Building Mario Galaxy 3C in Unity

I have been working on prototyping different things with Unity3D in the hope of making a game with it. It turns out that many of them were quite challenging, so I figured I should be writing posts about the interesting challenges I had to tackle during that. For the first one, let's talk about Mario Galaxy.

Mario Galaxy

Mario Galaxy

So what's so special about this game? Well, first it's a Nintendo game, which means the camera, controls and characters are amazing, and second, it's the first platformer (at least the first I know of) to feature a player gravitating around arbitrarilly formed planets, which is both fascinating and awesome.

It also seemed to be quite a programming challenge. So I wanted to see if I could recreate the player controls and camera system.

Walking around a planet

So what I wanted to create is some scripts to make a player and any gameObject able to walk on any mesh like in Mario Galaxy.

My first idea was to use "real life physics" by assigning a gravity force to each planet and everything. But it somehow didn't seem quite right. Just imagining it running made me thought that it would be buggy as hell and incredibly hard to tweak to produce something playable.

I don't think Nintendo went this way. The way Mario can move on platforms of any form and still be easilly controllable is not realistic at all, but it's really great. I think this experience sums up really well the bottom-up childish Nintendo way of designing games.

I mean, some levels really remind me of child toys

So, luckilly for me I did some research and found a really interesting idea: It consists of using normals to change the player's direction depending on the face underneath him. Let me explain myself:

The planet is a random mesh, with a mesh collider, and the player is placed on its surface. When the player moves, we want him to stay on the surface of the planet, or more precisely to be oriented so that when he falls, he falls in the direction of the surface. To do that, we just use ray tracing to check the first planet underneath the player. Then it's really simple: You take the normal vector to the face that the player has hit (for those who don't know, the normal vector to a face is basically a vector pointing up from the face).
You rotate the player so that he is aligned with the face up vector, and you have successfully re-orientated the player.
If you have planets that are high-poly, you can then have a smooth movement on the surface of it just by looking the direction of the face under you.

Then there's a lot of code to write so you can smooth things, handle jump correctly (my player was initially falling down to space when jumping from a cliff sometimes), and other things which would be too long to explain here. Here is the code for the "stickToPlanet" component that makes any gameObject keep its orientation arround a planet.

The interesting part is that (may contain random stuff used in my game, sorry):

    void Update () {
        Vector3 dwn = transform.TransformDirection(Vector3.down);
        RaycastHit hit1;
        RaycastHit hit2;
        touchedSomething = false;
        if (stickDown && Physics.Raycast (transform.position, dwn, out hit1, linkDistance)) { // This is the main raycast that scans under the player for the planet
            linkToPlanet (hit1);
        // Here I send different raycasts depending on the player situation. IE if the player is jumping to another planet we may have to search for it forward, up, left or right and not just under him
        if (Physics.Raycast ( transform.position, transform.up, out hit2, linkDistance)) {
            if (!stickDown || hit2.distance < hit1.distance) {
                linkToPlanet (hit2);
        if (!touchedSomething && !flying) {
            transform.Rotate (rotateCatchupSpeed * Time.deltaTime, 0f, 0f);
        touchedSomething = false;
    // If a planet is found, this is called
void linkToPlanet (RaycastHit planet) {  
    if (planet.transform.tag == "Planet") {
        touchedSomething = true;
        Transform lastPlanet = this.planet;
        this.planet = planet.transform;
        if (this.planet != lastPlanet) {
            gameObject.SendMessage ("changePlanet", this.planet);
            lastPlanetChange = Time.time;
            startQuat = transform.rotation;
            startUp = transform.up;
        flying = false;
        float frac = (Time.time - lastPlanetChange);
        // Here we set the rotation of the player depending on the hit normal
        transform.rotation = Quaternion.FromToRotation (transform.up, planet.normal) * transform.rotation;
        //transform.rotation = Quaternion.RotateTowards (transform.rotation, newRotation, 10f);

The camera

Another bit of challenge here was writing the camera. The player is rotating arround an arbitrary mesh and it was really hard to have a camera that felt right. I think I spent at least an hour walking about in Mario Galaxy just to see how they did it. As usual, Nintendo impressed me by how much details were put into their camera. Of course I couldn't reproduce the same thing alone, but I could still do something basic and working.

If you want to see a bit the controls and camera in action

Controlling a character in 3D is not always easy, but in this case the floor isn't flat and that makes matter harder, so before entering into technical details let's see how the player movement actually works:

The camera is placed at a fix distance from a player, and is sort of "pointing" always to the same direction. What I mean by that is that the player is at the center of the camera, and that turning your joysticks won't turn the camera, it will turn him. So if you push your stick to the bottom, The player will walk toward the camera, if you push it right he will walk right to the camera, etc.

But — And that's where problems come in — The camera can't just have a fixed rotation depending on the player, because the player is not just translating on a plane, he is rotating arround a sphere (or something). What that means for the camera is that it will have to rotate arround with the player, but still be partly fixed so that if the player turns right, the camera won't turn with him.

It's a hard problem that I initially tried to solve with really complicated vector operations.

In the end I finally found another way so the camera uses almost no code. In short, there is an empty gameobject that follows the player everywhere but has a fixed orientation, and the camera is attached to it. This camera box has the stickToPlanet component attached so it will stay on the surface of the planet with the player, and its position set to the player's position at each update, so it follows him.

Demo, source code

Now you may want to see a demo of all that in action. Move with left stick (or arrow keys), A to jump, turn camera with right stick (or don't turn if you don't have a gamepad).

The meshes used here are extremely low poly so movement may be a bit ugly but you get the idea. Just jump to another object/planet to switch what you're attached to.

If you want to check the whole source code to understand some details or whatever, here is the github repo.
You can also directly get the UnityPackage so you can insert it in a scene.

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