I mentioned in my Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy review that a single experience of a film or game isn’t always enough to judge fairly how good it is. So it has proven with Super Mario Galaxy 2, last year’s sequel to Nintendo’s critically acclaimed Wii platformer. Replaying my 2010 Game of the Year for the first time has brought me to the decision that it is not superior to the original after all, not that it is anything other than utter brilliance.
After the relative disappointment of the Gamecube’s Super Mario Sunshine, a game that still has great merit, Nintendo recaptured the faith and admiration of fans and critics with Super Mario Galaxy which sent their mascot to a number of ingeniously designed ‘galaxies’ in search of power stars, repeating the structure of the classic Super Mario 64. Along the way gamers were treated to an endless array of superbly realised gimmicks and gameplay concepts that had them constantly changing gear in a title that never repeated itself. Variety and quality made the game great and the sequel didn’t mess with the formula.
The story, however, is just a tad confusing as it plays out as though the events of Super Mario Galaxy never happened. Bowser’s huge and has kidnapped Princess Peach again and it’s up to Mario to pursue his arch-nemesis through the universe to save her. Princess Rosalina returns from the first game in lesser role but the game makes out that Mario has never met her before. Why Nintendo went with this approach is a mystery but no-one ever played a Mario game for the story.
This is all about tracking down stars and the good news is that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is right up there with its predecessor in terms of crafting engaging and imaginative gauntlets for you to get through in pursuit of them. One notable change in the structure is the presence of world map in the style of Super Mario Bros. 3. You must pilot your starship (which looks like Mario’s head) through the various worlds and choose a galaxy to visit. By finding one star in a galaxy you will be free to proceed but there are frequent checkpoints that you can only get past if you’ve gathered a specified number of stars which necessitates revisiting old locales for new challenges. At the end of each world you will face off against either Bowser or Bowser Jr. for a Grand Star before proceeding to the next map. This approach is designed to streamline the experience allowing speedy access to the galaxies and avoiding the need to run around a hub world and it certainly succeeds.
Each galaxy offers a number of challenges with stars as a reward, many of which play out like a simple linear race to the finish but you’ll often have to beat a minigame and will very frequently make use of a number of new and returning power ups. You will also have to keep a lookout for a Comet Medal in each galaxy. These are big collectible coins usually located somewhere semi-hidden that will prompt a prankster comet to come into orbit around the galaxy. If you visit a galaxy when a prankster comet is in orbit a new star challenge will appear. This might require you to repeat a previous star in a time limit, set you up against a boss with only one unit of life energy or make you gather one hundred purple coins. Keeping your eyes peeled for Comet Medals adds a layer of depth to the game but if you miss one it can be a pain to have to redo the star as you have to collect the star as well as the medal for it to count.
As you’d probably expect the ideas and innovations in Super Mario Galaxy 2 never stop coming. The delightful moments were the game messes with gravity or puts you on little planetoids that were so popular from the first game make a welcome return and are accompanied by no shortage of new concepts. A few galaxies play on rhythm with platforms appearing and disappearing in time with the music. Elsewhere many of the best moments come with the power ups. Mario’s new upgrades include a drill which lets him burrow straight downwards through planets and out of the other side making for some brain bending puzzles. There’s also a cloud suit with which you can make three cloud platforms to stand on giving you great freedom to traverse seemingly impossible gaps and the boulder suit turns the plumber into a rocky bowling ball to mow down enemies.
The most significant new inclusion is Yoshi who actually made his 3D debut in Super Mario Sunshine but he’s been handled much better here. In some galaxies you can hitch a ride on the green dinosaur and gobble enemies by targeting them with the Wii Remote pointer or use his tongue to swing from floating flowers. Better still Yoshi even has his own power ups that make him float upwards, run fast or illuminate hidden platforms that don’t exist when unlit. Every single Yoshi level stands out and although its perhaps a shame that you can’t keep him after grabbing a star the game would be in danger of becoming repetitive if it let you use him all the time.
Of course the level design is crucially important to compliment the varied gameplay mechanics and by and large Super Mario Galaxy 2 does not disappoint. Standout galaxies include the crumbling Clockwork Ruins Galaxy and the hot and fiery Melty Monster Galaxy which offer linear challenges but some of the more open world levels are a little underwhelming. The visual direction however is flawless utilising the same colourful art style and graphical quality the first game was praised for. Character and enemy designs are strong throughout and absolutely every part of the game looks as pretty as anything the Wii has done.
Once again the soundtrack is top notch with sweeping orchestral tunes accompanying some high quality MIDI arrangements. Music highlights include the bouncy theme of the Puzzle Plank Galaxy and the tense, stirring tune that spurs you on during time limited stars. A number of classic tunes from the first game also return and the comical sound effects are top quality throughout. It’s an audio package that can proudly be considered the equal of that of the game’s predecessor.
One important improvement over Super Mario Galaxy is the difficulty level. One mild complaint of the first game was that it didn’t offer veteran players much of a challenge. The sequel has clearly made things tougher without going overboard and many of the later stars will cause some headaches. On the other hand the game features a Super Guide feature the like of which was first introduced in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. If you are struggling to reach a star and find yourself frequently losing lives a ghostly Rosalina will appear and offer to show you what to do. It’s possible to let the game play out for even to the point of collecting the star although any stars gained in such a manner will be an unattractive brown colour and a constant reminder that you didn’t get it yourself although it is possible to try again and earn the proper gold coloured star. This controversial feature has led to purists claiming it makes the game too easy but it is entirely optional and gives less able players a better chance of seeing the end credits. The reward for collecting all 120 stars is the best the series has ever produced and needless to say the game is huge and will keep you going for an extremely long time.
But as I said this is not a superior sequel. In fact it’s about shoulder to shoulder with its older brother but if I had to pick one I would go for the original. The reason for this is a question of heart. I understand why Nintendo brought in the map screen concept but I have to confess that I miss the Comet Observatory from the first game. The hub of Super Mario Galaxy was a much larger world than Starship Mario and although there was nothing really to do there it was a delight to return to again and again. The mysterious and somehow serene observatory, populated by adorable Lumas, and, of course, Princess Rosalina, floating through the soothing darkness of starlit space was an extremely pretty base for accessing galaxies that grounded the game in a satisfyingly homely way. It felt like the most wonderful haven and a nice change of pace from the frantic platforming, not to mention serving as the venue for the melancholy story Rosalina reads to the lumas but most important was the absolutely enchanting music. Nothing equivalent appears in the sequel. It might seem like a minor point and no doubt many will prefer the speedier setup and the Comet Observatory doesn’t have the sense of mystery about Princess Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64 but for me the absence of such a wonderful hub world lessens the soul of the sequel somewhat. The efficient, lightning fast service the map screen offers seems strangely impersonal and does nothing for immersion.
This is somehow a slight problem throughout the game. Perhaps it’s because it came first but Super Mario Galaxy just feels better, more immersive, more rounded and more heartfelt and that really is the only difference between the two games. The sequel, to its credit, improves on many areas of the first but it doesn’t quite do enough to surpass it. What it does it does so well that on first view it might seem that it is the better of the two but examining it over time makes it apparent otherwise. But this is all a rather unimportant matter of comparison that doesn’t change the fact that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is an absolutely superlative platformer, the latest in the series’ proud tradition and one of the two best games available for the Nintendo Wii.
Presentation – 10
Design – 9
Gameplay – 10
Graphics – 10
Sound – 10
Difficulty – 8
Longevity – 9
The same brilliance of the first game with a million and one new ideas. More of the same is not always a bad thing and this is so much more than that. Another top drawer title for the most recognisable character in video games.