It's What we've all Seen Before...or is it?
HIGH: Finally getting that stupid Rock Mario star in Melty Monster Galaxy.
LOW: The children's story aesthetic is sadly missing.
WTF: "Awww. The Princess is so thoughtful, even when she's kidnapped." When the hell isn't she kidnapped?
The original Super Mario Galaxy was the most ambitious Mario game since Super Mario 64 way back in 1996. One of the few games to actually use the Wii's unique controller setup to its advantage, Galaxy's wacky M.C. Escher-esque level designs and surprisingly smooth controls were enough to make even the most cynical player utter a grunt of approval. For the first time since the Super NES era, Nintendo has made a direct Mario sequel on the same console in Super Mario Galaxy 2. Cash grab? Sure. This is Nintendo we're talking about here—rehashing preexisting content is what they do. However, it's clear that the design team took this opportunity to polish what they had to a mirror shine.
As good as the levels in Super Mario Galaxy were, they did tend to get a little repetitive later in the game. This isn't a new problem, as Super Mario 64 was even worse in some areas. However, this feeling is not present in Super Mario Galaxy 2. Every level feels like a individual painting sketched out in painstaking detail, colored over with a broad and fruitful array of hues, then cut and snipped to perfection with an X-Acto knife. There are no fillers here, no cookie-cutter design shortcuts. Every single galaxy feels like it was crafted individually, giving every star hunt a little something new to bring to the experience. I played both Galaxy games back-to-back over the course of about a week and a half, and I remember the galaxies from Super Mario Galaxy 2 much more vividly due to this sense of individuality.
Mario Galaxy 2 brings a few new gameplay mechanics to the table, mainly in the addition of Yoshi and some new power-up items. Often, games having lots of "toys" can be cumbersome, leaving the player with the feeling of having too much to do and not enough space and time to do it in. This is not so in Mario Galaxy 2. The various items and additions are spread out evenly enough so that nothing ever feels tedious. There was never any point where I thought: "Aw dammit, I have to do the cloud crap again?" or "Man, they really love their blimp Yoshi stages." Much like the levels themselves, the variety of different things to do feels like it was planned and refined to the point that nothing ever felt tiresome.
There are also a number of slight improvements from the original Super Mario Galaxy. The visually impressive (yet boring to navigate) observatory has been replaced by a simple world map, and the overcomplicated system of finding and moving the prankster comets has been done away with as well. Both of these changes mean that there is less time spent on the ship figuring out where to go, and more time spent star hunting. Also, thank the Maker, there are actual checkpoints that I can run through now, and not the constant "Have I passed it yet?" thoughts from the first game.
With regard to challenge, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is indeed more difficult than the original. I don't consider this a bad thing, though—greater challenge leads to greater satisfaction upon completion. There is a very thin line between being challenging and being tedious, but through the use of checkpoints, Super Mario Galaxy 2 manages to walk that line like a tightrope, making the star hunts more memorable than in the original. I'll never forget the second star from Melty Monster Galaxy, whereas I'm be hard pressed to recall a similar memory from Super Mario Galaxy. It's worth noting that even with the increased difficulty there is absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, in this game that matches the pure malevolence of Super Mario 64's Rainbow Cruise level.
The one thing I thought was missing from Super Mario Galaxy 2 was the story element that was present in the first game. Now I know you're thinking "Huh? Story? In a Mario game? You're joking right? That awesome mustache is screwing with your brain!" but it really was something that helped push the first game to a score of 10 in my eyes. It started out as a simple as any other Mario game, but the story of Rosalina and the lumas added a sense of wonderment to everything, with the surprisingly touching tale of tragedy and recovering after the loss of a loved one. Mario and Bowser were just bit players in something far larger than either of them. This is certainly not something one would expect from a Mario game, and I really appreciated the effort that went into it. Sadly, this quality was not repeated in Super Mario Galaxy 2, as everything has reverted back to the traditional Mario fare. Bowser shows up, Peach is taken, Mario must save her. It's what we've all seen before.
Still, stellar gameplay trumps all, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 has that in spades. Nintendo has taken a game I loved and given it the full Valve treatment. This game has been calibrated, tweaked, re-tweaked, re-calibrated, manicured, pedicured, turtle waxed, and then had all the little smudges wiped off with a silk cloth. While I did miss the sense of narrative from the first game, the improvement in level design, pacing, and gameplay mechanics is almost (not quite, but almost) enough to make up for it. To put it succinctly, one cannot play either Super Mario Galaxy title and tell me that games aren't art.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Wii. Approximately 9 hours of play was devoted to completing the game once.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains mild cartoon violence. Nothing to worry about here folks—perfectly kid safe.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There are no spoken lines and no significant audio cues.