The Player

by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Super Mario Galaxy & r & Rated Everyone; Wii & r & 4 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & ear the beginning of Super Mario Galaxy, Mario bobbled through the air wearing a bee costume, his round yellow be-stingered butt dangling down. Mario has always enjoyed dressing up, and there are plenty of disguises in Galaxy, from an icy coat that lets him freeze the water beneath his feet, to an incorporeal ghost shroud that grants him passage through solid bars. But the bee suit ranked as the most charming, as Mario buzzed around the "Honeyhive Galaxy," one of the many thematic solar systems he visited during his journey through space. But the puzzles he faced there were slow, dripping affairs that had me crawling across arrays of honeycombs and combing through a giant fuzzy queen bee looking for pieces of a star that had gotten caught in her fur.

Later, in more mundane Mario garb, he explored a planet made of giant paving stones that corkscrewed around a sparkling waterfall in outer space. The camera offered me an unstable view of Mario as he jogged around the spiral and leapt between rocks orbiting the middle. Obstructing his path periodically were Thwomps, the enormous stone blocks that rise slowly into the air then drop with a "thwomp," mashing Mario if he's caught beneath. Other, new Thwomps, hollow on one gaping side, flip-flopped over the paving stones, smashing everything that didn't get out of their way. Guiding Mario through this was beautiful, but not much more difficult than some of the challenges he faced in his other great 3D game, Super Mario 64.

Near the end of Super Mario Galaxy, Mario ran up the side of a giant toy robot built in the shape of Bowser, his longtime foe. This mecha-Bowser was equipped with a sort of sticky flypaper that allowed Mario to walk and jump on Bowser's arms and legs no matter what direction was up. As I guided Mario to unscrew the screws that held the multicolored toy together, I discovered that Mario could also sheathe himself in a spring -- bouncing around, flipping from feet to head, vaulting magnificently into the air and landing wobblingly -- accompanied by "OmygodI'mgonnafall!" The springing allowed me to guide Mario -- carefully, carefully -- to the top of the toy's head, where he pounded Bowser's noggin to bits.

THE GOOD: Super Mario Galaxy is the most beautiful Mario game ever, with three-dimensional levels that sprawl every which way, including inside out. It also gives the hero a host of new powers that, combined with the game's penchant for plopping him onto the ceiling and asking him to run around in reverse gravity with equally backward controls, often create puzzles Mario has never solved before.

THE BAD: The first third of Super Mario Galaxy is full of new styles of Mario-play, and the final third features brilliant puzzles and action sequences. But too many good ideas are left to languish in simplicity, never developed into fiendish challenges. At least there are enough fresh takes on Mario to make a sequel almost inevitable. When it happens, Nintendo won't need to reinvent the wheel -- just let it roll.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Super Mario Galaxy is Mario's most lavish adventure, with enough underused innovation to launch videogaming's main mascot into a universe of superlative sequels.