The Setup: A Platforming Sequel Takes Mario Planet Hopping Once Again
The original Super Mario Galaxy was a commercial success and a critical darling when it was released in 2007. I couldn't get into it. I played it for a couple of hours and honestly felt bored most of the time. It had all the elements of a good platformer, it was imaginative, the controls were responsive and well designed, the graphics were colorful, but somehow it just didn't sing to me.
When the sequel arrived, I began playing and thought it was pretty fun. It didn't really seem much different from the first one, but somehow I liked it better.
Certainly there is a lot to like. SMG2 follows plumber Mario's travels from planet to planet towards a goal of saving the ever-endangered Princess Peach from the ever despicable Bowser, a monstrous turtle that has been kidnapping the princess in various Mario adventures for years. Mario's goal on each planet is to rescue a living star necessary to open up new planets to explore.
These planets are wildly different. Some are mostly water, or ice. Some are tricky constructs of platforms, some are haunted. Gameplay is similarly varied. Mario must traverse a world that disappears around him, solve puzzles, escape monsters, swim, fly and leap. He encounters areas where gravity is reversed and worlds where he can manufacture clouds that allow him to reach new heights. Now and again he encounters a large boss monster who must be vanquished with a mix of ingenuity and eye-hand coordination.
The Problem: I Just Don't Care
Much of this is fun, particularly the boss battles. And the game offers a huge amount of content. Yet, the more I played, the less I felt like continuing. by around the halfway point, I just plain gave up, not from huge frustration or irritation, not from disdain or dislike, but just from indifference and ennui. I was having some fun, just not enough.
The duty of a reviewer is not, in spite of what a lot of people believe, to express the "correct" opinion, so the fact that I do not love SMG2 is not, in itself, a problem. But a reviewer is expected to explain why, and here I find myself somewhat flumoxed. Because I can't think of any good reason not to like the game.
Certainly it has its flaws. At times I would hit an aggravating section that caused me endless misery, but no more so than in most games. Like many Nintendo games, the story is painfully bland, and there is nothing in it to make me feel an urgent need to save Princess Peach. But ultimately lots of games have bad stories and poor motivation, and one continues to play because the excitement of the gameplay itself is enough.
Perhaps it's because I was never a fan of the original 2D Super Mario games, yet I have been a big fan of some Mario games, like Mario Sunshine.
Why? Here's My Best Guess
It may be because SMG2 doesn't build up powers in a way I like. In a game like Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, or Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess the player is periodically granted a new power that deepens strategy and increases mobility, offering increasing complexity. But in Mario, each level is discreet. You can create clouds in some, but not in others. On one level you will be able to ride the cute mini-dinosaur Yoshi, in another level you can swim, in another you can breathe fire, but these abilities are planet specific, gained, lost and gained again depending on where you are. There is no sense in SMG2 that it is all of a piece, or that you are building up skills and moving forward. It is more as though each level is a separate entity that must succeed or fail on its own. Thus, when I enjoy a level, I like the game. And when I find the design of a particular level not to my liking, I dislike the game. I am never drawn into the game world, I never feel I am part of an epic adventure. It's more like a bunch of little games stuck together. So one of the most impressive aspects of the game, it's wildly varied and imaginative gameplay, becomes one of the things that keeps me from falling into the game. I find myself only able to enjoy SMG2 on a surface level.
But Then, What Do I Know?
But that's just me. I can say I find Eric Clapton's guitar solos uninteresting, Streep's performances often forgettable (excepting, of course, Sophie's Choice) and sometimes annoying, and Picasso's most famous works among his least engaging and emotionally effecting. But I can't say that these feelings are more than quirks in my own disposition. These are people who are worshiped above all others, and it would be the height of vanity to set myself against the whole world in insisting that their reputations should be downgraded.
So I cannot deny, in the face of overwhelming critical opinion and in the face of my own abstract appreciation for much of the design, that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is not, in fact, a great game. But I also cannot, in spite of all my best efforts, fall in love with it.