What Nintendo's EAD Tokyo team has managed to pull off in this game is astounding, especially when you consider just how good the original Super Mario Galaxy was. Like expert craftsmen, they've improved upon an already excellent product and delivered a seemingly endless volley of fresh ideas -- be they in level design or game mechanics -- that are every bit as polished as those in the first game and, most importantly, just pure fun.
Since the sequel was first announced and up until, well, now, there's been a lingering question: Is it just Super Mario Galaxy 1.5? Despite what the original plans for the sequel may have entailed, one thing is clear: SMG2 is its own game. It shares the basic mechanics of its predecessor yet brings so many new experiences to the playing field that it stands alone. Even more, it features enough challenges to keep the most hardcore Mario player engaged for weeks.
The improvement upon the original SMG starts with doing away with part of it. Gone is the unnecessarily complex hub level, replaced by "Starship Mario," a small planetoid in the likeness of Mario's head. Starship Mario serves as a training ground, an opportunity to pick up extra lives and other items, and the means by which players progress along the game's revamped world map -- or, should I say, galaxy map. The map offers a much more concise way of seeing the challenges available in the various galaxies than did the first game's sprawling HQ; and other to-dos, such as keeping track of the 240-plus Power Stars to collect, have been further simplified into a sort of "checklist."
The map also does a good job of clearly differentiating between the "main" galaxies and those designed for more skilled players, placing them on separate branches along its path. In general, I found that SMG2 is a considerably more challenging game than the original -- as Nintendo promised -- but never did I want to hurl my Wiimote and walk away.
The more casual player has been addressed in a couple of different ways, however. First, "Hint TV" signs appear in levels to explain through videos how to perform certain potentially tricky moves. Beyond this, for the player who just can't seem to get past a particularly tough section, the Super Guide from New Super Mario Bros. Wii returns as the "Cosmic Guide," which will play through that section (or the rest of the level) for you. The trade-off is you won't be able to earn a full Power Star until you can beat these areas yourself -- not like any of you proud players would ever stoop to using such a device, right?
The galaxies in SMG2 couldn't be more imaginative, introducing new items and objects to aid Mario in his adventure. And more so than in any other Mario game, there are a number of interesting gimmicks that only come into play a few times. You could be exploring an aquatic world, and, by jumping on a switch, flash-freeze its surface. Mario can then skate across it, the sea life below completely unfazed, and wall-jump between two frozen waterfalls to grab a star. The Bee Suit from SMG1 is back, but there are also new abilities, such as Cloud Mario and Rock Mario, that are not only a joy to mess around with but are put to great use within some really clever levels. Rock Mario as a bowling ball? It happens -- complete with bowling pin enemies.
Then there's Mario's old dinosaur pal Yoshi, who introduces a whole other layer of gameplay, adding to the unique level designs dreamed up by EAD Tokyo. His tongue-grab mechanic works flawlessly, making it possible to snatch projectiles out of mid-air and fling them back at the enemies who launched them. There are timed platforms that can only be pulled out with a hefty tug from his tongue. His special, fruit-bestowed abilities are really played up, too. One of my favorite points in the game came when I had to use Light Yoshi to navigate a haunted mansion, his glow illuminating the floor so that Mario didn't fall to his doom.
And the bosses! Large and small, there are many more to tackle in SMG2; you're guaranteed to run into at least a couple in each galaxy. Some, such as a large Lakitu-like foe that crackles with electricity and tosses Spinies at Mario, serve to help you hone new skills (catching and tossing back projectiles with Yoshi, in this case). Others are designed simply to make you say "Wow" and crack a smile, like a robot that can only be defeated by drilling through the core of a planet to smash its undercarriage.
I won't say that it looks fantastic "for a Wii game" -- SMG2 looks fantastic for a game. Period. This should come as no surprise to anyone who played the original, and EAD Tokyo again shows it has a deep understanding of how to get the most out of the Wii hardware and what sort of visual elements work best on it. The game is a feast for the eyes, even more so than the first, and is capped by a stirring orchestral score that's among the best I've heard.
"As if that weren't enough" is the running theme throughout SMG2, by which I mean, on top of this incredible platformer -- which itself is at the top of the genre -- its creators have managed to pile on countless nods to past games (through characters, enemies and even entire levels) and a second playable character in Luigi. As if that weren't enough (see!), the "couch co-op" gameplay has been much improved, allowing for a second player to control a Luma creature that tags along with Mario. Unlike the last game, Player Two isn't limited to simply clicking at star bits or dizzying enemies with a mindless twirl of the Wiimote -- the partner can now squash dangerous plant life, grab and spin enemies out of existence and even fetch coins, which comes in extra handy during the more challenging moments. Fighting a boss is easier (and more fun) when you have a friend helping you to stay alive.
If you couldn't tell from the very first words of this review, I'm absolutely in love with SMG2. It's a near-perfect mix of superb controls, unequaled level design and pure creative genius. Simply, it'll never fail to put you in a good mood. You can't ask for more from a game than that.
This review is based on the retail version of Super Mario Galaxy 2 provided by Nintendo of America.