Super Mario Galaxy 2
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is truly a rare beast
- An exhilarating reinvention of platformers that constantly challenges its own identity with success
- The increased difficulty and high proficiency requirement may turn new fans off
Miyamoto's plumber prodigy returns to the stars in Super Mario Galaxy 2, reinventing various series staples in the process and offering up a challenging, ever-evolving experience worthy of the Mario legacy.
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Super Mario Galaxy 2 is truly a rare beast. After all, Nintendo is more than happy to rehash many of their biggest franchises ad nauseum, and the 3D Mario games never stray far from the established norm. But surprisingly, Nintendo seems to have found enough creative elbow room in the Mario Galaxy universe to create an entirely new trip. I was sure that Nintendo would rehash most, if not all, of the same ideas they put into the first Galaxy title for this sequel, but surprisingly, there's very little redundancy present at all.
Although it is rightfully revered as one of the most iconic video game franchises around, the Mario series is really nothing more than a series of familiar tropes placed in succession. It has been that way since the very beginning, the only discrepancies being Super Mario Bros. 2 -- a re-skinned port of a Japanese game called Doki Doki Panic 2 -- and the thematically unique Super Mario Sunshine. Almost every core Mario title adheres to a check list of foundational ideas, from exploiting Mario's leaping ability to dictate the gameplay to a large overworld that houses discrete levels. Deviate from these themes too much and you risk the ire of the fans while also potentially robbing the game of cohesion. Thus, many of the enemies, power-ups, and iconography stays the same across each iteration of the franchise.
Most titles in the genre follow this path, offering a set experience with a variety of power-ups and new abilities to keep things interesting, and there is often a clear set of repeated ideas that tie the entire experience together. What makes Galaxy 2 such a unique beast, then, is that it demonstrates a clear disregard for the rules as well as the idea of mechanical consistency. One moment Mario is climbing up the pages of a pop-up ghost house, the next he's drilling through a planet and forcing players to dwell on the concept of shifting gravity. Soon after that, he's hopping on Yoshi and charging through potential death traps, then making a familiar return to a stage from Super Mario 64 for a little old school platforming adventure. The core set of ideas that make Mario "Mario" are still there to act as the glue for all of these experiences, but each one is wildly different from the rest.
Certain elements are recycled throughout the adventure, but Nintendo constantly re-evaluates the limits of those ideas on the fly. Super Mario Galaxy 2 feels familiar, but there is so much that is different and new; it openly clashes against the definition of a Mario game, as well as the platforming genre. One of the odd side-effects of all this is that it's hard to truly love or hate any one particular element. Much like the schizophrenic WarioWare series, the gameplay here is so disparate that elements you find pleasing may be seen once and vanish, never to return; the same holds true for the opposite end of the spectrum, as concepts that frustrate you will also be gone in a flash. Each galaxy level exemplifies one idea or another, but because there are only four stars per galaxy, there really isn't a chance to fully focus on and appreciate anything. This means Galaxy 2 has to be appreciated as a whole rather than as individual parts, and for the most part, it works. Even when it doesn't (the motion control ball-rolling as well as the inane purple coin collection challenges, for instance), these moments pass quickly enough they don't negatively affect your overall perception of the game.
After finishing the game, I realized just how ballsy Galaxy 2 is. That it would try to stand on a foundation of constantly shifting gameplay speaks to the developer's temerity, and that it still succeeds speaks to Miyamoto and his motley crew's mastery of their craft. New ways to play are shown, quickly mastered, and thrown away by level's end. The momentum and pace of the game is set at light speed, and the feeling is of constant exhilaration. Rarely will you see the same technique used more than twice, and when it is, courtesy of a dastardly Prankster Comet, the resulting challenge reminds players that they really haven't mastered anything.
That's a feeling I experienced a lot during my playthrough. The first Galaxy title brought players into a new world that changed their perception of 3D platforming, but it never asked them to juggle as many concepts as Super Mario Galaxy 2 does. It introduces complex level design motifs like shifting gravity and warped visual perspectives, and then asks you to master them in a matter of minutes. This philosophy applies to power-ups as well. In previous Mario titles, power-ups acted as an advantageous crutch to help you overcome the obstacles in your way. If you struggled through a level, a mushroom or fire flower would help ease the pain. Not so in the Galaxy series: each power-up is only a means to an end. Instead of making things easier, they act as modifiers that simply reinvent some aspect of the game. Even the early inclusion of Luigi is merely a catalyst of adding new challenges, and gamers have nothing other than their own skill to carry them through to the end.
I'm torn by the level of difficulty found in Galaxy 2, as it takes what should be a very friendly game and turns it into something far more difficult than an unsuspecting gamer -- say, a large portion of Nintendo's newfound audience -- might expect. The first two worlds aren't much of a challenge, but worlds three and beyond will challenge even the most capable players. By the time the supposed final world rolls around, I began considering 1-up and life mushrooms as necessary for completion, not superfluous extras to take the edge off. More than once I caved in and allowed the game's support system -- the aptly named Cosmic Guide -- to take over and lead me to the finish. Unfortunately, the resulting bronze star that this netted acts as a stain on my credibility as a gamer. Ultimately, Nintendo presents a creature that immediately looks and feels familiar, a comfortable and inviting videogame that is instantly recognizable. Flippant to our initial preconception, it seduces players into complacency, then quickly asserts its true identity over and over again. Galaxy 2 is a constant deluge of fresh ideas that are successful -- not because of its place in a franchise -- but because it is wholly willing to reinvent itself on the fly. Regardless of the player, and regardless of the legacy that comes with the Mario brand, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a gameplay experience that charges forward on its own rapidly changing terms. We, the lucky players, are only along for the ride.
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