Super Mario 64 was a revolution. More so than any other title, that game has to this day embodied the transition from the retro days of 2D gaming into the 3D age. Arguably the most popular and consistently exceptional 2D platformer redefined with a fantastic 3D adventure that set precedents for 3D platformers to come. It was a great game by all accounts, and remains one of the most important games in gaming history.
But it has been outdone not once, not twice, but three times, each time by its successors. But of Super Mario Sunshine and the two Super Mario Galaxy titles, the clear winner, the best game in one of gaming’s most treasured and celebrated series, is the original Super Mario Galaxy.
With the work of translating the series to a 3D environment done years ago, and the experimentation with mechanics beyond simple jumping and running taken care of in Super Mario Sunshine, Galaxy was free to go wherever it wanted to. It had been proven that new mechanics could be integrated very well into the core gameplay, and it had been demonstrated that the series could veer outside of its normal art style and do new and exciting things. Galaxy did those things, but its greatest achievements lie not in the things it did to shake up the Mario formula, but in the things it didn’t.
Sure, having smaller planetoids to roam around upon before leaping to another one and then another and then another as you made your way toward the star was a novel feeling, and a welcome departure from the more linear feeling pathways to stars as in games past. Sure, the comets that would add new challenges to the levels were exciting and often brutally difficult (especially the Purple Comets and their annoying coin collecting). Sure, it was beautiful in a way that no Mario game had even been prior: breathtakingly drawn worlds and stellar (yes I went there) animation and character design made the whole game pop with a vibrant energy, and it remains one of the best looking games on the Wii.
But all of that doesn’t make Galaxy deserving a spot on this list. No, what makes Galaxy deserve this spot is the sheer sense of exuberance and rapturous joy that fills the player every minute of playtime.
Galaxy does not pay much mind to storytelling, as that is secondary to the game’s main goal. Instead it seeks to create joy in its players through the gameplay and aesthetics rather than using those in the service of telling a story. And while this approach is contrary to my typical preference, the game’s efforts to cut out the middleman – story – and use its elements to instill emotion in the player directly are incredibly effective. Watching as Mario soars through space, hearing the orchestral score (which is sublime, and it is an absolute crime that the OST is not available in North America) swell as the sounds of Star Bits attracting to Mario grace your ears: it’s all so exciting and uplifting! This game has tremendous game feel, and it delivers its primary directive of fun far better than most games.
But let us not forget that this is a game from Nintendo: this is a game that is difficult and punishing, but not unforgiving. Some of the later levels are truly deserving of the moniker “Nintendo Hard” – they are brutal and will make you want to throw your controller at the wall. But these difficult tasks are always – without exception – crafted in such a way that your failures feel like your failures: when you screw up, you blame yourself immediately. There is no knee jerk reaction that causes you to yell at the game: instead, you curse yourself under your breath and try again right away. Then when you finally beat it? You don’t feel as if you got lucky: you feel as if you progressed. As if you learned how to beat the task through repeated efforts. You did it, and it’s a great feeling, no matter how minor or trivial an accomplishment it is.
This game has absolutely nothing to say. It has no story to speak of. It has no thematic ideas being tossed around. It is, quite simply, an absolutely unerringly fun game that is pure bliss to play.