Everyone’s favorite semi-obese, mustachioed, clog-clearing Italian is back in a franchise that has been largely sequel free (both Super Mario Brothers 2 and 3 were more re-imaginations than sequels). Super Mario Galaxy 2 is just that–a sequel to its 2007 predecessor–and like Star Wars, Spider-Man or The Godfather, the sequel perfects what was so good about the original.
Nintendo’s Big Changes
From the very beginning of Super Mario Galaxy 2, we can sense that Nintendo has done a fair amount of research on what the players wanted in the sequel. The game is now a story wrapped inside a tutorial and instead of the beginning level being like the start of Super Mario Galaxy where Mario did a little planet-hopping, SMG 2 starts with side-scrolling action and an homage to the first Super Mario Brothers, aimed at new players who had come from playing New Super Mario Brothers Wii.
Now, Mario travels through the Mushroom Kingdom to find that Bowser is back and about fifty times larger than he was before. Of course, Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach again (we are never told Bowser’s motives in these games) and Mario is left alone with no recourse. That doesn’t last long however, when a friendly Luma (baby stars from SMG 1) named Lubba comes to Mario’s aid. Like the first game, Mario stays onboard a spaceship of sorts (in SMG 1, it was a space station that doubled as a ship), but this time, the ship is not synonymous with the level map. Rather, it is a fun little playground in which Mario can practice or just run around with an increasing amount of items and characters that become accessible when certain levels are beaten. The big change here is that to access the levels, Mario only needs go up to the wheel that controls the spaceship (which is, incidentally, a gigantic Mario head). When he goes to the wheel, a SMB3/SMW/NSMBW level map opens up, making it much easier to move between levels and worlds and this really comes in handy.
Like its predecessor, Super Mario Galaxy 2’s levels are dispersed among six different worlds, each having a number of galaxies. Each galaxy has multiple stars to get (120 in total, as first pioneered by Mario 64), but unlike the first game where some levels had up to seven stars, there are none here that have more than four. That means more levels than the first game and more happiness for the players. In fact, SMG 2 has fifty distinct galaxies whereas SMG 1 had about 40. This is especially of note since the number of levels here is one of the most essential elements of the game, being that Mario remains a platformer and only a platformer. It is therefore amazing how a game this good can give the same feeling of satisfaction as a playthrough of Mass Effect.
Right off the bat, the first real level you play (a scattered series of suburban lawn-like platforms with white fences and all) shows how little if at all Nintendo tweaked the engine. Mario plays and feels the same as he did in the SMG 1 where the controls were already perfect. Mario has a gigantic number of moves (almost all jumps, of course), yet they are so intuitive that you can’t but help to think that you are basically controlling him with one button. Because this game is a sequel, Nintendo didn’t have to waste time trying to re-imagine, reinvent, or reboot Mario. They just had to fix what didn’t work (very little) and expand upon what did work (basically everything).
Secondly, the game’s design is the same as the first. It introduces you to a concept until you have mastered it early on, then later returns to that same concept but with added challenge and twists. It teaches you almost as if every level is a test. The puzzles aren’t overt, they’re hidden. The game will tell you to try spinning while jumping. Then, the next level will contain jumps that can only be accessed by spinning and jumping. Yet the game never tells you exactly what it wants you to do, unless, of course, you get very stuck. The different levels in Mario Galaxy 2 are legitimately different. Sure, you’re always Mario (or Luigi) and sure, you almost always have the same moves, but each level is so different that some could be entire games unto themselves. But more on that later.
Differences Between SMG 1 and SMG 2
So, if so much is the same, let’s talk about what’s different. Again, the World Map is back and more helpful than ever. What’s more is that one does not need to get all 120 stars to play as Luigi. In fact, many levels are readily playable with Luigi, and you are given the option at the beginning of the level. Once you beat the game, you can play as Luigi for any level you’d like, but you keep the same stars and stats.
The first noticeable difference is probably the most talked about one: Yoshi. And you do not have to wait long for that sweet Yoshi action. You get him in the second galaxy. As soon as you hop on the adorable dinosaur’s back, you immediately have that same feeling of adventure and wonder as you did when you first mounted Yoshi in Super Mario World. Yoshi controls gracefully, as delicately as his Super Smash Bros. character. He’s quick, he has a long “double jump,” and his tongue is activated by pointing the cursor at any enemy you’d like. Enemies that Yoshi eats are generally turned into star bits, except for some with hard shells that Yoshi can spit back out, again aiming with the cursor. Although to a first time player this may seem daunting, it’s rather easy to learn, and for the veteran who has already collected metric tons of star bits, it’s not just intuitive, it’s the only way it could be. Like any other game with Yoshi, you don’t get the option to play with him in every level, but you do for about a quarter of the all the stars, and in the end, it’s just enough.
2. Yoshi’s Abilities
In other Super Marios, there were colored Yoshis that had different abilities and SMG 2 is no different with the exception that it adds a new twist to what Yoshi can do. Yoshi has three abilities that he gains by eating certain fruit. The first is a hot pepper that Yoshi eats and then tears off at an alarming speed. All you can do to control him during this time is to turn him and wait for it to wear off. The second is a blue fruit that, when eaten, inflates Yoshi so that he rises for a set time. Again, you can steer him, but here you can make him hold his breath in order to make small adjustments to his course. The third and final fruit is a yellow bulb that lets Yoshi illuminate platforms that are otherwise invisible and intangible. Thus, only when Yoshi has eaten the fruit can he stand on or see these platforms. Even if you know where the platforms are, if you try to jump to one without using the fruit, you will fall to your demise. But here’s what makes the game great–these items aren’t just scattered about every level. No, there are entire levels designed around each item. For instance, the hot pepper level is a series of long platforms and walls like a long racecourse that Yoshi can zip down. Furthermore, while he is running up a wall, it is not the gravity that keeps him there, but sheer speed. As an example, if Yoshi hits an obstacle on said wall, he will fall down the wall, forcing you to go back to the beginning where the red pepper was found. Finally, as was pioneered in SMG 1, each of these attributes has a time limit. So, if Yoshi’s platform-finding light is starting to fade, you must find another yellow bulb in order to re-illuminate it.
3. Drill Costume
Of course Yoshi isn’t the only new addition to Mario’s arsenal. Mario’s first new weapon is the drill “costume.” It’s not so much a costume as it is a giant drill that Mario picks up and holds over his head. While holding it, he is confined to regular jumps only. However, one shake of the controller will sent Mario drilling through whatever surface he is on until he reaches the other side. Granted, the surface must be dirt–he can’t just drill willy-nilly– because the game makes use of making Mario find the correct spots to drill. Drilling may seem simple enough, but it can allow for some weird level design. Imagine Mario is on a planet that has two sides, the top and bottom, where gravity is reversed on each. On one side is a gigantic dirt pillar upon which there sits some sort of object of Mario’s desire. There’s no feasible way of reaching this object until you realize that you can drill through the planet, find the corresponding patch of dirt for gigantic pillar, and drill again through that so that Mario pops out on top of this unreachable platform. This is a simple explanation. Imagine a series of these connected pillars, such that each one allows you access to drill to the next one in a specific order. Again, as for Yoshi, the levels with drills are designed around using the drill effectively and inventively.
4. Cloud Costume
Mario’s second new weapon is the cloud costume. Like the bee costume from SMG 1, the cloud costume allows Mario to walk on cloud platforms. It also allows Mario to create up to three cloud platforms underneath him by flicking the Wiimote. This, combined with well-timed jumps, gives Mario more freedom of exploration than he has ever had before, with the exception of the red star from SMG 1 that allows him to fly. The cloud costume is probably the most used costume in Super Mario Galaxy 2, and for good reason: it is the most versatile. Not only can Mario jump on clouds and create platforms, but in the costume, he is lighter and can jump and remain in the air for longer. Also, the cloud platforms respond to air currents, so Mario can in effect create his own moving platform which can both help or hinder the player. And, because Mario can replenish his platform supply by finding another cloud flower, there are levels where Mario must travel from flower to flower, and at least one boss where Mario, in order to defeat it, must jump from cloud to cloud high above the ground to avoid projectile and other obstacles.
5. Rock Costume
The final costume for Mario is the boulder/rock costume. This allows Mario, again with a flick of the controller (the games wonderful control scheme involves only three buttons, an analog stick, and the controller flick that allows Mario to spin or use any special attack), to roll into a boulder and bowl over any enemy that’s in front of him. When he’s going, he can only hop and control himself directionally. Sure, this idea has been around since the days of Marble Madness, but the way its used here is ingenious. One level that features the rock costume is a series of tricked-out bowling lanes with terrified looking pins that Mario must knock over in order to get enough points for the star.
6. Blasts from the Past
Nintendo threw in some of the old costumes as well, including the bee costume and the fire flower costume. But again, this being SMG 2 and the developers being who they are, these costumes are used in wholly different ways, or at least, in different contexts. For instance, instead of an ice level, there is a snow level in SMG 2, and the fire flower is the primary tool for Mario to use here. It is used for one purpose only, to destroy gigantic snow statues of Bowser and Goombas. You won’t find any torches to light. In other parts of the game, the fire flower is used to destroy a room full of boxes under a strict time limit, the same way bombs were used to destroy trash in SMG 1.
Let’s talk about more things that were brought back from SMG 1. Besides the items already mentioned, there are many references to the first game. Rosalina, the woman who ran the space station in the first one, is back to help you out for levels that you may have gotten stuck on by basically playing the level for you. The rolling ball that is controlled by the controllers motion is back as well, although this time the levels are more forgiving and fun to play. In SMG 1, you could ride a manta ray around a suspended course of winding water. The levels involving the manta ray were hard to play and usually resulted in many deaths just by veering off course. In SMG 2, this is replaced by a bird that you can take control of which flies through a beautifully rendered forest and later around the surface of an enormous rocket ship. These levels are so much more fun that the torturous manta ray levels that this reviewer felt ashamed for ever thinking the idea of controlling Mario with simple motion to be blatant pandering toward the Wii controls. No, the new motion control levels are a revelation and are fun to play instead of tedious.
Another thing that has returned is the challenge. To many, Mario is a casual game for casual game players, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, every level at first seems easy and straight forward, but some of the hidden stars are downright nasty to obtain, and when you start getting comets (in this game, comets are gained by finding secret comet coins in every level, much like New Super Mario Bros Wii), which were also in the first game, you begin to face levels that are close to impossible. Comets in the first game had four varieties: speed, speed with a clone, low health, and purple coins. Now, each comet is specific to that level. So while speed is still there, and clones (changed in this game so that they follow your path and hurt you if they catch up) are as well, some comet levels are just wholly different entities, like a competition to score a certain amount of points by jumping on consecutive enemies, etc. The level of challenge that these comets bring up this from a casual game to an insanely hardcore one that even the best Modern Warfare 2 veterans will have trouble with. SMG 2 will prove a hard game to beat. However, for completionists, it’s more like a game that will force you to send your Wiimote flying through your television, and not just because you weren’t wearing the strap.
One of the best parts of Super Mario Galaxy 1 is back: ice-skating. And in SMG 2, you’ll get to ice-skate to your heart’s content. In fact, you’ll even have a boss to fight while ice-skating. Again, the mechanics behind controlling the skating Mario are so intuitive and fun, you’ll wonder why they hadn’t thought of this wonderful concept before SMG 1.
Finally, level design should be discussed, as it is what is most important about this game. Super Mario Galaxy 2 heightens the playful relationship between Mario and gravity in many brilliant ways. One aspect of the physics SMG 2 uses that was only hinted at in the first is the idea of wrapping two dimensions around three. To visualize this, imagine an ant on a flat surface. The ant can only walk infinitely forward and back or infinitely left and right. So it is effectively in two dimensions. Now put that ant on a thick wire. The ant still moves front/back and left/right, but it can only move infinitely in one of those directions. In the other direction, it is bounded by the perimeter of the wire. There are levels in SMG 2 that are exactly this. In fact, this is the case in the very first galaxy you will play where Mario is side-scrolled around a tube. This is different from Mario being on a large three-dimensional cylinder, because there he has movement in all three dimensions. If there is a pit in this part of the level, Mario can fall forever, continually wrapping around the tube. This type of playing with physics is a perfect example of why Miyamoto and the Mario team aren’t just arguably the best level designers on the planet, they are artists.
Beyond what was already discussed, SMG 2 takes the seeds planted in SMG 1 and grows them into tall trees of beautiful levels.
Beyond what was already mentioned is our other senses, Mario, although only using the Wii’s 480i maximum resolution, is beautiful. By using a cartoonish color scheme and characters, SMG 2 doesn’t need to be realistic in visual design. But what it is instead, is vibrant and alive. Every color pops out from the screen, every texture is recognizeable, every enemy is well designed, every boss is challenging (and cute), and every one of Mario’s movements is fluid and graceful. The rousing score, composed by a real orchestra is back as well, even though that for me it wasn’t as good as SMG 1. However, for what the score lacks in innovation (and this is not to say that many of the themes aren’t good; they are), it makes up for in nostalgia. Expect to hear both Yoshi’s theme, the Isle Delfino theme, and two themes from Mario 64, all updated. Finally, and this may sound weird coming from a Mario game, but the dialog is, well, funny. Like, actually funny. Lubba, your Luma guide has a cynical and patronizing sense of humor, and makes incessant fun of our hero. Bowser is as angry about Mario thwarting him as he is about missing out on the last piece of cake. Lumas who guide you through levels yell at you to hurry up or apologize to you when they fall behind. Sure, it’s not Mass Effect, but it’s unexpected to find a good idiomatically English Mario game that could actually make people giggle.
So is Super Mario Galaxy 2 as good as everyone says it is? The answer is no. It’s better.
There is literally nothing I can say that is bad about this game. Sure, there are some short-comings in the music, and some rehashing from the first Super Mario Galaxy, but you can’t blame Nintendo for bringing back what the fans wanted. And surely, when they do repeat it, they put enough of a spin on it to make it new again. Super Mario Galaxy 2 isn’t just the best game that has ever come out for the Wii, it is one of the best games ever made. Period. It revolutionizes what people think of when they think of platformers or Mario himself, or what they think of when they think of what a video game is.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a joy to play. Even at your most frustrated, you’ll be too inspired to try a level again than to turn off the Wii. This game has the ultimate replay value: fun. It’s just so damn fun that you want to play it again and again, and you will, and not just to get all the stars and the groovy secret you get from that.
If you don’t have a Wii, this game is good enough to buy one. Of course, you should get SMG 1 as well if you’re going to do that. Not only is it one of the best games ever made, it’s one of the best game-playing experiences you will have. It shouldn’t be a surprise that from us, Mario gets a perfect score because, even though it is slightly imperfect, it is so far and above everything else in its genre that to give it any less than five stars would be insulting. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a couple more stars to get.