There are few games with as much charm, nostalgia, and mass appeal as those in the Super Mario series. Over the course of nearly thirty years, the mustachioed Italian plumber with a penchant for pipes and princesses has become permanently ingrained in pop culture. With so many spin-offs spanning nearly every gaming genre, it’s sometimes hard to believe that there is rarely a generation with more than one or two new games in the main Super Mario series. In recent years, however, gamers have been treated to the revival of the 2D Mario platformer, and a 3D galactic adventure that may just be the best game of its kind. Released a mere two and a half years after its predecessor, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is sure to be one of Nintendo’s biggest hits this year. This is no simple cash-in, however, as the developers have taken the winning formula from Super Mario Galaxy and expanded it into a game with plenty of variety, fantastic level design, and an increased level of difficulty.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 begins almost exactly as the first game did: during the ethereal Star Festival, which should be a time of celebration, Princess Peach is kidnapped by an enraged Bowser, who takes her to the farthest reaches of the universe. After pairing up with his old star friend Luma, who gives him the ability to spin, Mario sets off on his quest to retrieve his love. However, once aboard the game’s new spacecraft, the changes are immediately visible. Instead of a massive ship, the interplanetary vehicle is more like a planet-sized hub, which just happens to be in the shape of Mario’s head. As Mario discovers power-ups and abilities within the game’s many levels, they will appear on the ship, able to be used while exploring Starship Mario. Instead of accessing every area through the ship, taking the helm will reveal a map not unlike that of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. This makes it quick and simple to move from area to area, which is necessary in the collection of power stars.
Other additions to this sequel become apparent early in the game, starting with Mario’s reunion with Yoshi. The hungry dinosaur may have been the most obvious omission from Super Mario Galaxy, and the first footage of the game showing Yoshi thrilled the gaming industry at E3 2009. With Yoshi comes his own set of special abilities and power-ups, such as a hot pepper that causes him to briefly dash at high speeds, or a balloon that allows him to float until he runs out of air. As expected, Yoshi can also eat just about anything, including most enemies. Some areas can only be accessed with Yoshi’s help, and his inclusion is a big step in helping Super Mario Galaxy 2 improve upon its predecessor.
Yoshi isn’t the only one with special powers, of course. Many of Mario’s quirky power-ups from the first game, such as the Bee Suit and Boo Suit, return in Super Mario Galaxy 2, but there are some new abilities as well. A drill allows Mario to plow through dirt and come out on the other side of the planet; the Cloud Suit makes him able to create three cloud platforms by spinning in midair; and the Rock Suit turns him into a spinning boulder, taking out anything in his path. Mario isn’t the only one who gets to use these new toys, though; Luigi is playable in certain levels, and completing a level with the taller brother unlocks a “ghost”, or a speed run that players can attempt to beat.
As far as gameplay, Super Mario Galaxy 2 feels largely the same as Super Mario Galaxy. Using the combination of remote and nunchuk, the thumbstick is used to move Mario or Luigi, the A button jumps, and flicking the remote activates the spin ability. The Z button can be used to ground pound, while the C button is supposed to change the camera angle, though this doesn’t always work. Improved camera control would have been a big help during certain levels, and I sometimes found myself frustrated by the camera. This wasn’t often an issue, though. Controls could be a little imprecise at times, particularly during some 3D segments, and the use of both 3D and 2D levels really highlights the fact that 3D controls are never quite as accurate as those in two dimensions. However, there was never a time when control issues hindered gameplay enough that the level could not be completed, and it’s a worthy tradeoff for the uniquely crafted three-dimensional environments.
Though the gameplay hasn’t changed, Super Mario Galaxy 2 features seven brand new worlds filled with wonderfully designed levels. Six worlds are available in the main game, with the seventh being activated after the final boss fight. Completing a level grants Mario a power star, and most galaxies have multiple stars that can be acquired by uncovering secret areas or completing mini-game challenges. Only 70 power stars are needed to progress to the final area, but an additional 50 regular power stars can be uncovered, and most of those are needed to progress through the seventh world. The numerous levels are full of variety, and almost all of them are a treat to complete. Once again, gravity is used in several different ways, meaning that Mario may find himself walking on the ceiling or jumping from planet to planet. The developers also mixed in some more traditional 2D gameplay, which is always appreciated, even in a largely 3D game. Underwater levels, which are more hurt than helped by 3D gameplay, can still be frustrating and tedious to navigate, but not so much that they will deter most gamers from attempting to get all of an area’s stars. There is a significant amount of replay value in Super Mario Galaxy 2, and many gamers will likely want to keep playing even after the last story level has been completed.
Also adding length to the game is the heightened difficulty, which becomes noticeable fairly early. The levels appear to have been designed with platforming veterans in mind, which should be very much appreciated by those who have been playing Super Mario games for years, or even decades. To counterbalance the difficulty and also appease newer or younger fans, the developers have included a couple of ways to make the game a little easier. The “Super Guide” feature from New Super Mario Bros. Wii returns in SMG2, and offers gameplay videos showing gamers what to do during particularly tricky segments. The Guides are optional to watch, so more experienced gamers won’t have to waste any time with unnecessary tutorials. Additionally, after losing a number of lives during the same section of a level, a Cosmic Spirit (who looks suspiciously like Rosalina from Super Mario Galaxy) arrives to complete it for the player. The rewards for using this “Cosmic Guide” are reduced, but this implementation makes it possible for anyone to advance, despite the increase in difficulty.
Super Mario Galaxy was one of the best-looking games on the Wii when it came out, so it should come as no surprise that the sequel looks similarly fantastic. It’s not a huge leap forward in terms of graphical prowess, but the level variety really gives the visuals a chance to shine with dozens of different designs. Fields of ice, pools of lava, sandy deserts, and the far reaches of space all look colorful and vibrant. The wonderful score, which manages to be both fresh and nostalgia inducing, heightens every minute of gameplay, and Charles Martinet’s distinctive Mario voice is as welcome as ever. The presentation may be everything gamers would expect from a game in the Super Mario series, but that doesn’t mean it’s not wonderful to experience.
Unlike Super Mario Galaxy, SMG2 doesn’t push the platforming genre forward in new ways, but it does just enough to expand on the first game that it’s well worth the experience. After all, it is a sequel and not a new series, and the developers have clearly crafted this new universe with plenty of love and attention to detail. It’s a blast to play from beginning to end, with plenty to do long after the game is completed. There is so little to complain about, and the few flaws barely detract from the experience. Though it may not be too different from its predecessor, following up a fantastic game with a fantastic game is an immense achievement. Once again, the Super Mario series has managed to deliver some of the most fun, enjoyable, and unique gameplay of the year, and should not be missed.