Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Review: Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)

The original Super Mario Galaxy was unquestionably my 2007 game of the year. With it’s magical atmosphere, delightful art styles, stunning graphics, and exemplary level design it was one of the best games to come out of Nintendo since the N64 days, and Super Mario 64 itself. This is made even more impressive as during the GameCube generation, with the exception of Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Nintendo failed to create anything quite as captivating, or as awe-inspiringly beautiful as their N64 masterpiece.

SMG displayed the kind of wondrous personality and gameplay mastery associated with the company for the last twenty years or so, providing all who ventured into its grasp with some of the most refined and downright amazing platforming on any videogame system to date. It was to many, myself included, beyond just being a sequel to one of the best games of all time, firmly stamping its own mark into a genre long since forgotten amongst today’s mainstream gaming crowd.

The use of gravity as a gameplay mechanic, throwing players around from planet to planet; and the use of switching perspectives, 3D to 2D, and back again, brought forward deviously fresh gameplay which had never been seen before. Not quite like this, and all the more refreshing as a result. Huge bosses, unique level designs and challenges, new and old characters, all contributed even more to the experience. And that’s not even mentioning the whimsical nature of the affair, steeped in a lovingly polished goodness of visual beauty and orchestrated audio delights, quite possibly the closest thing to perfection in a long while.

This sequel in many respects is more of the same, partially streamlined to be more accessible, but more hardcore at the same time, without compromising on the style and gameplay foundations which worked so well the last time around. But it’s more than just a rehash of what has gone before, and the concepts established in the first Super Mario Galaxy. It’s an attempt to bringing together something fresh and altogether familiar at the same time.

At first glance SMG2 is undeniably similar to the last game. The intro sequence in particular being a 2D homage to the opening of the original SMG, with Bowser once again invading Princess Peach’s castle and stealing her away from Mario once more, thus yet again introducing us to the use of space travel and the need to collect those delightful golden stars. From this point on, the mechanics are pretty much identical to the last game, and the use of gravity, the combination of traversing across large and tiny planets are all so familiar. The difference is, that this sequel mixes it up far more than seen in the original SMG.

It’s a testament to the minds at Nintendo’s EAD team that they’ve managed to plunge so much originality in what could be seen as a rehashed, homage title of sorts. Calling it a rehash though, simply doesn’t do SMG2 any justice, as the game is brimming with brand new ideas, excitingly tough and imaginative levels, and perhaps the best orchestral score used in a Mario game to date. It is definitely in many ways a homage title though, more so than the last game.

SMG2 also expands upon the gravitational ideas and shifting perspectives introduced to us in the first game, whilst adding practically a new gameplay mechanic almost in every level. Nintendo have taken onboard what worked, and ditched perhaps what didn’t, or rather what did, but just not as well as it could have. At the same time they have also reduced the number of stages which favour Mario 64’s brand of exploration, instead focusing on obstacle course style level layouts. These stages have a definitive beginning, but the end sometimes feels out of place and strangely positioned into what appears to be the most challenging to reach area in the stage, whether it makes sense of not.

Despite this the game still manages to be an awesome experience through and through - just not quite as amazingly perfect as I would have liked - and this is further upheld up by the inclusion of cool new power-ups, and the return of an old friend from Super Mario World. The finely crafted orchestrated sound track, and magical nature of the game also plays a large part in this too, with the usual Nintendo touch being applied without restraint.

The first thing that you’ll notice has changed in SMG2 is the use of a hub world to serve as entry to one of many galaxies to be found in the game. Instead of featuring a large and expansive hub in which to both explore and to act as a gateway to new stages, you now have Starship Mario, and the return of a traditional map system. This new map system is very much like the ones found in both New Super Mario Bros and Super Mario 3. Levels are clearly marked in order along with the amount of stars possible to collect in each one, and the amount required to unlock the next stage. There are also branching pathways which lead to bonus levels or other normal stages.

The map can also be zoomed in and out, to show either individual galaxies, or simply the stages to be found in each one. It is a far more convenient way of displaying all of the game’s levels, which are now easier to find and keep track of, than to have to hunt around for them in the old hub world. Sadly the map system lacks some of the same charm and magical quality compared to SMG1’s ‘observatory’, although Starship Mario certainly does not.

Starship Mario itself is a smaller version of the hub found in the original SMB, complete with hidden areas, and a cool reproduction of one of the last game’s observatories, which acts as a museum of sorts for displaying power-ups found and artefacts uncovered on your journey. The Starship looks like Mario’s face, and you can run all around it, venturing into unlocked rooms and talking to the inhabitants that arrive at certain points throughout the game. Jumping on the pressure pad in front of the steering wheel (yes, a wheel) takes you to the game’s map screen, in which you browse through, and select your levels.

Outside of the new hub world and map system, most of the changes and improvements are contained within the gameplay itself. The biggest addition to SMG2 is the inclusion of Yoshi, who has been missing in action for far to long in a Mario game. He hasn’t changed much from his debut in Super Mario World on the Super NES, keeping both his tongue grabbing and hovering abilities at the forefront of what he’s all about.

Yoshi is only used in certain stages, most of which have a new mechanic, which uses him in different ways from just running around and doing the usual platform jumping. For example, some stages will require you to keep Yoshi fed with fruits enabling him to walk on otherwise invisible platforms. At other times eating a blue coloured fruit will see him puff up like a balloon and enable him to float up in the air to areas out of reach using the standard Mario/Yoshi combination. Likewise, the game will also test your basic tongue-lashing capabilities by having you swing from objects suspended high up in the air before reaching a specific location.

After Yoshi comes the use of brand new power-ups, including Cloud Mario, Rock Mario, and a funky looking drill that Mario can carry above his head (Drill Mario?). These are awesome, especially Rock Mario, which sees the little fellow take the form of a rocky boulder when waggling the Wii Remote, causing him roll around on screen at speed, much like Morpthball Samus in Metroid Prime.

Cloud Mario has the ability to create a few temporary platforms in which to stand on, allowing you to reach previously out of the way areas. Simply by jumping up and then waggling the Wii Remote creates one of three clouds for Mario to stand on. These clouds can be created in jet streams allowing Mario to glide across the sky, or just to gain a little extra height. After using up all three clouds it simply a case of grabbing another power-up to refill your supply, and away you go.

Like with Yoshi levels are all specifically designed to use these abilities, and in many cases new mechanics are presented for the player to learn and master. The range on offer is pretty incredible, with an almost constant barrage of new, or quirky things coming your way, all of which are done extremely well.

If there is one complaint about an otherwise near perfect experience, it’s that a lot of the levels are very linear in nature, and with little exploration to be had. You never really get to ‘know’ the levels like in Mario 64, or even parts of the first SMG. Instead the levels feel like a design homage to the likes of Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels, or Super Mario World, created more in the way of testing your hardcore platforming skills rather than delivering the most intoxicating, and expansive Mario game yet.

However, the challenges set in nearly every world are as imaginative as the last, and a lot of effort has gone into making this one of the most inspired Mario titles yet. It also works beautifully as homage to the old 2D Mario titles, with redone orchestral music, and faithfully styled level designs. Approaching the sequel in this way, rather than putting it on a ten out of ten, revolutionary, and perfectionist pedestal, is perhaps the way to go.

And this is in itself the way that Nintendo views the game – as a hardcore instalment of the series designed for the most experienced, and dedicated Mario fans. In which case the game succeeds with flying colours, earning its Koopa wings, but maybe not in making it the ‘best’ Mario game of all time. Perhaps not quite as sublime as the first SMG either, though that will be debated for years, I’m sure.

Moving forward, there is plenty to do once you’ve finished the game. After getting 120 stars you unlock another 120 green stars to collect, taking the challenge up a notch, and giving you another chance to play through every level once again. Getting stars is only one part of the challenge though. Throughout every level is a hidden comet coin, and picking this up unlocks specific challenges in addition to the main task required to getting a star. So, for example you might have to do a timed run of a specific star challenge, or a race to the end of the stage.

Occasionally I thought that some of the challenges the game has to offer are just a little too frustrating, especially later on when the slightest mistake leads to a lost of life. In these situations it isn’t so much the level design or actual challenge itself that is the problem, but it’s these elements combined with what appears to be occasionally restrictive camera placement that impacts on the overall polished nature of the experience. It’s nothing overly bad, or even enough to tarnish the delights that Nintendo have managed to cram in here, but it does in my opinion make it less of an overall exemplary experience compared to the first game.

So, you could say that while this sequel does much to improve on the original, it doesn’t quite beat it outright, at best matching the original’s brilliance, and at worst not quite hitting the same highs. Either way, however you slice it, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is still one of the best games to be released in the last ten years or so, and well worth picking up, essentially so, even if it’s not as awe-inspiringly fantastical as SMG was.

Overall SMG2 does so much right. The inclusion of new characters and power-ups are suitably inspired as they are superb, as is the streamlined map system and the extra challenges that keep you going after finishing the game, not to mention the beautiful visuals on offer – Nintendo have really pushed the Wii in this regard, shiny and beautifully lit graphics all at a lavish 60fps. That said, this sequel isn’t quite as groundbreaking as the first game, and not quite as finely balanced either. However, you do have to appreciate the fact that Nintendo very rarely makes a Mario sequel, and in this case it’s one of the best they’ve ever made, minor issues aside.

Perhaps, at the end of the day that’s all that matters, because whilst Super Mario Galaxy 2 might not be as revolutionary as the first, it’s still full of imagination, atmosphere, and some of the most impressively creative level designs to date. Sure it can be frustrating at times, and the reduction in larger level exploration is mildly disappointing. But by the same token it is complete celebration of what gaming used to be about, not what it is about now, and with this in mind it is an undeniable success.


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