A couple of weeks ago I started playing Super Mario Galaxy. Make no mistake about it: this is a truly amazing, top-notch game. For anyone who has played Mario games before, it is like meeting an old friend -- all spruced up and full of new stories to tell. For those new to the series, the game demonstrates over and over why Super Mario World, Mario 64, and others are considered some of the greatest video games in history.
The Mario series is not about story line. Yes, there is a story -- which is almost always the same -- Princess Peach is kidnapped by Bowser and Mario has to rescue her. The story is just an excuse for a collection of challenges, usually focused around a launch area: the map in Super Mario World, Peach's castle in Super Mario 64, Delfino Plaza in Super Mario Sunshine... You could say that the Mario video games are formulaic -- in the best sense of the word.
And Super Mario Galaxy is no exception. You explore different galaxies collecting stars for achieving certain feats and you use a floating observatory as your launch pad (literally). The story is the same: Bowser kidnaps Peach; Mario must rescue her and save the universe in the process. What could be wrong?
So I was all the more shocked -- and disappointed -- when I started playing the game for the first time. Let me repeat: this is an amazing game with some of the best game play ever. but the first 30 minutes of the game are some of the most disappointing, confused, and annoying moments I have experienced in a long time.
The disappointment is all the more intense because the game -- even from the trailers -- is fantastic. How could they have messed it up so badly?
This is the exact opposite of the sense of wonder I described before when a game has a driving vision from start to finish. In Mario Galaxy it looks like the development team completed a fantastic game and then handed it over to a team of amateurs to tack on the opening sequence.
For the first 30 minutes of the game you are told the story, given a chance to practice the game play, and transition into the game proper. In Mario 64 DS, this takes about 5 minutes. (In the original Super Mario 64, even less since there is no predefined practice.) Mario receives a letter from Peach, he arrives at the castle -- which will be his jumping off point -- finds the door locked, and must chase a rabbit who has stolen the key. The rabbit is an obvious ploy to force you to practice using the controls. But it is also very effective, quite short, and brings you directly into the game. Once you have the key, off you go.
In Super Mario Galaxy you also start with a letter. You are also given control to run down a path collecting stars and talking to a host of toadstool characters (most of whom have nothing interesting to say). Then, there is a longish cut scene (which you cannot control) of Peach being kidnapped and Mario being knocked unconscious. Fade to black. Next thing you know you are being woken up by a star who changes into a rabbit (with two of his brethren) and tells you to catch them. Wait a minute! I thought I'd already gone through the training running down the hill to the castle?
But since there is no other way to advance, you chase the rabbits. Once you catch them, they tell you another story about star fragments and tell you to talk to a fairy for more of the story. Again, cut scenes you can't control and a story that is only barely related to the princess's disappearance, and you end up in a third and final location! (The star observatory.) Some more explanation, then off to your first planet to find some fragments.
By this time -- when you actually enter the game itself -- you are so confused, you are afraid yet another new character will stop you and force you to perform more training. In fact, for the next 15 to 20 minutes, this apprehension clouds the game play. But eventually you realize you have reached the game proper and start to enjoy what is really a masterful piece of craftsmanship and exhilarating gaming experience.
What went wrong here? Well, just about everything. The beginning of the story is told in still frames with text -- but not the stylized frames of, say, Zelda's Wind Waker or Phantom Hourglass where the frames themselves tell a story. (And in Phantom Hourglass become part of the story themselves!) In this case, dull nondescript frames. Then the game begins -- or so you think since you gain control. But there is only one way to go (downhill to the castle) and far too many toadstools repeating instructions to you.
Then comes the cut scene. Despite dramatic camera angles and smoke effects trying to mask it, it is hard not to notice how dated the graphics of this section are. The objects are rudimentary (in 3D terms) and blocky, the textures are simple... It looks more like N64-quality graphics rather than two generations later on.
I am not claiming graphic superiority is necessary. I think the opening of Phantom Hourglass is spectacular, on far more limited hardware. But that opening is designed to exploit and celebrate what the Nintendo DS can do. The opening of Mario Galaxy seems to be satisfied with making do. This sloppiness is even more galling since once you get into the game itself, the graphics are bright and seamless -- a perfect match of game and hardware. The opening and the game itself stand in stark contrast to one another.
Finally, the opening overall is far too long, and tells a confusing, disjointed story that disrupts rather than justifies the game play. All I can say to other players who are starting the game is "hang in there". Try to ignore the disappointment of the opening and enjoy a brilliant game once you get through it. And Nintendo, please try not to do that again. Thank you.