My thoughts drift towards Buzz Aldrin. Almost first. Second to reach the moon. When Super Mario Galaxy was announced I thought to myself that it would never measure up to its predecessor, simply because it came second. A stupid thought. Sure, we remember Neil Armstrong best, but the history of video games tells us that sequels can be awesome, regardless of whether they take a cautious approach or innovate.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is not just more of the same. If even if that would have gone far to satisfy us.
Nintendo's Tokyo outfit have made us of left over ideas, wrapped them up in two metres of dinosaur tongue, and dipped in the sugary syrup the keep in their magical cupboard of visual delights. And what we end up with is both the best Wii game and the best platform game at this moment.
Explaining the story takes all of three seconds. As it should. Would you believe it, Peach has gotten kidnapped by Bowser once again and Mario has to save her. The story has a smaller role in Super Mario Galaxy 2 compared to the first game (no misty eyed books here), but it still manages to keep things as easy going as we want them. Nintendo realises that we want to jump on those platforms straight away, and we are allowed to. Despite this the playable intro, that moves fluidly from 2D to 3D, is very elegant.
I sling myself into the first galaxy, and dust off my back flips and triple jumps, just to be struck by the wonderfully relaxed atmosphere in Mario's world - something I have yet to find anywhere else. Just a few hours into the game I'm overwhelmed by the amounts of game worlds, challenges and suits thrown at me. Nintendo lets a candy rain of irresistible platform experiences pour down on me, and just when you think there is nothing left another shower full of candy to grab comes down.
When Mario finds a cloud flower in the Fluffy Bluff Galaxy (what a name!) I jump around and conjure cloud platforms by shaking the Wiimote. A minute later I'm freezing an entire lake to ice and skate towards a frozen waterfall, perfect for a series of wall jumps. Towards the end of each world beautiful forts await you where rivers of lava and statues line the roads. In the background you can see the same wonderful space images as last time, as if the Hubble telescope had coloured lenses. I often activate the first person view just to enjoy the view, something that I seldom do in Wii games.
You simply sit there with a constant smile on your face. It reminds me of the best of Pixar's catalogue, but Super Mario Galaxy 2 is more than just bright colours and a nice presentation, but it's also interactivity of course. To experience this world and explore the brilliant level design. It's at its best when you get to toy with gravity, when Mario jumps from flat to spherical surfaces, activates gravity changing switches in a 2D level and when he drills his way through planets with a new power-up. Until stereoscopic 3D has a real breakthrough, you won't get much further in virtual games with three dimensions.
The choice of not including a hub world, and letting us navigate the galaxies on a classic world map may sound like a cheap solution, but works well in practice. The map is beautiful and easy to use. If you still miss a cosy starting point, you are going to enjoy Mario's spacecraft, a planet shaped like the plumbers head, filled with little crannies to explore. The somewhat absurd ship is teeming with life and gets more populated, and decorated the further you get in the game. When I find both a tea set and a space rabbit I realise that "Starship Mario" has all the magic the recent "Alice in Wonderland" should have had.
The difficulty level has been raised a few notches since the original, and even the most veteran gamer will have to use all of his skills to complete the most difficult platform challenges. But thanks to super guides and helpful signs at difficult passages it's still a family friendly game, but if you want to collect all the stars you are in for a real challenge. At least when you arrive at the extra hard special world...
The comets from the first game also make a return, this time they are activated by hidden medals Mario can find. These activate comets in certain trajectories, which give them a twist in the shape of a new challenge. Just as in the original this can be to clear the level in a certain time or with little health.
I find myself truly amused during the levels with Chimp, the 1337 gamer monkey who appears every once in a while to challenge me in new games he has invented. One of them involves stomping Goombas and other enemies in a set amount of time and reach a certain score. This creates a fantastic challenge where the objective is to never hit the ground in order to string your stomps together and get combo bonuses. Flights with a tropical bird and slides reminiscent of Super Mario 64 add variation to the gameplay.
I showered the music in the first Super Mario Galaxy with praise and Super Mario Galaxy 2 deserves nothing less. The orchestrated parts of the theme and onboard Mario's starship are irresistible , and if you know your Mario history you will recognise new takes on classic tunes from Super Mario World and Super Mario 64 among others. I get goosebumps from the choirs in Koopa's Road and blissful ear-gasm when Rainbow Cruise plays as I slide down a long chute. The music even helps you perform certain jumps where rhythm and timing walk hand in hand. And the tracks get extra drums when we ride Yoshi. Naturally.
That takes us to the dinosaur. Mario's green mate Yoshi first saw the light of day as he hatched in Super Mario World back in 1990, and it feels almost as if he hasn't had a major role in a game ever since (not true of course, but we miss him). In Super Mario Galaxy 2 Yoshi is put to good use, and he can use his tongue to eat enemies swing between special flowers. Chili fruits gives him super speed, and blue fruits turn him into a floating balloon. And Yoshi's classic "flutter jump", when he jumps and sort reaches higher thanks to pure will power, can save your life if you mistime a jump.
There are many ways in which you can get help in Super Mario Galaxy 2. The Super Guide system we have seen in other Wii titles makes a return, and it allows you to see an AI controlled character clear the level. There are also signs and characters who explains things, and a second player can also help Mario by controlling an orange Luma. This second character can obstruct enemies and throw coins to Mario. Not exactly a multiplayer mode, but a nice way of lending younger players a bit of assistance.
If you want to find something to complain about then you can point to the few camera problems that still exist. The camera is smoother than in the original and keeps better track of Mario, but I still miss the option of rotating it manually at all times. It's also weird that the first person view isn't available at all times. It's not something that you will think about a lot as you play the game, however.
The greatness of Super Mario Galaxy 2 lies in the details. Those little things you won't notice immediately, but that bring something extra to the experience. Things like Yoshi activating switches with his tongue, and Lumas doing pirouettes when Mario is nearby, and signs that are threatening at first congratulate you once a star has appeared. And the sea gulls that circle Starship Mario, and the fact that the ship looks at Mario when he zooms away to a new galaxy... I'll let you discover the rest of these little gems on your own.
I simply have to bow down once again. Super Mario Galaxy 2 joins the exclusive circle of great sequels populated by Half-Life 2, Mass Effect 2, and Killzone 2. Even as a grown up I can't help but enjoying myself like a little kid as I hunt down the 120 stars. It's fun in the same simple manner as climbing up on a shopping cart to ride it for a few yards. I fly between heavenly bodies, triple jump to a platform, and collect stardust. I find a rock flower, turn into a boulder and crush everything that dares enter my path. Much like Super Mario Galaxy 2 does.