I’ve done this before.
With each new flagship iteration of Mario’s 3D adventures, you can sense Nintendo’s master designers dreading those four little words escaping the player’s lips. From Super Mario 64 to the best example, Super Mario 3D World, the mustachioed plumber’s console titles have adhered to a strict regime of fresh, introducing unique concepts in one level, developing and building on mechanics and ideas only to scrap them at the flagpole, sometimes never to be seen again, no matter how successful. It’s a well-documented philosophy, and one that has bled into to other franchises, not only helping keep a 100-stage game from going stale, but also a 35-year old series. Unfortunately this excellent way of thinking did not apply to the only same-system Mario sequel since the NES: Super Mario Galaxy 2.
I loved the original Super Mario Galaxy, and it has stayed near the top of my all-time favorite games list since its release. A platformer that turned convention on its head, Mario’s trip through space breathed new life and invention into a series that is essentially all about jumping. By playing with gravity, they were able to create situations and obstacles that messed with the player’s brain in a way that felt at once taxing and exhilarating. Yes, Super Mario Galaxy was exquisitely designed, but I think what makes it stick out in people’s minds is that it was so different from what came before. While I don’t think that Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine are identical games, at their core they can feel very similar, and that may be the reason for the latter’s lack of enthusiastic support in some circles (not mine). When Galaxy burst onto the scene, however, there was no mistaking it for merely a simple upgrade in graphics. It made even cynics smile at Mario again.
Been there, done that.
When a sequel was announced, I was ecstatic, ready to have my mind blown with yet again more brilliance. I started playing, only slightly disappointed in the lack of a compelling hub world (Rosalina’s ship is far more magical) but ready to sink my teeth into the meat and see what Nintendo would throw my way this time. Yoshi? Um, yeah, I guess he was okay. The new suits offered some variety (the drill being a standout) and interesting level construction, sort of. And…everything else was pretty much the same. I made it about two-thirds of the way through and eventually abandoned all the orb-hopping in a state of apathy. Apathy for Mario; I never dreamed such a thing could happen, and it remains to this day the only console Mario I have not finished. Look, I get it, the game is called Super Mario Galaxy 2– what did I expect? The thing is, though, I suppose I just got into the habit of being wowed, and how was that supposed to happen when I had already played this game?
Some may have been happy with more Galaxy stages, but to me it felt similar to what deleted scenes from movies typically end up being: understandably cut. I know first hand how hard it is to edit, but first instincts are often the right ones. Born out of leftover ideas from the first, Galaxy 2 was originally planned as a “1.5” sequel, and that’s what it feels like: leftovers. Time is of course a factor in why certain things can’t be included in a videogame’s final version, but a company like Nintendo doesn’t typically shy away from delays if they feel the end product will benefit. So how good could these concepts have really been if they were passed over the first time? Director’s cut good, it turns out, which means sometimes fine, mostly uninspired, nothing special, occasionally really annoying.
The biggest addition touted in Galaxy 2 was the ability to ride Yoshi, but what’s so exciting about that? We had already fulfilled our 3D dreams in Sunshine, and those moments were so memorable I almost forgot about them. Sitting atop a dinosaur was fun in Super Mario World because 1) we had never done it before, and 2) it controlled flawlessly. Yoshi has been tricky to make as rewarding gameplay in 3D, one reason why he hasn’t appeared so often. Snatching up enemies felt decent this time, but swinging around was hit and miss, dependent on the accuracy of inaccurate control input, and don’t talk to me about the hot pepper stages. The green guy was supposed to be one of the main new features of the game, and I get wanting to include Yoshi for the fans’ sake, but as usual it ended up seeming not entirely fleshed out, a little wonky, ultimately unsatisfying. The rest of Mario’s new powers ranged from decent (the drill) to whatever (rock). In the end these meager additions never struck me as more than gimmicks, a new coat of paint simply meant to make the old look new.
There are many that claim Galaxy 2 is superior, that Nintendo’s imagination was able to be properly unleashed once the rules had been firmly established, but I just don’t see it. It was what Nintendo has always seemed to avoid with its flagship franchise: something I had played before. Unfortunately this time, more did not equal better; just more. I’m not trying to convince anyone that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a bad game; it’s not. It is, however, a game I care nothing about, and as someone who has been a huge Nintendo fan for almost 35 years, that says something. To me, Mario means innovation, it means different, it means special. Once-in-a-generation special.