A few weeks ago, we spoke to Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto about the continuing significance of retro games. “I think they remind us of the importance of the very basic structure of videogames,” he told us. “Knowing that basic structure when creating a new game will have a huge difference compared to if you weren’t aware of the basics.” We assumed he was just speaking generally at the time, but, having since played through the entirety of Miyamoto’s latest, we’re inclined to believe that he’s been forcing his younger employees to play old NES games for some time.
One of the planets that make up the world of Super Mario Galaxy 2, for example, re-imagines Frogger, but with the cars and logs replaced by plates of rock floating on a volcanic globe. Stay on one too long and you’ll drift into a wall of lava. Another recalls Donkey Kong in its design, except that the barrels are goliath stone cylinders that Mario must run beneath, nimbly finding safety between the cracks in the rock’s surface. Later still, the design evolves to accommodate a more complicated structure akin to Game Boy’s Donkey Kong 94, putting Mario’s gymnastic abilities to the test. Other influences, meanwhile, reach further afield… Could Miyamoto and company really have played Shaun Southern’s 1986 C64 classic, Trailblazer? Common sense says not, but a level in which Boulder Mario hurtles along a treacherous suspended path says otherwise.
But we don’t want to give the impression that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is just a series of retro references. This isn’t an homage to the nostalgic games of old, but tangible proof of Miyamoto’s theory – a modern game that isn’t afraid to look back while also hurtling forward. Its classic designs take inspiration from the past but then twist those influences and add additional layers to create something fresh, new and much, much more fun. Which, as the first true numbered Mario sequel since 1988, is a theme that runs throughout Super Mario Galaxy 2.
The overall concept and gameplay may be the same as in 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy but, just like those subtle retro inspirations, those concepts are taken to new extremes and expanded upon rather than regurgitated. This is a rare and opportunistic move for Nintendo and, by extension, its audience. Super Mario World set a precedent for the Mario series, all the way back in 1990, that each hardware generation would host only one new proper platform game starring the famous plumber. This meant that each brought with it incremental graphical updates and routinely overhauled gameplay design, from Mario 64’s non-linear structure to Sunshine’s water-powered jetpack and Galaxy’s spherical worlds. But it also meant that those ideas were never fully developed in a sequel, never befitting from the refinement that made games like Uncharted 2 and Mass Effect 2 – and so many other games ending in a ‘2’ – that much better than their progenitors.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is that sequel – much more polished than the last, equally flawless jewel of a game. It may lack that immediate feeling of the new that the first Mario Galaxy enjoyed, but it is undeniably a better and more varied experience. Old friends, such as the bee suit and Boo power-ups, admittedly return, but not a single galaxy or level design is re-used. Instead, Mario leaps, flips and flies through a goliath series of levels filled with the sort of boundless invention that makes 99 per cent of other videogames look tired and stale.
The re-introduction of Yoshi obviously plays a huge part in this. More than just a simple steed, his newfound powers, activated by consuming various types of fruit, make him as flexible a hero as Mario himself. The speedy sprint of the Dash Pepper, the path-illuminating Bulb Berry and the inflating Blimp Berry all do what great Mario power-ups should do – fundamentally change the way that you travel through the world while introducing their own particular risk/reward mechanic. The introduction of Yoshi’s Pointer-controlled tongue, meanwhile, gives the dinosaur the ability to eat and spit out enemies, or swing from key points, with a speed and precision not felt (and not even possible) in traditionally controlled 3D action games.
Mario too has been blessed with a couple of new powers, such as the ability to transform into a rolling boulder or the power to create a series of clouds beneath his feet. And while these are undeniably fun power-ups in their own right, it’s the way the levels are designed to accommodate them that truly makes them exceptional. Clouds, for example, take on a whole new life when you factor in windy levels, blowing Mario directly into harm’s way unless the player thinks fast and acts faster.