21 Stars Into Super Mario Galaxy 2, A Few Thoughts Come To MindS

You don't want me to try to describe the surreal galaxies of the first three worlds of Super Mario Galaxy 2, so how about some more abstract impressions?

I've spent one evening playing Nintendo's next Mario game, collecting 21 stars across three of Super Mario Galaxy 2's world maps. Each map contains several galaxies, which themselves contain mulitple challenges for Mario. Those challenges usually involve the kind of jumping, Yoshi-riding, power-up-using and all-around joyful jungle-gym fun you'd hope for. So far, so good.

Yes, It's Tough: The early levels of Mario Galaxy 2 are not brutally difficult, but I think I've already passed the point of the game that those whose only recent gaming experience is Wii Sports won't be able to reach. The first star challenge in each of the galaxies has been easy enough to probably not trouble any Super Mario Galaxy veterans, but the second or third (or hidden!) star quests in these galaxies have sometimes been more than a match for me.

The Mario makers' cruel-but-kind level design has landed me into little loops of gameplay failure a few times — imagine, for example, a long, winding slide that requires Mario to make jumps at key moments but is easy to fall off of. Each of these gameplay loops has included an easy opportunity to grab a free life before dying and then restarting at a checkpoint. I've given up, temporarily (?), on a few challenges that seemed too hard. I died enough last night that I depleted a pool of 23 lives I'd gained on some of the game's easier levels.

21 Stars Into Super Mario Galaxy 2, A Few Thoughts Come To MindS

Did that...before beating up Bowser.

Yes, It's More Mario Galaxy: So far, across three maps and many galaxies I have seen no repeat levels from the first Galaxy, but I have heard repeat sound effects, seen repeat enemies and power-ups, and heard a lot of familiar music. All of this is mixed with some new or revived elements, such as Galaxy 2 box-art star Yoshi.

If you're a Nintendo gaming veteran like me, you may be at a point in your life when you'll notice the new Zeldas and Marios are wonderful if considered in a vacuum but can feel overly familiar if you've also dove deeply into, say, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Yoshi's Island, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, Yoshi's Island DS, New Super Mario Bros., New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy. Which doesn't mean I don't wish I was playing more of Galaxy 2 right now.

21 Stars Into Super Mario Galaxy 2, A Few Thoughts Come To MindS

Did that... but as Mario (how'd Luigi get in this shot?)

The Secrets Have Secrets: The Mario game that Galaxy 2 has most effectively evoked for me (other than Galaxy 1) is Super Mario World. It's not just because World's gift to gaming, Yoshi, makes his Galaxy debut in this new adventure. It's because this new game emulates a key Super Mario World strength: alternate path discovery.

I consider Super Mario World to be the best Mario game at hiding secrets and enticing players to find them. Super Mario World's map teased alternate paths. The game's alternate roads were opened by exploring its levels' nooks and crannies. Those new paths hid their own secrets that led to even more deeply hidden paths.

The Galaxy 2 map, which looks as simple as the plain, barely-branching layout of New Super Mario Bros. on the DS, belies the surplus of side-adventures I've sleuthed my way into unlocking in just a few hours of playtime. The best, least spoiling way I can describe this is that I had a moment in an early level when I noticed something that seemed odd. I investigated it and found a hidden room with a challenge. I completed the challenge, but not perfectly, and got a reward. When I returned to it and tried that challenge again, a perfect completion helped me gain the ability to travel to an even more interesting, more deeply-hidden area, for an even better reward. To end this section where it began, that's my way of explaining that Super Mario Galaxy 2's secrets have secrets. Recent Mario games haven't had much of that.

A little Mario fatigue notwithstanding, I'm getting a good vibe so far with Super Mario Galaxy 2. It will be out for Wiis in North America on May 23. Expect a review here late next week.