Super Mario Galaxy 2

Nintendo shows how it’s done with another simple classic.

Super Mario Galaxy 2
Nintendo Wii

In 1981, a carpenter (as he was then) encountered a gap between where he was and where he wanted to be. Taking a running jump, he leapt into space, cleared the chasm and landed safely on the other side. As he did so, the game he was in, Donkey Kong, established a new genre of video game - the platform game. Originally called "Jumpman", by the time his creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, released a follow-up, he had been renamed "Mario". One of the best-known gaming icons was born.

Platform games are a staple of the industry, profoundly simple in their functional demands on the player. All you have to do is traverse an environment to get to your goal, avoiding hazards (monsters, projectiles, gaps in the floor) by jumping over them. At their bare minimum, they require only one button - jump - making them an easily accessible genre. With player controls starting from such a clear baseline, they give designers a great foundation for exploring environment and character.

Platformers are big business, with characters such as Mario and Sonic adorning lunchboxes and pyjamas all over the world. Yet despite the apparent dominance of these global brands, we should not overlook our domestic contribution. The 1980s saw Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy and Head Over Heels emerging from the north of England, while in the 1990s, Derby's Core Design produced Tomb Raider. Lara Croft may have been an empowered action heroine for the 1990s, but she still spent most of her time jumping over stuff.

Mario's position as the king of platforming was never seriously threatened. Despite some ill-judged licensing deals (Bob Hoskins describes his role in the Super Mario Bros movie as "the worst thing I ever did" - and he was in Spice World), the franchise has always thrived. Having already sold in huge quantities (including around 40 million copies of the original Super Mario Bros), it's astonishing that a series so old can generate something that feels as fresh as Super Mario Galaxy 2.

The narrative remains the same: Princess Peach has again been kidnapped (surely it's time to review palace security?) and it falls to Mario to rescue her. As a story, it's less than progressive, but it exists only in order to get you jumping - and jump you shall. Like its predecessor, Super Mario Galaxy 2 sends you into deep space: the action takes place on or inside spherical planets organised into aesthetically themed galaxies. As Mario runs along a surface, he ends up back where he began. It's a dizzying conceit, and one that enables some startling leaps of design.

Jumps, naturally, require gravity. Their duration and height are tempered by it, so the game's flagrant disregard for its rule forms the basis of much of the design. Super Mario Galaxy 2 breaks the laws of gravity so comprehensively in its relentless invention that if Newton were alive, he would be handing out Asbos to its designers. It playfully flips gravity and orientation so regularly that the whole concept of "up" ceases to have any real meaning very early in the game.

Despite their audacity, levels maintain their own strict internal logic. The environments are impossible, eccentric and joyously disorientating. As one gambols down this Möbius strip of a game, it is difficult not to be intoxicated by the purity of the fun on offer. If Escher ever had too many sweets and started designing in primary colours, he might have come close to creating the confections on display here.

The two-player option has also been developed from its ancestor. A second player takes the part of a starry, will-o'-the-wisp assistant, helping to freeze enemies to allow Mario to pass, collecting stars and gently helping the hero along. It's a lovely balance, which demands strategic collaboration and offers an easy access point for those with less developed gaming skills to participate meaningfully.

The game's greatest achievement remains the reassuring clarity with which it guides you through. Architectural fancies that at first sight seem intimidatingly abstract somehow snap into sense as you pass along them. For a game that takes such obvious delight in disorientation, Mario's feet remain firmly on the floor.

Iain Simons is director of the GameCity festival.

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain