(ArsTechnica) -- My first thought after playing "Super Mario Galaxy 2" for the first few hours was that Nintendo was kind of being a jerk about the whole thing.
It's much harder to nail a satisfying game mechanic -- whether it's in 2-D or 3-D -- than people understand.
Nintendo constantly shows you something amazing and masterfully produced, and just when you've gotten over being amazed at how well it plays, the game throws it away and offers up something else, equally good.
Saying this is Nintendo at its platforming best is an understatement. This is the equivalent of a baseball player hitting nothing but home runs for an entire four-game series, calling his shots Babe-Ruth-style before each swing. Nintendo plays with the genre like there is nothing at stake, doing incredible things with it as if it's simply a decision to make a game this good.
The world is your ship
The game is a direct sequel to the first "Mario Galaxy," except this time you're given a ship shaped like Mario's head to pilot around a simplified world map, filled with galaxies that are themselves given a selection of stars to try to find. You land on a galaxy and get a task to complete to earn the star. In addition, there is always a comet coin to track down in order to keep you exploring.
So what do you have to do to earn these stars? Everything! Fight bosses, platform in 2-D and 3-D... you'll swim, fly, float, and fall. You'll need to hurry, you'll be forced to take your time. In some cases gravity will be your enemy and at other times it will be your ally. You'll meet friends from past games... and enemies too.
Sometimes entire sections of the game will remind you of past "Mario" games. There is no way to describe the sheer joyous exploration of the game, nor how surprising many of the moments are, without playing it yourself. We could list a variety of the levels, but why take away the fun of discovery?
Mario is given a huge number of moves to interact with his world. He can jump, grab, back-flip, triple-jump, long jump, and wall-jump. There are circumstances where he can fly, tunnel, and roll. He can grab items, ice-skate, climb, and butt-stomp on both enemies and the environment.
The genius of the level design is that you're constantly being tested and stretched and asked to use all of these moves and actions. If you see a far-off platform or glittery object, don't worry. You can get to it. It will just take some imagination. If you have any hope of collecting all the stars -- which is a daunting task -- you'll have to explore every inch of the land and find every secret. The hidden areas and secret stars are deviously scattered around the game, and each one will give you a feeling of accomplishment when found.
To progress throughout the game you need a set minimum of stars, but there are multiple ways to find them. You can go back and find stars you've missed, you can pick out the easy ones from the galaxies available to you, or you can explore the star challenges the comets bring as you collect the comet coins around the galaxies. If you simply want to see each world and finish the game, the challenge is very slight. The more you see and do, however, the more demanding the game becomes.
Extra lives are plentiful. You can explore your ship between missions, and it's filled with extra lives and colorful characters. Grab 100 coins, you'll get an extra life. Collect 100 star bits, you'll get an extra life. Other characters will mail you extra lives.
Nintendo doesn't want to punish you for trying new things in the levels, so it has made extra lives easy to find or even buy. If you're given an extra life in the middle of a challenge, look out: that's Nintendo's way of telling you "this is going to take you a few tries."
The game will help you
Just like "New Super Mario Bros. Wii," if you mess up while trying to complete certain challenges enough times, the game will offer to help you. During one particularly tricky section, I took the game up on its offer. The computer takes over for you and completes the section, but at the end you're given a bronze star. If you want the gold star, you'll have to do it yourself.
That bronze star counts towards your totals, so you can move to the next challenge or move closer to unlocking the next section of the game, but we're guessing that you won't be able to see everything if you have bronze stars in your collection.
It's a neat mechanic, and it's used with flair: if you don't want the help, you don't have to use it. If you use it, you'll still need to go back and master that segment to get all the stars. If you just want to "beat" the game and see the ending, this removes a large portion of the frustration.
While some gamers may sneer, we play games to have fun, and controller-throwing frustration is never fun. This gives you the option of accepting a little help to move ahead, but if you don't want it you can simply turn it down. It's a little touch that helps to make the game accessible for a wider audience, and the title is better for it.
Besides, on the computer-controlled run through of the challenge, Mario seemed to avoid grabbing coins and star bits, as if to say you won't be getting much help by the feature. It's a nice touch.
The multiplayer is still limited. Player 2 can help you collect star bits or fight enemies by moving a cursor on the screen. It's a fun way to play with your kids and the extra helping hand can come in very handy during a level. Still, the focus is on playing a single-player game and testing your platforming skills.
The game continually shifts and adjusts and introduces new challenges. Some are simple, such as beating a level with a time limit. Others are devilishly difficult, such as being followed by ghostly doubles who try to knock you down and keep you from your goals.
A moderately talented player will be able to enjoy the challenge and beat the game, but only the best will be able to do everything. No matter what level you're playing at, you can sit down for 20 minutes and have a good time, or you can lose yourself for hours.
The Mario haters will continue to bleat about the same ideas being rehashed once again, but the truth is that Nintendo is constantly trying to beat its own best, and it delivers exactly what gamers want -- and in huge doses. This is, thus far, the peak of what platforming can offer. Will it be beaten? Is it all downhill from here? Who cares? Let's sit down and play.
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