Earlier, I mourned the greater linearity of Super Mario Galaxy 2, which had far more levels than the previous 3d incarnations of the series and spent far less time exploring them. I mentioned that this approach does prevent weak ideas from going stale and trims a lot of the original’s glut of tired levels but it also denies the game the ability to fully explore themes or allow the player to look at an already traversed area through a new lens. This last part is the essense of the hakoniwa idea Yoshiaki Koizumi discussed in reference to the 3d Mario games (taken from my original review):
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
To me, this was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the previous 3d Mario games. Well layered levels are simply much more interesting to navigate than single purpose ones (not to mention feel far more organic) and there’s nothing like a new goal in an old area to reorder your sense of what is important or force you to pick up on previously dismissed details. This is part of the reason why I love Metroid games so much (and get flumoxed when people complain of “backtracking” in them). Thus the perceived shift away from rich, well detailed levels left me a bit disappointed in SMG’s sequel.
However, in my review I did leave the caveat that “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.” Well, I passed the 120 star threshold today* and my supposition proved correct. After the game ends, the developers sprinkle 120 green stars across all the main levels (ie not comets), waiting to be discovered. While some of the stars are boring triple jumps or placed where old upgrades once were, many reveal the old levels to have been hakoniwas all along. For example, the level where you first find Cloud Mario you land in an wide open area with shallow water and fountains, which seems strange when you first go through, because the first Cloud Flower is just after the water and you never go back nor do you really return to the level again. But, lo and behold, when you land there on the hunt for a green star, one is floating way above you in the watery area and is only accessible by Cloud Mario. So now the random pleasant intro transforms into a (mild) obstacle course especially since you need to save all your Clouds for the end.
This sort of thing has happened repeatedly so far. A simple bridge you knocked over earlier to get by reveals itself to have been a lengthy walljumping corridor while upright (whose seemingly random paint job actually serves to inform you how high you have gone). A poorly developed snowball growing and melting system turns out to be crucial to catching a distant green star. A silly hedge giraffe becomes a necessary series of platforms. Random fireballs in the distance that once simply added character to a level (much like the earlier fountains) now reveal themselves as obstacles as you bounce across lava with your bum on fire. Even Puzzle Plank, whose lamentable brevity I had cited originally, gets a new angle. An obstacle that once served to slow down your speedrun as it was slowly sawed away now becomes an integral part of a series of jumps and you must race to catch it before it falls.
Despite these revelations, I cannot completely discount my original complaints. Not all the green stars are as cleverly planned as the rest and they only affect small snippets of levels (a piece of “scenery” here and there). Plus, 120 stars is a long time to wait for them to start to flesh out their levels. However, it must be said that the ideas are revisited and the levels are fleshed out in an incredibly enjoyable way. The Green Star idea is great fun and should be emulated by developers looking to wedge collectathons into their games (and is far better than SMG’s end game: redo everything but with a more frustrating character).
To make up for the partial nullification of my original complaint about the game, here’s Mitch Krpata’s unflattering assessment of the game. He argues that, despite the parade of brilliant level design between and within levels, the increased difficulty curve makes the game rote and tedious because you have to keep redoing the same segments many many times in a row, not to mention kills the breezy, carefree attitude the developers seek (and attained with the original). I suspect this train of thought will appeal to Nick considering his response to things thus far (and my knowledge of what’s to come. To be honest, could not disagree more. I gave up Sunshine right after Bowser and SMG at around 90 stars for exactly this reason: the grind overcame the novelty. But I think this only happened on maybe 10 stars in the sequel and the idea of something interesting at the end of the tunnel helped me push through. Plus, as Krpata mentions, the improved co-op mode is brilliant and greatly flattens the difficulty curve (assymetical co-op is in general is something developers should be doing more with). So as far as Mario games go, SMG2 handles the balance well.
However, as an indictment of the series as a whole, he probably has a point. Success through attrition is not the most fulfilling approach to game design (though it does not seem to bar Metroid Prime from his “Games of the Decade“) and the Mario games by design have little else more fulfilling to offer than just giddy play. They get away with it by building rich levels (see hakoniwa discussion above) and oozing charm, in addition to making everything sufficiently brief that couple retries or twenty never seem so onerous that they overwhelm the player. But perhaps it is a dying breed. Game design is trending away from Mario’s galaxy in basically every direction and who knows how long Mario can hold out.
*Some more minor criticism of SMG2: of the 6 levels you unlock after the final boss fight, 3 are copied and pasted from SMG and one is taken directly from Sunshine. On the plus side, the Sunshine level is a blast with the better control scheme (and the added wrinkles), Major Burrows makes a major return, and the 2 original levels are fantastic.