It is the year 2007, and fall is entering its final stages. The Wii had made its enormous impact on the video game market. Thanks to its state-of-the-art motion control, the ability to download old games, and the appeal of the simple yet party favorite Wii Sports, it became clear that for the first time in over ten years, Nintendo had once again taken the top spot.
Not everyone was happy with their success, however. There was a gradual, yet slowly rising discord that accused their once-beloved company of abandoning their gamers, what with the advent of what became known as "casual games". Third parties immediately realized the huge cash potential in the new console, and pumped out low-quality trash game after trash for the system that were eventually dubbed as "shovelware". Many devout followers grew jaded, whether it was screaming and moaning because they weren't getting what they wanted in the upcoming mega hit Super Smash Bros. Brawl or confiding in the ever-prominent notion that, once again, their latest console was undeniable proof that Nintendo was not up-to-date with the times (as in, the console was much, much less powerful then it's Xbox/Playstation counterparts and had ported over the "faulty" friend code Wi-Fi system that the DS provided).
This reviewer was one of those gamers, although for different reasons. I actually had reasonable expectations for Brawl and ended up tremendously satisfied, and I really don't care if the Wii isn't up to standards. It's the games that count. And yet, I wasn't happy. Perhaps it was due to real-life issues at the time (Try having to adjust to reconstructive foot surgery for about seven months), but I was not impressed with what was being offered to gamers this year. The latest entry in the goofy Wario Ware series, despite its absolutely ingenious controls, did not last thanks to its lack of features. Metroid Prime 3 failed to capture the haunting beauty the original Prime was so well-known for, and I still shocked to see that the Mario sports games and Pokemon spinoffs were just as bland and uninteresting as they were on the Gamecube.
Weren't we supposed to be experiencing a revolution?
It was for this reason that Super Mario Galaxy, released on November 12th, 2007, fell short of whatever expectations of what I had for. While the game was gorgeous in its own right, it didn't have the same sense of "new" Super Mario Sunshine had provided years earlier. The linearity of the levels was also a huge turnoff for me, and I longed for the wide-open territories of Super Mario 64. I could not obtain the same magic, the same joy everyone else had captured while playing this new game, and in my eyes, it quickly became forgotten.
A year later I gave it a second chance, and I quickly realized my error. I was thoroughly sucked into its spell and fell in love with not just its out-of-this-world absurdity and gorgeous soundtrack, but its wonderful use of the space setting. I honestly hadn't spent much time with Mario in the years beforehand, and this game reminded me why I fell in love with his games in the first place. It was as if my first playthrough never happened, and the game quickly became one of my favorites of all time. And the greatest birthday present I've ever received.
When the sequel was announced at last year's E3, my mouth dropped to the floor at the plethora of new features they had added. I had thought they had reached their limit with the first Galaxy, and I waited with contained excitement as to see what Nintendo could do with what was essentially the perfect game of this generation.
It's finally come out, and I've been playing it for the past month and a half.
I'm still not done playing it.
In a surprising twist, this sequel does not pick up where the original left off. Rather, it's a retelling. And it begins in what is the most charming opening sequence I've seen in a game in quite some time.
Via a "storybook" motif, we learn that Mario is heading out to the Star Festival, a momentous occasion in which shooting stardust graces the presence of the Mushroom Kingdom, and is heading to the castle to share some cake with, who else, Princess Peach. This all happens when you're controlling Mario in a fashion not unlike Super Mario Bros. We scamper by ecstatic Toads attempting to catch the stars known as Star Bits, and even the Question Mark blocks and warp pipes of old dot the landscape.
Along the way, Mario stumbles across a baby Luma, a living species of stars from the previous game, who takes an instant shine to the plumber and makes his home underneath his trademark cap. Of course, it's not long before an absolutely gargantuan Bowser crashes the party, and whisks away with Princess Peach into the galaxies. Nearby Lumas, who were caught up in the destruction, witness the event and provide Mario with a Launch Star to give chase.
And so another adventure begins.
Here's a video of the whole scene below:
As I've said in an earlier entry, there's no need to focus on a story in a Mario game. The meat and the potatoes are the gameplay, and I don't need to tell you how rich it is.
If you've played the original Super Mario Galaxy, you'll know what to expect here. Nintendo has poured every ounce of their creative, magical energy into these two games, and you can tell they kept their best ideas in reserve for this. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that they already had the necessary tools: the same game engine/developmental team and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto.
Super Mario Galaxy 2, like it's earlier 3D predecessors, is constructed from the Super Mario 64 blueprint: You enter a world (or in this case, galaxy) and accomplish the goal set for you to earn a Power Star. These can range from the elementary, such as grabbing the silver shards of said star, to the grueling, which 90% of the time involves some sort of timed event/unusual control scheme/excruciatingly hard platforming.
If you haven't played a Galaxy game before, let me be the first to say that this game is a roller coaster. There is nothing that can match the thrilling sensation of being launched via launch star into a guided destination. Just like in the first game, you will want to keep moving constantly to discover and relish the wondrous marvels Nintendo has provided. Gravity defying jumps. Innovative takes on familiar level stereotypes. Treading on everyday appliances. Invading battleships. All of this is commonplace in Mario Galaxy. You really get the hunch that you're playing something out of a Disney film.
So how could you repeat this creativity in a sequel and make it feel new, let alone improve on it?
Nintendo couldn't get away with just replicating the same old design of Super Mario Galaxy and place it on store shelves, so they've readjusted their direction. Super Mario Galaxy had several sets of levels that usually delved into space or took a creative spin on the typical platforming level (more on this later), but occasionally there would be the mind-blowing, brilliant anomaly such as Gusty Garden or Buoy Base, and I always found those to leave the biggest impression.
To my complete surprise, just about every level in this sequel is an expansion on that basis. Ever expected to run into an isolated cove in space? How about trekking Indiana Jones style, jumping over spikes and sneaking past giant boulders (or rather, millstones)? What about flipping in and out of a courtyard/kitchen area? Or guiding a giant Golden Chain Chomp to its doom in order to extract a Power Star?
Maybe you'll come across a familiar objective or two, but it's always spiced up a bit to forge it's own identity. Remember those annoying Star Balls you had to ride on? They're back, but this time you'll find yourself rolling around in a galaxy based on art, and there's traversing to be done on colored pencils and color palettes. Oh, and you'll also be accelerating down Rainbow Road (hello, Mario Kart!) with the assistance of near impossible controls, so gather up those 1-up mushrooms.
They weren't a slouch when it came to the tiny details as well, and I think this creates the ultimate contrast between the two games. For example, those stretchy Pull Stars, a once ubiquitous asset, rarely make an appearance this time around. The penguins and bees only make sparse cameos as the wooden, grammar impaired Whittles take the spotlight. You'll also run into Luigi, and he can take over as the playable character whenever you cross paths with him (take a gander at his jumping prowess!). Even the goofy Toad Brigade returns, and they're up to their usual antics.
A common complaint regarding Super Mario Galaxy was it's immensely easy difficulty, and Nintendo wisely decided to take the appropriate measures. While I still found myself plowing through a good chunk of Galaxy 2, running into a tough spot was no surprise. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but I've noticed that most anything that was associated with the color purple was usually a sign that things were about to go very wrong. In particular, the Purple Coins are just as nasty as they were in Galaxy, and those shadowy Cosmic Clone doppelgangers will make your life a living hell (OH MY GOD FLIP-OUT GALAXY). The only exception to this is Stone Cyclone Galaxy, which I'll be visiting in my nightmares.
So what's the consensus on this? It seems to be mixed, but I learned a long time ago that doesn't really matter. Gamers are very, very fickle people.
On a last note, it's also worth mentioning that the dynamic between Mario and the Baby Luma is much stronger then in the last game, as there's a theme of friendship made clear through several cinema scenes. In fact, the whole thing is undoubtedly very sweet, and it leads to what is a heartwarming conclusion between the two characters.
Obviously, by far the most advertised feature to this wonderful sequel is the much-appreciated inclusion of Mario's dinosaur friend, Yoshi. Unlike his mess of a 3D debut in Super Mario Sunshine and his sparse appearances in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Nintendo has finally gotten a hold of the adorable critter and not only made him fun to play around with, but has tooled around with him enough that he is actually useful to your quest.
Super Mario World fans will feel right at home while handling Yoshi, and it'll feel like you never once stepped off his saddle. You'll find that, once again, his stretchy tongue has a taste for bad guys (nothing like ripping a Lakitu off of his cloud!) and he still has an insatiable appetite for tomatoes. And, what's this, he can digest power ups as well? And they're actually required?
You'll come across colored fruit at various points in your journey, and once eaten, they can temporarily transform Yoshi. For example, eating the Blimp Fruits inflates Yoshi into a balloon, allowing the duo to reach new heights. The Dash Pepper, my personal favorite, fires up the dino and rockets you across the stage. There's even a Bulb Fruit, where Yoshi can illuminate hidden walkways (or in the case of Sweet Mystery Galaxy, cookie roads). All are incredibly unique and are used creatively, but unfortunately, they're not as used as often as I'd like. Luckily, Yoshi more then makes up for that on his own merits.
Thing is, maybe my memory's fuzzy on this, but I recall that in Super Mario World, Yoshi was just a fun joyride you could pick up every so often and use him for the sole purpose of devouring everything in sight. Maybe you'd need him to locate a secret exit, but he was never really required to finish the game, and you couldn't even bring him inside fortresses.
Here, you actually do need him. He is a pivotal asset, whether it's swinging on floating flowers, shooting Spinies at a cage, or tugging at embedded platforms with his tongue. Did he serve the same purpose in Mario Sunshine? Well, yes, but this time it's actually fun and doesn't consist of barfing on sludge.
Is he used all the time? No, but that's okay. I suspect Nintendo didn't want the gimmick to get overblown and risk diminishing his freshness, not to mention I can't imagine him working well in many of the more creative levels. When he does appear though, you'll find that even the most ordinary errand is more fun with him along for the ride. Fighting a giant Lakitu boss who wields lightning? New idea, and it's one of those battles where you have to constantly alternate between attacking and dodging. Escaping a cascade of lava? Not new, but it sets the stage for one of the most heart-racing moments in the game thanks to the Dash Pepper.
In any case, it's great to see the green dinosaur back in a starring role that for the first time in a while, proves his worth as a supporting character. I can't wait to see where they'll take him next.
Yoshi's not the only one who mess around with super powers, as Mario himself has quite a few up his sleeve.
I'll just come out out and say it: The Cloud Suit is the best! I'll admit, I thought it was a lame idea from the outset. Spawning clouds? I didn't see how it could be fun.
But yet it is. It's really astounding how Nintendo consistently comes up with what seem to be the most mundane ideas and have the ability to bring them to life. The Cloud Suit fits perfectly within the settings of Galaxy 2 and works wonders with the levels its emphasized in.
I think what makes it successful is that it's not as cheap as it sounds. See, you can spawn up to three clouds at a time, and once they're used up, you can restock your set of clouds when you seize a Cloud Flower. This is vital to know because you'll have to use your clouds wisely, or else you'll end up losing a life from falling to the abyss. Since the clouds only last for a short period of time, you have to quickly analyze your surroundings and decide not only what's the best trail to form, but where to land. And it's just so satisfying to use. I often found myself creating clouds just to see how high I can get while performing various actions (backflip!).
Unfortunately, that's about the extent of it when it comes to these enchanted costumes. There is a new Rock suit, in which Mario transforms into a boulder and can dash off crashing into everything in sight, but it's an element hardly explored. This also goes for the returning power ups (Bee, Boo, Spring and to an extent Fire Flower), which all hardly get in the fun thanks to the ever-shifting maelstrom nature of the game. Strangely enough, this was a problem in the first Galaxy as well, and I'm left wondering why Nintendo can't find a good balance for them.
Perhaps the reasoning is the same as it was for Yoshi, but this time I'd have to disagree on this. Not to say that the rest of the game wasn't fun enough, but I'm sure that they could have seamlessly inserted the other suits where acceptable (here's an idea: perhaps they should have taken advantage of the Prankster Comet challenges? The Spring Suit has humongous potential in terms of this). I can't help but feel it's a waste when they bring back an old suit, but only use it for one Power Star.
I guess it's not that big of a deal, but it was something I thought would be guaranteed to be improved upon in Galaxy 2. Here's hoping they can figure this out for the next big Mario game.
So how exactly do you get around in this game?
Soon after you shoot off into space, you find yourself on a lump of a comet headed by a rather obese Luma by the name of Lubba. He introduces you to his humble abode, which he admits isn't much, "but it's home", he humbly affirms. Hearing the plight of the captured princess and noticing your special Luma friend, he decides to not only refurbish this ol' dump for his honorable guest, but to appoint you temporary captain of what is dubbed as Starship Mario.
This gorgeous beauty serves as our hub.
So to you non-gamers, what's a hub? Well, it kinda works like a train station. Imagine you're at a station, but instead of traveling by train you're boarding a Starship Mario, which will be your permanent form of transportation. Using the Starship, you can just steer on over to a galaxy of your choice. The more stars you have, the more galaxies you can access, and thus the farther you get in the game.
It is, however, a mistake to say that Starship Mario operates much like the hubs of the past. Previously, you actually had to run over to a designated spot of a hub, such as the magical paintings of Peach's Castle (Super Mario 64), to gain access into a world. Here, it's instantaneous. All you have to do head on over to the steering wheel, and viola, you have the world map at your disposal.
Some might cry foul at losing that sense of expedition on a hub, but I feel this is an absolutely essential addition to the game. It's no secret that Nintendo has been attempting to invite the expanded audience into our side of the gaming spectrum, and this is the perfect way to get them settled in without the overwhelming notion of having to find out where to go next. There are many gamers of old that still haven't adjusted to the open freedom our newfangled 3D games possess, and the small spherical shape of the Starship assures you won't get lost in your base of operations.
And you know what? It really is a piece of work. As you progress through the game, the Starship grows in prosperity. New friends you meet on your journeys will settle onto the comet, whether it's a bee handing you a piece of advice or robots having a tea party, proving that it's as much of a garden as it is a spaceship. You'll also find that the Toad Brigade has made their home here, and can offer you assistance, whether they're giving you mail or holding your quantity of Star Bits (check out the running gag with the Bank Toad). Yoshi and Luigi also chill here, and you can fool around with them here (perhaps switch with one of them for play?) any time you'd like. Even the music gets in on the action, as it increases in bounce and bombast the further you advance.
When I feel like taking a breather, I just lay back and appreciate the scenery. My favorite touch is the sky that rotates in scenery for each world map. You're first treated to an excellent view of a beautiful blue sky, then move on to a twilit panorama of distant galaxies to an outpouring of shooting stars.
It's all something to behold. You really feel like a speck in the universe.
Another thing I'd like to commend Nintendo on is the spicing up of familiar level archetypes. In most Mario games, you'll always find yourself in a level with an abundance of grass, or under the sea, or upon the clouds in the sky. It's not that this is a bad thing, but it's not surprising to see the same pattern of stages in platforming game after platforming game, which may be why they've been in decline in the past few years. I still don't know how they managed to do this, but Nintendo has somehow revitalized some of these settings and made them feel new again.
The desert level is a perfect example of this. Dusty Dune Galaxy, the representative featured the original Galaxy, had some creative ideas but couldn't quite stand out from the rest of its herd. Slipsand Galaxy is a vast improvement, as Mario will trudge through currents of sand filled with bars of fire. That's not to mention the exciting escape from the avalanche of rolling cylinders and a section where you have to sail over quicksand.
And you thought the ghost houses were tricky before? Here, you'll have giant mobs of Boos chasing you over floating platforms and be forced to tread your way carefully over a poisonous swamp. Your typical forest stage is now composed of actually traversing its insides and sliding around on its spiky contours. Even the bee stages are improved, borrowing several elements from previous stages and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, unexpectedly adding a fast-paced emphasis to what was originally crafted as a slow paced level.
The only exception to this is probably the beach level (Starshine Beach), but as someone who grew up with the Gamecube, I couldn't help but feel nostalgic to see the nods to Super Mario Sunshine. There was just something special about seeing the Piantas (the burly residents of that game's Delfino Island) present for brief cameos. "Bwah hehehuin!"
Speaking of references , it was obvious that the first Super Mario Galaxy had taken some inspiration from Super Mario Bros 3. Here, it's Super Mario World. The comparisons where inevitable when Yoshi was revealed, but they've gone the extra mile and included touches such as the "athletic" music, a similar world map, and even the noise when you reach a checkpoint flag. Surely, however, one cannot miss the blatant throwbacks to Super Mario 64, the best of which is the Whomp's Fortress replica and the bone-chilling orchestration of Bowser's Road.
And while I'm at it, speaking of orchestras...
When Super Mario Galaxy hit in 2007, it was unanimously accepted that the game had one of (if not the) greatest soundtracks ever composed for a video game. It was certainly a strange move on Nintendo's part, considering that Mario games are known for their catchy, upbeat music. However, Shigeru Miyamoto had felt that in order to properly convey this grand voyage into outer space, an orchestra was needed to complement the experience.
How right he was.
It'd only make sense for the orchestra to return, and returned it has. The orchestrations are much more prominent in this sequel, and they all take on a grander scale I didn't think was possible. While the first game's soundtrack properly conveyed the awe-inspiring adventure in space, composers Koji Kondo (Super Mario/Legend of Zelda) and Mahito Yokota (Donkey Kong Jungle Beat/Super Mario Galaxy) clearly went for a lighter, peppier feel (and in some cases with more sprinkles of fantasy) for most of the tracks, which in all honesty is more in tune with the Mario franchise.
Take the Fluffy Buff theme for instance, which exemplifies the tone of a stroll through a prospering park, perfectly fitting the stages it's set on. Melty Monster's booming soundtrack excellently accommodates the grandiose nature of that galaxy, and I'd like to think that the Arabian-styled theme to Slipsand is the funnest take I've heard on a desert level. On the more quiet side, the beautiful harp of Cosmic Cove is a flawless counterpart to it's stunning atmosphere, and you can't forget the looming beast that is Space Storm.
Furthermore, the synthesized songs are nothing to scoff at. The country jamboree of Puzzle Plank and the soothing air of Wild Glide plant a smile on my face every time, and you just have to dig the tunes borrowed from Super Mario World/Mario 64 (Throwback Galaxy!). Even the map themes succeed in impressing the player, whether it's a soothing, retrospective piece or a remix of Gusty Garden Galaxy.
I'd also like to give a special mention to the various music for the Bowser levels. They really did an outstanding job of building up the anticipation for the showdown against the King of Koopas, and once again I really have to mention the fantastic revival for one of my favorite Mario 64 songs, Bowser's Road, of which still gives me chills. The Galaxy Generator song I posted above is also the most satisfying final level music I've heard in forever.
It's too bad though that the soundtrack is once again only being released in Japan. Nevertheless, that's what we have eBay for.
In the video below, take a look at how the music switches from instrumental to a chorus due to the shifting tides of battle.
Geez, I can't even begin to describe how that fight took my breath away.
So here's the big question: which game is better? Super Mario Galaxy? Or Super Mario Galaxy 2?
Thanks to certain interviews, we know that Galaxy 2 was originally intended to be a sort of "expansion pack" for the wealth of ideas left out of Galaxy. It turned out that the gigantic amount of brainstorming had lead to a completely new game altogether, and it eventually became the game you're reading about right now. This didn't come without criticism. Many hardened skeptics took this as Nintendo once again taking the lazy route and was essentially rehashing the same game.
I'll give them this: despite all the stupendous new features I've gone in length about, it does feel the same. As I said earlier, this game employs the same engine as the first Galaxy, so while they can easily reuse past resources and hasten the game development, it can still send out a vibe of "been there, done that".
Did I get that? Yes, but I believe only in terms of impact. Some reviewers have made the point that while the game is tremendously fun, it doesn't leave the gigantic impression Galaxy had left imprinted on them. And they're kind of right. Super Mario Galaxy was an instant classic, and my memories of the game can recall my dazzled expressions at exploring the abyss of the universe.
No doubt about it, there have been many moments in Galaxy 2 that impressed me as well, but I didn't quite get that special ingredient that made Galaxy so memorable. Updated levels? Those are awesome, but it's still stuff we've seen before. The soundtrack is as outstanding as ever, but most of it doesn't quite reach the classic status of what the original had accomplished. Even the threadbare plot is a retread upon the previous one. Am I taking back everything I had said before? Not really. What I'm saying is that while this game improves on virtually everything, it's just that it's significance pales in comparison to what we've already seen essentially perfected.
But you know something? There's one thing that this game did that the original didn't do for me.
I already want to play through this again.
I believe that while most of the 3D Mario games require a long recharge period before starting another playthrough, I can go back and replay the levels I've completed and still enjoy them. To tell the truth, unlike in Mario 64 and Sunshine, I didn't really have much fun going back to my Galaxy file. I take the time to listen to the soundtrack often, but I can't find myself doing that with the game. I wonder if it's because the excitement and wonder wore off, and thus required a year or two to be fully playable again.
Maybe Galaxy 2 is not as classic, but it doesn't matter. Here, I can play to my heart's content without getting bored, and it is because these levels are more whimsical, erratic, and consistently enforce the arbitrary and the unexpected. It is, without question, the better game when it comes to absolute fun.
And you know what? When it comes to video games, or just life in general, that's really what it all comes down to.
This game is magic.
I wasn't sure if they could ever create a Galaxy sequel and make it work, but they have. Maybe it's not as new, or as exhilarating as it was three years ago, but those second-tier elements all surrender to the most important factor: Fun. I can say without a doubt that this is one of the funnest games I've ever played in my life, and it's so obvious while playing the game that Nintendo focused the entire development around this single concept. Once again, this just proves that these are the best guys in the business.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is more then worthy of the Mario name, and I believe that it has not only has joined the likes of Super Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Bros. Brawl as the very best games that the Wii console has to offer, but taken the place of Super Mario World as the quintessential Mario title. It is that brilliant. This is already Game of the Year 2010.
Games like this don't come around very often, if at all, anymore. In an age where games have to feature complicated setups, online play, achievement bonuses, and downloadable content, I can't tell you how happy I am to witness a game that completely ignores all of that and charges ahead to further its own virtue.
Then again, it's not like it was a surprise. The plumber has a habit of doing this.
Just look at how happy he is.
Highly, highly recommended.
-Despite the awesomeness of the Cloud Suit, they still haven't figured out how to balance the suits.
-Green Star hunt gets tiresome.
-Might not be fresh enough for everyone...
+....but WHO CARES?!?!
+ You thought fun was fun? Take a look at this.
+ Hijacks the platforming genre and turns it inside out.
+ The best use of a hub EVER.
+ Great difficulty curve.
+ Yoshi is more fun then he has been in years.
+ Hands down the funnest, most grandiose soundtrack ever composed for a video game.
+ Fantastic sense of replayability.
+ Has the unique ability to make you smile and laugh (AND SCREAM) every time you play it.
+ It features floating pancakes.
+ With butter on top.
+ Go play this now.
*credit to IGN/ Super Mario Wiki/Various sites on Google for the pictures. If you come across the blog and have a problem with my use of 'em, please contact me and I will remove them as soon as possible.