In the beginning, there was Super Mario Bros. on the NES, and it was good. Well, actually there were quite a few appearances by Mario (or Jumpman, as he was originally known) before then, but this was the real breakthrough game for him and his palette-swapped brother, Luigi. Instantly popular, the game spawned two sequels (one of which was not really a Mario game originally, but had him and the other characters pasted in to make it more popular- it worked, but the game was not great), ending with the system-straining Super Mario Bros. 3. As the SNES came along in 1994, Super Mario World was released as a launch game, and often included with the console. 96 levels large (if you found all of them) it was an epic feat of platform gaming, challenging yet accessible, and remains in my humble opinion one of the classic great games of all time.
After a few sequels on the SNES that experimented with slightly tweaked formats (e.g. Mario and Yoshi), he was ready for a move to the third dimension with the incredibly well received Super Mario 64, unsurprisingly on the N64. This game was hailed as a masterpiece and once again defined not just the platform genre but key elements of 3D gaming (such as the dynamic camera system) for years to come. Personally I was not a big fan of the game, but I am deeply in the minority here.
It was a long wait for the next Mario game, with no sequel on the N64. The next time the Italian plumber was seen (in his ‘official’ capacity anyway) was Super Mario Sunshine on the Gamecube, which was very well received but in my opinion a pretty uninspiring game that does not stand up to the test of time anywhere near as much as the other titles.
With the advent of the Wii, Nintendo had already thrown out most of the tropes and standards that we had previously associated with videogames, or at least turned them on their head. Super Mario Galaxy, released in 2007, had big shoes to fill. And fill them it did, once again redefining platform gaming and silencing a lot of naysayers who suggested that the Wii could only handle simple games, which, while accessible, lacked any sort of depth or lasting appeal. SMG was an absolute masterpiece, crammed full of every classic platform game theme, each given a new twist. It was expansive, entertaining, accessible and a lot of fun to play for kids and adults alike.
If Super Mario Galaxy 2 had just been more of the same, a lot of people would have been very pleased. In fact they have taken everything that made the first game great, tweaked and refined and polished it to a high sheen. It is one of greatest platform games I have ever played, only rivalled by its predecessor. I also hate it with a deep and smouldering rage unmatched by any game I have played in recent memory. I’m complex like that.
To start with the good side (and there’s a lot of it), the level design in the game is nothing short of inspired. It could be that the success of previous Super Mario games put everyone else in the platforming business out of a job, so they all ended up working at Nintendo. That would certainly explain how they have managed to seamlessly combine the greatest elements of all that has gone before into a single package. Every time you think you have seen it all, the developers throw a new twist into the mix. Levels where the gravity switches at timed intervals, levels that fold like a popup book from 2D into 3D, levels where you flip from one axis to another, 3D platform sections, 2D platform sections, (simple) puzzles, time-slowing, lateral-thinking, vehicles (Yoshi), races, time-challenges, secrets and more. And every single one of them is executed perfectly.
There are new and familiar powerups, none of which feel shoehorned in or repeats of previous ones, and the presence of Yoshi (your friendly dinosaur steed) is a fresh addition that adds another dimension to the gameplay. You can also plays as Luigi on some levels (though this is, in almost all situations, a terrible idea, as we’ll see later).
One of the few criticisms I had of the original SMG was the lack of variety in the boss battles, with you often facing the same style of enemy, if not exactly the same one, on multiple occasions. This has been addressed in the sequel, with a great and inventive selection of bosses to face, each seeming new to the franchise but fitting perfectly within the aesthetic, and with a nice variety of attacks and techniques required to dispatch them.
So what’s to dislike about this game? Well, for one thing, it is ridiculously hard, even early on. The complexity and combination of actions required to get through some of the sections (not even necessarily boss sections) can be incredibly challenging. Either kids these days are a lot more adept than I was, or there is no way on Earth that anyone younger than a teenager will get far in this game before they throw their Wiimote through their TV (having already chewed through the wrist strap in annoyance).
Also, you will not finish this game easily. In the first SMG, you could get to the end with a minimal number of stars (or levels completed). In the sequel, you will need nearly every one available in order to progress, including some obtained by completing challenge levels that are very tight on their time limits.
One thing that they have persisted with from SMG is the lives system. There is absolutely no need to limit the gaming experience in such an arbitrary way any more. Since the system auto-saves after every level, and the number of continues is infinite, the only thing that limited lives contributes is a mild annoyance when a particularly difficult or awkward section defeats you and you have to navigate to and start that particular level again. Not a major issue, but a needless anachronism in this setting.
But all these are just minor niggles when compared with the brilliance of the game itself. The real, unforgivable irritant for me is the controls. When you attempt to move in the game, Mario will ‘spin his wheels’ a second before beginning to move, and when attempting to stop, will slide to a languid halt. This is even more pronounced when using Luigi, hence why it is more often than not an exercise in frustration to do so (especially on ice levels). You will find frequently that he will not move in the expected direction, not perform the appropriate action (for example actions such as ‘skate forward on ice’ and ‘spin attack enemy’ are both done in exactly the same way, which can lead to accidentally launching yourself off the edge of a level all too easily), jump in the wrong direction or with the wrong intensity, or simply by virtue of the injured animation spinning you off into oblivion, end up dying from a minor collision. Some of these problems are caused by the limited options of the Wii controller, but often they are also the result of unnecessary or unintuitive implementation of 2D controls in a 3D space, which could have been handled better.
In the final analysis, if you own a Wii, you owe it to yourself to get this game. It is the absolute pinnacle of platforming gaming, combining all the best parts of all that has gone before (admittedly mostly from previous Mario games, but also other platform classics like Banjo Kazooie) with new, expanded and ingenious elements added. But if you end up throwing your Wiimote on the floor and stamping it into the carpet in frustration, taking out the disc and smashing it into a million pieces in a vow never to play it again, I won’t blame you.