Where other recent graphically intensive games fall short is another area where Galaxy shines: It plays as well (if not better) than it looks. The controls are slick and intuitive, carrying quite a few elements over from the other 3-D Mario titles, though the plumber has acquired a new move or two to his repertoire. Giving the Wii remote a little flick will spin Mario around rapidly, and this functions not only as his main attack to knock foes silly, but it also boosts him a bit mid-jump and activates a number of mid-level objects. The player can also use the remote's pointer to acquire Star Bits floating through the level; these function as a sort of currency to unlock bonus stages, find hidden Power Stars or even purchase an item or two. Super Mario Galaxy feels like one of the first games to really make good use of the Wii's motion sensors without it feeling like an afterthought.
Each stage has its own music that runs the gamut from peaceful to bubbly to bombastic. In what feels like a loving nod to fans of the past games in the franchise, some of the classic Mario tunes return, as well, in full orchestrated glory. There's honestly a huge nostalgic buzz hearing the classic underground or swimming themes, and it's just another thing that Super Mario Galaxy does superbly.
Arguably Galaxy's greatest strength, though, is its level design. Most of the galaxies are fairly large in size, with six or seven Power Stars to acquire, though there are some smaller one-shot levels with only a single Star as your goal. Whether big or little, however, they all share one thing in common: They're exceptionally well crafted. The levels are as varied and diverse as they come, with your typical platformer fare (lava level, desert level, water level) set alongside giant honeycombs, bizarre toy factories, and some stages with a bit of everything sprinkled into the mix. There are even a few faux-2-D sidescrolling bits that fondly recall previous Mario games.
Each of the larger galaxies has three main Stars to seek out and another hidden one or two to find. There are also "Trickster Comets" that will occasionally randomly pass by one of the levels, adding another challenge to the mix. These comets add various challenges to the stages: Some send you on a hunt for a hundred purple coins scattered across the zone, some require you to complete one of the main Star courses under a certain time or race a shadowy double toward the goal. The white Daredevil Comets are particularly challenging: A Daredevil stage has you completing a stage you've already beaten (usually a boss fight), with only one point of life. If you get hit, you're done and must try again. In general, the difficulty curve feels very well balanced with a spike here and there. It's certainly challenging at times, though it never quite reached the point of controller-breaking frustration.
What Galaxy does with physics and gravity in particular deserves singular praise, and there are certain parts of the game that had me torn between head-scratching confusion and jaw-dropping admiration at the brilliance of the design. There's just some primal satisfaction in jumping off one planetoid into deep space and having the gravity of another one nearby pull you in.