When Super Mario 64 was released on the Wii Virtual Console, I downloaded the game and played through it again. I justified this use of my time by playing the game differently than I had back in the 3D Dark Ages of 1996: Rather than moving on to new levels as soon as they became available (as my sense of exploration had demanded on my first play-through), I resolved to explore each Course to completion (including the elusive 100-coin star) before proceeding to the next. This was occasionally impossible–for example, when I had to wander off and unlock one of the caps–but for the most part, I stuck to my plan. I enjoyed the hell out of this little experiment. It was quite rewarding to enter a tiny little world and explore its every possibility before moving on.
Of course, that description works only because, in 2006, the worlds of Super Mario 64 felt tiny. In 1996, they felt sprawling, daunting, infinite. A first-time player would have been very unlikely to stay in one world until it was complete, because that would have felt like a commitment to stay put more or less forever. It was a gut reaction to the novelty and strangeness of managing three-dimensional space. It was an effect that was destined to wear off as players became acclimated to panoramic vistas and camera-sensitive controls.
In one important sense, Super Mario Galaxy 2 represents the end of that era. The game seems to fully understand which aspects of third-person, three-dimensional space are fundamentally manageable, and which are perhaps irreconcilably disorienting.
As such, it no longer aspires to make its worlds seem infinite, or to make its exploration seem free. Every galaxy is a small, internally complete environment with some unique feature or mechanic; every planet is an episode with a coherent beginning, middle, and end; and every star is a linear, heterogeneous progression through those brief episodes. The result is that the thrill of discovery is nearly constant, and bewilderment and wandering are almost nonexistent. The player resolves one possibility, and instantly a new one opens up. There is a strong feeling that one is in the hands of a capable storyteller.
And yet the game preserves, even enshrines, that sense of disorientation and vertigo so essential to primordial 3D. You’ll be upside down, you’ll relate to space in unnatural ways, you’ll occasionally wonder what you’re looking at. In games, I suppose, the storyteller has to be willing to mess with the player’s head, which is one reason why Portal works so well. More than any game since Portal, Super Mario Galaxy 2 understands how to effectively balance willful disorientation and linear storytelling.
And Mario is particularly remarkable because it does this without a particularly compelling plot. It is worth recognizing, then, that video games don’t really need plots in order to tell their stories. No one cares whether or not Mario saves the princess. What matters is where he goes and what he does on the way to her. I cannot think of a single book or film wherein I cared so much about a chain of events–and simultaneously, about a space–without caring even a tiny bit about the characters or their goals.