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 mustached plumber into orbit.
But after months of hype, Nintendo has delivered.
The story line, freshness-dated to 1985, is anything but earthshaking: 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, but no.
Regardless, the fun soon gets supernova-size when Mario goes bang, zoom, right to the moon. For the first time ever, Mario's levels aren't flat — they're incredibly round 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 power-ups 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 Pebblesque "Star Bits" replace golden coins as the currency of choice and can be collected to unlock new levels — or, if you prefer, to chuck at the bad guys.
Collecting Star Bits 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.
Super Mario Galaxy might be the prettiest game ever made for the Wii. The first time you launch into the massive, stardust-covered horizon and crash-land on 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 is the game's plumber-devouring black holes. That's a damned impressive feat for a 20-year-old franchise built around mushrooms and turtle shells.