Monthly Archives: June 2010

Super Mario Galaxy 2; or, The Reason I Play Video Games

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Nintendo really wants you to play Super Mario Galaxy 2 – and by ‘you’ I mean everyone, not just the hardcore Nintendo faithful. After the success of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Nintendo has made every effort to drag its ‘expanded audience’ kicking and screaming into Mario games with three dimensions. Consider the fact that each copy of the game includes a a DVD entitled Super Mario Galaxy 2 For Beginners. Then consider the fact that the very first instructional video on the DVD covers how to connect a Nunchuck to your Wii Remote. Yes, Nintendo isn’t just looking to grab the recent convert who thought that New Super Mario Bros Wii was a jolly fine game and that they might like to play more games involving this Mario chap. They’re also looking to coax over the people who’ve done little more than flail their Wii Remotes around to simulate tennis or bowling – people to whom Nunchucks, Control Sticks and Z Buttons are alien, and possibly intimidating concepts.

Tricky

This one might just be a bit tricky for first-timers.

Despite coming across like Watch With Mother giving an in-flight safety demonstration, the DVD does a good job of covering the basics, gently introducing the idea of moving around in a 3D world and then going over some of the more advanced techniques. The game’s introduction itself doesn’t chuck newcomers in at the deep end, sticking to 2D movement for the first couple of minutes before seamlessly expanding into three dimensions. But, while these instructional tools tell newcomers how to play the game, they can’t, of course, cover the reasons why we might do so.

Let’s be honest – it’s not for the story in this case. While storytelling in games has come a long way since the very first Mario games, Nintendo knows that no-one really plays a Mario game for the story. And so, Bowser has captured the Princess for the umpteenth time, and you have to save her ass, as usual – the only way it could be more ‘classic Mario’ is if Toad popped up at the end of every stage and exclaimed, “Thank you Mario! But our Princess is in another galaxy!”

Cloud Mario

Cloud Mario is a lot of fun.

What Mario Galaxy 2 lacks in plot, however, it more than makes up for in actual gameplay. Simply put, this game is fun. Really, really fun. The sheer variety of levels and challenges is astounding, and the game just keeps throwing new things at you – even within a single Galaxy you may find yourself faced with a completely different challenge from one star to the next. A lot of the powerups return from the original Galaxy (if only briefly), but it’s the new ones that get more of a spotlight. Special mention has to go to Cloud Mario, whose ability to great three cloud platforms in midair is one of the most fun ways to reward creativity that I’ve seen in a long time – and without wanting to spoil anything, you’ll definitely need to use that creativity later in the game. Oh, and Yoshi is back as well, with his own unique set of powerups that allow him to float in the air, run at immense speeds, and even reveal invisible platforms.

Mario and Yoshi

Yoshi is back!

Equally as important is that the game is challenging. Trust me, the first time you come across certain Galaxies, you’ll think to yourself “this is insane… how the hell do I do this?” But crucially, the game always gives you the tools to complete the task – and when you fail, you’ll very rarely feel like it was the game’s fault. Sure, there are occasions when you’ll get frustrated, but never to the point of giving up  – and the challenge makes it all the more satisfying when you finally nail it. (There are are a handful of exceptions to this rule in the very later stages of the game, but thankfully they’re few and far between).

Then there’s the overall look and feel of the game, which is sublime throughout. The original Super Mario Galaxy is still one of the best looking games on the Wii, and Galaxy 2 is easily on a par with it. The style of the game is just as important though – one of my favourite things about it is how it takes full advantage of the fact it’s not obligated to make any sense whatsoever. One minute, you’ll be swimming through an underwater cavern, and the next you’ll be floating in space. You’ll turn lava into ice with the flip of a switch. You’ll fall endlessly round a cylindrical planetoid. You’ll smash meteors into Bowser’s face. The game revels in seeing just how far it can stretch its imagination – but honestly, it’s best discovered for yourself. For long time gamers, Super Mario Galaxy 2 succeeds in capturing the same childlike sense of wonder and escapism you might have experienced when you first picked up a video game for the first time – and that’s why it’s such a timely reminder of the reason I play them in the first place. But for those who’ve never had that experience before, it’s never too late to try.

(Screenshots via IGN.com)

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Total Life Forever: This year’s ‘Primary Colours’?

Foals - Total Life Forever

It’s fair to say that Foals’ second album is a bit of a grower, but it’s clear to me that Total Life Forever has joined the ranks of those records jostling for ‘album of the year’ status. And on top of that, I would propose that it is not just a departure, but a significant leap forward for the band. Foals were previously renowned for their shouty, spiky, math-rock influenced, dancefloor-friendly tunes – and there’s not really anything that fits that description here. Instead, what Foals have created here is a record that, for the most part, is dark, atmospheric, and even beautiful in places – and I’d argue that this is significant a stylistic change as The Horrors displayed on last year’s Primary Colours.

It all hinges on the record’s centre-point, ‘Spanish Sahara’ – and if Total Life Forever is indeed this year’s Primary Colours, then this is Foals’ ‘Sea Within A Sea’. Beginning with little more than the sound of the sea lapping against the shore and sparsely strummed guitar, it slowly, meticulously builds itself into a swirling spiral of sound – with Yannis’ vocals providing a haunting overtone throughout. It’s akin to seeing a wave coming over the horizon and watching it get closer and closer, hearing it get louder and louder, until it finally hits you – and then recedes back into the ocean, leaving you lying, dazed and drenched on the shore.

While ‘Spanish Sahara’ is one of the most beautiful tracks on the record, it’s also indicative of the bleakness that runs through Total Life Forever. See, for example, ‘Afterglow’: is its chorus of “Get up/go and find everyone you care for/for they/won’t be there to see you tomorrow” a threat, or merely a crushing realisation? Either way, it’s certainly indicates a much darker tone than on Antidotes. ‘Alabaster’ hammers the point home, not only with its expansive, echoing sound, but also its lyrics – you wouldn’t find a line like “She’s up in the sky and the sky is on fire/she set the whole neighbourhood to light” on Antidotes, that’s for sure. Not that I mean to discredit their debut at all – it’s a great record in its own right – but the difference in tone is very much noticeable.

Even the more upbeat moments have an undercurrent of sadness to them – even though it’s probably the closest Foals come to sounding like their old selves, ‘This Orient’s chorus of “It’s your heart/that gives me this western feeling” seems to convey a weight of uncertainty. Even the funky, feel-good vibes of ‘Miami’ are undercut with the same feeling, with the question in its chorus sounding more genuine than rhetorical.

“You, my dear, should fear what lies below,” sings Yannis forebodingly on album-closer ‘What Remains’ – and while that may or may not be the case, there’s nothing here to suggest that Foals should fear what lies *ahead*. Total Life Forever is an accomplished, dynamic progression of the band’s sound, and while it may not have the instantly catchy dancefloor-fillers of their debut, it feels more complete as a body of work. It’s the kind of record that takes a little while to get under your skin, but you should definitely give it the chance – it’s more than worth the time and effort.

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