You’re going to take it for granted. And why not? Mario’s titles always step lightly: they never undergo the rigorous pre-nup investigations most games sit through, and they’re not sliced open and hyped up in studio visits, online documentaries and art team Q&As. With Mario, the work is hidden: he’s pieced together in glorious secrecy, and nobody gets to see him until he’s whole.
Besides, Nintendo makes it look so easy. An early level of Super Mario Galaxy 2 leads you from a 360-degree playground, around a corner, and into the depths of a 2D maze, via a transition so effortless that you won’t even notice it’s happened. Coins guide the way and perfect distractions litter the path until, finally, a huge door opens in the wall behind you, beckoning you back to the world of three dimensions. Beyond it, there’s a new route to follow, but now it hovers high above you, and it’s upside-down.
These shifts in tempo, perspective and dynamics are things on which other games tend to choke. Here, they’re thrown in for 20 minutes of one-shot fun. It’s often a criticism to say that something is built from gimmicks, but the problem only actually arises the moment those gimmicks run out. In Galaxy 2’s case, they never do. This is a game that refuses to bore you, that can take you to the 60-star mark before asking you to do the same thing twice. It reuses assets, but almost never recycles ideas; you’ll never see another title so thrifty, or so gratuitous.
Galaxy 2 is that rarest of things in Mario’s universe: a traditional sequel. After years of running left to right, this is what happens when the plumber stops moving for a moment, before swooping in for another pass. It’s no mere expansion: with the first blinding thrill of invention out of the way, it’s an opportunity to see exactly what Nintendo has achieved. It’s the platformer as playground, puzzle and toybox, as well as assault course, and the result will make you think about history just as its predecessor made you reconsider physics.
At times, it can be difficult to tell which Nintendo game is getting the sequel here. The plumber still leaps from planetoid to comet, moving from glass-shelled pill to carpeted travelator as he did two years ago, but these playgrounds ripple with echoes from Mario’s early days, too. Throughout, Nintendo handles its busy traditions with poise, finding the best way to incorporate three decades of enemies, mechanics and audio cues, and always leaving room for a perfect twist. Most astonishingly, contemporary Mario still feels like his 8bit counterpart. A firm little chunk of fat, he’s as approachable as ever, even as his moveset hits the levels of nuance more commonly found in fighting games.
Super Mario World is perhaps the strongest secondary influence, and not just because the developers are more willing to explore 2D spaces this time. The map’s back, helping to make design built on near-constant distraction seem both graceful and directed, and Yoshi also makes a welcome return. And, after Sunshine, it’s the right Yoshi – the one that makes you feel super-powered but precarious all at once. Equipped with a pointer-based gobble attack that sends you tongue-swinging from one hook to the next, the dinosaur surreptitiously blends traversal with something that approaches a lightgun game – just one trick out of many in this restless, replayable universe.
Yoshi’s transformative nature shines through in the other power-ups, almost all of which are built around mixing platforming with a different genre. Even in the early stages, the Drill turns levels into spatial puzzles while the Cloud Suit, allowing you to conjure a limited range of platforms, puts the focus on path-finding just as its rocky counterpart recalls the stunts and skittle-runs of both Wii Sports and Metroid. All mesh perfectly with their environments as the game swings you from the dusty outfields of the Spin-Dig Galaxy, through the dynamic candy-coloured terrors of somewhere like planet Puzzle Plank, where buzz-saws slice the floor to pieces around you, and out into the transdimensional strangeness of Haunted Halls, a skeletal ghost house that sets new standards for balancing intricacy and elegance.
All these worlds are yours, but some may take a while to claim. From the fourth map onwards, Galaxy 2 ups the challenge, rarely dropping you on to a platform that isn’t sinking or melting, or pitching you towards an incline that isn’t heavy with massive rolling cogs. It’s hard, but for the best reasons, earning the right to frustrate through the sheer quality of its ideas. The increased difficulty is merely a by-product of the new knots in which the designers want to tie your brain.
That desire to experiment is this astonishing game’s most dangerous achievement. As the adventures soars onwards, its various spaces become increasingly warped, and the final levels switch the emphasis from perfecting the 3D platformer to deconstructing it. Mario is rubbing up against the limits of the form as much as the edge of the universe here, and you’ll see worlds where ledges hang sparse in the air, and where ghosts plucked from the entire sweep of videogame history emerge in half-familiar clumpings of cubes or a nimble arrangement of switches.
Marvel at the pieces, but appreciate the whole. This isn’t a game that redefines the genre: this is one that rolls it up and locks it away. We’ve come so far, from stepping on mushrooms to drop-kicking meteors into the heart of the sun; Galaxy 2 offers a new understanding of where we’ve been, a new sense of wonder at where we’ll go next.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.