During the Games Convention you may have seen our brief hands-on with Super Mario Galaxy. Although the demo was pretty much the same as we'd already seen at E3, there were also two 'secret' levels Nintendo didn't want us to play. Indeed, when IGN's intrepid reporter was spotted trying out one of these stages we were threatened with having a Wii-remote inserted somewhere quite nasty unless we immediately ceased and desisted. However, since then we've pulled a few strings to get some extended play-time on both levels, without so much as a death threat muttered in our ear.
Firstly though, it's worth pointing out that both of these stages didn't feel like 'proper levels; this is to say they weren't like the other four levels in the demo, which see Mario facing off against enemies, collecting gems and jumping from one planet to another. Instead, they're much more like the mini-levels in Super Mario Sunshine that involved Mario springing through hardcore platforming sections without the assistance of F.L.U.D.D. Of course, we can't be 100% sure how these secret stages fit into the overall picture of Super Mario Galaxy but it certainly seems like they're extra elements that can be accessed from the main game - perhaps by discovering a secret pipe or blasting away on a special star.
Bear in mind these shots aren't from the secret stages.
Anyway, whether or not they're extra elements, it didn't stop either of them being any less awesome. First up, we tackled the stage we didn't get to play at Leipzig - Keepers of the Sky Gauntlet. It's a level packed with vicious Thwomps that try to crush you at every turn. Alongside these are rotating Toxic Boxes from Super Mario 64, which can only be avoided by looking for the hole in one of their six sides, which you can hide in as the box smashes to the ground when you try to sneak past. Furthermore, to add to the Mario nostalgia the music is a remix of the classic Underworld track from Super Mario Bros. - a tune we were humming for some hours after we'd finished playing.
However, perhaps the most impressive thing about the level was its actual design. You see, in the centre of the stage are two spiralling black holes and between them a torrent of water rages from one to the other - creating a kind of bizarre anti-gravity rapids. The course itself is made up of a narrow concrete walkway that spirals around the two black holes. It's like nothing we've ever seen in a Mario game before and certainly goes to show the kind of imaginative stages the development team at Nintendo is able to create thanks to Galaxy's planet-based setting.
Onto the gameplay. Things kick off with Mario zooming in from space and landing at the start of the level. You're then tasked with navigating your way across a floating pathway, which turns sharply every so often as the track spirals around the black holes. The only other enemy you encounter - apart from the Thwomps and Toxic Boxes - is a fairly standard Goomba, which can easily be dispatched with a jump attack. However, if you fancy earning some extra gems knock the Goomba underneath a nearby Thwomp with a spin attack and watch in glee as it gets crushed by the lumbering grey block. The bad dude disappears in a shower of gems, which you can collect.
Here's hoping the Frog Suit makes an appearance in Galaxy.
After that it's pretty much a case of working your way across the concrete track, avoiding a couple of Toxic Boxes along the way. Eventually Mario reaches the raging river that runs through the centre of the stage. Thankfully, also whizzing around the river are moving platforms he can jump on to reach the other side. However, you've got to be careful because the platforms move quickly and it's easy to mis-time a jump and drop into the watery depths below. If this happens it's an instant death because Mario's immediately sucked into a black hole.
Once you've made your way across the river, there are a few more Toxic Boxes to dodge, by carefully picking your way past them - after studying their movement patterns, of course. However, if you fancy taking a more risky but quicker approach you can always try leaping across groups of green platforms are dotted throughout the stage. These are tempting shortcuts but be warned, they disappear a few seconds after you step on them - meaning you don't have much time to prepare your next jump. By going across the green platforms it's possible to complete this level in a couple of minutes - with Mario collecting a star right at the end.
With the Sky Gauntlet level complete we moved onto the familiar Cookie Cutter Galaxy stage - called Conquering the Sweet Cake - we played briefly at the Games Convention. Here you must work your way through a dessert-themed stage to get to a giant cake (and a star, obviously). Naturally everything is made of cakes or cookies (the floor is marble chocolate and some walls are sponge) and in the background giant knives and forks float past, along with brightly coloured balls. In fact it's more like something you'd expect to see Super Monkey Ball than a Mario title.
There are some truly mind-bending platforming moments.
As for the gameplay, it couldn't be further from rolling a monkey around in ball. Indeed, this is Mario action at its best. Players start off on a moving conveyor belt made from big square biscuits. However, the problem is that someone has been overly keen with the cookie cutter and the squares are peppered with holes of various shapes and sizes, which you must jump across. But because the biscuit belt is always moving you've got to be careful that you don't leap too far and fall down another hole that's drawing close. This stage therefore requires some expert jumping skills, plus - to make things a little trickier - there are also laser beams shooting horizontally across the belt, which must be avoided. If you hit one you're temporarily stunned and could potentially fall down a hole.
Once you've made your way across the first conveyor belt you're then tasked with running across another. This time though the belt shifts sideways. At first the level appears slight easier, until you realise each side is littered with lasers that'll zap the moustachioed plumber if he doesn't keep moving
This stage climaxes with a section that's very similar to the first. However, this time you must also leap across much smaller platforms made up of three cookie-shaped circles rather than jumping along large hole-punched squares,. What's more, the belt moves a lot faster than before and there are a couple of lasers to dodge as you jump along. Despite the sugary sweet setting this is actually quite a tough challenge and we're not ashamed to admit that we died several times before we made it to the end and bagged the star.
Black holes are a constant threat in most stages
Then, sadly, it was all over. We played through each secret stage enough times to have them permanently etched onto our memory, so much so we'll probably wake up screaming about cakes in our sleep. However, they indicate that Super Mario Galaxy will be bursting with challenging platform sections that take Mario back to his roots. They also highlight the game's tight controls, because within seconds of playing the cookie cutter level we were triple jumping our way across the gaps and dodging holes like a pro. If this is the shape of things to come in Galaxy then the release can't come soon enough.
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