Mario is one of the oldest and most storied franchises in gaming history. The iconic Italian plumber has been able to stay relevant over the decades by consistently reinventing himself - from 8-bit 2D to Earthly 3D, to the outer reaches of space. 2007's Super Mario Galaxy was the latest to reinvent the franchise, with its mind-bending gravity mechanics, unique planetoids, and otherworldly wonderment. Apparently Miyamoto's team had so many ideas as a result of the new direction Galaxy took, that they decided to make a direct sequel - something Mario hasn't seen for quite some time. The end product is Super Mario Galaxy 2, a game that takes the foundations laid out in Galaxy and experiments with them in every way imaginable.
Calling Galaxy 2 a direct sequel applies in every way except story. The traditional Mario adventure starts off where it always has - Mario goes to see Princess Peach, but before he can get there the villainous Bowser steps in and kidnaps her. Mario is yet again tasked with searching the universe for his beloved Peach. This scenario has played itself out so many times that it's comical at this point, especially considering Mario and Bowser are the best of friends in numerous Mario spin-offs, and for some unexplained reason Bowser always requires Peach in order to carry out his evil plan.
That being said, Mario's narrative has never been its strength, merely serving as an excuse to do some incredible platforming. Thankfully, Nintendo seems well aware of the plot's purpose, designing the game so that it doesn't become an unnecessary distraction. Unfortunately, players will still end up chatting with far too many pointless characters, who are blabbering on about nothing. Hopefully, in the future they cut even more of the fat away.
What Mario has always excelled at is platforming. The series has been the staple of the genre since its inception and continues to be with Galaxy 2. In particular, the game stands out from previous Mario titles because of the sheer number of unique, inventive ideas that have been compiled into one amazing package. Galaxy 2 is constantly throwing new and interesting riffs at the player, but it never feels overwhelming thanks to some genius level design. Whether it's seamlessly changing between perspectives (sometimes quickly from 3D to 2D to top down), experimenting with intuitive gravity dynamics or using numerous new abilities, the game will always keep players guessing as to what comes next.
The real magic in Galaxy 2 is that the developers manage to teach the player just enough, through practice and subtle cues, so the barrage of new skills doesn't get confusing. There are so many great mechanics in this game that many levels are self contained experiences, by which I mean some are only ever used once. Galaxy 2's ability to quickly teach a skill over the course of a level, have the player easily come to terms with it, and then transfer that experience into a clever boss battle or climax is absolutely brilliant. While many mechanics return in other stages, some are quickly seen and then vanish as fast as they came. There is enough material here to spawn several full games, a testament to the developer's unmatched creativity.
For the most part, Mario controls like he always has. All the standard moves are accounted for, with some nice additions. In particular, the pointer on the Wii remote has been expanded for the better. As in the original Galaxy, the pointer is used to collect little star bits around the screen, but this time Yoshi also uses it to great effect. Yoshi's frighteningly flexible tongue can be controlled with the pointer to grab enemies and turn them into items, flip switches, pull levers and shoot projectiles. It's a great implementation that provides some interesting situations never seen in a Mario game.
On the other hand, while the controls are very solid, the game does feel like it's slightly missing out, as the classic controller isn't supported. The Wii remote functions more than adequately to get players through the levels, but when precise actions are required (there are many, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a very challenging game) the thought of a traditional controller inevitably crosses the mind. A few circumstances such as rolling, swimming and flying also highlight some weaknesses in the control scheme, however, these are vastly outweighed by the delightful moments that make up the majority of the game.
Both Mario Galaxy titles are shinning examples of gorgeous Wii games that stand out on the strength of their art. The minimalist art style used sells the world beautifully, and the variety will constantly stimulate your senses. Make sure you're playing on a standard definition TV as a modern widescreen will cause the edges to look rigid and make the resolution lines all too apparent. Otherwise, Galaxy 2 is a fantastic looking game. The sound design is equally impressive. There is a diverse set of tracks ranging from remixed Mario classics to new jazz arrangements. Overall, Mario continues to provide top notch presentation.
Galaxy 2 also surpasses its predecessor in terms of lasting appeal. Whether playing solo or co-op, Galaxy 2's 242 stars and numerous, valuable collectables will keep you busy for a long time. Co-op in the original Galaxy largely felt like an afterthought as the second player simply collected star bits. This time around the second player has far more options that actually have a significant impact. Along with collecting star bits, the pointer can be used to grab coins thus restoring Mario's health, and to shoot star bits that damage enemies. Levels are much more manageable with a friend to assist with some of the tasks. The game also does a great job of rewarding exploration which can't be commended enough.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 manages to capture that magical sense of fun and amazement for which Nintendo are so revered. This is the pinnacle of Mario platforming. Scratch that, platforming in general. The constant variety Galaxy 2 throws at the player is nothing short of astonishing. Just when a mediocre level makes you consider the remote possibility that the game has finally run out of clever ideas, the next level impresses with something different. Games that put a smile on your face when you're feeling down are a rare breed - Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of those games.