Review by DDJ
"Leaves you wanting more... in a very, very good way."
Review in Brief
Game: Another jaunt through the Super Mario Galaxy 2 engine, with all the standard accoutrements.
Play Time: 12 hours for the main plot, 50 for full completion.
Good: Brilliant level design, incredible variety, great beginner-expert balance, and numerous other excellent features.
Bad: Uninspired power-ups, the removal of the World Map diminishes the game's feel.
Verdict: One of the best games released in recent years, for any console.
Recommendation: Buy it. Beginner or expert, Mario fan or not, buy it.
"Leaves you wanting more... in a very, very good way."
I was accused once of ragging on Wii games pretty hard. There's some logic to that accusation: I've given many high-rated Wii games very low scores, and although it's hard to really call that a vendetta against the Wii without a broader standard of comparison in other consoles, I'll readily admit that I think I cut Wii games (and games in general) less slack than other reviewers.
There's a reason for that. I strongly feel that the Wii and its library are inexplicably excused from being judged by the same standards as other games and consoles solely because its intentions are to be oriented toward casual gamers. It's supposedly not a "big boy" system, and so it seems like many people are willing to judge its games by a different (and much weaker) standard.
But there's a problem with that logic. When you praise a modern-generation game, what do you praise? More often than not, I hear compliments for plots, brilliant control mechanisms, overall atmospheres, multiplayer appeal, and pure entertainment value. With the exception of gently enhancing the atmosphere, what is it about these characteristics that the Wii is inherently less suited for?
The answer is none. The Wii has the potential to have games that are just as great, just as immersive, just as expressive, just as breathtaking, and just as entertaining as any other console. The problem is, it just doesn't meet its potential. I'm not trying to place blame, but for whatever reason, the Wii doesn't have as many incredibly high-quality traditional-style products as other consoles, which breeds the tendency to judge its games less harshly.
But so long as it has the potential to have such high-quality products, judging its games by a lesser standard is an absolute insult. It leads to a natural tendency to treat Wii games as a sort of "minor league" version to the "major league" games for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. We treat the Wii as a casual niche because that's what popular opinion believes, and so when a more traditional game comes out for the console (one that doesn't have "Wii" in the title, basically), we judge it according to its Wii competitors, not its potential -- and that's an easy contest to win.
But this entire line of thought depends on the idea that the Wii does have the potential to produce games that can compete unhandicapped with games for the other consoles. How do we know it has that potential? Quite simply, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is how we know (and you were starting to wonder when I was going to get off that tangent).
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is not only the greatest game the Wii has to offer, but like its predecessor, it is a legitimate competitor with any game for any console released this year. It's not "great for a Wii game": it's great, period. It single-handedly demonstrates that the Wii is capable of competing with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in creating classic, spectacular games. It doesn't need the handicap of the "well, it's for casual gamers" label. It doesn't need to be qualified with "well, once you excuse the graphics..." Super Mario Galaxy 2 is quite simply one of the greatest games released in the modern generation.
The game clearly demonstrates that technical obstacles are remarkably easy to overcome, and that brilliant game design trumps spectacular pre-rendered cinematics, realistic graphics, and perhaps even flawless online multiplayer. Game design remains the most important element in making a game great, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of the best-designed games I've ever seen. The plot is a throw-away, the multiplayer is basically a sham, and the graphics favor cartoon chic over any semblance of realism; not none of this matters. The game is brilliantly designed, brilliantly implemented, brilliantly polished and brilliantly fun.
The overall framework is the standard Mario fare. Bowser has kidnapped Mario's beloved Princess Peach. To save her, Mario has to collect numerous stars from various places around the galaxy. Once he's collected enough stars, he can face Bowser and rescue Peach.
Each star is housed at the end of a particular level. Your goal is to navigate from the start of the level to the end. In effect, though, that framework is applied in such a wide variety of ways that you might lose track of it. Sometimes you'll just complete a standard platformer level. Sometimes you'll solve puzzles or complete challenges. Sometimes you'll perform a standard level under unique conditions.
The game as a whole is built around playing with gravity. Instead of always being in big areas, you'll find yourself in a wide variety of situations where gravity is manipulated. You might jump from one planet to another and see yourself exit one's gravitational field and enter another's. You might hit a switch and alter gravity in an entire area. You might run around round planets or jump across spinning terrain. Gravity is the chief manipulation here, and while it isn't always an issue, it's often the main unique element.
There is a lot to like about Super Mario Galaxy 2, from the individual level design, to the varied gameplay options, to the brilliant expert/novice balance, to Yoshi and Luigi themselves. But I think the most important thing to note about Super Mario Galaxy 2 is also perhaps the most difficult one to describe, so I'll start with that one.
Deserves to Exist
"Deserves to exist"? What the heck is he talking about?
Traditionally, Nintendo has put out one 3D Mario platformer per console (ok, "traditionally" might be a strong word since there've been two before now, but go with me). In creating a second one for the Wii, Nintendo is running a severe risk of over-saturating their primary franchise. They could be accused of milking their main character for more money on relatively new content, or desperately seeking more profit out of their main series due to failures in other areas.
But Super Mario Galaxy 2 deserves to exist purely from a gameplay and content perspective. Whenever there is a particular gameplay concept, engine or framework, there is a certain amount of potential it has. The job of developers is to squeeze out all that potential, but avoid going too far: once you start rehashing the same ideas or contriving new ones that violate the original idea, it's time to leave the franchise alone. We see this all the time with series that simply don't have any more ideas in them, yet continue to produce games.
But the Super Mario Galaxy does have more potential in it. The game engine is so unique and flexible that it had at least another full game's worth of content in it (in fact, even now I still believe there's enough potential for a third installment). The gravity mechanics are such a fundamental, unique and distinct concept that we don't see the market saturated with them like other new trends (sandbox games, for example). There's plenty of potential here, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 just continues to build on it.
What that also means is that it's completely unnecessary for Nintendo to change many of the basic gameplay properties of the game. The controls are nearly identical, and unless your memory of the original game is amazing, you could probably watch a few seconds of footage and not even recognize which game they came from. The engine is the same, the graphics are the same, the controls are the same, and many of the power-ups and broader mechanics are the same. Not much needed to be changed, it just needed to be explored more.
And that's exactly what Nintendo has done. Rather than take the gravity mechanic, strap it down and beat all life out of it, they've put the gravity mechanic on a leash and seen where it leads them. Bad metaphors aside, the developers appear legitimately content to experiment and play around with the mechanic and see what naturally develops, rather than to try to contrive it into certain situations.
The result is a game that feels like a sequel we wanted to see, not a sequel that the developers hoped we'd buy. This isn't another of the endless parade of sequels that Ben Croshaw rails against (although he'll certainly rail against it anyway), attempting to milk brand names for every last dollar in our pocket. Super Mario Galaxy 2 has all the feel of a sequel we legitimately were looking forward to, and are glad to have. It deserves to exist solely for its gameplay merits.
Incredible Variety and Size
As I just said, Super Mario Galaxy 2 doesn't attempt to contrive new ideas out of the gravity mechanic; rather, it just sees what it can do naturally. As a result, there is an incredible variety of level designs and styles in the game, out of the developers' seemingly natural browsing process through the available applications of the mechanic.
It's not a complete exaggeration to say that every single level is unique; and with so many levels (over one-hundred stars to obtain, although some stages have more than one), that's an incredible accomplishment. This isn't achieved simply through a variety of level styles, but through a variety of overall level structures, within which there are might be several unique styles.
For example, a notable number of levels opt for a more 2D-platformer feel. The camera stations itself perpendicular to the screen and Mario can only move up and down, left and right. That alone presents a unique structure for certain levels, and within that structure the game developers create numerous unique levels; for example, in some levels you'll be jumping across platforms that are rotating around the x-axis even though your movement is restricted. In others, gravity will alter in those two dimensions, forcing you to walk on the ceiling or walls. In others, you'll navigate through a ricocheting labyrinth with a drill.
There's a variety in the 3D platformer levels as well. If I were to envision a hierarchy of level styles, 3D would hold two huge categories: traditional and gravity-affected. Even though the game is Super Mario Galaxy, it does not shy away from some purely traditional 3D platformer levels, and that alone gives enough variety to work with for several levels. Then the gravity-infused levels have a wide variety of different styles to them too. Plus, there's an entire group of mini-games that spin off from the main levels, like skating and fireballing, that each award stars as well.
There's enormous variety within individual levels as well. Frequently you'll find a level's normal progression to be interrupted by a series of music notes to collect for a bonus, or a quick side area to destroy a bunch of enemies with Yoshi or a Star to earn some one-ups. In one place, you'll find yourself rolling giant snowballs into lava to form frozen pathways, and in another, you'll go skating down a long tube in the middle of a level. The gameplay varies itself within levels incredibly as well; you'll seamlessly move from navigating platforms to solving puzzles to beating baddies, as well as other much more varied tasks. Overall, it's brilliantly split up.
Even outside this framework there's a large variety of levels that are completely separate from any standard structure. For example, there's another ball-rolling level, a giant slide level, and a level where you glide carried by a giant buzzard. There's a variety in how "directed" a level might be; some levels are very targeted to a linear path from beginning to end, but others are fairly open, basically requiring you to find the Star rather than simply reach it. And all this variety I've described already is without even considering specifics of the atmosphere of the levels, presence of power-ups, Yoshi, etc. While it sounds a little bit surprising that that many levels could each be individually unique, once you break it down into the individual factors that influence a level, it's actually very easy to see.
With high variety, though, there's always a risk of actually going too far. You want varied gameplay, but you don't want the player to feel like they're playing a whole new game with every new level. You do want the same skills to generalize out as you keep playing; you're meeting new and varied challenges with the same skills you've been mastering all along, not learning new ones. Super Mario Galaxy 2 gets this simple style of variety exactly right. It's not varied and off-the-wall and scattered and all over the place; it's very cohesive and distinct. New challenges use old skills, just in new circumstances. It's a simple variety, not a complex variety.
That simple variety is what makes the game so enormous content-wise. Over one-hundred different stars is a huge number, and while it's true some levels have more than one, even when a level provides multiple Star opportunities the different methods themselves are fairly unique. The size of the game is sheerly enormous. Enormity isn't always a good thing; an 80-hour game is worthless if 60 hours are worthless game-lengthening through dumb fetch quests. But Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a legitimately enormous game; enormous literally because the the content is enormous, not because the content has been artificially inflated to appear enormous.
But I was expecting the size of the game to be that large; after all, most recent Mario 3D platformers have been pretty big. What I wasn't expecting, though, was how big the individual levels were going to be. No exaggeration, many of the levels take as many as 10 minutes to play on a first go-through. There's multiple checkpoints and a dozen distinct areas in each. The level design is huge, to the point where you reach the end and return to your Starship and think, "wow, that was all one level?!" The downside of large levels tends to be dying and going all the way back to the beginning, but the frequency of checkpoints mitigates that: levels will have as many as 3 or 4 checkpoints, usually placed at the beginning of the big sections, so when you die you go back to the same area you were trying to complete anyway. This is a brilliant way to have a huge level without the negative repercussions, and as a result the game as a whole has grown to mammoth proportions.
Brilliant Level Design
Do I even need to bother telling you that a Nintendo game has great level design? But let's not dismiss it as just Nintendo being Nintendo, let's talk about it a bit.
In the previous section, I described how the game has truly varied level design. However, you can have a wide variety of levels without the levels themselves actually being good. Super Mario Galaxy 2 has good level design, though. And yes, that's the understatement of the year.
Super Mario Galaxy 2's level design isn't only varied; each individual level is spectacularly crafted. Honestly, I have a legitimate suspicion that each individual level designer was only given a handful of levels to craft because I'd be baffled if any single individual could have the creativity to come up with this many independently great level designs. It's hard for us cognitively to free ourselves from the shackles of our own previous ideas, so setting one level designer to design an abundance would either pigeonhole him into a lack of variety or force him to actively try to be varied without a natural inclination that way.
The point of all this rambling is to say that not only is each level in Super Mario Galaxy 2 different from the rest, but each level is independently great. There are some truly astounding individual gameplay mechanics at work here, from the flexible uses of Yoshi to several of the boss fights. I'm extremely hesitant to go into a lot of the level design here because I don't want to spoil the encounters for you, but I'll mention one of my favorites.
At one point in the game, you're tasked with fighting a monster on a type of disc. The only way to beat it is to hit its belly, but it's extremely low to the ground. To defeat it, you have to go to the other side of the disc, wait for it to walk over an area where you can jump through, and hip-drop on its belly. That's the sort of great, simple, unique level design that characterizes all of Super Mario Galaxy 2 -- it's a simple concept, but still extremely unique and very enjoyable.
The most-publicized new inclusion in Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the presence of Mario's old sidekick, Yoshi. In fact, this is probably the only major change to the basic fabric of Super Mario Galaxy 2 from its predecessor; new power-ups and alterations to the world map are notable, but Yoshi is by far the most significant new feature.
I was initially very skeptical about how Yoshi would work in Super Mario Galaxy 2. In his older games, his main usefulness was in sticking his tongue straight out forward, and in a 3D environment like this I wasn't sure how smoothly it would be implemented. In Super Mario Galaxy, it seemed like the way you were facing when standing still was often irrelevant; it was all about the direction you were running while moving. Yoshi, it seemed, would depend much more on your direction at all times.
I'm pleased to report, though, that Yoshi has been implemented quite nicely. He operates based on a simple extension of the pointer control; point and click to make Yoshi stick out his tongue and attack or eat something. Point and click again when he something in his mouth to fire it. Put simply, Yoshi doesn't just eat whatever is in front of him; he eats what you point at.
I was also a little skeptical when I first heard about this as well, given that this means the player has to control both movement and pointing at the same time. But IGN hit the nail on the head in their review about why this is so easy: you're doing that anyway with star bits. The player's always pointing and swiping at star bits, so pointing for Yoshi is not any more difficult. And they were right: although it might sound like the control will be a bit challenging, it's actually remarkably intuitive.
Yoshi's tongue is remarkably flexible, and yes, I'm aware how awkward that sentence sounds. Flexible from a gameplay perspective I mean. His tongue can destroy nearly every enemy, including the giant Goombas and Bullet Bills you'll encounter. It can also be used to grab and open platforms. There are sequences where you'll use his tongue to swing on stars, grappling hook-style, and pick up items at a distance. Maybe the coolest thing Yoshi can do, though, is take an enemy in his mouth and then fire it like a projectile wherever you're pointing: especially useful on those Lakitu levels.
Other than that, Yoshi doesn't impact how the game controls all that much. He provides a slightly tweaked running aesthetic and a sustained jump option, but those don't play in very often except to remind you you're using Yoshi in a more tangible sense. Yoshi does have multiple dedicated power-ups, but I'll talk about those in the power-ups section.
I do have two complaints about Yoshi. One is that Yoshi is essentially himself a glorified power-up for Mario, and thus I'll talk more about that in the power-ups section as well (it's under "The Bad" if you have trouble finding it). The other, though, is that Yoshi borders on overpowered for me. You can face an entire army of enemies simultaneously with ease while you have Yoshi in your tow. He can conquer enormous beetles, goombas, bullets, you name it. I don't know what they're feeding that dinosaur, but it's more than Wheaties and milk. But that's a minor concern given the somewhat relative infrequency of Yoshi's appearances.
Great Beginner/Expert Balance
To me, this is where Super Mario Galaxy 2 really sets itself apart. We knew ahead of time that Super Mario Galaxy deserved another game in its own engine. We knew Nintendo would find a way to come up with a great variety of levels, and that the individual level designs would be pretty impeccable. And while I had my doubts, I did have a gut feeling that they would be able to pull off Yoshi adequately. It's Nintendo: they have a long history of living up to expectations.
But here is something I, personally, did not expect or even plan to address. Super Mario Galaxy was a standard Mario 3D platformer, which naturally meant that it would be pretty challenging to non-gamers. I never considered that a bad thing; sure, the Wii has a huge casual audience, and many of them wouldn't be quite suited for a game of Super Mario Galaxy's difficulty, but that was a necessary pruning of the audience. You can't appeal to everyone with one game.
Or can you? In Super Mario Galaxy 2, they do. Somehow, Nintendo has managed to appeal to everyone from your 7-year-old cousin to your 77-year-old grandmother, including your 17-year-old hardcore gamer brother. The developers have done a sheerly masterful job at appealing to every different demographic, and I'm truly astounded at how effortlessly it seems to have been pulled off.
Let's start with the beginners. The game starts with a pseudo-tutorial mode, really itself a 2D scrolling mission. It introduces us to the controls and familiarizes ourselves with the game structure before taking the metaphorical water wings off and letting us swim in its expanse unguided. This is a great way to get beginners into the game without slamming them in the face with their own ill-preparedness.
From there, we see a much more streamlined approach to the overall game structure. I'll criticize it later, but I understand its purpose. Rather than an open world to explore and find levels within, the game favors the linear world maps of Super Mario Bros. 3 and New Super Mario Bros.. Yes, it's a total throwback in that regard, and one that I feel actually severely hampers the game (in fact, it's my number one criticism later); however, it does increase the appeal for new gamers.
Sprinkled throughout the game are "hint TVs". The developers understand that in a platformer-puzzle-solving game like this one, oftentimes new gamers won't be equipped to solve many puzzles on their own; so, these hint TVs exist to show the player how certain areas should be completed. It doesn't take the challenge out of the game, as the player still has to complete it; they're just spared the discouraging trial-and-error phase that more seasoned gamers are better equipped to weather.
And even if they cannot complete a particular level, the game still provides a recourse so the player can continue. Like in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, there is a a "play for me"-style mode where the game can take over after the player has failed several times. The game plays for the player, showing them what to do and completing the level. The level isn't 100% complete: the player receives only a lesser Bronze star for completing it this way. Still, it allows the player to skip levels that are too challenging for them and avoids discouraging more wishy-washy gamers.
You might have read in other reviews about the game's increased challenge; some reviewers have gone so far as to say that "the majority of Wii's audience" won't be able to beat it. Personally, though, I don't think that's accurate. Yes, there are a couple extremely challenging mandatory boss fights, but the majority of the game's most difficult content is completely optional. You don't have to complete a fair number of the stages to actually beat the game, and for the most part you can get through solely completing some fairly easy stages. Plus again, you've got the "play for me" option; you'll still play most of the game if you have to make use of it on some levels.
The question here, though, is: do these affordances for beginners get in the way of the game for more seasoned gamers? The answer is an emphatic 'no'. Seasoned players will not only be able to bypass these aids, but there is plenty in the game that will challenge even the most experience Mario player. This is accomplished through the pseudo-optional content. There are numerous stars and levels that the player does not have to complete to beat the game, but still exist close enough to the normal game pathway to qualify as regular game pieces and not optional sidequests. These alone provide plenty of extra challenge.
The Comets are a perfect example of this. Most levels are designed with sufficient hints and gameplay help that a novice may be able to get through it with practice; but the levels also house hidden Comet Coins that only experts will be able to retrieve. Finding these Comet Coins will unlock the Comets we saw in the original Super Mario Galaxy, which in turn will unlock new challenges for existing levels.
Although my writing on the expert material is skint compared to the elaboration on the beginner content, the two truly do exist in a remarkable balance. There is more than enough content and challenge here to entertain serious gamers without getting in the way of novices, and there is plenty to help novices along without getting in the way of experts. what's more, this is far more of a continuum than an appeal to two distinct groups. Expert content isn't provided like some games do, separating it out as a different difficulty level or challenge entirely. It flows directly from the main fabric of the game, and the player is left to do whatever they are able to, while still feeling fulfilled no matter what amount of the game's content they are able to complete.
Leaves you wanting more... in a very, very good way
The title phrase from this review is a bit of a loaded phrase. In some contexts, "leaves you wanting more" means that you're not satisfied. But in this context, it means the opposite and then some.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is an enormous game. Really, it's huge for a platformer. You can easily get over a hundred hours of play time out of this game. And it's not quite so artificially huge like Super Mario Galaxy's 240 stars were: there's at least a little more intrigue here then "play it again with crappier controls!"
But despite its enormous and satisfying size, Super Mario Galaxy 2 still leaves you craving even more from this genre and game engine. How can this be? Quite simply, there are so many game mechanics in the game that are used only sparingly that you can't help wondering what other ways they could be used. Earlier in this review I stated that it never feels like the designers are 'contriving' any levels; not only does it not feel contrived, but it feels so uncontrived that it's like they're just barely scratching the surface of an enormous ball of potential.
It really makes you wonder about all the other things they could do with this engine. After two Super Mario Galaxy games, there are a wide variety of game mechanics that I really want to see exploited more often. The game introduces new mechanics like a timed flash that illuminates the environment, a beat that changes the panels, and a spin control that changes platforms, but each is only used two or three times. Ice skating and pull stars have been used frequently, but I think there's a lot more potential to them. There's relatively little use of the ghost levels (and the Ghost Mario power-up is only used once that I can recall), and the new snowballs are barely used at all. Plus, the slow-mo is barely used at all. The mechanics introduced in this game alone could spawn a whole new game.
The worst thing a game franchise can do is start to over-apply itself; you don't want rehashed sequels that don't add any new content to the original, that only exist to sell more games and bring in more money. But in Super Mario Galaxy 2, the developers have demonstrated something extraordinary: there is enough potential here for not just one, but several more Super Mario Galaxy games. I don't doubt we'll see a 3 and 4, and possibly even more -- and it still won't feel contrived at all. They've only scratched the surface of what the engine can do.
Some pre-release material revealed that one reason the levels are so unique is that a level creator was designed that's so easy to use, even the sound engineers with no coding experience could design levels. Some of those levels were used in the game. If the designer's easy enough for them to use, maybe we'll even see a day when there's a LittleBigPlanet-style Super Mario Galaxy game? Who knows. The possibilities are literally endless.
...And Everything Else
Perhaps this section is one of the highest pieces of praise I can give to Super Mario Galaxy 2. One thing I'm extremely aware of both in playing the game and in writing this review is that there are numerous features that I would praise for the game if it weren't for all the other good features I'm already praising. The game doesn't just do big things right: it does the little things right too.
If the game didn't have the above in its favor, I would still have three or four long sections I could write about it. I would go deep into detail on how intuitive the game's controls are and how the control mechanism "disappears" between the player and the game. The player's left to solve the puzzles and levels purely, unencumbered by control difficulties.
Polish is a big piece of the game as well. The game contains numerous features that wouldn't be missed if they were absent, but themselves take the game to another level. It's difficult to describe what polish is beyond simply knowing it when you see it, but it's definitely as present in Super Mario Galaxy 2 as it was in its predecessor.
Watching the previews, I was initially a little annoyed to find some apparently recycled bosses. But with one acceptable exception, the "recycled" bosses are all segmented off as optional areas of existing worlds. Used in this way, the bosses come across as a nice homage to the previous game, rather than a lazy rehashing of old bosses, code and graphics. For example, the two-legged robot makes a reappearance, but the fight is different enough that the similarities are only cosmetic; and the boss-running-around-a-tree fight is back, but it's optional, and you beat him with a different game mechanic (Cloud Mario, mentioned later).
Mario games are nothing if not predictable plot-wise; Peach is kidnapped by Bowser, etc. etc. Yet, Super Mario Galaxy 2 still manages to surprise you a little bit. It doesn't do anything to mess with the most fundamental part of the series, but you'll still be in for some interesting surprises. I don't want to spoil too much, but suffice to say you probably could've watched the final level in World 2 and legitimately thought it was the game's final dungeon; the game doesn't save epic scenes for the end, they're scattered throughout the game.
As the game goes on, your home "ship" (a Mario-shaped planetoid you pilot around the World Map) becomes more and more customized based on what you've found on your journeys. Now, granted, you don't have any real influence over what's on your ship and where it's found, but it feels as if the ship grows, developers and becomes livelier as the game goes on. It's a nice, unique way to mark progress, and almost offsets my major criticism about the World Map later in this review (ok, actually, it comes nowhere close to offsetting it -- it's just a silver lining).
I could talk about these and several other features at great length if there wasn't so much to talk about already (hi, I haven't even mentioned the amazing music); but the game simply does so many things well that it's almost a disservice to the previously mentioned positive aspects to give more minor positive features their own sections. My "The Good, The Bad" review style usually operates under the assumption that if I don't list something as either good or bad, it must be adequate but unremarkable. Graphics, for example: if I don't talk about them, it's because they're not amazing, but not terrible. But in the rare case of Super Mario Galaxy 2, I have to give possibly my highest word of praise: if I don't mention something in the review, chances are it's good, too. Plus, this review's already nine pages long and I haven't even lobbed a single criticism at the game, so I should shut up about how awesome it is now.
With one exception, my criticisms of Super Mario Galaxy 2 are mostly somewhat nit-picky. To spoil the ending, I'm giving the game an 8.5 (and rounding it to a 9 for GameFAQs' 10-point scale), and my four criticisms deduct .25, .5 and .75 respectively. And yes, I'm mostly just making those numbers up to justify the score I'd already decided to give. Still, they express my weighting of these things pretty accurately I feel.
I have to emphasize, though, that I admittedly am getting a little nit-picky here. Just as there were too many Good elements to talk about all of them, there are too few Bad elements to gloss over even the minor ones. So my first two point in this section is admittedly nit-picky and minor, but when a game is this good, even the fact that I'm taking the time to talk about things this minor is a testament to the game's quality.
Some Little Annoying Details
How's that for a vague section title? There are some tiny nit-picky things that I find annoying, and admittedly these were complaints I had about the original Super Mario Galaxy game as well. But, Super Mario Galaxy 2 doesn't fix these (or maybe I'm the only one who even thinks they're problems), so I'll mention them here.
Number one is the health system. Super Mario Galaxy 2 uses an extremely simplistic HP system where Mario has three HP points. If he loses all his HP points, he dies. Coins restore HP, 1 HP point per coin. This annoys me for two reasons. First of all, it really still feels unnatural to me to have any kind of "HP" system in a Mario platformer. I don't think it'd be that difficult to stick to the old system where power-ups are also health; that was a much more unique and Mario-centric system (although I'll allude to the reason that might not be possible in the next section on power-ups). Secondly, coins for health? What sense does that make? There's a free health care joke in here somewhere, but I'm not touching it. The two combine to give an impression of "well, the player needs a health system, so let's just give them one", rather than reflecting the normally creative and innovative Nintendo design
Secondly, I have one small criticism about the way many levels are designed. As in Super Mario Galaxy, many levels are comprised of multiple little sub-areas. In each, you solve one puzzle to unlock the star launcher, which launches you randomly across space into a new puzzle area. Really, when you get right down to it, this is just a contrived way to separate multiple puzzle areas within a level; there's no smooth connection between them. You could easily mix-and-match between levels solely because the only link is this random launching. And why do the Star Launchers at the beginning of the level have to launch you to the next part, and not straight to the final area? Are the Lumas just messing with you? But like I said, these are both minor nit-picky things.
Oh, and the lives you collect still only carry over until you turn the game off. Whenever you turn the game back on, you're back at 4. Whose dumb idea was that? And the long jump action has the same control as the dismount Yoshi action, which is also kind of annoying.
Plus, Mario takes way too long to recover from getting hit by things. Really, he lies there for like 3 seconds before he gets up. And you'll die more from the bizarrely long distance even weak attacks knock you. Yes, that Boo hitting you is only worth 1 HP point, but he'll knock you 5 feet to the right and you'll fall straight off the platform.
And is it just me, or has the Mario series actually started to kind of make a joke out of how little plot it has? Really, it's not even trying to hide that its plot hasn't changed in 20 years -- they could at least dress it up a little like they did in Super Mario Galaxy.
Ok, I'm done nit-picking, I swear.
Now we move on to one of my two actual significant criticisms of Super Mario Galaxy 2. The first is the power-up framework. To contextualize my criticism here, let me remind you how power-ups used to work in the Mario series.
Early in the Mario series, power-ups were items that could help you through almost any level. It was always better to be Fire Mario than regular Mario. Power-ups were just that: items that made you more powerful. Holding on to them through the level was important because it meant you could use them in the next level, where they would also be beneficial. Power-ups made you more powerful.
Now, fast-forward to the latest few iterations of the Mario series. Power-ups now serve a very different purpose than they used to. Now, they're puzzle-solving items, usually downright necessary to defeat the levels that are specifically designed to exploit them. Just the phrasing of that sentence describes what I'm talking about here: levels are designed to exploit particular power-ups, rather than power-ups actually strengthening you to take on any challenge. We can see this easily in Super Mario Galaxy 2 and its predecessor: many power-ups like Spring Mario and Bee Mario actually regenerate themselves when you get it because it's necessary just to complete the level at all.
That might be a conscious change on the part of the developers, but I just don't like it. When you start to design levels specifically for particular power-ups, you naturally limit the player's creativity in solving the level. That's the entire reason why the Hint TVs work: there is a particular way to solve the level, rather than a more flexible set of options. That's also the reason you can't take power-ups with you when you complete a level: many of the power-ups just wouldn't make any sense on a level that wasn't designed for them. Using Bee Mario on a non-bee level, for example: it just wouldn't work at all. That's because the power-ups don't strengthen you, they give you specific new capabilities to specifically address specific challenges. Specific's all over that sentence intentionally: there's less flexibility with these power-ups. Even the Fire Mario power-up only exists in areas where there's a puzzle to be solved with it, and that's why it's now time-limited as well.
Beyond simply my own disdain for the overall treatment that power-ups get in the game, I also find the individual power-ups to be somewhat uninspired. Several of the ones from previous games are back: Fire Mario is still around, as well as Spring Mario, Star Mario, Boo Mario and Bee Mario. Spring, Boo and Bee are used exactly as you'd expect: on specific levels designed to make use of them, and nowhere else. Yoshi, as mentioned, makes his return as the world's most glorified power-up, but like the others, he's only available on levels specifically designed to make use of his skills.
The new power-ups reflect this too: there's Cloud Mario, which allows you to create a cloud under yourself that basically becomes a temporary platform, and Rock Mario, which lets you transform into a ball of rock and do a Graveler-style rolling tackle against particular enemies. Now, the problem with the new power-ups is they could have been used somewhat flexibly: the rolling rock attack could be useful against numerous enemies, and the cloud-making could be useful all over the place. However, the game doesn't make them available anywhere except levels specifically designed to need it, reflecting the original problem. This also makes the player feel like their solutions to the problems aren't necessarily creative, but rather just what the developers planned for them to do. Plus, you create a cloud whenever you spin, so basically you can't use your normal spin move while Cloud Mario. Dumb.
There's an exception to this overall criticism: Drill Mario. Well, technically Drill Mario isn't a power-up, it's an item you pick up and use, but it functions basically the same as a power-up to the point where I wonder why they even distinguish them at all. The drill actually lends itself to creative uses, allowing you to drill through terrain on multiple levels. The ricochet effect it has primarily on 2D levels is really nice as well. Again, it's unfortunate that it's only provided on levels specifically designed for it, but it's still a much more interesting inclusion.
Loss of Primary Central World
This is by far my highest criticism of Super Mario Galaxy 2, and it would diminish my score even more if I didn't understand the reasoning for it. But still, I feel this has an enormous negative impact on the overall feel of the game.
Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced the World Map, which had distinct "nodes" on the map that represented levels. Mario could move around the map a little flexibly, but really the map was mostly a way to contextualize the linear gameplay. And that was fine.
Then, Super Mario 64 introduced a different kind of World Map that allowed real exploration. You could wander around and choose your challengers at will, talk to characters and explore. The effect of this was that it felt like the game had some central place that everything built from, and as a result it felt less like just a game and more like a real environment. It provided real context for the places you went and what you achieved, and was an immense step forward from the relatively simplistic World Map of the 2D era. The impact of this made the game come alive in a way, and thus it was kept for the next two installments.
And then, Super Mario Galaxy 2 arrives, and for whatever reason we're back to the Super Mario Bros. 3-style world map. You navigate around nodes on a plain map with Starship Mario, choosing levels and playing through them just like any other Mario game before the Nintendo 64. The impact is that the game, despite being as big as its predecessor, feels much smaller because there's less context to what you're achieving. You're just crossing nodes off your list and moving around a linear map; there's no feeling of higher objective. It's retro in a bad way.
Why did they do this? For simplicity. I speculate Nintendo found that new gamers had trouble navigating the relatively large open world in Super Mario Galaxy, and could not always find where the next level to go to was. So, they streamlined it and simplified it. I admire the objective, but this is the one time I feel it's at a detriment to the game as a whole. It would have been entirely possible to simplify the World Map for new gamers without completely removing all benefits the 3D world provided. How about a star that guides you to where you need to go next? How about arranging the worlds in a more organized fashion rather than scattering them all over the place? There were plenty of ways this could've been accomplished without removing it altogether.
That said, their implementation of the more straightforward World Map is perfect. Movement is easy, optional levels and stars are preserved, and there's plenty of unlockable stuff on the World Map. There are plenty of easy preview screens to see what galaxies you're missing Stars or Comet Coins in, and the overall "World" World Map (showing all the different large areas) is absolutely gorgeous. And I suppose Starship Mario provides a little context to the overall game, although I maintain that the absence of a full 3D main world from which the rest of the game builds makes the game feel much smaller and less epic than it is.
Although it's a small thing, that's far-and-away my main criticism of Super Mario Galaxy 2. Its negative impact on the game is enormous, and likely is the only reason I'm not giving the game a perfect score as my other criticisms, while legitimate, reflect more a subjective disagreement with the game's direction than an absolute problem with it.
Despite my minor criticisms, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of the best games to come along in years. It single-handedly proves that the Wii can compete with the other consoles without excuses. It compares favorably with any game released in the past several years, and should no doubt be in the running for this year's best game.
The quality of the game is a testament to Nintendo's traditional talent for producing simple, fun, polished games. The level design is brilliant, the variety of the gameplay is astounding, and the beginner-expert balance reflects an active attention to this new challenge that many other game developers ignore. There's so much good in the game that it's actually impossible to talk about it all here. It's quite simply amazing.
And there will be those that wonder about my high praise despite giving the game "only" an 8.5. You've got to understand, I think the way most review outlets treat 10-point scales is ridiculous. Why have 10 points when you give every single game an 8 or above? So 8.5 is an extremely high score for me. It's the second highest score I've ever given (Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII aren't really scored; GameFAQs just requires a number). This game is amazing, but it's not perfect: and the perfect 10 is saved for perfection.
Point being, this one of the greatest games ever made. 8.5 for me is like a 10 for anyone else.
Buy it. Yes, it's that simple. Beginner or expert, Mario fan or not, just buy it.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 05/24/10, Updated 06/01/10
Game Release: Super Mario Galaxy 2 (US, 05/23/10)
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