Saturday, 11 June 2011

Classic Friday: "Throwback Galaxy"

Damnit. One of these days, I'll get it in on time. This week's "Classic Sat-er, Friday" is a reminder of why I'm a little cautious about that upcoming Super Mario 3D:

According to an “Iwata Asks” interview, Shigeru Miyamoto battled with the question of whether or not the Super Mario games “needed a story”. A talk with one of the producers revealed perhaps a wiser philosophy: The idea of a game “resonating” with the player should take precedent. Reader, Super Mario Galaxy 2 did not resonate me. I don’t think that’s ever happened for me with a Mario game. It is an atypical, half-hearted stumble from this developer. This would be a great Sega game, or a tremendous fan-effort. But we’re talking about Nintendo, who I know can do better than package the left-over scraps of a modern classic.

Let me remind you of the original game: Super Mario Galaxy (1). It brought perhaps the last great innovation possible for a concept like this: Outer Space. Playing tricks with gravity, dozens of small stages with their own orbit, instead of a flat 2-D plane or a confined planetoid. Entire galaxies to run and jump around on, to stomp on turtle shells, then fly to a new galaxy. I can’t fault the sequel for not having that same impact, but it lacks the polish as well. There are many great ideas here, that change the rules and offer interesting ways to fool around with the simple formula of running and jumping on Goombas. The first game had great ideas too, and ran with them. The stages in this game are tragically short, smaller in scale, and leaves a great sense of thematic disconnect. For a game that adds so much, something is missing.

With so many hundreds of stars to collect, you'd think it would at least be as full a product as the previous game. But just when it starts to build up some momentum, just when a level begins to take advantage of its own ideas, you are awarded a shiny gold star for completing what would have been 2/3rds of a level in the very first game for the NES. It’s like someone moved that flag pole closer down. After playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii, this left me a little disappointed. I have repeatedly thought to myself: “Wow, this looks like a fun stage… if only they did something with it.The new items you and I were looking forward to feel underrepresented.

Did Mario Galaxy have a story? Should it have a story? What it unmistakably had was scope. It took the simplistic Mario world and brought it into the universe. It established a far-reaching cosmos, of which the Mushroom Kingdom is a small, though not unimportant part. It deals with that iconic jerk Bowser dealing with powers perhaps out of his realm of understanding. He uses the power of space travel and galaxy formation as a cudgel to further his goals, which now seem so much smaller in the grand scheme of things.

It introduced perhaps this Nintendo universe’s very first God-figure(or in this case, Goddess) in “Rosalina”, who watches over the stars and planets of her dominion, which begin as cute little bouncy figures that would make terrific plush toys. She is their “mommy”. But is she the Mother of the Universe? The storybook scenes, an entirely optional aspect mind you, might be the most valuable new addition to this series. It allowed these games to grow a little, without sacrificing the charm or spirit that allow them to endure to this day. Mario, Peach, Luigi and Bowser might not fully comprehend these new characters or their place in the cosmos, but I felt like they were now a part of something bigger than they’d ever been before.

There is no story in Mario Galaxy 2. Not really. There is a fat, purple creature who tells you the basic gist of what you should do, but he has no storybook history. He is not relevant to anything. Sometimes he tells you when your batteries are low, but my console does that for me, so yeah. To those who think a story in a Mario game wouldn’t belong, I tell you it has already worked. It worked by putting it in the background, so that the conflicts in the foreground have a greater depth of field. This game streamlines and chops away at that until it feels like small and insignificant again.

A curious disconnect between myself and the gaming public is the topic of this game’s difficulty. I have heard, time and again, critics and fans express how this is supposedly the most difficult game to bear the “Mario” name in a long time. I confess that I have never beaten the original game, or the third, which are often called the very best entries. It’s no fault of theirs. I simply lack the timing, the co-ordination and skill necessary. And I tell you now that this is the least challenging, least-rewarding Mario game I have played, and I’ve played them all.

And when it finally, finally does starts to attempt to be challenging, it doesn’t become “hard”. It becomes stupid. “Do-It-Again-Stupid“. That term was coined by Shamus Young, who famously wrote about modern video games that pull cheap, instant death at the player just to prolong the total time you play the game. Toward the end, it’s not that old-school, retro challenge that Mario and Mega Man are famous for, the kind of challenge that is encouraging to pull off. What we get here in the end-game are quick deaths from obscuring vital power-ups the player needs, but couldn’t possibly notice on the first playthrough. And then there is another cheap, out-of-nowhere death immediately after that. Mario games should be about skill, not about blind trial-and-error.

The real reason I was looking forward to this game was for its soundtrack. The first game's music is my all-time favourite soundtrack from a video game(okay, maybe it’s tied with Chrono Trigger). Remember when Mega Man 10 was announced, and it had that awesome theme music? And then you played the game and realized that was the best song in the game? And worse: it was one of the only great tracks? Don’t you hate it when the trailer gives away all of the coolest scenes?

The soundtrack, once again by Mahito Yokota and Koji Kondo, is not -bad- by any means. It’s quite good at times, even. But it’s a step down. More than a few of the songs sound the same(compare Sky Station’s themes to the Cloud Mario levels), or just lack the strength in composition found in the first game. I believe the music that plays when fighting a giant, angry turtle monster shouldn’t feel so… drowsy. I’m glad they’re trying, and I love that they kept the orchestral treatment. But it really says something when the best song in the game is a remix of an older tune.

Is this a bad game? Sometimes. Often it is merely unmotivated. What else can I say about a game that keeps the imagination of its predecessor, but lacks the skill and the gravitas? This isn’t like Super Mario Bros. 2, or Adventure of Link. This isn’t the dark-horse game that drastically fiddles around with the core concept and ends up as something odd, but otherwise enjoyable. This just feels lazy. I wouldn’t even call this a sequel, or an expansion pack. It’s more like a very good beta.

The best part about it is that it was released on my friend’s birthday. At least I’ll have some fond memories to associate with it.



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