Not since the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System has Nintendo been so committed to the Super Mario franchise on its current generation console: 2007 was the year that Nintendo revamped the 3D Mario design with Super Mario Galaxy, and just six months ago the company rebooted the 2D design with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Just a short wait later, Nintendo's returned to its first Wii Mario game to give it a second go: there is so much creativity, variety and challenge poured into this sequel. 2007 Super Mario Galaxy was brilliant, but 2010's Super Mario Galaxy 2 is absolutely amazing.
By now it's a given that any game in the "Super Mario" franchise is a project Nintendo takes seriously. Even last year's New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a game that I felt played it a little too safe, was still an incredibly fun throwback to what made (and still makes) the classic 8 and 16-bit installments such timeless videogames. Super Mario Galaxy 2 has a stigma similar to last year's Mario game: the Galaxy design already wowed us three years ago, so Nintendo would really have to work hard to make jaded gamers stand up and take notice.
And that's what Nintendo did.
There's no denying that Super Mario Galaxy is the foundation for Super Mario Galaxy 2. The sequel uses the same engine, same controls, and same basic concept. So if anything, the reason why Super Mario Galaxy 2 is so damn fantastic is mostly due to the fact that the team learned from the first game: what worked, what needed fixing, and how to improve on such an already masterful Wii creation. The result of that effort is one of the most refined and most fulfilling videogame experiences of this generation.
The original Super Mario Galaxy already oozed creativity as it evolved the once-innovative 3D platforming into something spectacular. In the game, players had the ability to roam areas that ranged from standard Mario-style levels to miniature planetoids with their own orbital gravity, while still utilizing the same familiar and refined gameplay mechanics. The sequel steps it up with more of what we got with the first game, while taking the gameplay in new directions with sharp and very welcome additions.
It's clear that Nintendo has put a ton of focus in structuring Super Mario Galaxy 2 in a way that's accessible to all, including that new "expanded audience" that's leapt into the world of Mario with New Super Mario Bros. Wii as its first real taste. This becomes immediately obvious from the beginning with the game's interactive introduction: players control Mario in a strict 2D perspective that harkens back to New Super Mario Bros. and beyond, putting "training wheels" on the character as the player learns a whole new control mechanism. Steadily, those wheels are removed as players are forced to learn the ways of foreground and background until, finally, Nintendo lets go and gives full control to the player. You tend to forget that not everyone grew up with an analog stick under their thumb, and Nintendo does a really smart job making sure this hand-holding is natural and never forced or patronizing.
This shift in presentation is also applied to the game's progression. Nintendo's Galaxy team simplified the way players move through the different worlds: it's now much more similar to the maps of the 2D Mario games, established first in Super Mario Bros. 3 and evolved in Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. While it drastically shifts the "explore until you find your next challenge" design introduced in Super Mario 64, I think it's a change for the better and streamlines the pick-up-and-play approach. If you, for example, stop playing for a extended period of time and return, you'll less likely to be disoriented like you would be in Super Mario Galaxy's visually impressive but ultimately overwhelming Observatory hubworld
If it all gets too challenging, the game makes available not only Hint TV monitors to show players exactly how specific tasks should be played out, but also a "play for me" mode that's ripped straight out of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Die too many times in a level and Rosalina – a character from the original Super Mario Galaxy – appears and asks if you need assistance. While the idea of a game playing for you might sound cheap, it's actually a very smart inclusion with an obvious downside: the star that's collected will be tarnished as a bronze and not a standard gold one, so everyone will see when you took the easy way out.
The game itself is just as intuitive and incredibly fun as it's ever been. The challenge remains the same – platform jump through the huge assortment of levels in a massive variety of different locations to get to the Star at the end. Realism is thrown completely out the window – it always has in a Super Mario game – in favor of truly fulfilling gameplay. Nintendo's refined Mario's control to the point where everything he can do can be pulled off with second-nature ease. And it's the little things and tweaks that you recognize and realize that Nintendo still "gets it." You can easily punch an enemy out of the way, but you're rewarded with a health-replenishing coin if you oust them the more traditional Mario way.
A lot of the levels in Super Mario Galaxy 2 are based around concepts that were first established in the original game. Things like flinging yourself off a tiny planetoid and letting its gravity send you into a satisfyingly orbit. Levels that change the gravitational pull to make the ceiling of a level into the floor. Things like that. But those ideas have been expanded on with new twists and capabilities, and each "galaxy" to explore impresses in their own way. Whether it's a twist on an old-school game mechanic or a throwback reference to a past Mario game, Super Mario Galaxy 2 constantly impresses with just tons of small but significant elements, one level after another.
The designers passionately embrace Mario's old-school legacy with 2D-style platforming that makes New Super Mario Bros. Wii look like a third-party budget title. The game will shift from a 3D, go anywhere design to forced 2D side-scrolliing and back again, on the fly and with a completely natural camera. Or how the game will offer hints on how to get through a challenge by peppering the area with clues – both subtle and blatant.
Yoshi's addition in Super Mario Galaxy 2 is fully expected, and he's handled with far more care and attention than he ever was in the GameCube version of Super Mario Sunshine. When players leap to control Yoshi, it's a very different – but also very familiar – experience than when Mario's running around on his own. Yoshi has just as tight and intuitive controls, including the ability to tongue lash at objects and hooks using the Wii remote's pointer capabilities. This point-and-click mechanism never feels out of place because you're already focused on grabbing at Star Bits with the pointer controls.
While Yoshi levels are restricted to specific galaxies, they're all incredibly creative with a variety of different techniques: some levels use his ability to inflate like a balloon to scale heights and float along large distances, while another gives him the power to illuminate invisible platforms through a glowing power. This "Light Yoshi" power is probably one of the most unique aspects of Super Mario Galaxy 2: platform layouts are completely hidden from view unless a powered-up Yoshi casts a glow onto them, but they only exist in physical form when they're visible – you can't just leap out and land on an invisible platform.
Mario also gets new powers in this adventure, and their inclusions fit naturally and are utilized with just as much focus. The Cloud Suit is a great idea that enables players to create as many as three safe but temporary platforms by shaking the Wii remote. Even his new Rock Suit – a very basic "roll up into a ball" attack – gets some creative uses in some of the extra challenges, like the hidden "bowling" techniques that you'll stumble upon later in the adventure.
And that's another area where Super Mario Galaxy 2 excels: it might be designed to be accessible to anyone of any skill level, but it's the hardcore completionists who really get the reward. Every one of this game's galaxies has a Comet Coin that can be collected, which, if snagged, will unlock additional challenges within the established level designs. While you can certainly beat the adventure without going the extra mile, it's those that actually go that extra mile that get more than they'd expect. For example, if you unlock Luigi and play a level as him, you'll open up developer speedruns. But more importantly, score every one of the game's 120 stars and you'll reveal another portion of Super Mario Galaxy 2 that will give you a much more devious but enormously fulfilling challenge.
If there was anything to complain about in the original Super Mario Galaxy, the camera system got much of the flak: as good as it was, the viewpoint still had a hard time keeping up with the "go anywhere" nature of Mario -- even getting hung up when Mario would wander around huge planetoids. That issue isn't nearly as big in Galaxy 2, with each level having a far more fluid and intelligent camera system following the action. At points you'll have the ability to shift its focus using the D-pad if need be, but many times you won't have to -- the game handles the camera close to flawlessly.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 brings back the game's co-op mode, and even improves on it: a second player can, at any time, turn on a second Wii remote and assist Player One by snagging not only Star Bits he might've missed, but that second player can also retrieve items that may be out of Player One's reach. You won't miss much if you want to keep this a single-player adventure, but at least you have the ability to give observers something helpful to do while you focus on the challenges.
The Galaxy production is just as big and bold as it ever was. In fact, it's even more so in this sequel: along with some of the best visuals the Wii has ever seen – a true testament of the team's three year old technology – the soundtrack is even more intense with far more orchestral and studio recordings than the last game. It all makes up for the fact that this is, once again, just another simple fight against Bowser, who's kidnapped Princess Peach before she could bake a cake.
Then again, when have you ever played a Mario platformer just for the story?