On April 19th I unveiled the release of my new retro gaming book Video Game Maps: NES & Famicom, a celebration of NES & Famicom maps. Over 250 games are featured spanning 346 pages.
Bundles and books begin shipping in a few weeks.
Before I get into Super Mario Galaxy, first a word about Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. It’s worth mentioning that I played, and thoroughly enjoyed, SM64 as a kid and did not cross paths with the other two until the Switch release. So even though revisiting SM64 made me fully aware of how bad the camera was and how difficult it was to control ninja Mario, I still enjoyed the second play through and finished it. It’s easier to visit old games that don’t age well if you are already connected to them.
Super Mario 64
Check out my write up on SM64 where I revisit the classic 24 years later.
Super Mario Sunshine
As for Super Mario Sunshine, I’ll keep this short, as I didn’t have much patience for this game. Sunshine feels like the improved SM64 in that controlling Mario is easier and more predictable, it looks better, the camera is greatly improved, and there's an added twist with the water canon. Here’s where it lost me:
Super Mario Galaxy
Moving on to Super Mario Galaxy, my first reaction to this game was that it holds up extremely well both in terms of visuals and controls. My second reaction was that I was feeling quite sick to my stomach and I would make for an awful astronaut. Thankfully I was able to quickly adapt to the twisting, turning worlds and became rather comfortable walking upside-down.
SMG is extremely intuitive. It all just clicks. Mechanics, power-ups, and three-dimensional challenges slowly unfold to allow you to ease into the complexities of this game. Subtle aim-assist and movement assisting keeps the focus on fun over frustration.
There’s a harmony between pressing buttons and swiping the screens. It should be chaos yet it works with ease.
The spin move is artfully implemented. It’s a multifaceted tool that acts as an attack, an interaction maneuver (e.g. screws), a propulsion boost in water, and an extra oomph after jumping. That final usage, spinning in air after jumping, is actually quite genius as it’s what allows the player to safely navigate to landing pads as it softens the jump while also lifting.
There is so much rich, brilliant, innovative level design and use of three-dimensional space throughout the galaxy. The boss battles, of which there are plenty, are fairly simple yet always fun. And there’s a clever mixture of activities, spaces, puzzles, and upgrades, making it so that no level is like any other.
Tilt mechanic based levels such as surfing and golf don’t overstay their welcome. I would easily be frustrated by these types of levels if I was asked to collect 3-7 stars while tilting my way through bumpy waves or riding a ball on a precarious, narrow field. Instead the designers set up these levels to be one-and-done, a wise move on their part.
Much like SM64, and much unlike SMS, Galaxy is gracious with the 1-ups, and even strategically placed them in areas that are most dangerous. The creators recognize that punishing the players with limited lives is not fitting in this series.
Tutorials are cleverly camouflaged and well-integrated. For example, when first moving on ice a cute penguin challenges you to catch him. This allows you to get your feet wet (pun intended) before tackling the level. You never feel like you are being told what to do, and because the controls are so intuitive and finely tuned, picking up a new mechanic comes with ease.
The camera, which you would expect to be the biggest challenge in developing such a topsy-turvy 3D experience, works beautifully. It locks and adjusts to predetermined angles for most of the levels while allowing for freedom to manually rotate only in those areas where appropriate. It always feels right, focusing your attention on the path ahead with just the right amount of edge space to plan ahead.
SMG is a visual spectacle. It’s simply dazzling. I found myself frequently hitting the screenshot button on my Switch as Mario soared through the starry fields that were painted vividly with swaths of purple and blue tones.
There's also a ton of attention to detail and polish that went in to enhancing the visual experience. For example, if you spin near friendly characters they will gyrate in excitement.
There’s just enough story elements running throughout the adventure to keep it anchored in the narrative without interfering with the fun. And familiar staples to the Mario universe are sprinkled throughout the game who drop hints and add charming dialogue.
The deeper you get the richer the experience becomes. Levels become more complex, more characters appear, different star types are located, planets can be revisited with new challenges, the story unfolds, and more and more Mario power-ups are discovered. This is a game that only gets richer and more flavorful the more you play.
My only hope, now, is that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is quickly brought to the Switch.
In the Summer of 1996 I was 15 years old. One afternoon I wandered into the local Blockbuster (RIP) to browse the used video games they had for sale. That's where I first crossed paths with Super Mario 64 (and the Nintendo 64 for that matter), which was prominently displayed on the large demo machine near the entrance. At this point I had already developed a bias against 3D video games, not because of some perceived, inherent inferiority to two dimensions, but because in their pioneering state they were so aesthetically unappealing. I saw them as a new phase in gaming that simply wasn't ready for consumption. So when I approached the demo and lifted the Nintendo 64 controller I did so somewhat begrudgingly. It took about 5 minutes before I was hooked. Once it arrived at my home I devoted a weekend to acquiring all 120 stars, my eyeballs glued to the screen.
24 years later I revisited SM64 on the Nintendo Switch. Quite quickly the mechanics and acrobatic maneuvers came back to me. And while the blurry textures and blocky world looked even blurrier and blockier than memory, the dated piece that made me cringe and grumble the most was the camera. Back when 3D games started, solving for the camera was always a hot topic, and was so for years. In so many of these early 3D games the camera would collide with walls, zoom in and out unexpectedly, and unhinge left and right as the player traversed through the world. It was a time when providing two camera styles plus the ability to zoom in and out was considered groundbreaking. It made me wonder: If it wasn't for my nostalgic ties to SM64 would I have tossed this relic aside?
While the camera is clearly the worst aspect of SM64, it's the combination of the camera and the looseness of Mario's movements that cause the most pain. This is a platformer, albeit a more open world version of one, and with platforms comes pits. What this translates to is countless perilous moments where I am on the brink of reaching my goal just to end up slipping off a narrow, jagged polygon. I suspect I died just as much 24 years ago as I did with this recent play-through, but the difference is that way back then I interpreted these moments solely as challenging, whereas today I see them as both challenging and frustrating.
Camera and slippery Mario aside, this game is still extremely playable. It's such a delight to control the ninja flipping Mario and to collect stars within the expertly crafted levels. The designers smartly placed a variety of challenges in each course, and while they hint to what star to search for next, they left it up to the player to discover them in the order that they please. And each environment has its own special flare and theme, so moving between courses always feels fresh.
Next up I have Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy. I'm told that the former has similarly frustrating camera and control problems, and since I have never played either of these games this will be an interesting test to see if I have the patience to play SMS all the way through. Here we go.
Brian Riggsbee lives in San Francisco CA. He enjoys gaming, writing, creating art, practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, chasing adorable dogs, and spending time with his wife and boy.