Games 5/25/10: Super Mario Galaxy 2, Split/Second, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, 10 Pin Shuffle

Super Mario Galaxy 2
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Nintendo has made zero bones about “Super Mario Galaxy 2” being more of the same stuff that made “Super Mario Galaxy” what it was, and because “Galaxy” was one of 2007’s best games, no one really seemed bothered by the idea of “SMG2” being, at worst, the same fundamental game with new levels.

And at worst, that’s exactly what this is. But that’s also what the first “Galaxy” was — a prototypical 3D Mario game that had the same old story and was more notable for the unbelievable variety of new level designs it unleashed than any revolutionary change to the way players controlled Mario.

This time, just like last time, Nintendo relegates motion controls to special self-contained challenges that serve as diversions more than the main course, which plays out using the same traditional control scheme Nintendo has been using since Mario first entered the third dimension in 1996. A second player can once again use a Wii remote to help (or hinder) Mario in a few minor ways, but this doesn’t change the core game so much as give it a light social element. Like its predecessor, and unlike last year’s “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” “SMG2” isn’t designed with multiplayer in mind beyond sharing turns and passing the controller around.

With none of “Galaxy’s” basic ingredients needing any repair, Nintendo did as it should and focused primarily on unleashing two-plus years’ worth of whatever crazy new level ideas it could conjure.

The result, without getting too specific and spoiling anything, is nothing short of exquisite. “SMG2” reuses bits and pieces of certain “Galaxy” levels, but it largely reinvents the wheel, constructing worlds that play liberally with the laws of gravity, collapse upon themselves, make Mario feet 2 feet tall, dream up impossibly crazy boss fights and even pay tribute to Mario’s past adventures. New characters join in, old favorites return, and the whole thing is an unapologetically colorful ball of joyful, brilliant design that perfectly toes the line between welcoming players of all stripes and challenging the best of them to bring their A-game. Picking every level clean will take a good 15 skillful hours to do, and there isn’t a moment in those hours where Nintendo’s level designers just coasted by.

“SMG2” expands Mario’s suit repertoire by combining his classic (Fire Mario) and “Galaxy” (Bee Mario, Spring Mario, Boo Mario, Rainbow Mario) power-ups with a couple new entrants. Rock Mario can wreak havoc as a living boulder, while players who could use a hand will appreciate Cloud Mario’s ability to create his own platforms.

But perhaps the most welcome addition — along with being able to occasionally play as Luigi without beating the whole game — is the return of Yoshi, whose unique abilities come into play much more effectively than they did in his last appearance eight years ago. “SMG2” generally reserves Yoshi’s appearances for specific levels, but the upshot is that those levels better cater to Yoshi’s ability to eat this and grab onto that than would be the case if Mario could enlist him at any time. Yoshi gains a few new powers of his own, including the ability to illuminate like a light bulb and turn into a makeshift blimp, but the same abilities he’s had for 20 years remain the most fun to use here.

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Split/Second
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Black Rock Studio/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

It’s pretty clear how “Split/Second” wants to set itself apart as more than just another arcade racing game. The game’s premise exists inside a reality television show, which exists inside a fake city that players can thoroughly blow to pieces while simultaneously working their way around otherwise traditional racetracks.

Less obvious, but perhaps more important, is how well “Split/Second” does the little things — difficulty balancing, single-player rewards, a pattern of destruction that relies on timing and physics instead of simple scripted explosions — to make the big thing work so splendidly.

“Split/Second’s” core racing component should ring mostly familiar to anyone with a cursory knowledge of how arcade racers work. The game is generous with the crash physics, allowing and encouraging dangerous driving over pristine technique, and players who draft, drift, catch air and otherwise live dangerously are rewarded with further abilities toward gaining an edge.

In this case, though, those abilities translate into limited-use but freely deployable triggers that level portions of the environment and brutalize all cars that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those triggers translate into everything from helicopters dropping bombs to collapsing bridges to a yacht taking out a piece of highway, and “Split/Second’s” outstanding graphics engine brings every calamity to eye-popping life.

But it’s the physics more than the graphics that keep those explosions fresh beyond the novelty period. “Split/Second’s” impressively spartan heads-up display offers clues as to when it would be best to trigger a disaster, but simply hitting the button doesn’t promise anything. A.I. drivers can sidestep a poorly-timed trigger, and players very easily can trigger an attack on their own car if they don’t think it through. Nothing about the mechanic is scripted, and A.I. drivers are as prone to making the same mistakes.

For the same reasons, dodging other drivers’ attacks is arguably even more exciting than setting them off. The arsenal of trigger possibilities shrinks considerably for players who lead the race, but driving with seven targets on your back changes the game enough to more than compensate. “Split/Second’s” superb driving controls make skirting disaster by inches a tangible thrill, and the game’s diversionary events — which find players dodging bombing helicopters and outrunning semis bent on sabotage — play to this thrill as perfectly as the more traditional races do.

A point could certainly be made that “Split/Second’s” single-player career mode is hampered by some ruthless A.I. that can send players from first place to last in the blink of a single mistake. But the game rarely trips players into making unfair mistakes, and the career mode counteracts by rewarding players who finish in fifth as well as first with some kind of progress compensation. Players can repeat races at any time (and with better vehicles acquired by accumulating progress elsewhere), and while the system occasionally feels cheap, there’s something refreshing about an arcade racer that challenges you to conquer it from the very first race.

Naturally, any grievances with the A.I. fall away in “Split/Second’s” multiplayer mode (two players splitscreen, eight online), and all that’s great about the on-track action in single-player play applies here as well. Just don’t expect much beyond that: It works, and it supports most of the single-player modes in multiplayer form, but that’s about as fancy as it gets.

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Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC, Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

Five “Prince of Persia” games in seven years after three in the preceding 14 has taken the franchise from nowhereville to sequel city in a hurry, and “The Forgotten Sands” does itself no favor by abandoning the dramatic visual and narrative makeover that made the 2008 reboot such a pleasantly fresh surprise.

“Sands” instead is a direct sequel to 2003’s “The Sands of Time,” which provides the basis of the “Persia” film currently in theaters (and, consequently, should answer whatever questions you had about Ubisoft ditching that reboot and rushing “Sands” out 17 months later).

Early on, “Sands” feels less like a sequel to “Time” than a capable but uninspired imitation of it. It plays like a typical “Perisa” game, mixing some ambitious environmental platforming with sword combat that’s more fun than special. Per series tradition, the massive traversable environments — ledges, trapeze swings, poles, cliff sides — feel like gigantic environmental riddles more than simple action game playgrounds, and the game uses an assisted character movement scheme that doesn’t hold players’ hands but also doesn’t require angle-perfect precision jumping. As with “Time,” and per story dictation, players eventually receive a limited-use ability to rewind time and correct mistimed jumps without reverting back to a checkpoint.

That rewind trick becomes indispensable once “Sands” comes into its own and gives the Prince powers that dwarf anything “Time” did. Players gradually receive the ability to alter the environment — freeze and unfreeze water, make entire structures appear and disappear — while simultaneously jumping through and climbing around it in traditional and (thanks to yet more abilities) exhilarating new ways. “Sands'” early levels aren’t exactly dull, but the designs in the second two-thirds of the game, which mix and match abilities with abandon and place a premium on meticulous timing and some serious thumb gymnastics, put them to shame.

“Sands'” combat, which pits the Prince against several dozen grunts and the occasional heavy at once, is considerably less impressive, but also an improvement on the 2008 game’s drab one-on-one combat. The Prince has a modest array of upgradable sword attacks and spells, but the combat typically amounts to little more than mashing buttons to kill a few dozen enemies while dodging the glacial attacks of the handful who get a chance to fight back. It’s nothing other action games haven’t done considerably better, but it is good for a mindless break between the more cerebral platforming parts, and it never carries on long enough to become a detriment to the fun.

What can be a detriment is “Sands'” occasional ability to just act up and not play nice. During the course of this review, for instance, a segment near the end of the game proved impossible to pass until the game was rebooted, after which point everything clicked and the same attempted maneuvers worked perfectly. The game’s checkpoint system is generous enough to make this an inconvenience more than a deal-breaker, and there’s no telling how likely it is you’ll even encounter this problem. But if you suddenly find certain techniques failing you no matter what you do, your best recourse may be the reset button.

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10 Pin Shuffle
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (Universal App)
From: Digital Smoke
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $4 (free demo version available)

The complexity of mobile games has skyrocketed since the iPhone development floodgates opened a couple years ago, but sometimes the best games remain the simple ones that just use the touchscreen perfectly right. “10 Pin Shuffle” aims to replicate the shufflepuck bowling game found in arcades and bars everywhere, and while the default control setting is excessively sensitive, the Easy Controls setting perfectly nails the sensation of sliding the puck at those pins. That alone makes this one of those games that even technophobic non-gamers don’t need instructions to play. “Shuffle’s” feature set nicely complements its intuitiveness: The 3D graphics look great, the little touches in the sound and presentation departments are a treat, and the game’s stat-tracking is impressive in its details. Best of all, there’s a bounty of modes, including traditional bowling, a really clever poker mode that combines bowling with video poker, and a version of straight-up, pins-free shufflepuck with customizable win conditions. In-progress games are autosaved if interrupted, and almost all modes support solo play, single-player with an A.I. opponent and pass-the-device or Bluetooth multiplayer. (The poker mode can’t support pass-the-device multiplayer due to its design, but it does support Bluetooth play.)