Super Mario Galaxy 2
The great thing about Mario Galaxy 2 isn't that Nintendo throws a lot of different gameplay ideas onto the table -- the beauty is that they all work. In a single hour of play time I've seen four different ideas crafted and delivered in such a way that an indie developer could spin a whole game off any one of them and rake in IGF awards doing it. Not only are they creative, but they're fiendish without being soul crushing in the same way the original 16 bit Mario games were.
What has to be infuriating for other developers is the seeming ease at which they do it. Just as I'm getting used to a side scrolling planet with alternating gravity depending on where you jump; I'm flying to the next stage and drilling my way through planets like I've been doing it for years instead of mere minutes. Even new wrinkles like riding Yoshi around and swinging from flower to flower feels totally natural after a minute or two. They seem to have created a rule that if the player can't get a handle on a new mechanic within 60 seconds, they toss it out.
Underneath the fuzzy-wuzzy exterior of Mario's latest adventure lays a tremendous amount of design discipline. Nintendo understands better than most that real creativity is found in limitations -- not adding more toys to the sandbox. Mario can jump, duck, spin and do a couple wall jumps. That's it. What can they do with that? How can they introduce new elements without losing sight of the primary thrust of the game which is locomotion and jumping? The levels and challenges are wrapped around these controls like bacon on a roast. They take something that's perfectly good and make it better.
That's not to say Mario Galaxy 2 is without challenge. On the contrary, it ramps up very quickly compared to its predecessor. A couple hours in and I'm already losing lives because Nintendo has faith that the tools they've given the player will deliver the goods regardless of whether or not the game is a cake walk. They're not wrong. I find that I'm enjoying myself more compared to the original game which took hours to ramp up in the same way. Of all the developers to respect their players and take them to the mat within an hour of starting, Nintendo would seem to be one of the least likely to do it considering their family friendly image. We forget that they cut their teeth on beating us as children with some truly devilish challenges.
I won't say Mario Galaxy 2 is a return to form. Instead, it's a core group of believers that remembers the foundation Nintendo was built on and honors it. If you haven't dusted off your Wii for a while and feel like you've been left behind, let Mario embrace you and stare lovingly into your eyes as he knees you in the groin. Welcome back.