Super Mario Galaxy celebrates its 15th anniversary today, November 12, 2022. Below, we take a look at how its unique setting has given it a special sense of wonder that sets it apart from other Mario games.
Mario Galaxy offers a melancholy take on the stars, a far cry from the Saturday morning surrealism of other games in the series. Of course, it’s not like its predecessors and follow-ups haven’t had their own unique charms – think Sunshine’s sunny stunner or Odyssey’s whirlwind tour. However, Galaxy offers an existential and joyful melancholy. This explodes Mario’s level scale beyond realms and story, into (meta)physics. Galaxy focuses on the cosmic interconnection of life and death, and the scattered, unconscious possibility of rebirth.
Sure, other Mario games have flickers of darkness, conversations with enemy shy guys on trains, or Yoshis left in the abyss. But Mario Galaxy offers something more fundamental. His sadness isn’t some tonal banter or joke or accidental effect of a colliding mechanic. Galaxy is literally set in a vast dark universe, where only specific points of light are habitable. In time, these points of light will die, and others will take their place. In short, it’s a universe that looks a lot like ours, although filtered through a whimsical and caricatural logic.
For example, explosions also create stars in this world, but that’s by giving candy to Lumas, magical creatures that become stars, planets, and galaxies. It is, in purely mechanical terms, a means of accelerating progress. Mario collects “Star Pieces” on his travels. If he has enough, he can give them to Lumas to open a new world. These are classic video game shenanigans that give higher purpose to some of the game’s smaller interactions or pieces.
But this process packs more thematic punch than a star marker under a door. When a Luma transforms into a galaxy, he’s no longer a cute little starry guy. They become earth, sand, water, space and even other forms of life. It is a kind of death. When I was a kid, I was hesitant to give Lumas candy because it would mean they weren’t around anymore. Yet this death creates another kind of life. All Galaxy worlds, by implication, were once these star children. From tiny worlds that house hopping rabbits to a huge beehive garden, luma formed the matter that made them. A star dies, matter expands, the universe turns ever further.
The game channels many of these themes through Rosalina, a celestial mother who guides and teaches fledgling stars to become galaxies. She also guides Mario, taking him under her wing when he lands on her spaceship. Mario talks to her whenever he completes certain levels, and she’s a constant presence around the game’s hubs. However, you’ll learn the most about Rosalina in her library by reading a storybook aloud. The storybook tells how Rosalina took care of the Lumas. Once a little girl on a distant world, a Luma looking for her mother found her and they both took off into the stars.
In time, Rosalina becomes the mother of the many Lumas she has helped on her journey. It is a kind of deity, but chosen rather than ascended or born. Here, being a god isn’t exactly about power or creation; it’s a role. The fact that the Luma sought out his mother asserts that perhaps someone else had the same position, but either died or became unable to do this job. From this death, however, comes the possibility that someone else may fulfill these necessary obligations. Having found her purpose, Rosalina travels with the Lumas “as they search for a place to be reborn”. She stands between life and death, overseeing the transformations that make stars possible.
While it is indeed heavy and metaphysical, Mario Galaxy’s cosmic scale is often small. Rosalina herself went on the storybook trip because she missed her mother. At the climax of the storybook, she acknowledges her mother’s death and also the life her bond with her mother has enabled. It is a simple love that reaches across the universe, in turn touching individual lives. Although the role is cosmic, its practical aspects are simply parenthood. The various hubs that divide Galaxy’s sets of levels are mostly mundane places: a bedroom, a fountain, a kitchen, and a garden. Mario is a visitor on this ship which is more of a home than anything else.
Galaxy weaves this banality with its galactic scale. “It’s common sense to worship the stars,” Carl Sagan said on Cosmos, “because we are their children.” Because sunlight nourishes plants, which in turn nourish all animal life, we are actually mothered by the stars. Mario Galaxy is a game about this kind of poetry. He transforms the stars into children themselves, reforming the universe into human cycles of life and death.
It might sound a little silly to talk about a Mario game that way, but I think silliness is key to the game’s resonance. Much of life itself is, after all, silly and frivolous. We too have selfish queen bees, scared bunnies that are hard to catch, lost children in need of candy and a hug. We live and die and poop and eat in a speck of blue in the vastness of space. Our lives seem important, but are so small. On a large scale, massive things like planets and ecosystems can seem too insignificant. However, these little lives have intimate connections with the stars that allow them. We too live and die, are born and reborn. Our deaths matter to the lives ahead of us, just as the death of countless stars created the stuff we are made of. The fact that humans, animals and plant life are here is a miracle of numbers that cannot be replicated anywhere else. It is a solitary universe. But it is illuminated by our twinkling lights and our connection to each other.
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