I like to think of Nintendo as suffering from split personality disorder, resulting in two very distinct beings. You have the slow-to-evolve, unabashedly complicated Nintendo, whose iron will is reinforced via friend codes and the downright determination to ignore its clients (how long did it take before Nintendo allowed SD card storage?). But, there also exists a whimsical, curious child in Nintendo who tends to push boundaries in the most peculiar yet beautiful ways. The dichotomy can be unnerving, but don’t fret; Super Mario Galaxy 2 is most assuredly a product of the latter.
The original Galaxy let players see Mario in a whole new way, while redefining 3D platforming by simply breaking some very basic rules. Direction became a matter of perspective as Mario navigated round planetoids, and gravity became a toy, not law. At the player’s will, Mario could long jump himself around an entire mass of land, finding himself either orbiting half way around it before landing or being ensnared by the gravitational pull of a now closer planet. Hidden beneath a bright coat of typical Nintendo-shine were the underpinnings of a rather complex platformer. Yet, it is with this sequel that Nintendo has brought the ideas and principles it introduced in 2007 to complete fruition.
Surprisingly, it all starts with the level selection process itself. Since Super Mario 64, 3D Mario games have all featured a hub-world, in which Mario could frolic around before selecting an actual level to go play. It seems that Nintendo has realized, however, that the reason people loved running amok in old Peach’s Castle was because of the fact that simply moving around in all directions with Mario was an absolute joy at the time. However, we’ve all been navigating 3D spaces for some time, thus that once enjoyable experience is now somewhat extraneous.
With that in mind, Galaxy 2 (mostly) does away with the recent hub-world system, and instead reverts back to the traditional map system, most closely resembling that of New Super Mario Bros. The player simply pilots the Mario-shaped spacecraft around the “world” map, going from planet to planet. This is a godsend late in the game, greatly assisting in the finding of levels you want to go back to once you’ve unlocked them all. This move does tend to diminish the implied scale of the universe in which Mario travels, but it is nevertheless a much appreciated evolution (or perhaps devolution).
Great though this streamlined map is, it is those levels scattered across it that are the real stars of Galaxy 2. It’s as if the original game was a training course for the level designers, and here they are unshackled, allowed to pursue almost anything their hearts desire. Entire levels can be built around one singular idea and then are hung there in space for Mario to explore. What if there was a level where every time Mario performed his spin attack, platforms suspended in air disappeared and others manifested?. That’s great, but how do you make that idea viable for a large level in which there must be 3 or more stars for Mario to collect? The answer is that you don’t, and instead you put only one star in it. It is this approach, which allows for levels both large and small, simple and complex, that sets Mario and his developers free.
Power ups must also be discussed, specifically their evolution from perks that protected you from instant death to tools necessary to complete tasks. Where a raccoon tail was great to have in Super Mario Bros. 3, it was still not essential to getting through a level. Galaxy 2 is the complete opposite; if there is a power up available, you are expected to use it in order to beat the level. If you get hit and lose your special abilities, the mushroom or flower that granted them to you will reappear nearby, allowing you (or forcing you) to try again. Interestingly too, is that these power ups all tend to limit Mario in some way. As Rock Mario, you no longer have the ability to do the spin attack; Bee Mario loses some jumping capability, etc. Without a doubt, these power ups are present only to slightly change what Mario can and can’t do, allowing for a much greater variety of levels and challenges. I don’t see people discussing this enough: the quiet yet radical change Mario’s power ups have undergone.
Perhaps the greatest addition to Mario’s arsenal is Yoshi. Though it’s not the first time Yoshi has been present in a 3D Mario game, his execution has never been better. Yoshi retains a few of his tricks, like the flutter jump, but does lack the ability to create eggs. However, his tongue is at your disposal, via the pointer capabilities of the Wiimote. Simply point at an enemy and click, and Yoshi will quickly ingest it, spitting out a couple of Star Bits in the process. In line with what I mentioned earlier about power ups, Yoshi is only available in certain levels, and is generally required in order to complete them. Should Yoshi run off and disappear, another white and green egg will appear, shaking eagerly at your approach. Again, Yoshi isn’t just a bonus or an extra hit point; he fundamentally changes the gameplay while Mario sits atop him, allowing for new challenges to be created around him. I was also delighted to learn that the little bongo drums play lightly in the background whenever you are on Yoshi, as first heard in Super Mario World.
Adding yet another layer of variety to levels are the Prankster Comets, which begin to appear after you’re about a third of the way through the game. These are generally for the more hardcore of players, as they tend to make levels almost excruciatingly difficult. Some ask you to complete tasks within a set time limit, others give you only one hit point and drop you into a boss battle; you get the idea. Securing these extra-difficult stars will later unlock a secret world with, you guessed it, even more difficult levels. These levels are very much akin to those found in Super Mario World, testing your every ounce of skill and patience. Of course, these harder moments are only there for those who seek them, and will not interfere with anyone who simply wants to reach and defeat Bowser.
Another noteworthy renovation from the previous game to this one is the 2 player mode. In Galaxy, the second player could only collect Star Bits and freeze enemies in place, but now that player can collect coins (which refill Mario’s health) as well as 1up mushrooms and other items. More importantly, the second player now has the ability to attack and destroy enemies as well. I played a fair amount of this game with my girlfriend at the helm of the second controller, and I must say that the game is radically easier with someone else present. There is no up-scaling of difficulty; the levels are entirely the same. Don’t think this an oversight though, the game regularly reminds you that a second player can join at any time, and it even goes so far as to encourage it in some of the more difficult portions. I guess Nintendo has a very strong anti-loser policy.
The visuals look about the same when compared to the original Galaxy, meaning the game is one of the absolute best looking Wii games, showing surprisingly well when blown up on a giant TV. Everything is bright and colorful, running silky smooth all the while. The excellent sound design returns as well, with many of the game’s tracks featuring full orchestral treatment. Check out Nate’s Soundtrack Spotlight to hear just a few of the wonderful songs scattered throughout the game.
That just about makes up Super Mario Galaxy 2. Though a sequel, it’s much more appropriate to think of it as a complete reboot of the original. There is no real story connection between the games, and though Galaxy 2 appears to use the same engine that powered the first, the gameplay has been so streamlined, so refined, that I almost loathe the thought of playing the original. Super Mario Galaxy 2 sees a team dedicated to an idea they only began to explore in 2007, and with that comes an incredibly strong push into a very new realm of platforming. This is the absolute best Wii game to date, and an easy contender for game of the year. Don’t deprive yourself of the experience.
Things We Liked: Superb level construction and variety, the developers weren’t afraid to try new things. Great music returns. Yoshi controls perfectly. An astonishing game from start to finish.
Things We Disliked: That it eventually ends?
Target Audience: Fans of video games. Is that all-encompassing enough?
(Super Mario Galaxy 2 – Developer: Nintendo. Publisher: Nintendo. Available on Wii. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)