"In one sense, this is the first worthy successor to Mario 64," bellowed a typically belligerent Reggie Fils-Aime at E3. We all knew what he meant. "We know you thought Mario Sunshine was a bit crap. We hope this one sells better," he might as well have said. Fine: we hope he's right. But in one sense, Reggie's remark does Super Mario Galaxy a disservice.
Many people have taken it to mean that Galaxy is a footstep-following sequel to the N64 classic. It's not. After a lengthy hands-on with the E3 demo (plus a couple of extra levels), it becomes clear that Super Mario Galaxy is its own game: a blend of some of the best bits from both 3D and 2D Mario tradition, with a number of very distinctive twists. It's far more New than New Super Mario Bros ever was.
It's no coincidence that Galaxy is the first major Mario title ever to be made outside of Nintendo's Kyoto HQ. It's being developed by the team in Tokyo that made the brilliant, bongo-controlled Donkey Kong's Jungle Beat. Letting go was a brave move on Miyamoto's part, but it looks like it's paying off, because the six stages of Galaxy we played were pure bliss.
It's drop-dead gorgeous, for starters. This is not just the best-looking Wii title by miles, it's one of the best-looking games in the world full stop, HD or no HD. It's as smooth and shiny as silk, the colours are unbelievably vibrant, it's smothered in lustrous effects, and you feel like you can reach out and touch its chunky, cute and tactile designs. Super Mario Galaxy makes most hi-def games look about as solid and convincing as photographs pasted onto empty cereal packets. The sound is superb too: a riot of bright tinkles, radiophonic zings and zaps, and electro-funk remixes of vintage Mario tunes.
The controls are based very closely on Mario 64's. The double and triple jumps, long jump, wall kick, backflip, ground pound and side somersault are all present and correct, and executed with the same combinations of stick moves, A and Z. They're as fluid and versatile as ever, and a little easier to use - in particular, you can pull back on long jumps in mid-air if it looks like you're going to overshoot. The dive is gone, but in its place is a hugely useful Super Mario World-style spin attack, pulled off by shaking the remote. This upends and stuns enemies, who can then marvelously be booted into space, Mario Bros style.
Bizarrely, you can also stun enemies by shooting them with the remote. Coloured blobs are collected by Mario, or just by passing the remote cursor over them, and then aimed and shot, or saved for a 1up. We didn't find a use for this beyond giving Goombas concussion, and it feels rather tacked-on, although it is a novel and way to interact with Mario's world. A second player with a second remote can help with all this, as well as with certain obstacles (for example, holding a rolling boulder out of the way). The remote cursor is also used to lock onto sequences of 'beam stars', which haul Mario across gaps in space with a kind of elasticated tractor-beam.
Which brings us to the bit we've been putting off writing: how Mario Galaxy's levels actually work, and fit together. This is as difficult to explain as it is intoxicating, head-spinning and funny.
Most of the levels in the demo were A-to-B platforming challenges, somewhat similar to Mario 64's boss stages, or the bonus stages of Sunshine. But they've been broken into pieces, twisted up and tied in knots, turned inside out, back to front and upside down, and then shot into space. There are miniature versions of Mario 64's open levels, wrapped around tiny asteroids like a skin, and dropped in the middle of cosmos-spanning platforming sequences.
Everything has its own gravity, and you never know which way is up, but somehow - we're really not sure how - you always know when you'll stick, and when you'll fall off into space. The camera is mostly automatic (sometimes allowing basic d-pad control), and flawless. In true Mario style, it's all impossible and surreal, but it also makes a weird, instinctive kind of sense. You're only confused when the game wants you to be, which is often: when pipes pop Mario round the other side of a micro-world in a flash, or when you're misled by his reflection, apparently running around the inside of a glass sphere. You'll find yourself involuntarily laughing out loud at the mischievous tricks Mario Galaxy constantly plays with your perceptions.
Star rings, activated by shaking the remote, shoot Mario across vast tracts of space; they're the game's exhilarating and spectacular signature moment, but they don't actually offer any freedom of exploration, they just take you where you're going next. You start out exploring the game carefully like the earlier 3D Marios, but eventually (especially playing a level for the second time) you realise it's more linear than that, and get caught up in its unstoppable forward momentum, running and jumping faster and faster, high on the rush, chaining it like a drug. This is when it reminds you most of 2D Mario gaming.
What's not yet clear is how all this fits together structurally. There will be 40 levels, 120 stars to collect and six themed areas; we did one star in each of six galaxies. The first two (Gateway and Egg Planet), featured strings of tiny wrap-around planetoids in quick succession. The third, Honeybee, was more like a Mario 64 level, only broken in half, and featuring the hover-enabling bee suit (which in all honesty is not that exciting a power-up, but it's so adorable you don't care). Star Dust Galaxy was a brain-melting assemblage of beam stars, glass planets and platforms that zap into place out of nowhere. It starred the hapless Astrotoads, and was our favourite level in the demo.
Of the two new levels, Beach Bowl had Mario dodging huge cubic Whomps that worked their way around the outside of shattered cylinders, and felt an old Mario Bros castle leaping out of the pages of a pop-up book. Cookie Factory required you to time jumps across fast-moving platforms with geometric cutouts, and it was fiendishly hard in a very old-fashioned way. It was the exception: for the most part, Mario Galaxy seems effortless and easy, centered much more on the sheer sensory pleasure of play than on setting taxing tests of skill.
When Shigeru Miyamoto suggested this week that games should be fun, it was easy to snigger and accuse him of stating the obvious. But Super Mario Galaxy proves his point to perfection: it's amazingly, dizzyingly, idiotically fun, in a way few games are these days. We're not going to call it a classic Mario yet - we simply haven't seen enough of the game to make that call, and it will certainly be difficult to keep it both accessible and rewarding all the way through. But we are going to predict that it will plaster millions of big smiles on millions of faces come November, and that, if nothing else, makes it a worthy successor and a half.