Super Mario Galaxy 2 Preview: Tougher, EasierS

With their next Mario game, it once again appears that Nintendo is trying to have it both ways. I'm not complaining.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 appears to be harder than its predecessor, while offering several ways to make the game quite easy. Plus some fat has been trimmed to make room for an apparent abundance of new ideas.

This morning I played a near-final Super Mario Galaxy 2 on a Wii at Nintendo's New York City office and, no, this shouldn't surprise you: It was very fun.

Mario is making one of his fastest turnarounds on a console with his new May adventure, the second big romp for gaming's most famous hero since November, the month of New Super Mario Bros. Wii's release.

Galaxy 2 comes from the team behind 2007's Super Mario Galaxy, returning Mario to the moon-hopping play style of the first. Added in are all-new levels, franchise favorite Yoshi the dinosaur, some new temporary powers for Mario, and two crutches for those who might be daunted by all of the dazzling new complexities of the level design: a tweaked co-op mode and a modified version of New Super Mario Bros. Wii's helper guide.

The new assistance tools, a Nintendo representative explained to me today, have given the game's development team license to make the new Galaxy tougher than its predecessor. The tweaked co-operative Co-Star mode, which allows a second player to command an on-screen cursor with a second Wii Remote now allows that second player to not just stun enemies and collect gems but to kill bad guys who menace Mario.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 Preview: Tougher, EasierS

A bunch of in-world green TVs can be accessed to display short full-screen play-throughs of areas that require a new move or trick.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 Preview: Tougher, EasierS

A recently-revealed Cosmic Guide option works more like the New Super Mario Bros. Wii assistance system. Should a player die several times in a Galaxy 2 level, a princess whose body appears to be made of starry sky appears. Talking to her causes Mario to relinquish control to the Wii. The automatically-controlled Mario jumps through the next sequence, though the player can press a button on their Wii controller to resume control at just about any time (I tried to take control while Mario was mid-jump and the Wii ignored me; it let me take control once Mario was on safe ground.)

Using the Cosmic Guide has a price. While the goals for most of the levels in Super Mario Galaxy 2 are gold stars, anyone who uses the Cosmic Guide will only be able to get a bronze star. Such a player would have to re-play the level to earn a gold star.

An empowered optional second player and a deep hint system do seem like good justifications for making Galaxy 2's main levels tough. The impression I got is that the levels will be just that, harder than the first game's, though that is impossible to judge from a quick 30-minute sampling of the game. Early levels were filled with floating platforms and required jump-off points. Enemies buzzed everywhere; the level of engagement required was more intense, earlier than I recalled being the case with the first Galaxy.

I was shown some of Mario's excellent new abilities. The already-revealed Spin-Drill sends a spinning Mario burrowing straight down into a spherical planetoid he is on, letting him emerge either in its hollow core or on the other side.

Galaxy-debuting green Yoshi is good for running, fluttering through a jump and grabbing things with his tongue. His tongue can target multiple nearby targets, should you quickly point your Wii Remote at them, allowing for rapid consumption. As we've noted in earlier previews, Yoshi can temporarily gain various powers depending on the type of fruit he eats. The blimp fruit puffs him up and causes him to rise as he loses air. Mario goes along for the ride.

Should you lose Yoshi, he'll wait for your return. If you get too far away, he'll run away. You reclaim Yoshi by finding him, in an unhatched egg, at various parts of the game's levels.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 Preview: Tougher, EasierS

The new Mario cloud suit not only makes Mario look like he is temporarily covered in shaving cream but causes three puffs of cloud to trail him, a la the eggs of gobbled enemies in Yoshi's Island. Jumping with Mario and shaking the controller for a spin causes a cloud platform to appear beneath him, costing him one of his trailing puffs. Using three of these in a quick hop-spin-hop-spin-hop-spin sequence is as good as using an elevator to reach a previously unreachable high ledge.

My favorite addition to the busy Galaxy cosmos from today's demonstration of the game were the Cosmic Clones, bad-guy versions of Mario who trail our hero, doing the moves the player just made Mario do. I jumped. They jumped. I spun. They spun. I ran and then stopped. They ran and then stopped, the lead one stopping where Mario was standing, hurting him. Two more Clones trailed.

In the new Galaxy, Mario is still collecting stars and star pieces, still gathering floating gems to open new pathways, still fighting massive bosses that waddle after him on planet-shaped battlegrounds that are sometimes little larger than the bosses. I saw that the Toad Brigade is back and learned (surprise) that Princess Peach has once again been kidnapped by Bowser.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 Preview: Tougher, EasierS

The only major subtraction I saw from the first Galaxy involved the altered game map. Super Mario still has a base of operations, a planet shaped like his head. But levels are accessed not by running to various rooms on a space station, as they were in the first Galaxy, but by zooming out of that Mario planet and using it as a cursor to select galaxies and levels from a more classic 2D map. Each themed galaxy contains a simple branching path dotted with marks representing levels, some of which have more than one star to fetch in them.

The abstract delights of a Super Mario game are challenging to describe. Let's try a few: I watched Mario fall perpetually down the side of a massive spinning log-shaped level, gravity keeping him in an eternal orbit. I wall-jumped zig-zagging up a hollow tree and hopped a puff of clouds I created to span a gap and rescue a little mushroom-headed guy. I failed at things and didn't mind.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 may well be both harder and optionally easier than its predecessor. It seems, at first play, to be just as fun and possibly packed with more ideas. It's out in less than a month, May 23 in the U.S., the fastest turnaround between two home Mario games of all time. It doesn't feel rushed. It feels crowded with fun. Keep your hopes high for this one.