How do you improve upon one of the greatest games of all time? It's a question Nintendo has answered countless times before, in The Legend of Zelda series, the Metroid series, and, of course, the Super Mario series. Now, with Super Mario Galaxy 2, it's trying to do it again.
Some have criticised Galaxy 2 for looking like little more than Galaxy 1.5. What tosh. If Mario Galaxy 2 is brilliant - and our extensive hands-on with the game at Nintendo's European Gamers Summit last week suggests it will be - what's the harm? This ill feeling probably has something to do with Nintendo's release strategy - it rarely releases numerical sequels. When we do get a new 3D Mario game, it's usually a new concept: Super Mario 64 to Super Mario Sunshine to Super Mario Galaxy. Now, for the first time, we have two main 3D Mario games on the same console: the Nintendo Wii. Some have deemed this a bad thing, as if somehow Galaxy 2's mere existence is preventing Nintendo from developing the next evolution in the Mario series. To this we say: nonsense.
At first glance, however, you'd be forgiven for leaning towards the naysayers' argument. Galaxy 2 looks a lot like Galaxy. It has the same vibrant, colourful art style and many of the same, planet to planet mechanics. The camera often switches perspective, ranging from following Mario as he walks around the surface of a planet, to old-school side scrolling, via more open plan platforming. The controls are also the same. Basic jumping and running is punctuated by shakes of the Wii Remote to spin. It's simple, accessible, and as responsive as ever.
So, what's new? The answer comes in the form of a little green dinosaur with a long red tongue, namely: Yoshi. That's right. Yoshi, Mario's long-standing companion, is in Mario Galaxy 2, and his presence has made for some interesting new gameplay mechanics. As is his way, Yoshi eats everything. By pointing the Wii Remote at an object, a small circle quickly fills red. Once done, Yoshi can extend his tongue, use it as a swing, pull levers, swallow enemies, or, more interestingly, gain power-ups.
For example, the Blimp Berry turns Yoshi blue and inflates his stomach, sending him floating up and away as he exhales air. But the air only lasts so long. When it runs out, Yoshi and Mario will fall back down to earth. Luckily, if he eats or touches another Blimp Berry, his lungs will fill with air again and the countdown timer will be reset. In one level we played, the camera switched to a side-on perspective, challenging the player to float in and out of platforms to gain coins, avoiding enemies and grabbing fresh Blimp Berries in order to reach the end of level star.
The Dash Pepper gives Yoshi a temporary speed boost, allowing the player to run up steep hills. If Yoshi and Mario are still standing on a steep hill when the Pepper runs its course, then they'll slide down. In another level, Bullet Bills fire from all directions. If Yoshi eats one, he can spit it out as if firing his own Bullet Bill - aimed by pointing your Wii Remote - defeating enemies, destroying mines, and smashing bits of the environment, like glass walls. These are only a few of the power-ups Yoshi can gain as a result of eating objects within the game world. Nintendo promises many more.
Yoshi isn't the only recipient of new toys; Mario's got some new tricks up his sleeve, too. The Drill Bit, activated with a shake of the Wii Remote, allows Mario to literally drill through a planet, going through the core and out the opposite side. You can only use the Drill Bit on certain planets, and only then when the earth itself is of a particular type, but it's worth the wait. Perhaps out favourite moment during our hands-on occurred when battling an end boss designed to challenge our Drill Bit skills. The mechanised monstrosity with spider-like legs could only be defeated by drilling through the planet and emerging at the other end underneath the boss, hitting its vulnerable underbelly. It was pure, unadulterated, joy, and classic Nintendo.