How many times have we returned to Mario, and how many more times will we be returning to him still? Nintendo's beloved icon, as easily identifiable by his blue-collar duds and quiet, goofish mannerisms as his graceful athleticism and chameleon-like adaptability to peril, continually asserts himself as a permanent fixture of video games. Nintendo has done quite a rare and amazing thing with the stout plumber and his army of supporting characters: As far as the medium of video games has come, both in terms of conceptual ambition and the technology developed and utilized to realize those ambitions, Super Mario games still matter. They are still relevant. So, like always, the sphere of Mario has come around to the same place again, and now here is Super Mario Galaxy 2.
In this case, however, the sphere is quite literal. Super Mario Galaxy, released in 2007, introduced the concept of "planet platforming," with stage layouts resembling archipelagos suspended in foreboding space, many with their own unique looks and mechanics. In this universe, gravity is circumferential; Mario will always land toward a land mass's surface no matter which direction he faces, even if on the underside (the rule of thumb: If it's round, downward forces are relative, and if it's not, it's absolute). Even though historically it isn't entirely original, it was a revelation for the 3D "platformer" genre and especially for Super Mario games, as it required new methods of spatial thinking (time and space are perpetual mantras of the platform gamer), increasing the sense of surprise and alertness tenfold. Nintendo's masterful level design and gameplay twists, doled out in drips instead of globs, brought everything together in a sense that seemed both startlingly new yet assuredly familiar.
Galaxy 2 doesn't radically change the foundation laid down by its predecessor, but that's completely forgivable since Galaxy had to exist first and contain such a strong core in order to appreciate how Galaxy 2 impresses as much as it does. That deep precedent had to be met in order for it to be so thoughtfully exceeded. It couldn't have been done any other way.
Take the "hub-world," for example, the common area through which the player accesses new galaxies and their stages. In the first game, a sterile space station fulfilled these duties adequately, but it was a tad too ambling and impersonal, an odd anomaly considering the amount of life and saturation present in the levels themselves. The sequel was able to subvert this pitfall in a simple and direct way: create the most charming, weird, and wonderful hub-world ever conceived, an organic planetary vessel—complete with wheelhouse—fashioned after the head of Mario himself. This "faceship" becomes a repository for all of the secondary characters Mario meets and assists over the course of the game, a brilliant device to implicitly denote progress and boost the feeling of accomplishment that coincides with collecting power stars, the valuable currency of all 3D Super Mario titles.
Another marked difference from the first Galaxy is the jettison of an involved plot or backstory, a point of debate among Super Mario vets. General Producer Shigeru Miyamoto has gone on record himself saying that he felt a heavily involved "story" wasn't necessary for Super Mario games, that the act of doing, of performing, is where the importance should lie. The plot of Galaxy 2 is as base and pure as the Super Mario games of long ago: Bowser, the fire-breathing prehistoric turtle-like main villain, has kidnapped the sugary Princess Peach, damsel in distress, and Mario must save her. Oh, with every game there are slight variations on this main theme, but in essence, the narrative—or the lack of it, perhaps—is tried and true, and needs no meddling.
For me, the strongest quality of Galaxy 2 may actually be its most subtle: the manner in which the different levels and styles of play are parsed out like small nuggets of brilliance instead of spacious, drawn-out platforming exercises. Each objective in each galaxy is just long enough to keep things fresh without feeling monotonous. The incredible amount of variety aids this nirvana: One moment Mario is skating on a frozen lake, the next he could be diverting the routes of chomps (large, barking wrecking balls with menacing fang-grins) through a foundry, the next balancing himself on a ball like a circus seal while navigating through a winding obstacle course, the next reliving his early 2D days by progressing through traditional side scrolling sections, and so on and so on. The wise, borderline Spartan dispersal of power-ups means that every level is a surprise in and of itself. The bee, ghost, and spring abilities return (thankfully, use of the frustrating spring is minimal), along with new power-ups: the Cloud Flower—which makes Mario's jumps inherently "floatier," and he can create a limited number of cloud platforms—and Rock Mushroom, a rolling boulder capable of smashing objects. Even Yoshi, Mario's dinosaur sidekick, makes an appearance, but his presence isn't a constant; he shows up only when needed, or rather, when the level design dictates that he be utilized.
That brings up something about Galaxy 2 that's very important: No particular ability or gameplay mechanic is overused to the point where the player becomes overly comfortable or confident in their own skills. Furtive intensity is a valuable asset of the Super Mario series, the feeling that you've barely succeeded by the skin on your teeth, that somehow you were able to get that little man to his goal despite the odds being ridiculously stacked against him. There were definitely more sighs of relief this time than in the first Galaxy, which is ultimately a good thing, but be prepared, as the development team at Nintendo seemed to assume that players are acclimated to the foundation set by the first game and are ready to handle more precise jumping and quicker reactions. Some of the levels late in the game are absolutely brutal, but in this case even mistakes are intuitive; one is never blaming any element of control other than themselves, and the true magic of a lost life in a Super Mario game is the player's willingness—no, enthusiasm—to say "I want to try again." For those who may find that prospect too intimidating, however, Nintendo has implemented more of its "guide" features, first seen in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, to help first-time planet hoppers who are stuck on a particular portion of the game by providing occasional hints and the option to be walked through a level by a cosmic helping hand—but only after a certain number of deaths have been reached. The limited but enjoyable co-op mode returns as well, allowing for a local companion to help by using a second Wii remote to gather star bits and attack enemies.
Of course, the entire package is wrapped beautifully: The graphics, while using the same engine from Galaxy, still impress as some of the most colorful and fluid on the Wii to date. And though the orchestral portions of the soundtrack have lost a little of their grandness and majesty since the first game, the music is as catchy and engaging as it's ever been for a video game. Make no mistake, composer/arranger Mahito Yokota, who contributed to the first game alongside veteran Nintendo composer Koji Kondo, proves that he is the real deal, a worthy successor to Kondo's aural kingdom.
Are there any faults with Galaxy 2? Well, yes: The limited camera control is still a bit bothersome at times, and some power stars are obtained through simple mini-game challenges, which feel a little stale. These moments, however, quickly pass, brief blips in an ever-moving avalanche of expert game design, built from the ground up to be an experience of play, of whimsical engagement, and not just agency, a turnkey required to fulfill some clichéd predetermined narrative. In all the years that Super Mario titles have been synonymous with "good" video games, perhaps that is the crucial element that gives them their lasting appeal and keeps drawing people in, whether they are first-time players or have been with Mario from the beginning. Games can simply be fun, and light-hearted, and wondrous. The infatuation with "adult" and "artistic" pretenses in gaming remain popular among its advocates, but in the context of what video games used to mean and why millions grew up loving them, Galaxy 2 may be its best example yet.