Version tested: Wii
Nintendo hasn't released a straight-up sequel to a Super Mario game in almost two decades. Ignoring nominal sequels Yoshi's Island and Wario Land, Mario's own adventures - from perfect World to muddy Sunshine and the transformation of old Super Mario Bros. to New - have been a cascade of revisions and re-versions, almost always familiar but never the same.
You could even say that about Super Mario Galaxy itself. The 2007 Wii classic hit the reset switch in virtually every level - sometimes several times per level - as it spun Mario's world upside down, inside out and round and round. Super Mario games have always liked playing with the rules rather than by them, but none have ever done it with such dizzy gusto.
By sending Mario into space, Super Mario Galaxy could ignore what little logic the Mushroom Kingdom ever had, taking its only immutable law - gravity - and twisting it around tiny 3D planetoids, or flipping which way was up in side-scrolling sections that almost mocked the series' roots. Levels could be one-off gameplay gags or fragmented mini-epics in which the plumber would slingshot through the ages of Mario, from impossible future to retro reference and back again.
So, Galaxy is as deserving of a production-line sequel as any game in this illustrious canon. All Super Mario Galaxy 2 has to do is to live up to the dense invention and unstoppable momentum of its predecessor. That's a tough challenge, of course - but not long into the new game, you know Nintendo's Tokyo studio has risen to it.
Inevitably there are moments of déjà vu. The intro rattles through a telegraphed version of the original's misguided attempt at grandiose scene-setting, in which Mario's nemesis Bowser rather perfunctorily kidnaps Princess Peach. "Have fun with your stupid mushrooms," he bellows, and we're off.
Like Super Mario World, the game proper starts outside Yoshi's house - but this time it's floating on an asteroid, and you'll pass under it, through it and out of the chimney pipe before shooting off through a series of miniature levels that don't so much lead as shove you through a crash-course in Galaxy's wraparound, 360-degree platforming. Just as in the first game, you need to smack a Piranha Plant baby-boss's bottom to earn your first star.
Some settings and even level layouts are strikingly familiar. They're usually put to a new purpose, but there are some direct quotes from Mario Galaxy too. (One late level surprises with a note-for-note reconstruction of a moment in Mario's more distant past, and might reduce the unwary fan to actual nostalgic tears.) Such things are dispensed with quickly enough to come off as tribute rather than rehash, and if you didn't play the first game they'll just seem like yet another bright stitch in this tapestry of fun.
A tighter, more organised and more economical game than the first, Super Mario Galaxy 2 rolls that glorious tapestry out before you in plain view and at a brisk pace. It shows only limited interest in anything that isn't catapulting Mario, soaring and whooping, through the cosmos to his next challenge.
It does give you a starship home, but instead of the original's befuddling Disney fantasy with its melancholy space-princess, you get a jolly giant Mario head made out of brickwork and turf and captained by a fat, avuncular purple star. Even the helm looks like it's smiling.
Although gradually populated with friends, diversions and chances to earn 1-ups, Starship Mario is not actually a hub world. The magic and mystery of Mario 64's castle can never be recaptured, it turns out, and Galaxy's scattershot worlds can't be tied together thematically, so time and effort are saved with point-to-point world maps in the New Super Mario Bros. style. Each of the six worlds is capped by a Bowser or Bowser Jr. boss stage, and as with the other 3D Marios, you'll regularly need to revisit previous areas - or Galaxies - to earn enough stars to progress.
As before, each Galaxy offers up a couple of varied challenges for stars, and further variations on these - speed and one-shot daredevil runs, and alternate-universe remixes - arrive when a Prankster Comet visits. Their frustratingly random appearances in the first Galaxy are a thing of the past; this time they appear for good as you collect the well-hidden or hard-to-reach Comet Medals. Overall the sequel's is a more manageable and transparent structure that never stands in the way of fun.
If anything, the power-ups are better too. Bee and Boo suits return, along with the venerable fire flower; the Rock Mushroom allows an enemy-squashing, barrier-smashing dash attack (is that a hint of Zelda's Gorons?); and Cloud Mario can conjure three platforms out of thin air with a pirouette. Simplest and best is the drill, which punches Mario through to the opposite surface of whatever he's standing on. You can imagine how well that works with Galaxy's topsy-turvy levels, and it's used with sparing genius.
But the power-ups pale next to Yoshi. Mario's insatiable, irrepressible steed eats up levels as hungrily as everything in them. He has his flutter-jump and a suite of edible power-ups of his own; I'll leave you to imagine what a Dash Pepper, Blimp Fruit or Bulb Berry might do. Using the pointer - which once again allows you to reach into the screen to collect and fire Star Bits, as well as manipulate and bother other bits of the game - you can guide Yoshi's astonishingly flexible tongue to flick out and gobble (or pull, or swing from) anything around you with a tactile snap that's so gratifying it's almost rude.
Yoshi's tongue is the highlight of Super Mario Galaxy 2's control and interface feedback which, as ever with Nintendo games, is so polished, rewarding and punchy that it's entertaining in itself. Every detail of interaction tickles your pleasure receptors, from the clunk of a switch to the cheer from the remote's speaker when you pick up every coin in one of its old-school underground coin rooms. The game is an unfettered joy to use.
Mario purists will quibble over the continued inclusion of motion control - as with the first Galaxy and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a quick flick of the remote is used to extend jumps with a spin as well as execute many power-ups and special moves - but it's been tuned to the point of faultless reliability, immediacy and comfort by now, so I can only suggest they get over it. The pointer's remarkable ability to let you be in two places on screen at once is more than compensation.
Mario handles more predictably and with a greater margin for error than ever, and although a modicum of finesse has been lost, you simply wouldn't be able to twist your fingers around the conceptual leaps and reversals of Galaxy 2's levels if he wasn't so forgiving. If you feel a little of his old free-wheeling momentum is missing, then (on certain levels) you can opt to use Luigi, who scampers and springs around like a hapless, helter-skelter comic foil to Mario's determined precision. Complete a level with him and you unlock a ghost Luigi to guide you to one of that level's secrets.
Although it's by no means an easy game, it's astonishing how easy Super Mario Galaxy 2 is to enjoy. With multiple gameplay styles and perspectives, and level design so contorted and multi-faceted it's cruel, the camera faces challenges no other game can match, and yet it never puts a foot wrong. The behaviour of the game's gravity and physics can change in an instant, and yet you always instinctively know how to thread our hero through it, that telepathic connection between Mario and gamer as strong as it's been in the last three decades. Despite the loose structure, the pacing is perfect, delivering variety and smooth difficulty on half a dozen fronts simultaneously.
All this is easy to take for granted - the kind of accomplishment that, by its nature, is invisible. But make no mistake, there is exceptional craft on display. Nintendo shows an easy, confident command of concepts that almost any other developer would struggle to think of or articulate, never mind realise, never mind perfect. You simply will not play a better-made game this year.
It's by far the tastiest audiovisual treat on Wii, too. Impeccably solid and fast, it chucks its fruit-coloured and fuzzy-textured planetoids around the screen with abandon, and sets the starlit spectacle to another classic soundtrack of thrilling, orchestral themes and chipper chiptunes.
But a slick finish, structural overhaul and brace of novel features are the stuff all sequels are made of, and on their own, they don't qualify Super Mario Galaxy 2 for greatness. To step out of its predecessor's shadow and justify this second spin of the wheel, it has to deliver surprise, delight, devious challenge and raw creative brilliance, level after level after level.
It does. In Puzzle Plank Galaxy, meandering buzzsaws cut platforms away under your feet. Cosmic Clones appear that ape your every move at second-long intervals until a level is swarming with deadly echoes of everything you've done. In Boo Moon Galaxy, a flat planetoid rears up into a pop-up book of platforms. Rhythmic "beat" levels switch gravity alignment or platform arrangement, or turn the lights on and off to the metronomic tick of the remote speaker.
Flipsville Galaxy is two 3D levels at once, stamped on opposite sides of the coin, Mario pounding platforms down on one side to raise them on the other. Another later level has Mario swimming through cubes of water as they scroll through space, stretching the logical illogic of the game's physics to the limit. In the very best platform games the heroes are the platforms themselves, and Galaxy 2's - ingenious, devious, always surprising arrangements of action and reaction - are no exception.
As with the previous 3D Mario games, after defeating the last of the inventive, testing and fun bosses, you could still have almost half the 120 stars to collect. Galaxy 2 has even more surprises in store for the long-haul gamer, with total completion adding a secret green star in every one of those 120 level variations, doubling the length of the game.
Before that, you'll have discovered another secret extension of Galaxy 2's universe that, in true Mario tradition, reaches beyond childlike surrealism into a wholly abstract realm of extreme gameplay challenge that's as vicious as it is playful. The game might feel more compact than the first, but it's longevity is even greater.
While the New Super Mario Bros. games have been content to remind us of Mario's roots, Super Mario Galaxy recast him in the role of fearless explorer, leaping into impossible realms, redefining what we could do in virtual space. Here, once again, was the Mario of Donkey Kong, of Super Mario Bros., of Super Mario 64.
A simple extension of the Galaxy concept, Super Mario Galaxy 2 can't possibly have the same impact. But it does have the same spirit, throwing new ideas at you with gleeful and impulsive abandon, leaving you breathless, scrambling happily to keep up. You can't really complain about more of the same, when the same is the one thing it never is.
10 / 10