It shouldn't be shocking to find out that Super Mario Galaxy is a blast. Sure, Super Mario Sunshine was disappointing, and it's understandable to be a little wary of the Wii's unorthodox controls, but there's more going on here than Mario In Space. Galaxy is something special, the kind of game that kept us indoors on sunny days as children. That it's a fun game is no surprise. That it's one of the best games in the series is absolutely wonderful.
Galaxy begins with a storybook montage describing the Mushroom Kingdom's traditional Star Festival, when a comet flies overhead and showers the land with Star Bits. Princess Peach sends a personal invitation for the event to the hero of the land, Mario. Just before he makes it to the castle, however, a fleet of Bowser's airships attack in what is probably the most epic scene in the series. The fleet kidnaps not only Peach but her entire castle, stealing them away into the far reaches of space. Mario has to collect Power Stars from the far reaches of the galaxy to power a spaceship to Bowser's galaxy. So once again, Mario finds himself on the mother of all fetch-quests so he can go beat up the big bad and save the girl. A tubby hero's job is never done.
There are three types of galaxies Mario can explore. The most common are galaxies consisting of small planetoids that Mario will fling himself between using slingshot stars. These planetoids are self-contained areas, typically with some goal Mario has to accomplish to unlock the path to the next area. The tiny planets have their own gravity, which means you typically can't jump off of them unless they're close enough to another landmass. It also means that you can run completely around most of the areas, which is both incredibly fun and vertigo-inducing. Navigating between these land masses and flinging Mario through the cosmos is a blast, as is hearing his glee while being thrown to the next piece of space debris.
Other galaxies are more self-contained worlds like in previous Mario games, such as the bee-themed Honeyhive Galaxy or the water filled Beach Bowl Galaxy. These feel like levels from Mario 64, standard platformer stuff. Some are pretty ingenious -- the giant tower in Buoy Base Galaxy is visually stunning -- but the rest aren't as engaging as the space levels. There are also galaxies with various minigames, such as surfing on a manta ray through rapids floating in the sky (which is even tougher than it sounds), or rolling a ball with a Power Star inside through an obstacle course.
The ball rolling minigame is particularly fun. Holding the Wiimote upright, you tilt the controller in various directions to make Mario roll. The tempo of the background music changes with your speed, so inching your way around a hole in the track makes the music sound like it's playing on a dying turntable, while flinging yourself down a hill cranks the music up to manic speeds. It's this feeling of using the Wiimote and affecting so many gameplay elements that makes the entire experience gel, and it happens throughout the game.
Controlling Mario is as easy as moving the Nunchuk's thumbstick and jumping with the Wiimote's A button. Pointing the Wiimote at the screen moves a star cursor, used to pick up faraway star bits and fire them at enemies and the environment with the B button. Waggling the Wiimote gives Mario a spin attack to stun enemies with or flip switches, as well as activating the slingshots used to toss the plumber between planetoids. That description might make the controls sound complex, but they feel very intuitive, more so than using the horrible N64 controller for Mario 64. Even your grandmother will have the basics down after a few minutes.
The only complaints to be leveled at Mario Galaxy are about its difficulty and its cooperative mode. The first is easy to dismiss: If you came to a Mario game expecting a challenge, you're bound to be sorely disappointed. The second is more valid, however. The co-op mode essentially involves finding someone to point a second Wiimote at the screen so they can collect Star Bits, fire them at enemies, or slow down obstacles. It looks on paper to be the perfect multiplayer mode for parents to play with their kids, but since I don't have children -- hide your daughters! -- I had to enlist my friends, who quickly got bored and demanded we play more Guitar Hero. I've read that both players pressing their respective A buttons will make Mario jump higher, but I can't get anyone interested long enough to try it.
If you're using those complaints to talk yourself out of playing Super Mario Galaxy, get over it. Quickly. This is a game built with the Wii in mind, and employs each of its unique features brilliantly. Galaxy's levels and gameplay are complex without being intimidating, accessible enough to play for half an hour but engaging enough to lose a day with. It's a well-made Mario game, maybe the best since the series was on the NES, and you've been looking for a reason to eject Wii Sports anyway.