200th Game Review Special, Part 3: Greenlit for Success

As you may have noticed since my 150th game review special, I ended up awarding passing grades far less often than middling or failing ones. It was to the point where I had gone at least two different months of this year without awarding a single one, causing me to promise to review at least one good game the following month. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why things turned out that way, though reviewing long-running series that took a few installments to finally get good probably had something to do with it (the Bubsy series was responsible for three failing grades by itself). Either way, we’ve finally reached the games I can straight-up recommend, so if you haven’t played them, seek them out.

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Super Mario Galaxy 2

Though Nintendo paved the way for 3D gaming with Super Mario 64 in 1996, the fifth console generation saw them gradually lose their dominance as a result of driving away a significant portion of their third-party support. This downward spiral continued into the sixth console generation when Sony’s PlayStation 2 proceeded to dominate its competition. Even the most critically acclaimed GameCube titles such as Metroid Prime and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker did nothing to turn the tides in Nintendo’s favor. To make matters even worse, Nintendo began gaining a reputation as a kiddie company as a result of mainstream releases on the PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox gearing toward a more mature audience. In order to remain in the business, Nintendo realized they had to do something drastic. Their lifeline came in the form of the Nintendo Wii in 2006. With its novel motion controls, the Wii soon found itself outselling its more technically capable competition when it enticed gamers and non-gamers alike.

Though an instant bestseller, those who had been following Nintendo since the NES days were asking the same question. Where is Mario? Nintendo’s mascot had, without fail, featured in some way in every one of the venerable company’s home console releases. Even the GameCube had Luigi’s Mansion, which cast his brother in the lead role, yet when the Wii launched, he was nowhere to be seen. Fans received their answer shortly after the Wii’s launch: Mario was to star in a game that would see him travel the cosmos. The name of the game was Super Mario Galaxy. When it debuted in 2007, the reception was unlike anything the franchise had seen before. It was commonly said that while Super Mario 64 invented 3D platforming, Super Mario Galaxy perfected it. Yoshiaki Koizumi again found himself in the lead director’s chair, and after adding a personal, auteur touch, created one of the most beloved games of its generation.

As soon as Nintendo’s Tokyo branch finished work on Super Mario Galaxy, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto approached the team and suggested they should produce a follow-up. Originally, the team was going to create a version of Super Mario Galaxy that featured slight variations its planets in a manner reminiscent of the Master Quest edition of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Because it wasn’t intended to be a true sequel, their tentative titles for this game were Super Mario Galaxy More and Super Mario Galaxy 1.5, and they expected it to be finished in a year’s time. At first, they implemented elements that were scrapped from Super Mario Galaxy. Before they knew it, they were adding so many new ideas to the game that they decided the end product should be a fully-fledged sequel. Joined by one of the series’ central figures, Takashi Tezuka, Yoshiaki Koizumi set forth with the Nintendo EAD Tokyo team once more to make it into reality. To reflect this change, the game was redubbed Super Mario Galaxy 2.

By the seventh console generation, gamers accepted that every one of Nintendo’s consoles would boast but a single mainline Mario release. This was especially obvious when observing the series’ 3D installments. The Nintendo 64 had Super Mario 64 while the GameCube saw the debut of Super Mario Sunshine – neither installment would receive a direct sequel. However, this could be seen as early as the fourth console generation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being more of a standalone spinoff than a true sequel to Super Mario World. The fans read the writing on the wall, and with Super Mario Galaxy being such a monumental game, they assumed they had seen the last of Nintendo’s mascot for the rest of the Wii’s lifespan. They could never have expected Nintendo to unveil the existence of a sequel to Super Mario Galaxy during the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2009 in Mr. Miyamoto’s private conference. He even stated that the game would have 95%-99% new features – the rest being holdovers from Super Mario Galaxy.

Although Mr. Miyamoto stated the game was nearing completion, Super Mario Galaxy 2 would eventually be delayed to 2010 because New Super Mario Bros. Wii had been released in late 2009. The game became playable for the first time during the Nintendo Media Summit in February of 2010 shortly after a second trailer had been released. Here, its North American release date was revealed: May 23, 2010. Seeing a release in other regions later in the year, and in the case of South Korea, early 2011, Super Mario Galaxy 2 enjoyed the same level of universal acclaim as its predecessor. It is now considered one of the greatest games of all time, and many have declared it the single greatest entry in the Wii’s library. Could Super Mario Galaxy 2 have possibly surpassed such an acclaimed title?

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Super Mario Galaxy

Originally codenamed the Revolution, the Wii was to be Nintendo’s entry in the seventh console generation. While Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 console focused on providing players with high-definition experiences, Nintendo opted to go in a different direction. Rather than appealing to the existing gaming fanbase, they sought to make their console for everyone, hence why the name sounds like the English first-person, plural pronoun “we”. One of the Wii’s touted features lied in its unique control scheme. In lieu of fashioning a classic controller, the Wii was to employ motion controls, which would be executed by a remote outfitted with an infrared sensor. Though met with a degree of skepticism within the gaming community, the Wii became the best-selling console of its generation. Despite its successful launch, many gamers were wondering why a mainline Mario installment was not among its launch titles. Even the GameCube had the spinoff Luigi’s Mansion, yet when the Wii launched, Nintendo’s mascot was nowhere to be found.

After the release and overwhelming success of Super Mario 64, Nintendo began working on a sequel. One of the first names for this hypothetical game was Super Mario 64-2. It was slated to launch on the 64DD (Dynamic Drive), a peripheral for the Nintendo 64 that would afford players new freedoms such as the ability to create their own content. However, the commercial failure of the 64DD ensured it would never leave its homeland. In response, many 64DD projects were reformatted for the Nintendo 64, saved for future consoles, or cancelled outright. Super Mario 64-2 was one of the projects to suffer the last fate. Despite this, Nintendo wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. With the impending launch of the Nintendo GameCube, they needed something with which to demonstrate its processing power. In 2000, a proposed game entitled Super Mario 128 was showcased at Nintendo Space World. The game was heavily retooled and outfitted with a tropical island theme, hence the 2002 release Super Mario Sunshine. Though stuck in the shadow of its more popular predecessor, Super Mario Sunshine was highly acclaimed in its own right, and became one of the console’s premier titles.

Though many ideas from the Super Mario 128 demonstration were excised by the time it became Super Mario Sunshine, one person continued to see potential in them. That person was none other than the demonstration’s director, Yoshiaki Koizumi. Super Mario Sunshine marked the first instance in which he found himself as the lead director, and though he was satisfied with his work, he wanted to set his sights higher for the inevitable follow-up. One part of the demonstration featured Mario moving freely around a spherical platform. This concept did not make it into Super Mario Sunshine due to it overtaxing the machine’s technical capabilities. Nonetheless, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto remained interested in the concept, and he decided to form a team who would help bring it into reality.

The year 2002 marked the founding of the Nintendo EAD Tokyo Software Development Department. The purpose of this branch was to recruit fresh, new talent from Japan’s capital and most populated city. Their inaugural game was released in 2004 under the name Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. It was among the first titles to star Donkey Kong in the lead role after the revered Rare entered a partnership with Microsoft. The game was praised for the most part, though many critics deemed it inferior to Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy due to its lack of returning characters. Nonetheless, the game stood out from its competition in how characters were controlled with a set of bongos – an aspect that captured the attention of various non-gaming publications. Impressed with their work, Mr. Miyamoto asked EAD Tokyo if they wanted to make a high-profile game starring one of the company’s mainstays. This prompted one member of the staff to suggest they possessed the skills to make a new Mario title. Mr. Koizumi, taking note of the experience the staff developed creating Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, felt they could make the idea involving spherical platforms work and recruited them into this new project. In a bit of a twist, Mr. Koizumi set his attention to the Wii.

With a basic concept in mind, all Mr. Koizumi needed was a central theme, necessitating his team to draft several ideas and find ways to implement them. Co-designer Koichi Hayashida and producer Takeo Shimizu were skeptical about the idea of incorporating a spherical playing field into a 3D platforming game. The latter in particular felt a sense of danger when the plan was approved. Only when he began debugging the game did he realize how fresh the experience felt. Once the team was convinced of the concept’s viability, they quickly settled on setting the game in outer space, believing most players would see the spherical shapes as planets. As an entire region separated EAD Tokyo from Nintendo, a system was put in place so both offices could playtest the game. The development team was pressured to finish their work at or close to the Wii’s launch. However, keeping true to the ethos of Mr. Miyamoto, they deemed a polished Mario game was more important than a rushed one.

The efforts of EAD Tokyo saw their completion in November of 2007 under the name Super Mario Galaxy. It is nearly impossible to overstate just how much praise this game received upon release. Mere days afterwards, Super Mario Galaxy was considered one of the greatest games ever made. Fans declared it the first truly worthy sequel to Super Mario 64, and even those who didn’t care for the Wii were thoroughly impressed. With Super Mario 64 having one of the most profound impacts of any game in history, was Super Mario Galaxy truly able to surpass it?

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