I was sitting on a couch at Nintendo HQ, facing a large television. On it, a planetoid shaped like Mario's head stared back at me. It was Starship Mario, the interstellar plumber's preferred means of travel between the many galaxies that make up Super Mario Galaxy 2. This small world serves as transportation and a mini-sandbox within which Mario can practice moves. It also evolves as the game progresses, gaining new features, such as a "blemish" on its nose -- actually a Yoshi egg that appears after players have met the dutiful dinosaur.
As we've already talked about, the game's designers have tossed out the full-on hub level of Super Mario Galaxy in favor of a more classic, straightforward branching level menu. (Think: the overworld screen from New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and you get the idea.) Moving from galaxy to galaxy is a snap, as is seeing how many worlds you've discovered in each galaxy, as well as the number yet to be found. My first stop was the Puzzle Plank Galaxy, which turned out to be just as clever as it sounds.
Hurtling through space and landing with panache, I found myself on a level that offered up a mix of some new puzzle-solving elements and precision platforming under pressure. The first part of the challenge relied on using Mario's butt-stomp-- ahem, "ground pound" move to force several rectangular pillars from one side of a disc-shaped plantetoid to the other, creating platforms I could hop onto in order to reach a Launch Star. Pretty simply stuff, but still neat.
For much of the remaining level, I had to maneuver Mario along a series of planks -- with little off-shoots containing power-ups -- that were being sawed apart as I ran by rotating blades. I could see the paths the saws would take as they carved out holes and other shapes from the ground in front of me, really necessitating that I "look before I leap," so as not to jump into the void. Behind me, the level fell away, along with any items I may have missed. The stage concluded with a giant sliding block puzzle. Running around its edges, I had to ground pound the right spots in the correct order to complete the puzzle picture and nab my first star.
Next up, in the Boulder Bowl Galaxy, I played around with a brand-new suit: the "Rock Mario" power-up. The spherical worlds here were covered with smashable crystals and huge stone pillars. I spotted a power-up that looked like a stone mushroom; sure enough, it was, and picking it up outfitted Mario in the Rock Mario suit. While wearing this, shaking the Wiimote transforms Mario into a fast-moving boulder that can be guided around using the analog stick until it hits something or runs out of steam. The power was immediately useful in crushing the otherwise indestructible stone pillars and larger crystals. It also let me knock down a ramp that turned out to be a bowling lane, complete with bowling pin–shaped enemies, which I sent flying while in boulder form.
While powerful, the Rock Mario suit's "boulder dash" has a definite downside -- it's hard to stop, and you can easily fly off the edge of "one-sided" worlds, if you're not careful. As this was an early level, the area was surrounded with fences that could take one hit each before collapsing away, exposing the void.
Reaching the end of this world, I went up against Rollodillo; a gigantic, rock-covered armadillo that (surprise!) rolled around his own little planet trying to flatten me. He was left dizzy after rolling twice without any luck, which opened up his backside for me to slam Mario -- in boulder form -- into. Three hits and Rollodillo was history.
Back on board Starship Mario, it was off to the Honeybloom Galaxy and the return of the Bee Suit from the first Super Mario Galaxy. It worked exactly the same: Mario could fly for a limited time, and I would lose the suit if I landed in water. This level was entirely side-scrolling, taking place around the perimeter of a larger world. Lots of pointy enemies patrolled set paths, so the challenge here was flying past them while keeping an eye on the small meter showing how long Mario could stay airborne. What really helped were cloud platforms that I was able to fly up through and land on, as long as Mario was in his Bee Suit. The level also involved a lot of acrobatics -- from wall jumps to trapeze swinging to a mixture of vine riding and bouncing off giant fruit.
I got a taste of the underwater worlds in Mario Galaxy 2 next, in the Cosmic Cove Galaxy. Once again: penguins everywhere. Under the waves I encountered new enemies that looked (and moved) like plankton, along with the classic red and white "Mario Bros. fish." Once I reached a tower jutting out of the water and ground pounded a giant switch, the surface of the water instantly froze over, allowing me to skate across it while watching the undersea world continue along below the ice. The effect was really impressive. The objective in this world was to freeze two towering waterfalls that had been pouring down from adjacent floating islands in the sky. Once turned to ice, Mario could wall-jump between them to reach the stage's star.
The final galaxy I got to play in, Haunted Halls Galaxy, would normally be self-explanatory based on its name alone -- but a new gameplay mechanic involving Yoshi made it really cool. Here, I started out guiding Mario past ghosts (the Boo Mario suit will return, although I didn't see it) and negotiating fast-disappearing walkways outside a haunted mansion. Once inside, I met up with Yoshi and a new power-up, the Glimmer Bulb. Eating it turned my stock green Yoshi into "Light Yoshi," who radiated a yellow glow in all directions. It turned out that I'd need this power to see in the pitch black that was to come. The effect of the fruit was short lived, so munching more (sometimes from afar) became part of the strategy, since Mario would drop into the void if the area around him went completely dark.
I came away from this latest Super Mario Galaxy 2 hands-on even more excited for the game's May 23 release. Mario Galaxy 2 looks great, sounds great (banjo music!) and plays every bit as smooth as the first, with the bonus of some neat new gameplay mechanics that have led to some really fresh stage designs. There are definitely more surprises to come, too, which were strictly off-limits during my play time. You mean it gets even better?