In 1996 Nintendo released a little game called Super Mario 64, on a largely glossed-over console called the Nintendo 64 (you see that sarcasm? That’s why I’m a writer, people). The game went on to sell a crap-ton of copies, due largely to the fact that it was one of the first truly open, 3D action-adventure games ever made.
As anyone who has picked up a controller with the Nintendo logo emblazoned on it knows, the hallmark of the Mario series is its ability to let the player explore. When “platformer” was becoming a newly-minted moniker and games with more than three levels were starting to be considered revolutionary, Super Mario Bros. gave us 32 levels, and more importantly, hidden paths and secret rooms. Likewise, Super Mario 64 did the same for 3D gaming, and turned awkward polygonal messes into beautiful, inviting landscapes as far as the eye could see. Instead of ushering players along a well-scripted hallway into an exit door, it gave them a simple hint, dropped them into a world, and said “go”. The point of all this exposition is to say that Mario Galaxy 2, great game though it may be, screwed up the whole point of the entire Mario series: the exploration. It did this in spite of Mario Galaxy 1’s brilliant return to form after Mario Sunshine’s creative but flawed attempt to inject some originality into the formula by letting players jetpack through the entire damn game, and that’s what hurts me just a bit more about playing through it. Here’s what made Mario Galaxy 1 so very, very brilliant: Remember that feeling you got unwrapping the cellophane on Christmas morning when you opened your Mario 64 Cart, plugged it into your equally fresh N64, and ran around just to see where Mario could go? Mario Galaxy amplified that idea INTO SPACE. The whole feeling Nintendo injected into that game, into both games, was “I have no idea where this is gonna take me, but I really, really want to find out. I need to find out.” And they did this very deliberately, of course. Mario Galaxy’s main spaceship hub starts with most of its areas darkened, yet lets you go walk around them anyway. They want you to know there’s more to explore, and they know it’s much more exciting to be able to feel those areas yourself, instead of forcing you to press your face up against an invisible glass wall like most games do. It wasn’t just fun, it instilled wonder in its players. It made you imagine. Mario Galaxy 2 did none of that. Instead of Mario Galaxy 1’s perfectly-sized 6 to 8 star worlds to explore, Galaxy 2 opted to create double the levels, but tax the players by cutting their size in half, thereby absolutely ruining the atmosphere Galaxy 1 took so long to lovingly create. In Galaxy 2’s levels you have 3 main stars apiece, with some hidden green stars put in to pad that number to an even 6. One of these main stars is a comet challenge, meaning it’ll be a copy of one of the other 2 with a time limit or health deficiency tacked on. That leaves two actual stars, meaning that most of the levels only give you two fairly-linear paths to get to them, paths that are often completely unconnected to each other. Choose star 1, you’re set on path A. Choose star 2, you get path B. Repeat until you’ve saved the Princess. Beginning to see the problem here?
It’s a little ironic that Nintendo realized that they couldn’t just make another Galaxy 1 with new levels at the risk of being unimaginative, and responded by limiting the exploration and shoehorning in callbacks to virtually every Mario game ever made. Sure, it’s nice to see a Pianta show up from Mario Sunshine, or to see the map structure from Mario 3 return, or getting to ride Yoshi. But after the first couple of fun cameos it gets to be a bit redundant and tired…and you begin to wonder where the innovation went. It’s a problem that’s been infecting Nintendo’s games since New Super Mario Bros., and it’s a shame they took that direction after the intense originality of Galaxy 1. The green stars are another problematic feature of Nintendo’s thinned-out, streamlined approach to the Mario Galaxy formula. Because the worlds are so much smaller, there are far fewer of the creative, “off the beaten path” areas to find hidden stars. Instead, we get the green stars, which are less creatively hidden and more shoved into annoying crevices. It’s like losing your car keys and having to find them by jumping over a volcano. In short, it’s a pain. I don’t want anyone reading this to get the impression that I think Galaxy 2 is a bad game; it’s far, far from it. Hopefully you’ve played it despite all the wall of nitpicking I’ve just laid before you, and hopefully you realize that despite those things, it’s still a classic Mario game, through and through. It has plenty of brilliant moments scattered throughout, like a section that forces you to swim through floating cubes of water, or a small planet that blooms into flowers as you run across its surface. The real problem is that for every one of these moments, there’s another one that’s either utterly uninteresting, or that you’ve seen before. For as good as a game Super Mario Galaxy 2 is, the real shame in it all, and the reason for most of my griping, is that it knows how to be a great game. It has the DNA of Galaxy 1, and the team of people who know what it takes to make it happen. For whatever reason…it just didn’t do it. Play Galaxy 2, but play it for what it is: a very good, polished game that’s left sitting at the kid’s table next to Galaxy 1’s 9-course spread.