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Understanding The Fun of Super Mario Galaxy

February 1, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this in-depth critique, game designer David Sirlin (Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix) analyzes Nintendo's Super Mario Galaxy, discussing what it did right - and what it could do better - in creating its 'polished, beautiful' game world. Please note that this article contains some gameplay-related spoilers for the game.]

I've only said "Wow!" a few times in the last couple decades of playing games. One of those times was for the breakthrough Super Mario 64, a game that took action/platforming into a 3D world and made it work. It's fitting that I said it again over its (true) sequel, Super Mario Galaxy, a game that took action/platforming even more into 3D and made that work, too.

In point of fact, I might have more reason than most to say "Wow" over this game. Years ago, I worked at a small company that went out of business where I was designing a 3D platform game that played with gravity. Now, so much later, it's great to see Mario Galaxy realizing these same ideas in the most clever, polished, beautiful ways possible.

Why is Mario Galaxy so good and what can we learn from it? To borrow some terms from Nicole Lazzaro's four kinds of fun, Mario Galaxy has hard fun, easy fun, and social fun as well as the ability to evoke the emotions of surprise and wonder.

Hard Fun

Gamers know this kind of fun all too well. This is the fun of overcoming obstacles and attaining goals. When you succeed at an especially difficult challenge, the Italian word fiero describes the emotion you feel as you raise your fist into the air triumphantly. Mario Galaxy has 120 stars to collect, offering plenty of this type of fun.

Hard fun is so common in games that the only thing worth noting here is how well Mario Galaxy informs the player about exactly which goal he's going for, which goals are completed, and how many goals are left. I think this clarity magnifies the fiero aspect of the game. Putting the tally of hard fun at center stage (the number of Mario Stars, out of 120, you've collected) makes it all the more satisfying to achieve the goals.

Easy Fun

Ironically, this fun is much more rare in games. This is fun that's not bound up with winning or goals. The entire Nintendo Wii system has an advantage here because the motion-sensing Wiimote lends itself to easy fun.

Collecting the star bits (the colorful, glowing ammunition that bounces around everywhere) with the Wiimote's pointer is easy fun. Shooting the star bits at enemies is easy fun, though hardly ever required to achieve goals. Using the left-right-left-right gesture to do the spin attack is easy fun.

Another part of easy fun is exploration and variety. Some of the gameplay variety in Mario Galaxy includes:

  • Flying with the bee suit
  • Shooting fireballs with the fire suit
  • Creating frozen platforms and ice skating with the ice suit
  • Becoming a ghost who can turn invisible and float with the ghost suit
  • Jumping very high with the spring suit
  • Riding a manta ray on the water in a race
  • Riding a turtle shell underwater in many situations, including races
  • Balancing on a ball as you navigate through a level
  • Flying with the red star suit
  • Numerous tricks of gravity that vary across several levels

Just the moment-to-moment interactions involved with these things are fun, without even considering how they are used in the context of hard-fun-goals.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Kirk Battle
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Great article! I liked your criticisms of the game as well and had the exact same reaction. After the third or so act, the wow factor started to phase a bit.

The game almost seems to suffer from being too refined. That whole idea from 'The Matrix' where Agent Smith explains that people lost interest in the original artificial world because it was too perfect seemed to ring true with this game. Everything was so smooth, clearly labeled, and neatly packaged that it just started to become...unsurprising? I don't mean to insult such an incredible game, but its perfection does seem to come at the cost of having 'Agent Smith' syndrome.

Kale Menges
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Galaxy was the "Game of the Month" here at Gearbox last month. We all loved it to death, but I think those of us who are decidedly more "hard-core" gamers agreed that the "purple coin" missions in the game were the weakest component in the entire game. The article's comparison with Symphony of the Night is an intelligent analysis. Galaxy is a hard game to "rip" on, in a legitimate fashion, making the game itself difficult analyze simply because it is so well put together. I think I'd disagree about the intro to the game, though. Most of us here felt it was entirely too long and probably could have been somehow broken up into smaller, spaced out sequences. Either way, Super Mario Galaxy is one of the most amazing games of the last decade and reaffirms Shigeru Miyamoto's label of Greatest Game Designer of All Time.

David McGraw
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What a great write-up. This is an absolutely amazing game and even though it is not perfect (what is?), it was a great experience to go through.

Steve Gaynor
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re: Kale, I'd like to point out that Yoshiaki Koizumi was the lead designer of Super Mario Galaxy.

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Abe Froman
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How it could have been (even) better:

1. Make the prankster comets actually cycle through the galaxies. Maybe I want do the Daredevil comet in Deep Dark Galaxy, but maybe next time I want to do the Fast Foe or Speedster. I was quite disappointed when I discovered the comets didn’t ever change, even on subsequent play-throughs. In fact, if the game wasn’t so wonderful, I would accuse Nintendo of bait-and-switch when it came to this feature. They sure hyped it as if the comet challenge in galaxies would be a changing experience…

2. Fill in some of the bare spots. There are quite a few levels where there is too much emptiness. For instance, the beginning of Deep Dark Galaxy has a ring of water around a beach with almost nothing in it. A couple fish school sprites and one chest with a 1up in it. Maybe I would have been distracted from the emptiness if they used something other than the blank concrete texture. I remember exploring it for the first time and being disappointed at how barren it seemed. If you’re going to make it empty, at least make it pretty. No one complained about the castle grounds in SM64 because there were just enough trees to keep it interesting. Now the top of the castle was another story. Couldn’t we get a couple of tiers or a balcony or something to give us somewhere to go with that wing cap??

3. Give me more hidden extras. Coconuts to watermelons at 9999 star bits is a nice touch, but how about do stuff like that in 10 more places? Would it have been so hard to let me play as Peach and Toad and let me try to get all 120 stars with their play characteristics? Let me answer that for you – no it wouldn’t and it would have made complete sense in the storyline and would have pushed epic to uber-epic. How about completing purple coin challenges open up red stars in each of the galaxies? I’ve got all the stars – why not let me fly around?!? Oh, and not letting me cross the drawbridge in the Grand Finale Galaxy was just cruel.

4. Expanding on a point in #3, why couldn’t we fly around in the main galaxies? I wanted to fly from planetoid to planetoid without the aid of the launch stars! I wanted to fly under the haunted house or buoy base! Maybe there is some game mechanic that hides the fact that the planetoids are not actually in a continuous area of 3D space, but I hope not. I hope to someday play a hacked version of SMG that lets me enter New Egg Galaxy and fly to whatever rock I want. Call me a dreamer…

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Pretty good article, though it feels a bit "fluffy" compared to some of Sirlin's other work that I've read.

Personally, I think the purple coin missions were just fine (better than the equivalent in SM64, where you had to collect 100 coins for a Star, because here the purple coins are usually placed in a specific area of the level so as to be more interesting to collect). All in all, I thought the difficulty curve was one of the best I've ever seen, and didn't feel that it got monotonous towards the end at all.

Regarding camera, I did eventually get used to it but this was really my biggest gripe with the game -- most of the challenge is quite simply depth perception-based. I often felt very 'cramped', being so used to a free-roaming camera in the likes of Ratchet & Clank. Again, I ultimately got used to the camera system here (and am impressed at how well it *often* works), but I don't think this was one of its greatest accomplishments by any means.

Also, it's funny that you mention the castle flip in SotN, because this game actually does have something similar when you collect 120 Stars...

P.S. Why do all the Feature contributors squeeze in a reference to the project they're working on? :-P

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re: Steve Gaynor, regardless of the titular Lead Designer I'm pretty sure the basic idea of running around on planets in space was Shigeru's.

A Hsiung
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It's not that most games don't know about inertial frames - it's that a game design decision was made to not have inertial frames. There are game physics, and there are realistic physics. Depending on the type of game, both can be fun to play. Anyone who's had experience actually making games would understand this. For instance, in most platform games, including the Super Mario games, you can change your velocity in mid-air, which is physically impossible. However, if you couldn't do this, the game might be infuriating to play. There are a myriad of other examples, but ultimately, it boils down to what is suitable and fun for that specific game.

Carlos Mijares
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I liked the purple coins. Considering it's a platformer with 120 different "stages," it's understandable if some of them feature the platform-popular collection-based goal. Since the Purple Comet often shows up towards the later part of the game, they're correctly placed for only those players that want every single star.

Chris Proctor
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You know about the "big reveal" in Super Mario Galaxy when you get to 120 stars, right (as Anonymous mentioned)?

Not quite of the same order as Castlevania, but still a whole new set of challenges for the player to overcome, and a reward for the players who don't shelve the game when they get the required 61 stars.