A Wrinkle in Space and Time
Game On: “Super Mario Galaxy” $49.99, Wii, E for Everyone; “The Orange Box”, $49.99, PC, $59.99, console, PC, PS3, 360, T for Teen and M for Mature
Something’s not right here.
Gamers weaned on the rudimentary 3-D of the “Myst” worlds and raised to expect the sophisticated realism of “Far Cry” may wonder about the new games “Super Mario Galaxy” and “Portal.”
After years of pretending to race cars, toss pro balls and kill aliens, game developers have started to get weird. Both “Galaxy” and “Portal” get back to an older gaming tradition by providing whacked-out fun that treads lightly where the rules of physics should apply.
“Mario” games have always teased players with psychedelic, freak-out levels filled with mushroom people and smirking bipedal turtles. Following that rainbow road to new trippy heights, “Galaxy” repackages the platform-jumping play that made “Super Mario” an icon and offers a topsy-turvy universe suspended in space.
Gravity and perspective become optional as Mario lands on tiny planetoids, spheroids and floating levels that defy any sort of premeditated navigation. These places make sense only in reference to themselves. As he walks around on an orb the size of a hot-air balloon, up and down become relative: Mario’s feet stick to the surface as if gravity were in full force. Then there’s a puzzle world that flips up and down as Mario traverses different-colored bricks. While they’re disorienting at first, these wacky gravity spaces brighten up a routinely entertaining “Mario” title.
Gamers may pick up “The Orange Box” for its collection of three complete “Half-Life 2” games or for the high-energy combat of “Team Fortress 2.” But most players end up staying for “Portal.” This peculiar puzzle-solving game takes place in more or less the same high-tech, 3-D world as “Half-Life.” Instead of battling creepy aliens, though, players are challenged to maneuver through complex and deadly levels using nothing more than a device that can project two portals on any concrete surface — you walk through one portal and come out the other, Alice in Wonderland-style.
Place a portal on one wall and another on the wall behind you, and look at the back of your head. Shoot a portal on the floor and one on the ceiling, jump down through the hole you’ve created — and fall from the ceiling, then back through your portal on the floor, ad infinitum.
“Galaxy” and “Portal” don’t deserve credit for being the first games to play with time and space. Ever since players of “Asteroids” zoomed off the top of the screen, only to reappear at the bottom, games have messed with the fabric of reality. At their best, that’s what games do. These new titles remind us that the medium still has the potential to find fun and wonderment in the strangest places.