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There's no surer sign that a franchise is in trouble than when it blasts into outer space. So you were right to be nervous when Nintendo announced its plans to follow up the subpar game Super Mario Sunshine with something called Super Mario Galaxy, which promised to launch the mustachioed plumber into orbit.
Well, take your protein pill and put your helmet on: After months of hype, Nintendo has delivered. Super Mario Galaxy is out of this world in just about every way.
ESRB Rating: E (for Everyone)
Score: 9 (out of 10)
The story line, freshness dated to 1985, is anything but Earth-shaking: Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach, and Mario must collect "power stars" to get her back yet again. You'd think our hero would've bought the girl a handgun and a guard by now.
Regardless, the fun soon gets supernova when Mario goes — bang, zoom — right to the moon. For the first time ever, Mario's levels aren't flat; they're incredibly round, in fact, and force players to react accordingly. Over the course of a stage, Mario leaps from planet to planet and tumbles upside down, sideways, and inside out, thanks to the spaced-out gravity fields that affect play. (The term planets should be used loosely in describing Galaxy's meteoric stages; the hovering land masses you hop around on are made of everything from colorful toy blocks to worm-infested apples.) The experience is a little jarring, but you'll quickly adapt.
Mario's famous powerups are back, from a variety of mushrooms to new accessories that allow flight through the cosmos at stomach-churning speeds. Mario even dons a bee suit and flits around a honeycomb galaxy, stinging Goombas right in the face.
The gravity-altering game play is made easy thanks to an effortless control scheme. Running and jumping remain Mario's basic forte, but the Wii's motion controls are used to spin-attack (via a quick wrist waggle). Fruity Pebble-esque "Star Bits" replace golden coins as the currency of choice, and can be collected to unlock new levels — or, if you prefer, to chuck in the direction of your enemies.
Collecting Star Bits, it turns out, is one of the game's most addictive elements. Simply pointing your Wiimote at the bits sends them rocketing right into your wallet. You can try out the laziest multiplayer feature ever created by giving a second Wiimote to a friend, allowing him to help you rake in the bits.
Breathtaking and epic might not have been the first words you'd use to describe the world of Mario, but they're merited here: Super Mario Galaxy might be the prettiest game made for the Wii. The first time you launch into the massive, stardust-covered horizon and crash-land in a shimmering water planet, you'll finally see what the system's graphic engine is capable of. You might even get a little choked up during the gorgeous, Big Bang-inspired finale ... and not in the same way you did when Mario found out Sorry, but our Princess is in another castle.
Drawbacks? Only two come to mind: The game is over too soon, and it's a tad easier than Marios past. To counter this, there are plenty of optional, demanding side quests to sate hard-core gamers. So in the end, the only thing that sucks are the game's plumber-devouring black holes. That's a damn impressive feat for a 20-year-old franchise built around mushrooms and turtle shells.