Posted by: Chris | May 29, 2010

Super Mario Galaxy 2: A Negative Review

I just finished the 70-star “main game” of Super Mario Galaxy 2 and I have to agree with the majority of reviewers that it is a transcendant experience and superior to it’s already incredible predecessor.  However, I think the rush to adulate the game with the most impressive superlative (best Mario ever! best platformer ever! best game ever?) has caused people to neglect what few blemishes there are.  Because of this I wanted to ruminate on a couple niggling tidbits I picked up on while playing.

The most noticeable nit I have to pick is structural.  SMG2 makes an even greater shift away from traditional 3d Mario level design than even its predecessor, and sometimes I really wish it hadn’t.  The first two 3d Mario used a few large non-linear levels broad themes and a lot of moving parts which were then fully explored over the course of eight to ten stars.  As Yoshiaki Koizumi mentioned in his Wired SMG debrief:

But as far as the actual themes of the games, Sunshine is very much in my mind in that same progression. The whole idea, for me, is about the exploration of a hakoniwa, a miniature garden. It’s like a garden in a box, where if you look at it from different angles, you can see different plants and arrangements. And you have that sense of surprise and exploration. There’s always things you can find.

Galaxy linearized things considerably and used multiple setpieces which could be rearranged or even avoided in each hakoniwa to allow for a more varied series of levels within each theme.  It also switched up the ratio of areas to stars, with roughly 4-6 stars split across 25 different areas, rather than the typical 8-10.  Koizumi again:

But Galaxy really feels like it went back to earlier roots with Super Mario Bros., in terms of trying to find that same tempo, that same feel…In the process of developing, we used this metaphor of a hakoniwa very often. But creating a hakoniwa is actually incredibly difficult, because there are so many layered elements that have to work together. In the case of creating a multi-objective level, where you can have several different paths and routes through it to different objectives, we have to blend together, but not create obstructions, where you have to pass over the same terrain. So it requires a lot of thinking just to layer those pieces on top of each other in ways that don’t obstruct each other. But not only that, it has to actually work. It has to be fun.

A lot of the work that I did on Sunshine, thinking about how to keep those elements all working together when you have multiple paths in a single stage, was very much applied to Galaxy in coming up with the “zone system,” which is kind of a simplified version. We have all of these modular elements, different planets, and flight paths in between them. So being able to move around those different modules made it so much easier to adjust the balance of difficulty and keep the paths from obstructing each other. In that sense, setting this game in space was an evolution along that line of thinking. This is really one of the best ways to create a hakoniwa with those different attributes.

 I felt that Galaxy had perfected the blend of the 2d games’ linearity and variety and the 3d games’ exploration and depth.  However, Galaxy 2 nudges things even further from the hakinowa concept.  Instead of Galaxy’s 4-6 stars per area , the sequel has roughly 2-3 stars split over 50 areas.  Many galaxies have only 1 normal star and none have more than two.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  It allows for more thematic variety than Galaxy offers and you don’t get saddled with galaxies whose novelty runs out before the stars do (which certainly occurred with Galaxy’s infrequent duds).  However, the reverse is also true.  Galaxy 2’s setup does also prevent the developers from thoroughly excavating any one particular thematic vein, no matter how rich it might be.

For example, early on in Galaxy 2, you come across the Puzzle Plank Galaxy.  It’s the one with the woodshop aesthetic and the rotary saws peeling away scenery that made frequent appearances in the early promo material.  It is a fantastic level with some great ideas and a stellar score.  But it only has one normal star and the hidden star and the comet are both off theme.  Thus, we only get to enjoy it for one measly level before SMG2 rushes headlong into other ideas and other galaxies.  This is not to say that the variety provided is bad or that subsequent galaxies disappointed (they did nothing of the sort).  It’s just that I really I wish it had lingered a little longer, like Galaxy 1 used to, and really wring the galaxy dry.

Galaxy 2’s distaste for savoring its great ideas extends to the individual levels themselves.  They often smoosh together ideas that could sustain lesser games in their entirety into one brilliant smorgasbord level, which spurts creativity all over the place but never truly develops on its ideas.  Another example: later in the game, there is a more lava themed level which, in addition to a mess of other things, has a mindblowing section which treats the games’ signature tiny spheroids as platforms to be navigated while avoiding obstacles.  Using the vagaries of different gravitational fields to fling myself around and through planet-sized fiery monsters was absolutely amazing.  Not to be hyperbolic, but at the time I thought it might have been the best thing to happen to the platforming genre since the advent of 3d.  But we orbit these little planets for maybe 1/3 of a level before the game shifts gears again and Mario is off to pursue some other crazy scheme.  But there was still plenty of meat on that bone, which the designers could have easily extracted by varying planet size, shape and arrangement to create new and more interesting orbits.  SMG2 is plagued by an epidemic of not lingering (to borrow a phrase).  It throws hundreds of different ideas up in the area but never truly gives many of them a satisfying denouement.  I have read that after 120 stars, everything gets rearranged and the stars resorted throughout the galaxy, so perhaps my criticisms will be addressed in the “second half” as it were, but I can’t imagine a world in which I tolerate getting all 120 (much less 242) stars the game has to offer.

Another broad note (I am not quite sure it rises to the level of critique) about SMG2 is it trades far more heavily in nostalgia than its predecessor does.  The original spent much of its time pursuing its own themes and ideas and the average player could probably gleen as much enjoyment out of it as a series enthusiast.  The same cannot be said for SMG2.  Like last years’ 2d Mario installment, it is filled with knowing nods to its roots, with far more remixed music, resurrected enemies and stages, and repurposed gameplay conceits.  There is one galaxy in particular that many people have undeservedly cited as “the best ever” due solely to its painstaking reconstruction of the Mario past (though its take on the early 3d era’s aesthetic and design mentality is basically spot-on).  This is not necessarily bad, but it does make the game less universally appealing than the original (especially to some one like me, who is an outsider to the series).

Further, despite all its nostalgic ploys, I don’t think any one galaxy has yet (72 stars in) exceeded Gusty Garden’s pure excellence as a total package (visual, audio, gameplay, level design, etc).  The sequel’s galaxies have been more consistently top-notch, and many exceed Gusty Garden in one or more categories but I don’t think any have truly succeeded at world creation like Gusty Garden did.  It’s not for lack of trying either.  It seems quite apparent to me that, when the developers took stock of the original’s strengths and weaknesses, that lush garden in the sky sat quite high up in the plus column.  In SMG2, sunny and verdant levels with catchy bombastic scoring proliferate, and, while each serve as beautiful and welcome variants on the theme, none seal the deal quite like Gusty Garden did in the original.  Perhaps the latter has the advantage of years to nostalgically ripen in my mind and once placed on even footing one or perhaps more will exceed the original, but for now the windy winding garden reigns supreme.

Another area where Gusty Garden remains unsurpassed in my book is in its most charismatic denizen: Major Burrows.  SMG2 seems to have roughly as many levels that cap off with bosses as the original, but they all feel quite generic compared to the good Major or even that spicy cephalopod King Kaliante.  They all seemed to have been of the googly-eyed, over-sized cartoon animal sort that recede’s from one’s memory near instantly after they disappear.  Even now, I think I can recall more of the original’s mini-bosses than the current one, despite having just completed the latter.  Also, though SMG2 seems to have about as many level bosses, it seems to me to have a greater predilection for capping off levels with a silver star hunt rather than just a standard patiently waiting star.

Since we have finally descended into the realm of pure nitpicks, I have some petty comments on the new streamlined world map system (which is far better than SMG’s tepid attempt at a hub world, an idea than was never all that great in the first place).  First, due to vestigial language passed down from SMB3 and SMG, the game effectively switches the proper astronomical usage of the words “world” and “galaxy” such that the worlds are composed of galaxies and not vice versa and it annoys the piss out of me.  Also, on the subject of “worlds”, the game goes through the trouble of giving them all interesting names yet only displays them in the save select screen (the world map itself simply refers to them numerically).  Finally, I kinda wish each individual “world” was laid out concentrically, like a proper set of astronomical bodies, rather than linearly, like a 2d Mario map.  Not only would it be more appropriate, I think it would have been cooler to try and navigate to the center of each galaxy “world” where Bowser or his minions controlled things.  Speaking of Bowser and son, I found the new Bowser fight/music to be vaguely disappointing in comparison to the original, and perhaps the same for his areas (which were also one of the highlights of SMG), but Bowser Jr. astounds with both level design, boss design, and music, especially compared the lack luster predecessors.

All this complaining should not suggest that I did not like the game.  I thought it was fantastic and a template for anyone wondering how to follow-up on a universally acclaimed outing.  The designers clearly went over their previous attempt with a fine tooth comb, emphasizing things that worked and minimizing stuff that didn’t.  Excess got streamlined, weak design ideas got the boot (bye-bye Spring Mario) or wholly refined (the water levels are great this time around), and new and highly polished power-ups and conceits filled the gaps.  For example, there are now several levels that shift in tune with the (slightly metronomic) music, which are simply brilliant (though the Beat Blox Galaxy owes me a Wiimote strap), and Cloud Mario and Drill Mario blow everything from Galaxy 1 out of the water.  I think Oli Welsh of Eurogamer said it best: “You can’t really complain about more of the same, when the same is the one thing it never is.”  I simply wish that they sometimes lingered more on their abundant new ideas before rushing me off to the next creative display.

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Responses

  1. Interesting post. I found myself nodding along, though I haven’t yet played the game. I don’t really see how fan service detracts from the game; care to elaborate more?

  2. It doesn’t really (which is why I said “I am not quite sure it rises to the level of critique”). It doesn’t really do much for someone (like me) who hasn’t really played much with the other games and thus I personally would have preferred a ratio of original content to callbacks closer to the original game.

  3. […] Mario Galaxy 2 and the Return of the Hakoniwa Earlier, I mourned the greater linearity of Super Mario Galaxy 2, which had far more levels than the […]

  4. […] as Nick wondered in the SMG2 review, what exactly is the problem with a little fan service every now and then?  Why should we even be […]

  5. […] we are still just twiddling our thumbs.  The movements he described in SMG2 actually involve no motion control whatsoever, undermining all the grand extrapolations that […]

  6. Interesting.
    Agree and (mostly) disagree.
    Yes, while it would have been great to see more challenges per galaxy, I wouldn’t exchange that for less overall galaxies. I mean, at some point the developers have to stop adding stuff, and I would rather have more overall content than extra challenges. And I can honestly say that every single galaxy had it’s own “hook” or an unique draw, there weren’t any duds.
    I could say more, but I digress….
    But really, it doesn’t matter how amazing a game is, we’ll always find things to complain about.

    • I agree that the number of stars per galaxy and the number of galaxies in total are inversely related, but I still think that the original had a better ratio of the two, which allowed for a greater exploration of each individual theme. Though I would hardly call them “duds,” SMG2 has its fair share of filler galaxies (and filler stars), especially as you delve deeper into the game. Had the developers gone deeper rather than wider with their level selection, the game would have been far better.

      I don’t know if this post was complaining per se; I think its aim was slightly more academic. As I stated earlier, I did really enjoy it and found it superior to the original. However, I think something is lost if we just deify quality games rather than think about how certain design decisions affected the final product.

  7. I have to disagree.
    As you get further into the game you return to some galaxies to get green stars, which brings the nuber of stars per level to 4-6. I agree with the boss design but King Kaliente returns later along (with Major Burrows and many others)

    Some levels I felt lacked, yes. But other levels (especially the gravity swapping ones) are insane. Galaxy 2 sure balances it out in this sense. I do appreciate your opinion but you have to play a little further in to really understand.

  8. I think you might find this post a suitable correction, though, as I have gotten further into the green star challenges, my enthusiasm has tapered:

    https://thelure.wordpress.com/2010/06/12/super-mario-galaxy-2-and-the-return-of-the-hakoniwa/

    As for the return of Burrows & co., I think I was still disappointed. I did not need to return to parts of Galaxy 1 that I enjoyed (I can play the original at anytime for that purpose). My hope was that different ideas would be present which equal or best what the original did well. Isn’t that the purpose of sequels?

  9. […] It’s all organized rationally (galaxy>star cluster>solar system>planetary system; take note EAD Tokyo) and unveiled slowly to keep the multitude from overwhelming.  Plus, the music is just […]


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