Today, ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to try something crazy. In each of my previous reviews, the populous had come to a consensus about the game(s) I talked about. But this time, it’s time we plunge into the belly of a different kind of beast. We’re going to look at a game with…
HOTLY CONTESTED RECEPTION!
Part 1: The Context
If you can remember a few years back, everybody was talking about Galaxy 2 like this.
etc. etc. etc.
And yet, if you’ve stuck your thermometer into the rectum of the Internet lately to check how heated it is toward Galaxy 2, you’d see that mercury climb a little bit higher. It’s not that it would have that much of a fever, but even a few tenths of a degree can mean the difference between good health and bacterial meningitis. (I think.)
I… err, I don’t really have many good visual demonstrations of this, but take my word for it that that tiny percentage of people can megaphone its voice to seem as loud as the swarm of critics giving this game a perfect score. There are a few high-profile names among them. Tim Rogers, for one, often bashes Galaxy and its sequel for its overuse of tutorial and overly-precise controls. But the most common complaint I see with the game – even from fans – is that the game has no purpose. This criticism manifests in a variety of ways. Some call it an expansion pack, some call it a soulless rehash, some call it more of the same, some call it an unnecessary waste of time. None of those monikers are entirely undeserved, but I think it’s somewhat near-sighted to completely dismiss Galaxy 2 as “Galaxy 1, again.” Some people have gone so far as to discuss Galaxy 1 and 2 as one game, which, in my opinion, is right off.
You can’t ignore one game’s innovations just because it hardly changed a formula. In that case, it’s almost more important to contrast it with its precursors. (Of course, if a game innovates so little, it’s hard to see any change at all…
then there is some room for the complaint.)
So, what exactly did Super Mario Galaxy 2 change?
Part 2: What, Exactly, Super Mario Galaxy 2 Did Change
Super Mario Galaxy was FAR too easy. For one, you can invariably get a few trillion extra lives on every stage you go to. Everywhere level busts at the seams with the things, and what’s worse is that they are several aspects to the game that exist exclusively to inflate your total. There are these weird dice blocks, for example, that are strewn at pretty random parts of levels, which you can roll for prizes. Two of their sides give you an extra life. You have a ONE IN THREE CHANCE to get an extra life simply for not being shitty enough at the game to get towards the end-ish of a level and smash your face into a cube. There are music notes you can pick up that force you to perform the difficult task of following a line to its end. If you can manage through that gauntlet, you’re rewarded with THREE extra lives. Before any boss, you’ll find a luma holding two kinds of mushrooms. The greedy bastard will ask for some arbitrary number of starbits roughly around the number you probably picked up in that level so far. He (or she (or it?)) will then give you the choice between the new health-extending mushroom or a 1-up.
The worst, though, are these transporter things.
These will insta-matically whisk you to an octagonal platform, where you face the daunting task of killing some enemies in ten seconds. First, these serve as distractions that detract from the rest of the level. It’s weird to suddenly be on another plane of the game.They’re reminders that you’re playing a video game, which kills immersion. I know Mario games aren’t as known for having rich lores that suck you into the experience, but there’s a certain trance you get lulled into when you play any good video game. It’s not so much the feeling that you are a chubby Italian in a red suit riding a dinosaur. It’s more “I’m making a series of life-or-death decisions based on how well I can push these buttons to jump.” You start to ignore the outside world, and these teleporters remind you that it exists. They’re a problem. More importantly, however: most of these “challenges” are far to easy. While I like that they require you to react as quickly as possible, your immediate reaction tends to be walking forward. Ergo, when the game puts the invincibility power-up in front of you, it becomes very likely that you’ll accidentally pick it up. If, after happenstantially getting the power-up, you have the wits to run in a circle (a skill you’ve already demonstrated with the music notes), you can earn three more lives. It’s nonsense. As someone who’s dreadful at Mario games, especially the 3D ones, I should not be able to get upwards of 10 lives before I’ve gotten through the first level.
Some people are of the opinion that lives in video games are an archaism from the arcade days. While this is true in most cases, they have their place in certain genres. Lives systems provide the necessary infrastructure to punish repeated mistakes in platformers. Without them, a game can lack consequence. Galaxy is an example of that problem in execution. Because you can have so many second chances, lives have no weight. Thereby, your failures become less “three-strikes-you’re-out” and more “fuck-up-and-waste-a-few-precious-seconds-of-your-already-brief-sentience.” You’d think something so classic to video games as a whole would be harder to royally screw up. Ideally, Galaxy would make lives a valuable, scarcer commodity and, in the event you died, ship you back to the beginning of a level. Perhaps lives could restart on a world-by-world basis to prevent more skilled players from stockpiling dozens of them by the end of the game. Without a stricter system like this, Galaxy fails to keep an overarching difficulty curve.
These problems are compounded by a lack of really challenging levels. There are only a handful of levels I recall dying on at all, and most of those were in special unlockable galaxies. These tended to be gimmicky, isolated sections that broke up the feel of the game. Levels like Sweet Sweet Galaxy, though enjoyable to play, blindside the player and clot the challenge at a specific point.
They’re substitutes for a gradual curve. They create the illusion that the game is difficult by increasing its gross difficulty in a specific area without putting in the elbow grease to make everywhere in the game a bit tougher. It’s as if Sonic 2 consisted entirely of twelve acts of Emerald Hill, but with one act of Metropolis Zone partway through. Comparatively, that act would seem impossible. It makes the game stilted. Furthermore, the difficulty of the game – the main game, not the extra levels – really only picks up in the last two or three levels. My favorite galaxy in the series, Melty Molten Galaxy, is one of the last levels in Galaxy. It’s my favorite because it was the first time in the core level progression of Galaxy that I actually felt opposed. That should not happen. In a game with this many levels, having to wait until the last five or so for even a faint glimpse at challenge is unacceptable.
This easiness was never a problem in previous Mario titles. 3 might have had uncomfortable difficulty spikes as well, but the game followed a straighter progression than Galaxy. The harder bits weren’t special offshoots. World was in mostly the same boat. 64 got the difficulty down closest to right. Getting stars was actually challenging and required a mix of exploration, intelligence, and skill. The exact amounts of those that were required varied between stages, but all were needed frequently enough for advancing in the game to feel brisk. The core of the series has never stooped to being this easy.
The unfortunate thing is, Galaxy 2 didn’t really change a lot of that. It’s still pretty easy overall. Lives are still abundant, and the game’s difficulty doesn’t really heat up until the end.
And yet, after beating all of Galaxy, I found myself dying a lot more in Galaxy 2. I think it’s definitely the harder of the two games. It’s still not quite the level of challenge I’d like a 3D Mario game to be set to (so far, no game in the series has been), but it’s an improvement.
The most important change Galaxy 2 made to the challenge was including harder boss fights. A lot of people seem to think that Galaxy ‘s bosses were hot shit. Megaleg and Bouldergeist in particular tend to get a lot of positive reception. I wasn’t fond of either. I don’t actually think there’s a boss in Galaxy that I really liked. None of them are especially challenging. A majority of them boil down to “run around a circular arena until you get behind them!” or “until they get tired!” or “until their vulnerability shows!” I think the main reason Megaleg is so popular is because he’s the only boss that doesn’t follow that formula, but that’s not a good reason for taking a liking to him. He doesn’t really play like a boss. He’s more an extended vertical platforming section. In itself, that’s not necessarily bad
but the way it’s done here is less “scaling a monumental beast with the odds stacked against you” and more “running uphill while avoiding projectiles that are easy to dodge.” He’s really easy as well.
Galaxy 2 isn’t itself free of mediocre boss fights. Most of them are the usual tedium.
There are, however, a few standouts. The fight with Digga-Leg outclasses its older brother. It isn’t very difficult, but it’s nice to play a boss that feels like sparring with a boss-size opponent. Usually, games pit you against either a boss that’s twenty times your size or a doppelganger with similar abilities. Digga-Leg is big, bad, and imposing, yet you still take turns being in charge of the battle’s pace. Managing to hit him is just tricky enough to keep the fight fun, and as short as the battle is, it’s very fun while it lasts.
The real masterpieces, though, are the later Bowser Junior fights. Megahammer and the Boomsday Machine might look ridiculous, but I think it works for Bowser Junior’s character, as much as I hate the twerp. Megahammer is the best use of Yoshi in the entire game. You have to swallow Bullet Bills (that’s a delightful sentence to say) and redirect them at the boss’s breast plates. The fight requires that you use the entirety of the huge arena, but it’s not a problem as it might be in some…
other games, since you’re generously provides stars that launch you across the diameter of the stage. This is a clever solution to a potential issue. That’s not to say the fight is easy. For one, Bullet Bills are actually difficult to dodge, which is good to see post-Megaleg. More importantly, managing to hit Megahammer requires a fair bit of skill and some talent with controlling Yoshi. It’s also tricky getting the appropriate side of Megahammer to face you for more than a few seconds. This fight is challenging, making it a nice reprieve from the rest of the game’s walk-over. It’s pretty long, too, which is another welcome change. Bosses in both of these games tend to end before they get a chance to start. I don’t think any actually take more than three hits, which is a shame. However, that problem is circumvented here, since registering one hit on Megahammer means hitting him with three Bullet Bills. This gives the battle a good pace.
The Boomsday Machine is great if only for the spectacle. It makes fantastic use of the Cloud Suit. The entire point of the battle is to use the power-up to reach the top of the machine and ground pound Bowser Junior. The boss requires some fairly adept use of both the Suit and the long jump. Unfortunately it’s not too tricky if you bring your A-game, though it is harder than a majority of the rest of the game. He’s at least a little difficult to take down, so he’s fun.
I really like how the boss keeps escalating. It’s jarring to see a tower spring up from the ground and begin firing at you. It’s very jarring to see it spring an extra story. It’s damn pants-shitting to see it turn into the tower of Dr. Zalost.
The biggest problem with both Galaxy games is that you can breeze right over them, but Galaxy 2 is that extra bit harder and has enough better bosses to remain enjoyable. It’s a small improvement, but it alleviates one of the biggest nuisances of Galaxy, so I’m happy there.
Part 3: Yoshi
Yoshi can serve as something of a synecdoche for the Galaxy/Galaxy 2 debate. On one hand, the bigger critics lauded Yoshi as Galaxy 2‘s most important innovation, single-handedly justifying the game’s entire existence. On the other, many thought Yoshi was a totally insubstantial addition and that his being touted so heavily ultimately hurt the game. And, just as with the debate on which game is better, I find myself somewhere between both sides of the argument.
Make no mistake: Yoshi was only included in Galaxy 2 as a marketing stunt. He’s a really brilliant one in that regard. By simply tossing in a few sections with a character who’d already been designed years ago, they earned free bonus points across the board. He was “forgotten,” despite having only been missing in the last 3D game, and people will gobble up any return to any form they recall once liking. He can appear early on in the game, tricking people demoing the game at a friend’s or in a Gamestop into thinking he’s a driving force of the game. Showing his face means that no one can truthfully say the game adds no new content and convinces the gullible into thinking the game innovated extensively. Most importantly, he’s an adorable green I-don’t-know-what whom no one under the age of 7 can resist, which means free money. This isn’t even considering how Yoshi’s entire existence in the first place can be chalked up to needing something fresh to slap on the Super Mario World cover. Simply put: there’s a reason Yoshi is on all the promotional materials for this game despite only appearing in maybe eight of its levels.
Mascot character or not, however, what really matters is how fun Yoshi is to ride upon. If I had to choose a word to describe Yoshi’s gameplay, it would be “chugging.” It is true that you can make a good bit of headway pretty quickly with this little guy, but actually getting momentum up for longer than a few seconds at a time is borderline impossible. This is mostly due to the fact that the level design isn’t remotely conducive to how Yoshi is designed to play. In the original Super Mario Bros., Yoshi practically served as a god mode. As long as you didn’t mess up really badly, you couldn’t lose him. He was a lifeline, a speed boost, and most of all, an unstoppable force of destruction. You could easily plow through *any* stage with Yoshi. Better yet, he controlled the same as Mario sans dinosaur, so you could switch immediately between the two.
Galaxy 2 only has a handful of chances for you to use Yoshi at all. He disappears if you attempt to take him to any other levels. Because Yoshi was mostly overpowered in World because he could trample enemies, he wouldn’t be as good if he just served as a galoomba compost pile in Galaxy 2. 3D Mario games have always had fewer enemies than 2D ones, which makes sense. Occupying the same percentage of space in a 3D game that a single enemy can in earlier Mario games to increase difficulty simply isn’t possible. It’s one of the differences of 3D game design. Because of this, the fine folks at Nintendo decided Yoshi would be required to perform certain actions. Because of this, Yoshi’s use needs to be reallocated.
Thanks to his incredible Tongue-Lashing Action (R), Yoshi can pull on things and swing from… flowers? Whatever. You’ll often need to interact with these objects to progress. Unfortunately, this means that not having Yoshi when progressing through a designated Yoshi Level (TM) is impossible. This means that the game designers are forced to include a place for Yoshi to infinitely spawn just before every chance you have to get stuck without him. A single Yoshi Level (TM) will contain dozens of Yoshi eggs. This makes getting a Yoshi feel unceremonious. You’re always entitled to another. You can massacre the things and nobody would mind.
The variety of Yoshi-exclusive obstacles are bland. The flowers (?) you swing on are decent. The timing on the motion is strangely perfect. It’s not too long, but it gives you enough time to half-move over to the next little blip. It’s hard to describe in text, but it’s fun to do. Unfortunately, there’s really only one way to use this mechanic. There are only so many arrangements of dots you can make. Also exclusive to Yoshi are these little shelves you can tug back on. They’re only ever used to give you a slight boost, too. They’re also pretty boring. What really kills playing as Yoshi, though, is his control. Using your tongue isn’t a matter of pushing a button anymore. You have to move your cursor over anything you want to interact with, push the button, wait for the game to register your motion, wait for the game to do its little animations, and then move onward with your life. This is small, but it takes at least a second to go through the machinations every time you want to use Yoshi’s tongue. Remember, Yoshi is only fun to play when you’re barreling through a level, seemingly unstoppable. When you have to stop every now and again to seem unstoppable, the effect is neutralized. It’s about as exciting as a relay race where you had to crab walk underneath the hurdles. There is no reason a more conventional method of input couldn’t have been used for Tongue-Lashing Action (R).
In summary, everything that made Yoshi click in Super Mario World is ignored here. He’s not your little buddy; he’s a power-up you use to get through a level. He’s a gimmick. He doesn’t play quickly or satisfyingly or balls-out or relentlessly. His sections don’t feel like Mario’s at all, so they take some acclimatization every time you hop onto his back. His inclusion doesn’t feel special, either, in part because he’s expendable and in part because he’s a ploy. There’s just nothing to really enjoy about the typical Yoshi parts.
With that having been said, there are a few extra Yoshi colors with their own abilities. The red one, who moves at high speed, controls stiffly. He can be frustrating, but when you’re under the influence of the pepper, he’s a blast to play as. You actually get to move unimpeded by nonsense and poor controls, which is nice. It almost makes up for the disappointment of the rest of Yoshi’s inclusion. The problem is that he’s in literally two galaxies. The yellow and blue ones aren’t really as memorable. The blue one probably could’ve been replaced with the Cloud Suit, and, to be frank, I can’t even remember what the yellow one does. Something with light, I think? Yeah, whatever. Galaxy did that without an extra character, thank you very much. All in all, the red Yoshi has a really fun level, but can’t save Yoshi’s incorporation as a whole.
Part 4: Meme Genie the Theme Meanie
In Super Mario Galaxy, the (inter)galactic theme permeated every fiber of the game’s being. Everything was about feeling like you were in space, exploring its deepest regions, and appreciating its beauties. Levels like Space Junk Galaxy are scenery porn, as evidenced by the quiet, ambient music. The whole point of the game was to travel deeper and deeper into space. Being able to see more of it was your reward. The hub world was an observatory in space, for crying out loud. Even the gameplay was sucked in by its gravitational pull. The major innovation Galaxy brought to the table was the ability to use a planetoid’s attraction to exploit new platforming possibilities. The end result of this is a game that’s focused around something. This is theming at its finest.
Galaxy 2 throws that out the window. Most of the levels don’t even bother to toss a white speckled background texture into the sky box. It feels like more of the levels take place on flat planes than there are those which have planets you can traverse all around. There are no levels that ask you to reflect on the setting. It’s like the game wanted to be a series of wacky platforming levels instead of a celebration of outer space. This leaves the game feeling disjointed. Every level could’ve fit easily into a generic platformer. There isn’t a reason Puzzle Plank Galaxy should exist in the same universe as Flip Swap Galaxy. The levels in Super Mario Galaxy 2 are almost as connected to one another as the levels in Super Mario 3D World.
There isn’t any of the subtlety that made Galaxy‘s theming really shine. The Comet Observatory is replaced with the illustrious Starship Mario, a gigantic rock with Mario’s face carved out of it. Though it’s worth noting that both of these are empty, time-consuming, get-in-the-way hub worlds with no purpose existing, I still think the Comet Observatory is much better. It actually feels like you’re in space. The middle of the thing is a star. There are little mushroom U. F. O.’s everywhere. It’s adorable. In Galaxy 2 you get a platform you can run up to that lets you go to the map screen. Though compelling, I find myself slightly less endeared by it.
The map itself needs a stern talking-to as well. Galaxy 2‘s would do well with forty brisk lashings. Twenty of those should be from being yet another game to shamelessly rip off Mario 3. The other twenty should be for ignoring Galaxy‘s use of orbits for map selection. It used a genius way to incorporate the ever-present space concept into the structure of the menus. Not every game can do that quite this cleverly. Galaxy 2 instead opts for straight lines. This not only strips away a clever piece of the game’s personality. It makes it feel like you’re going down a straight corridor. Galaxy wasn’t itself freeform, but it was less blatant about that. In Super Mario Galaxy 2, you literally go down straight lines to get from place to place. My favorite parts of outer space are where you have to go across a one-dimensional line.
Since none of the levels are really connected, it feels especially lazy. You’re basically going through the motions of Mario levels like you’re teleporting to different places in a travel guide in some predetermined order. The orbital menus in Galaxy disguised this and diverted my cynicism. Here, the admittedly basic choices are splayed without discretion. No longer can one pretend that one is actually exploring the far reaches of the universe.
Oh, and, um… remember this?
Remember how it was actually a pretty sweet, simple story? Remember how it added to the stakes of the game, however slightly? Remember how it gave some context to why you were going on a universe-wide adventure? How it made you care just a little bit more about the point of the game? Remember how it proved Nintendo could pull off good characters in even unlikely series? And remember how it did all this in a way that was noninvasive and totally optional, yet still compelling and entertaining? Yeah. I do. Well, Rosalina’s not in the game at all. Instead, we get this fuck.
I’m not asking for Shakespeare, guys. I’m not even asking for you to work that hard on a story. Personally, I’d prefer you barely include it. I’m just asking for a little bit of reason for me to really care. Ideally, the reason should be something I didn’t actively want to maim. In short, it’d be really swell if you could not turn the Lumas into another Mario race, akin to the Pianta or the Toads, who exist to drop exposition or tutorial whenever necessary. I want to invest myself, and I sure as shingles won’t do it for Lubba.
So, to recap everything we’ve talked about so far: Galaxy 2 is just different enough from Galaxy to be looked at as a separate entity, though I kind of understand the reason for complaints that it’s too similar to its predecessor. The difficulty, though still too low, has been made a little bit harder, making the game that much more enjoyable. Particularly fantastic are the more outstanding of the game’s boss fights. The touted “re”-inclusion of Yoshi isn’t a very good addition. He’s not fun to play as like he was in previous games. The overall appreciation of space present in Galaxy has been all but completely done away with. Especially disappointing is the complete disregard for a real story. Overall, though it’s a bit harder and has some amazing boss fights, Galaxy 2‘s changes are mostly downgrades. Its one new feature isn’t very good, and it disregards all that was central to its personality. Games ignore theming too much nowadays, and seeing the sequel to one of the games that did it best throw it in the trash is frustrating. Almost everything different in Galaxy 2 is worse than it was in Galaxy. This makes my assessment of Galaxy 2 lukewarm even without considering the problems with the things it carried over from Galaxy.
Part 5: What Super Mario Galaxy 2 Did Not Change (Comparatively Less Exact)
Despite what you may have heard, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is not a perfect game, and a lot of its problems have been carried over from Super Mario Galaxy. For one, the tone of the game is as patronizing as ever. There are entire species of wooden creatures that exist to do nothing but inform you of how to do things. There are constantly stoppages in the game to tell you how to do any action you’ve last performed longer than two or three levels ago. Like I said before, half the reason Lumas are there is to tell you how to spin. Who needed that to be explained so thoroughly? You flick your wrist. It isn’t that difficult to figure out! Before you enter any special kind of gimmick that uses tilt controls, you sit through an overlong dialog where you tilt the Wiimote left to go left, tilt the Wiimote right to go right, and tilt the Wiimote down to go down. It’s asinine. It feels like half the game might as well be spent telling you to hold the controller upright.
Another tonal issue is the number of callbacks. In Super Mario Galaxy, the game began with a brief cinematic followed by a real level. In Super Mario Galaxy 2, the game follows a similar structure, with one difference: before you enjoy any mini-films or gameplay that’s indicative of what you’ll be spending your playthrough doing, you have to play through a “2D” “level.” It lasts about two minutes, but it’s literally one of the worst levels in the entire Mario series. For one, I don’t think it’s actually possible to die, so you’re essentially learning to hold left on the nunchuk. But that’s not the main issue I have with it. The real problem is that it’s a pretty blatant attempt to appease idiots. “Look! It’s just like the old games! Aren’t I clever for understanding this obscure reference?” Please. The fact that the game feels the need to remind you about a game everyone playing it is familiar with is pathetic. Either the game thinks it’s cute, and it isn’t, or it thinks it’ll serve well as an introduction, which is totally inaccurate, or it thinks it’ll market the game better, which does not make a good game.
This has been a problem with a lot of 3D platformers lately, come to think of it. More and more 3D games are including too many sections that are meant to look like 2D sections. That’s a shame, too. There aren’t enough great 3D platformers out there, and seeing so many of them take up time pretending to be 2D platformers wastes the time of these games twofold. It gives developers an excuse to make fewer 2D games (though we really don’t need another 2D Mario game at this point) and takes away from the 3D segments. The pinnacle of this is Sonic Generations, which is meant to split the 2D and 3D Sonic gameplay styles to satisfy everybody. The problem is more of the 3D sections play like they’re in two dimensions. There isn’t a strong enough duality between the two. Galaxy 2 isn’t as bad about having too many 2D bits, but they’re still too common. There are too many things that make 2D and 3D Mario games different, so you can’t really transpose the set of mechanics from one into the other. There are aspects they share, sure – I think one of the best things about New Super Mario Bros. was that it introduced things like the wall jump – but when you play the flat portions of Galaxy 2, you’re left wishing you were playing the real thing. There just isn’t a way that Galaxy‘s 2D sections can ever stack up against a fully-fleshed second-dimensional experience. It should’ve stuck to 3D at all times, and that includes when it thought it’d be adorable to ignore depth perception.
The entire game is full of other references, unfortunately. The lines of musical notes I mentioned earlier play a swanky rendition of a classic Mario theme when collected. It’s a cool effect, for sure, but it feels like a cheap tactic to get people to guffaw out of nostalgia. Those who read my basically-a-Shovel Knight review know what I have to say on that subject. There are levels whose background music is from older games, too. Honestly, Yoshi is essentially here to serve as a callback, too. In general, the game is full of shout-outs big and small.
The most notable of these is an entire galaxy that’s literally a recreation of a Mario 64 level. A few of these shout-outs would have been fine – Mario 64 did this pretty well, with the music in Hazy Maze Cave and the extra life at the top of the flagpole, for instance – but having so many dilutes the experience. It’s not that there isn’t any variety to them, as there was in Shadow Warrior. It’s that it forces me to suspect that Galaxy 2, a game that usually appears facile, thinks it can’t stand on its own merits. A game with a soundtrack this good shouldn’t rely upon older games’ songs. A game with levels this strong shouldn’t have to literally pull a level from a previous game. A game hoping to become a modern-day classic shouldn’t have to recreate moments from its ancestors to be memorable.
Just like in Super Mario Galaxy, your main form of attack in Galaxy 2 is a spinny thing Let me make sure that sticks: your PRIMARY FORM OF ATTACK in a SUPER MARIO BROTHERS VIDEO GAME is SPINNING. Tell me, is that what a thirty year history has led you to expect from this franchise? No? I can’t imagine what on Earth you’d want from a –
That’s right, it’s starting to come back to me now. Something about all the mechanic depth in this series coming from there being a myriad of ways for Mario to jump, and that the refinement of jumping is what essentially made Super Mario Bros. popular in the first place, and what made it consistently renowned, and what makes it hold up to this day. Or something.
To be fair, the spinning nonsense can be used to lengthen your jump, but I think that’s sort of a bad thing. You can almost launch yourself from the start to the end of a Galaxy 2 level using a long jump and a spin jump in conjunction with one another. The whole beauty of the long jump was that you had to be precise about using it. It gave the game an ultimate means of distance coverage that you had to work toward to master. Here, you can cancel out of a long jump whenever and maneuver Mario exactly where you want him to plant his portly posterior. In 64, such levels of pixel perfection were never possible.
Spinning also adds to the invasive Wiimote waggling. I’ve touched on this already, and fear not, we’ll discuss it more thoroughly later, but having a principal ability of yours delegated to wrist rambunctiousness is annoying. This should’ve been a button. It makes me suspect the twirligigging was only added so the game could show just what motion features were able to pull off.
But my real problem with the spinning is that it gets its spindly fingers stuck in so much of this game. Jumping on enemies? That’s kids stuff. Anymore, the big boys run up to anything and do away with foes with a quick flail of the wrist. Say, you know how ninety percent of Mario enemies damage the player? Touching them. Rarely do you find yourself in a situation where you can’t showcase your inner ballerina to kill an enemy. Combat is no longer about testing how well you’ve mastered Mario’s acrobatics, and that’s a real problem. You might not realize it, but Super Mario Bros. is one of the last “true” platformers we have, in the sense that it’s only about jumping. There are, of course, great 2D sidescrollers that focus on things other than jumping, but very few other games – only older Sonic and Canabalt come to mind – are exclusively about jumping. I know, I probably sound like a purist, but it’s distracting to see something so simple taking up such a large role in Mario. Spinning is a single action with no real variation. It only ever performs one action. Conversely, there are a variety of ways to jump. The core of a Mario game has been shaken up before, of course, with Sunshine‘s F. L. U. D. D., but that was an entirely different animal. Everything in Sunshine was designed around fleshing out F. L. U. D. D. You could utilize it in a multitude of ways. Now, whether or not that worked to Sunshine‘s disadvantage is another discussion entirely, but I think it’s better than having so much of a Mario game be about one simple ability. It’s like if they gave Mario’s punch-kick from 64 a major presence in the game.
Now, this isn’t to say that there isn’t much the spin can’t do. I think it can do too much, actually. It’s the way Mario activates warp stars, stuns enemies, breaks through certain crystals, raises certain platforms, disembarks from Yoshi, protests giving away his seat on the bus, etc., etc. This is too much. For one, very few of these things are things you couldn’t manage by other means. More importantly, these all take away from the game in some way. I’ve already explained why stunning enemies is problematic. Breaking crystals is over-glorified looting, not to mention, ugly. It’s pretty much akin to looting, too, so you can guess how I feel about it.
And the warp stars? Oh, don’t even get me started on those.
Part 6: The Warp Stars
O. K., so the problem with warp stars permeates deeper than just the stars themselves. Every one of them makes me sad to be playing Galaxy, as they typify a bunch of the game’s problems coming to a head. I’m going to divide this bit into subsections to show you what I mean.
The Star Bits
Super Mario Galaxy 2 has all but replaced coins. They’ve been losing their value since 64 in the 3D games but the problem has hit its peak here. This is thanks to star bits, Galaxy‘s foulest turd. Star bits essentially serve to have all the problems as spinning, only worse. They can be used as a substitute for combat, but they can be fired from anywhere on the screen. They’re accessed by pointing the Wii remote at them, so be prepared to fend off the wages of carpal tunnel. They increase the amount of looting the game has by about twenty. Every time you cause the screen to scroll in any direction, you have to stop and twirl the Wii remote about the screen to snag all the star bits. You have to break open crystals to get more star bits. You have to spin around any shells or rocks or grasses you find to get some extra star bits. You have to kill enemies to get more star bits. Star bits, star bits, everywhere you go, it’s star bits. They’re a gas.
And don’t think you have the option to avoid these things, either. You NEED to get star bits to progress in the game. The greedy Luma bastards demand them at commissaries in exchange for lives and health, and expect you to cough up if you want access to certain levels. Little shits want money from me? I don’t think so. I’ve built this brand from the ground up, I can’t afford to be charitable with this username anymore.
This is also where the biggest problem with waggling comes in. Look, I know that it’s a viable means of input. I know that some games, like the port of Resident Evil 4, do it swimmingly. I also know that Super Mario Galaxy 2 forces me to sit upright when I’m trying to focus on Mario’s running and jumping. In Super Mario Galaxy 2, you’re always playing two games at once. One is catching star bits, which is easy as all hell, but tires your focus. You always need to think about swiveling the pointer about the screen. You also have to worry about moving Mario, which is a bit easy as well (zing), but also the reason we’re here. Because you’re busy performing the simpleminded task of pointing a Wiimote everywhere there is to point, your enjoyment of the core of the game is diminished. It isn’t the game like in Resident Evil 4. It’s background noise. You can hand someone else a controller and tell them to collect the star bits, but that’s like telling a person they get to point to every question mark block in Mario 3. It’s a dick move to subject someone to such a task.
I complained before about how Galaxy 2 feels disconnected in places, and that’s partly due to the fact that levels aren’t exactly cohesive. While each galaxy tends to have a “thing” all throughout, very few have logical progressions. Whenever you need to advance to a different area, you get warped there. This means that you can go from a rocky moon to a fenced-off ring of enemies to a boss fight without realizing. Individual planets feel too distinct from one another. The entire game feels modal because of this.
Every game falls somewhere on a sliding scale of variety vs. holisticity. On one hand, you have the WarioWare types, where you’re always having something different thrown at you. On the other, you have Tetrises, which operate under simple, enjoyable rules that allow you to pick up and play, knowing what to expect without variation. The problem is that most games don’t have the liberty of being like WarioWare or Tetris, since both those games are built around dominating their respective ends of the spectrum. Too much variety leaves your game feeling non-cohesive, and too much leaves it to stagnate. Unless your mechanics are strong and built around being the same thing forever, or you tell your players you’re going to keep everything changing every three seconds, you can’t stay on either end of the spectrum.
Galaxy 2 is not at liberty to reside on either side. Most games aren’t. They need to strike a balance of keeping things interesting, yet familiar. It’s especially bad seeing a Mario game jump from idea to idea like this. When I think Mario, I think of a series that’s masterful at accurately knowing when to change things up and when to keep them the same. Because you’re planet-hopping in this game, though, there’s an excuse to throw as many ideas at the wall as you can. It’s the shotgun approach to level design: fire as many pellets of platforming at something as you can and see what breaks the clay birds. Too bad it doesn’t work if you aren’t changing constantly – and I mean every ten seconds or so.
Every fucking time you warp yourself, you have to sit through at least five excruciating seconds of Mario doing his aerial acing. This is boring. It’s annoying to watch the same damn cutscene every time you want to progress to the next part of a game, especially when its effect wears off after you watch a trailer for the game. It’s the biggest problem with these sections. I should not have to take a break after every two minutes of platforming. Thanks, but I’ve been educated on how to appreciate quiet time. Now give me excess.
It All Comes Together
With that said, let’s bring this all together. When you warp, you have to watch a cutscene, which is annoying. The only interaction you’re given as you warp is being able to move your cursor about the screen. This means that all a warp star sequence asks you to do is demonstrate your ability to violently strangle a controller. It’s absolutely tedious bollocks. Worse yet, these bits are everywhere, and they’re used as an excuse to chauffeur you from bit of level to bit of level. Meaning: every time you use a warp star, you’re reminded that you have to sit and wait and loot and then putz about doing something completely different on the other end.
And that’s when you see one. Mario Galaxy 2 has a bad habit of using warp stars like keys. You keep having to kill a certain number of enemies or find a certain number of McGuffins or do some other arbitrary thing to unlock the roadblock and progress to the next area. The game isn’t about blitzing through a level. It’s about getting over each of the game’s humps to get to the next hump. What’s that metaphor Chris Crawford used, again?
Part 7: The Structure
Right, sorry about that little conniption.
Everything in the Super Mario Galaxy games is structured wrong. It’s not entirely sure if it wants to play like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario 64. Now, that’s not to say that either of those are structured badly. It’s just that they don’t mix well.
Super Mario Bros. 3 – or World, or whichever similarly-built Mario game you prefer – kept things simple. To complete a stage, all you have to do is reach its end. That’s all. That’s effective. It means that the game is linear. Thus, the game can concern itself with a single pathway. This renders your route in a Mario game as strong as possible. There’s nowhere else for you to go, after all, so your one option has to make it count. It also means that you always know where to go or what to do in 3. It’s nothing special, but it has its benefits. You can’t fault a game for staying reserved.
Possibly my favorite thing about Super Mario 64 was the way it was structured. Having to collect a certain number of stars to advance was beautifully executed. Everything in Super Mario 64 is built around this novel idea. You have to collect a certain number of stars to advance. This means that the player always has clear-cut goals in mind. It also means that a player has something to assign a high value. Thus, getting a star is a big deal. The importance of a star is further emphasized by the difficulty of getting one. To earn a star, you need to first explore a level. It’s never too difficult to find an opportunity to collect a star, but it does force you to be cognizant of your environment. This also gives every level a certain mystique. You’re left wondering where the next star might be hidden or what challenge the game will throw at you next. You then have to go through with actually managing to complete the requirements for getting the star. This whole process makes earning – not “getting” or “beating” – a star an entirely different thrill than the one you feel upon completing a stage in Super Mario World. As a bonus, this also means levels can be replayed ad nauseam, since there will always be something new for the player to attempt to collect. This added benefit in itself has the added benefit of allowing fewer levels. This means every level in the game has to put its strongest foot forward. Fortuitously, 64‘s levels are almost all of the highest caliber.
These two frameworks do not mix well. They simply cannot. It means that sometimes, in Galaxy 2, you’re wandering around looking for some trinket or trying to figure out where to go, and sometimes, you’re plowing forward through a stage. I don’t mind either on its own, but it can lead to moments of confusion. It’s not like Galaxy 2 is a hugely complex game, so your disorientation never lasts for long, but there are more parts in Galaxy 2 when you’ll be trying to figure out where you need to go than in a traditional linear Mario game. And that would be O. K. if the game was more like Mario 64.
Unfortunately, you rarely ever come across the smaller challenges that made 64 great. You’ll never find a penguin that you need to carry back to its mother or find a secret slide to meander down. Instead, you’ll spend an entire level shooting toward a single, obvious goal, which is totally different. You never really scramble to get another star, either. When I first played through Mario 64 all the way, I had a number of times when I was desperate to get just a few more stars to unlock the next area. It was a relief to open up more opportunities to get stars. This was a wonderful experience. Now, you only really have to replay a level. This makes getting the requisite number of stars feel more like backtracking, not fully exploring an area. At the same time, chasing new stars usually means playing through a level with a wildly different structure. That’s cheating. I should be playing in a different part of the same level, not playing through something that’s been totally switched around. On the rare occasions 64 changed, it did so subtly. Here, you wouldn’t be at fault to mistake some levels’ revisits for entirely different galaxies.
When you actually get a star, it’s a much less spectacular experience. You don’t feel elation, or that you’re one step closer to defeating Bowser. You feel like you now have enough shiny things to get through a barrier. The sense that you’ve accomplished a great feat of problem-solving is gone when you feel like you’ve only won because you got to the end of a level.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is too much like Mario 3 because you have to chase after one thing at a time and play through a linear series of levels, and it’s too much like 64 because you have to spend too much time wondering what you have to do. It’s too straightforward, and yet not straightforward enough. It straddles an awkward boundary, and I find myself wishing that it was both more simple and more complex. This also means that the levels, as a whole, aren’t as strong. Worlds are now sorted arbitrarily, as opposed to having a common theme, like in 3. It’s true that the worlds in Mario 3 were basic, elemental stuff, but they all felt different, yet homogeneous within themselves. There was a logical flow to levels. Yet because of Mario 64 influences, the game doesn’t see a need to order the positions of its levels. And because of the Mario 3 bits, the game doesn’t see the need to focus on fewer, stronger levels. A lesser quantity of levels means a greater quality of levels. As it stands, the massive level list is much more hit-or-miss than it is in 64. Ideally, Super Mario 64 would adhere more strictly to one of these styles. I’m fine with either, really; within the Mario franchise alone, 3D platformers have done well on both sides of the divide. You don’t have to copy Mario 64 simply because you’re 3D. But you do have to have a solid framework, and Galaxy 2 just doesn’t.
Another structural blunder Galaxy 2 made was its use of power-ups. It clearly misunderstands the way that power-ups are intended to be used in Mario games. I’m not going to make too big an issue out of this, because, technically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with the approach Galaxy 2 takes. A lot of them, namely the Cloud Suit, are fun as hell to use. It’s just that power-ups no longer feel like rewards. They aren’t the underlying goal of the game. Galaxy 2 uses them as new twists on levels. That’s fine, but there should’ve been something to replace traditional power-ups. It’s especially frustrating that power-ups which existed solely as means of powering up Mario — the fire flower and Yoshi, namely — have been downgraded to be puzzle-solvers in the Galaxy games. (Here’s a tip: the solution to the puzzle is always “break a box open.”) In older games, power-ups always served as rewards and extra weapons and means to fight back against enemies. With Galaxy‘s lower enemy density, it is excusable that power-ups aren’t as prevalent as they are in other games. It’s just disappointing. File this one in the “I’m a petty asshole who misses the way games used to be” folder/drawer/cabinet.
Part 8: The Presentation
It’s pretty damn amazing that games on the “underpowered” Nintendo Wii tended to have the best presentations of any games of the past generation. For one, Retro Studios was securely within the clutches of Nintendo, so Donkey Kong Country Returns and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption offered their incredible art designs to the console. Games that were forced to get stylized, like Madworld and Muramasa, looked prettier and stood out more than almost any AAA title, sales figures be damned. And yet, the game that probably had the best presentation of any Wii game was, indeed, Super Mario Galaxy 2.
The game series everyone points to as an example that “graphics don’t matter” wound up looking better than any other game. Sure, if you squint, you can see a lot of obvious polygons, but when you’re actually playing the thing, it’s a sight to behold. In motion, animations are fluid, and the soft lighting is gorgeous. And, considering the libraries written to talk about how good the soundtrack in the Galaxy games is, I don’t think you need me to tell you how good it is for the three thousandth time. It’s clear Nintendo’s foremost concern was making Galaxy 2 gorgeous to look at.
And I think the entire game is weaker for it.
Everything in Galaxy 2 is worried more about being stylish than being fun to play. That’s not to say that those two things are mutually exclusive. That’s not to say that either is bad. But too often, the long-revered Mario series of deep, run-and-jumping adventures falls apart and becomes a game looking for “oohs!” and “aahs!” in video reviews and box art.
Look at this example. One of the levels that gets touted a lot in trailers and the like is Puzzle Plank Galaxy. If you’ve seen a montage of gameplay footage or something of the like, you’ve probably seen a picture of it.
Aesthetically, this is a beautifully-designed piece of the level. All the cutouts are held in apropriate proportion, and seeing everything moving in motion is a sight to behold. There’s a perfect amount of clutter that makes the look of the level here interesting.
But… what do you really have to do to play through this?
Here’s another example.
And this is the biggest problem I have with Galaxy 2. Everything is focused on looking like it’s fun to play. Very little is ever expanded upon to the point that it actually becomes fun to play. Mechanics stop developing when they’re too easy or feel like there’s lots more to do with them. This is the problem with giving every level its own mechanics: you can’t incubate every egg in every basket. Please don’t think that these are just a few isolated examples; the entire game is full of stuff like this.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Flip-Swap Galaxy, for example,
is a ton of fun to play. And did you notice something? It’s one of the least pretty levels in the game! It’s not exactly ugly, but it clearly doesn’t have the same focus on how it looks that most levels do.
There’s this horrible focus on throwing as many visually interesting things as possible at the screen in Galaxy 2, but the focus is never about the platforming. It’s sort of the same deal as Shovel Knight. It’s not a game that’s fun to play. It’s a game that’s supposed to look like it would be fun to play. It’s supposed to be a lightning rod for praise. It’s a game that’s supposed to give IGN video proof to back up their seal of approval on the box. This explains why so many of Galaxy 2‘s problems exist. It’s why Yoshi’s stages are only meant to sell more copies, and why the game is so easy, and why the game feels so disconnected, and why you spend so much time circling levels when warping. It’s given all its attention to the wrong place. It’s upsetting to play a Mario game that’s this concerned with selling well.
Part 9: Conclusions
Galaxy 2 was the continuation of a misstep for the Mario franchise. It’s why 3D Land has ultimately grown on me. While 3D Land might appear soulless on the surface, beneath the layer of lazy rehash lurks a game with all of its eggs delegated to the appropriate baskets. Never for a second is the gameplay focused on anything but running and jumping and interacting with mechanics in a three dimensional environment like Mario should have been since 1996. I’m still a little wary on the game, but as my like for all other 3D Mario games has diminished, I’m more and more appreciative of a game that’s made up for most of Galaxy‘s mistakes.
I’m actually surprised this review wound up being as negative as it is. I really enjoyed Galaxy 2. It’s fun to play. But now that I’ve subjected it to good old critical thinking, I’ve decided that it’s a game that’s really only stellar on a superficial level (pun intended). It’s well-designed and very creative, sure. As a game, though, it’s riddled with issues that bog the experience down. It doesn’t innovate as much as it ought to have from the original Galaxy, which was, itself, taking the series in the wrong direction. As a piece of art, it’s good enough. As a game to play, it’s boring, stinted, and easy. To me, play comes first, and Galaxy 2 did not deliver. If you still haven’t played this game, just listen to the soundtrack and put the money towards either a 3DS or 3D Land instead. The part of you that wants a good visceral video game will thank me.
So it’s time to decide: Galaxy 1 or 2? It’s tough to call. Most of my problems are things that are ubiquitous to both games, and the downside of Yoshi’s inclusion is counterbalanced by the fantastic boss fights in Galaxy 2 and higher value on the Mohs scale. However, because the original Galaxy was so on-point with its creators’ visions, I’m inclined to thinking it’s the better game. It’s much more of a passion project. The space setting is at the forefront, and you can tell Galaxy 2 was made Scrapple-style from the leftover bits of Galaxy.
I don’t think think you should resolve yourself to playing just one of these two games. I’d recommend playing neither, but then again, most people will tell you to play both. So I get to be the reviewer that tells you to avoid the extremely popular video game you’ll probably enjoy if you aren’t as much of a fuddy as I am. To be fair, the game is fun enough on a surface level, so if you don’t look as deeply into a game as I have a bad habit of doing, you might find something to enjoy here. However, I hold that, objectively, this game isn’t as good as most critics have said. It certainly isn’t deserving of the universal praise it received.
…GOD DAMMIT WHY DIDN’T I SAVE THAT ONE FOR AFTER THE SCORE.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
I’m so fearful to criticize this game. It makes me feel like a milk-toast.
…because… you know… Milky Way… “galaktos” means “milk”… you can tell I’m stretching? Whatever. I don’t have to impress you.