More than the pinnacle of Nintendo’s remarkable creative output, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is gaming at its purest and most polished state
Handling the development of a sequel is invariably a double-edged sword. Sure, repeating the commercial and critical success of the original can be a given since developers have a very solid base on which they can build a new adventure, but there is always the looming chance that a second effort will lack the heart of the first one, or perhaps feel like an unnecessary extension of the ordeals of the prequel.
There are many factors and risks that can negatively affect the quality of a game of that kind – repetition probably being the biggest one of those variables, and stakes become even higher when the sequel in question follows a highly regarded software that set all technical and abstract standards for a system.
In the case here, that original, and seemingly unreachable, title is Super Mario Galaxy, and the bar it set during the Wii’s early years was placed so ridiculously high in every possible quantifiable and uncountable criteria of gaming quality that it had yet to be barely grazed by any other title, even a few years later.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the sequel, and it somehow surpasses the technical achievements of its older brother. More importantly than that, though, on its way to technical prowess, it makes sure that the challenges it provides are also much more entertaining and engaging than those of its predecessor. What seemed like a nigh impossible task is, then, so smoothly handled that the outcome could be no other than the very best game Nintendo has ever constructed.
On the nearly thirty years of adventures that preceded the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2, the plumber’s games have been constantly delightful regardless of their shallow storylines. In fact, such seemingly unmovable characteristic has grown to be so unique in an era of increasingly cinematic gaming experiences that, by now, it is considered to be a positive aspect of the series rather than a recurring flaw.
Therefore, Nintendo didn’t feel compelled to take things to another level on this department; their call was to stick with the basics. Once again, Mario is invited by Peach to drop by her castle and eat a piece of cake. Upon arrival, the plumber is faced with a giant Bowser wrecking havoc through a thorn kingdom. Reasoning takes a backseat to sheer spectacle when, without any reason or explanation whatsoever, Bowser departs towards outer space carrying Peach in his arms. The hero naturally gives chase and ends up finding himself on a beautiful spaceship that will carry him on outer-space adventures.
From the get go, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is willing to show its dynamic nature. Here, as if the game is aware its gameplay is so utterly fantastic that players will be filled with anxiety to just get to kicking some intergalactic Koopa butts, instead of just watching, gamers are constantly given control. The gist of the plot, for example, is quickly told via a wonderful storybook where Mario goes through the pages with the aid of the player. If games are interactive entertainment, Mario certainly knows what to do.
That optimization is everywhere. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is streamlined to the brim so that lulls on the fun are brought down to a minimum. On the prequel, Mario had to go through an overworld every time he felt like traveling through space and collecting a star. This time around, things have been greatly simplified, hence making gameplay much more fluid.
The old-school overworld maps born in Super Mario Bros. 3 make a glorious return. Galaxies are displayed on the screen like the levels of the traditional 2-D Mario games and all players need to do is control their spaceship through the map and decide what the next stop of their spatial odyssey will be. The world maps are designed in a way that, at some moments in the game, Mario will have a wide array of galaxies and stars to choose from, allowing each gamer to take on the game at their own pace, instead of having to follow one stiff path.
Spaceship Mario, which looks exactly as the name implies, isn’t as engaging as some of the franchises’ past overworlds. In fact, it is more of a humble planetoid-like home base than a hub. However, the no-frills all-fun gameplay rhythm that is created due to this change matches the nature of the series so perfectly that it is hard to file any complaints. Stepping on the gas pedal to tackle the next challenge is far more practical than walking around Rosalina’s gorgeous observatory.
The biggest achievement of Super Mario Galaxy 2 – and the greatest reason why it is better than its prequel – is the game’s uncanny ability to never touch on the same ground more than once during its thirty-hour adventure. On each one of the game’s fifty galaxies, developers will throw a new and unexpected challenge on the screen and then proceed to explore it from its simplest twists to its smartest and toughest turns.
The sheer variety of mechanics that were crafted for the title is so impressive that reactions rooted in their originality will range from astonishment to laughter. At one point, Mario will be carried by a bird while controlling its movements with the Wiimote’s capabilities; five minutes later, the plumber may find himself sliding through an enormous tree avoiding pitfalls and enemies at mind-blowing speeds.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 holds so many varied and diverging styles under the same umbrella that it feels like a collection of different titles that are all thematically connected by two central themes: gravity and the wonders of strangely-shaped planetoids.
One of the main supports that allows such creative level design to materialize are the power-ups. With the aid of those amusing items, Mario is able to gain a variety of abilities that unlock new possibilities of platforming gameplay. Aside from the returning items, such as the Bee Suit, Boo Suit, and the always useful Fire Flower, Mario can now create cloud platforms at will by using the Spin Jump in conjunction with the Cloud Suit, transform into an unstoppable rolling rock, or use a drill to dig his way to the opposite face of sandy planets.
As if all of those weren’t enough, Yoshi makes a return. Saying this is the green dinosaur’s most significant appearance in a 3-D Mario game would be understating his importance in Super Mario Galaxy 2 given that his only other tridimensional outing had been on Super Mario Sunshine. However, make no mistake, his presence here is frequent and invariably valuable.
Gaming’s most iconic sidekick is a blast to control. Aiming his tongue properly in a 3-D environment could be a frustrating activity, but thanks to the Wiimote’s biggest feature – its very precise pointer – all players need to do is guide the red dot on the screen to items, enemies, platforms, or ledges and press the B-button. It is fun, impossibly accurate, and effective.
Additionally, making the amount of gameplay possibilities even more absurd, Yoshi himself can also make use of some power-ups: the thrilling Dash Pepper, which will send the dinosaur into a fast and furious rush that will allow him to both run on water and go up slopes that would be otherwise impossible to navigate; the Blimp Fruit, which will make him inflate like a balloon; and the fantastic Bulb Berry, which – by turning Yoshi into a source of light – is used to great effects on dark stages or in the unveiling of invisible platforms.
Power-ups and overworld navigation are not the only areas where Super Mario Galaxy 2 is different from its predecessor. The original game featured a blend of open-world levels, heavily inspired on the standards set by Super Mario 64, and some linear galaxies that were more aligned with Super Mario Galaxy’s own characteristics.
This time around, the game goes completely linear as, among the fifty galaxies available, only two of them feature a certain degree of exploration. Some may look at that fact in a negative light, but the first game was at its best when Nintendo went totally crazy with the gravity mechanics of smaller planetoids, which were featured exclusively on linear levels.
Therefore, in the end, such radical change only makes things better, for it gives much more room for designers to let their creativity go wild without being stuck to a level structure that is dated back to 1996. Moreover, such linearity makes all stars contained within a galaxy rather unique. Although they will share the same starting hub, the path taken to reach each one of them will branch out in different ways, making every star feel and play like a galaxy of its own.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 also improves on some of the small issues of its prequel. First of all, the difficulty has been turned up; losing a life now is much more common than it was on the original, even on the game’s initial levels. However, the constant dying never becomes frustrating; Nintendo placed a good number of checkpoints in each level and those points are usually located near critical sections.
Any frustration is further diminished by the fact the game is very kind in the appearance of 1-up mushrooms. It is true that it is a decision that debases the once cherished item, but such abundance is actually a user-friendly way of reducing the chances a player loses all of their lives and, consequently, all of their progress inside a level just because they have made tiny mistakes.
Thus, deaths are regular events, but Game Over screens and lost of progress are an extremely rare sight. Given that replaying portions of levels that have already been mastered just to get to a tough sequence that spelled the plumber’s doom is not a lot of fun, that design choice comes off as yet another optimization made by the game.
The second improvement is on the automatic camera. What was a sometimes erratic feature on the original is now nearly perfect as the game will always provide players with the best-possible view of the scenario they could ask for. The absence of wide-open levels was certainly helpful in that regard.
Perhaps inspired by the impressive success of New Super Mario Bros, Nintendo packed Super Mario Galaxy 2 with many side-scrolling sections. Not only are they a wonderful blast from the past, but they also add up to the many design possibilities allowed by the features of the game. Even though they are certainly simpler, the 2-D sections are as creative as their tridimensional counterparts since they make great use of the game’s many mechanics while being totally original in their execution. They provide a nice change of pace for the extremely long adventure contained within Super Mario Galaxy 2.
The game also implements some nice solutions introduced by Mario’s 2-D rebirth, such as a new version of the Super Guide that will show inexperienced players how to go through the hardest sections of the game, aiding those who have died way too many times for their own good.
As a prize to players who acquired 120 stars, the original Super Mario Galaxy gave those people the opportunity to play through the same levels again as Luigi; now the prize for apparently completing the game is much more compelling as Super Mario Galaxy 2 features a whopping total of 242 stars, 120 of which are only unlocked after players complete the first half of the game.
The final 120 stars are hidden through the game’s many galaxies, and finding them is a matter of careful exploration that often requires extreme jumps and insane skills. If going through the first batch of stars didn’t seem like a hard challenge, then the final half of the game will make even the most skilled players bow before the difficulty.
Technically speaking, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is slightly superior to the original. The game clearly uses the same engine, but improvements have been made here and there to make this game the better-looking of the two. Animations have been clearly improved, some effects are absolutely mesmerizing, and boss battles showcase the hidden potential of the system’s hardware. Artistically, the colors and themes of the many galaxies within the game are as creative and stunning as their design.
On the musical front, the game recycles some of the best songs composed for the original while adding some orchestrated masterpieces of its own, the quality of the new tunes is certainly on par with the breathtaking scores of Super Mario Galaxy and they turn an already impressive game into an unforgettable adventure.
More than the pinnacle of Nintendo’s remarkable creative output, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is gaming at its purest and most polished state. As if it were made inside an hermetically sealed chamber, it is devoid of impurities that sometimes find their way into development due to human error. It trumps its prequel not by trying to reinvent it, but by acknowledging its flaws and erasing them, and identifying its qualities and exploring them to their full potential. It is unimaginable that a game could encompass as many disparaging ideas and drive them straight to perfection, but Super Mario Galaxy 2 does it.