze, and certainly this game could not hope to exceed the wonderment that Super Mario 64 could provide with its dynamic (and unrepeatable) transition from 2D to 3D.
I don’t believe this is the game that will revitalise the platform genre, as the requirements of the franchise in this case have forced the game down lines closer to hobbyist needs than mass market, despite the fact that most gamer hobbyists will find other games to prefer. This makes me worry about the future of the platform game genre, since if Mario cannot revitalise it, one must naturally wonder if any franchise could. There is an opportunity here, for someone with the right team and the right idea, to resurrect the successful elements of the 1990s platform game boom and deliver them in a form which once again successfully straddles the major split in the games market, but there is also the terrible possibility that the hobbyists and the mass market have diverged so much at this point they can no longer be served simultaneously. Wii Sports hits the mass market better than the hobbyists; now we have games that can do this, there may be no going back.
Super Mario Galaxy is a worthy successor to the Mario 3D crown; it would be churlish to complain that it is not more than that, no matter how strongly one might feel that it could have been.