Over the holiday season we'll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This feature was originally published in May 2020.
Nintendo doesn’t make straight sequels.
That’s the received wisdom, anyway. Kyoto's premier game designers need a really good reason—a jump in technology, or a novel new control input, for example—to warrant revisiting a franchise. They're apparently not interested in churning out more of the same for mere profit. The company line is to "provide products and services that surprise and delight consumers", and if they can't think of a way to do that with a sequel, they don't make one. That's why fans still have to crack out their GameCubes to play the latest F-Zero, we guess. This approach to innovation is a good long-term business strategy which stops franchises going stale by bringing something fresh with each new instalment.
However, look through Nintendo's back catalogue and you'll find many sequels that essentially pick up where the previous game left off. Super Mario Bros. 2 might have been a different kettle of fish to its predecessor in the West (famously a retooled version of from the Famicom Disk System), but the original Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 was a straight up continuation of Super Mario Bros., to the extent that it was rebranded 'The Lost Levels' when it eventually saw the light of day outside Japan.
There are plenty more examples. Majora's Mask might have switched things up with its three-day cycle, but it was explicitly built on Ocarina of Time's foundation. Pikmin 3 looked lovely in HD, but did it really switch up the gameplay from its brilliant predecessor in any meaningful way? More recently, was the 'jump' to Splatoon 2 from the original game enough to warrant its existence?
Putting aside commercial explanations for straight sequels, the real question they ask themselves in Nintendo HQ is whether they've exhausted the potential of a given world or mechanic. Much like The Lost Levels, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a continuation of the previous game's mechanics and ideas. According to the game's producer Yoshiaki Koizumi, while developers in Nintendo's EAD Tokyo office were sketching out plans for the 3D Mario game to follow the impeccable Super Mario Galaxy, Mario's creator Shigeru Miyamoto asked "why not just make Super Mario Galaxy 1.5?".
Before release, you'd have been forgiven for thinking Galaxy 2 was Nintendo playing for time while they worked out what the hell to do next. After years of adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom, the blank canvas of the cosmos was surely Mario's last refuge, and Nintendo's last resort. Where else could they take the plumber after he'd visited ‘the final frontier’? They're just doing another one? Where's the 'surprise' in that? How very dull.
while sketching out plans for the 3D Mario game to follow Super Mario Galaxy, Shigeru Miyamoto asked "why not just make Super Mario Galaxy 1.5?"
In an Iwata Asks interview, the developers themselves admitted to being spent after wrapping the first game. "To be honest…I'd pretty much used up everything I had on the first one," said designer Kento Motokura. "Me, too. I was completely dried up" replied level designer Koichi Hayashida. However, the impetus from Miyamoto to dig deep into Galaxy's planetoids and mine further gameplay potential led to an abundance of new ideas. These days they would likely have been pushed into a DLC pack, but not a decade ago on Wii.
Remarkably, Galaxy 2 is far more than an assortment of leftover space junk and detritus orbiting its predecessor. The game is tight, lean and coherent in the most joyfully wacky way, brimming with freshness that belies its 'straight sequel' status, distilling every facet of Mario's history to that point in time and making the first game seem vanilla by comparison. It's simultaneously 'More Super Mario Galaxy' but also its own perfectly-rounded celestial body.
Galaxy 2 is an oxymoron: a machine-tooled, finely-tuned, focused dose of utter superfluity; a full-fat experience with zero fat on it — no filler whatsoever. It just barrels you from one joyous level to the next, never getting old, never giving you time to get bored, never letting up. The first game was just Nintendo EAD cracking its knuckles in preparation; the orchestra tuning up before the real symphony.
It's an oxymoron: a machine-tooled, finely-tuned, focused dose of utter superfluity
None of this is to disparage the first Galaxy. It's only by comparison to this that the first game feels a little bland, a little 'safe'. Once you've ridden Yoshi or grabbed the Cloud Mario power-up or boarded Starship Mario and zipped around the map screen, Rosalina's Comet Observatory feels static and staid. You have to play both, of course, but the original feels like a Van Gogh sketch, a study for the glorious, three-dimensional, explosive technicolor of the sequel.
Ten years on, and Galaxy 2 still plays on our minds from time to time. It topped Metacritic's poll for the best games of the previous decade, and P.J. wrote about it in our staff Games of the Decade roundup earlier this year. With rumours that Nintendo has special plans for Mario's 35th anniversary, we're hoping it will make the leap from Wii to Switch some day soon.
For all its majesty, Switch's own 3D Mario is inherently less coherent; more Jackson Pollock than Van Gogh. Super Mario Odyssey's haphazard multiverse of styles and designs is held together only by sheer mechanical genius. Galaxy 2 remains the purest of the 3D Marios, a crazy cosmic playground of ideas wrapped up in a cogent, considered package — a straight sequel with more of Nintendo's 'surprise and delight' than any other. We love them both. Don't say we can only pick one.