Version tested: Wii
Super Mario Galaxy is an embarrassment. It's an embarrassment for platform games. It's an embarrassment for adventure games. It's an embarrassment for Nintendo and an embarrassment for the Wii. What have we all been playing at in the ten years since Super Mario 64 came out? This is what gaming ought to be like.
Bright, bold, unrepentantly loony, Galaxy is everything you wanted it to be. It's beautiful and inventive. It's pure-blood Mario without being a retro indulgence. It's a stiff platforming challenge and a free-wheeling romp. It's the best thing on Wii, and the best traditional game Nintendo has made in a decade. The only thing about it which dulls your enjoyment is the memory of all the mediocre games you've had to play in the meantime.
But after more than a year of puzzling over screenshots and pouring over previews, you're still probably at a bit of a loss about what on earth Mario Galaxy is actually all about, so here's a basic guide: it's Super Mario 64. Strip it back to basics, and what you find - those controls, that level structure - is the same blueprint. Forget that the castle is now a spaceship, forget that there's no longer an attack button, forget that Mario doesn't dream of spaghetti any more, this is a straightforward spiritual successor to the N64 classic. The controls are as tight and fluid as you remember, even though they're now split up over the Remote and Nunchuk. The sense of wonder and exploration is as mind-blowing as you remember, even if the setting is wildly different. The game remains the same: you'll go into each world, hunt out stars, unlock new areas, tackle Bowser and rescue Peach, dodging Thwomps, squashing Goombas and flicking switches along the way.
So if you've done all this before, and Mario's done all this before, why should you care? Peach, perhaps realising that Mario's motivation may be flagging a bit after all these years, knows she needs to up the ante: 'Come to the castle,' she instructs. 'There's something I want to give you.' No coy references to cake here, just a pretty straightforward promise that she's ready to deliver what he's spent years waiting for. And if Peach knows what Mario wants, then Galaxy knows what you want, too. 'Yay, you're here!' squeals a Toad the second you arrive in the game, just as your brain squeals exactly the same thing. A few minutes later, after a not-so-great-but-really-who-cares cut-scene, it happens all over again. 'Now go and explore the universe,' you're told, just as the itch to go explore the universe becomes unbearable.
And it's the right word. Galaxy gives you a universe. Nothing is rationed here - not ideas, not space, not colour. Levels spin off into infinity, whole planets are built just for the sake of one joke or one puzzle. To describe any of them in detail would be to rob you of the hoots of delight and the whimpers of trepidation that will squeeze out of you when you see them for the first time, but the level names tell you all - there's the dusty and the gusty, the freezeflame and the flipswich. You'll drip drop to a sling pod, hurry scurry to a sweet sweet, loopdeloop to a deep, dark, melty molten space junk toy time. It's a whole new language of impossible, unstoppable delights.
Where's the sky? Where's the ground? Dimensions come and go as the game slips in and out of 3D and 2D with little warning and no reservations. Gravity flips and switches - on, off, one way then another way. It would be the game most guaranteed to give you vertigo, if at any point you had any clear idea which way down was. Instead, you just follow the fun, chasing star trails and distant glimmers across oceans of empty sky. Levels form and dissolve under your feet, rotating and revolving. Somehow, through it all, the camera doesn't break sweat. And somehow, through it all, you're never lost and never confused. If you've seen Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling in Royal Wedding, or Jamiroquai sliding into Virtual Insanity, then you're well prepared for Mario's new galaxy. You may also want to schedule another lap of Portal's mind-benders, just to be sure you're warmed-up for his total disregard for the recognised rules of physics. You'll blow bubbles, de-louse giant bees, race rays, skate through the stars, climb towers that don't exist and battle giant robots, all without a second thought.
It's simply an explosion of inventiveness - a total rejection of the cookie-cutter. There's almost no way of knowing when you go into a level what it's going to look like, what you'll need to do, or how long it will take. One star will be a cheeky diversion, the next a five-stage epic of delight and adventure. The abolition of standard tasks - particularly coin collecting in all its various red, blue and normal guises - means that the visual inventiveness is matched with mission design ingenuity. There are still things to collect, and bosses to beat, castles to scale and wrecks to dive, but the majority of the game's 120 stars feel like self-contained adventures, tiny labours of love full of detail and delight. Such is the game's flair and freshness that even the boss battles, of which there are many, are a joy - funny, spectacular, fair and unpredictable. Bowser, despite being reincarnated in his full monstrous glory, only just manages to hold his own.