‘Super Mario Galaxy’ Remains a Surprisingly Poignant Platformer

by Francis Kenna

When playing through one of Mario’s platforming outings, one can typically expect a few things; tight controls, catchy ear-worms that infest the mind, a superabundance of nifty ideas, and of course, that indescribable notion of joy that comes from bouncing around some of the genre’s most unmistakable stages. Super Mario Galaxy manages to deliver on all of these preconceptions, but it also sneaks in one more unexpected feeling: a feeling of underlying sombreness that protrudes just long enough to make its presence known throughout the adventure. But where does such a feeling emerge from?

Compared to many other Super Mario outings, which will only sprinkle in a few morsels of reprieve from the bombast for the sake of pacing, Galaxy revels in its quieter moments. From the very first time Mario steps into space after an introductory sequence at Peach’s castle, he is not accompanied by a catchy and cheery tune one might expect. Instead, players are met with a more subdued piece of tinkering piano notes, as Mario sets out to the great expanse. There’s a loneliness that comes from being stuck on a small planetoid set to the backdrop of darkness, and the game doesn’t feel like it ever shies away from that feeling.

Super Mario Galaxy

Each of the games various galaxies and planetoids are framed in similar ways, being suspended within the incomprehensibly larger universe, and with this, our mustached hero feels smaller than ever. But that is not to say that Galaxy constantly lingers on those feelings. In fact, it is quite the contrary, with the vast majority of the game being spent joyfully whisking Mario between platforming challenges, as his journey is supplemented by some of the most bombastic tracks in the entire series thanks to the franchise’s first orchestral score. In that sense, Galaxy often portrays space as being a voyage of excitement and adventure, showcasing the beauty of the universe’s endless possibilities. But repeatedly those feelings briefly dissipate, only for space to be characterized by a colder quietness.

The most frequent of these occurrences come from the domes of the Observatory that the player enters to select which level they are going to play through next. When entering a dome, the music yet again falls back to barely melodic twinkles, as the player is shown a map of a cluster of galaxies, with those galaxies being the only locations of note within that section of the universe. In Galaxy there is no respite from the fact that everything is surrounded by the void of space, and it can leave the game feeling oddly solemn. The very concept of a Mario title trying to sneak in a sense of glumness as a core part of the experience would be typically something to balk at, but that doubt becomes dispelled by the presence of Rosalina’s storybook.

Throughout the game, players are able to listen in as Rosalina periodically reads a portion of a book to the Observatories Luma’s, and with this reading, some of Galaxy’s themes become much more pronounced. The storybook as a whole retells an abridged tale of Rosalina’s upbringing, her acceptance of the death of her mother, and her journey to re-establish a new family with the Luma’s amongst the stars. Rosalina’s struggles with loneliness and trying to find a place of belonging within the universe are a focal point of the side-story, and when reflecting on Galaxy as a whole with that additional context, the musings of existentialism no longer seem too ridiculous. What’s more is that the storybook was conceptualized and written by the game’s director, Yoshiaki Koizumi, affirming some of the game’s more startling themes and aspirations.

Rosalina's reading session

While Super Mario Galaxy’s undeniable heaps of fun have always been the game’s most celebrated aspect (and for good reason), it’s the less pervasive elements that have added to the game’s magic over the years. As with each of the mainline titles, the untouchable platforming gameplay is what draws people back again and again, but it’s Galaxy’s extra splashes of meditativeness that help to make it an even more special entity.  

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