Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 3, Super Mario Galaxy 2

Galaxy 2 is the extremely rare modern Mario sequel, and also the greatest Mario game ever.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

That Super Mario Galaxy 2 even exists is something of a shock. A direct sequel to a Mario game, released on the same system? By 2010, when EAD Tokyo’s Galaxy 2 released for the Wii, that just did not happen with Mario any longer. Super Mario Bros. 2 — the Japanese version, not the re-skinned Doki Doki Panic that North America got — was the last such game back in 1986. Super Mario Bros. 3 counts, if you want to be a little pedantic about it because of the number in the title, as would Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, but even if you do say those are the answer, we’re talking about an NES game and a Game Boy game. The Wii was just a few years after those systems, the trend long gone.

The only direct sequels since were mostly that in name only, to boost attention, marketing power, whatever. Super Mario World 2 was actually the first Yoshi platformer, Yoshi’s Island, which in subsequent releases and re-releases, too, has dropped the series affiliation. The original Wario Land was the third entry in the Super Mario Land series, but the second Wario Land game was no longer part of that universe since it no longer needed that tie-in. Since the days of at least Super Mario Bros. 3 and Six Golden Coins, if not earlier, Mario direct sequels just didn’t happen: even the New Super Mario Bros. games that took so much from the plumber’s 2D roots have released just one per system.

Despite this being the case and the strategy for Mario games in a post-NES world, Nintendo made an exception for Galaxy 2. It was originally developed with the idea being that they were going to fast-track the release of a game called “Super Galaxy More”, which was nicknamed Super Mario Galaxy 1.5 during development, with more levels, more variation, and, well, just more of what you loved from Galaxy, including the content they had cut from it before release. Think of it kind of like an expansion pack, the thing we used to see more of before the drip drip of teeny, wallet-squeezing downloadable content packages took over the industry. As the new ideas began to pile up, though, Nintendo realized that there was another entire game here, if they wanted to make it. So they did: the development time frame more than doubled, and a full game was produced. A masterpiece was produced, to be more precise. It has not escaped my attention that the impetus and origins for a sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is discussed in the exact same manner as Galaxy 2, but I will attempt to contain myself.

What might make that last tidbit an even more exciting prospect than it is in a vacuum is that Super Mario Galaxy 2 plays like Nintendo was trying to justify the game's very existence, by making something so great that even the most cynical out there could never argue against the world's need for it. Galaxy 2 is conceptually the same kind of gameplay as Galaxy, which makes sense given it was born out of once-discarded ideas and an extension of the original’s concepts. It’s also a much better game, which is saying something, since Super Mario Galaxy was, at the time of its release, the best Mario that Nintendo had ever developed, and all this time later still managed to rank number 23 on this list. Galaxy 2 showed a development team with far more confidence in themselves and what they could create, as well as confidence in the player to adjust and adapt, to take what they learned from the original Galaxy and to apply it to more difficult challenges, and it’s part of what makes Galaxy 2 special.

It’s the same basic framework that created the game we now know internationally as The Lost Levels — Nintendo’s last, most explicit attempt at a direct sequel to a Mario game — but with decades of experience creating a better appreciation of compelling level design and challenge level that players will not only tolerate, but be willing to rise up to. There was some criticism at the time that Galaxy 2 was too difficult, but the reality of things is more that the original Galaxy wasn’t difficult enough. For all the joy that game brought and still brings me, it’s a breeze to complete. Mario games don’t need to be the Dark Souls of 3D platformers or anything, but I’d like the game to at least attempt to stop me from success every now and again, and Galaxy 2 was more than happy to take the occasional moment to tell me where I could stick my Wii Remote if I didn’t like it. I respect that.

Upping the challenge wasn’t the lone improvement over the design of Galaxy. Introducing an overworld map that resembles that of Mario’s 2D past was no small thing: Galaxy, and really, the 3D Mario games in general, are about going back to places you’ve already been a number of times, until you’ve found every star there is to be found. The space station “map” design of Galaxy was cute and all, but as discussed back in that game’s ranking, was mostly a giant pain in the ass to traverse, never mind when you needed to remember where it was that you had to backtrack to. Super Mario Galaxy 2’s overworld map lets you quickly go to new levels or old ones, to see what progress you’ve made and have yet to make: it makes for a far more efficient experience, one that lets you go back to where you’re still needed with ease, and without the burden being put on the player to recall which levels still have stars to be found.

And then, there are the actual changes to how levels are played. There are new suits that make for new environmental challenges and enemies to defeat, such as Rock Mario, which you use to roll around a level, crushing enemies underneath you, and Cloud Mario, which grants you the ability to, mid-air, create a limited number of platforms to jump to. Cloud Mario, especially, is wonderful to play, since it plays with the limited resources of those platforms in imaginative ways. There are always bunches of Cloud power-ups around, but you need to time your jumps and platform creation in such a way that you can reach these refills, and the boss that centers heavily around the cloud is stellar, especially when you’re later required to do a no-damage run of it in order to earn another star.

The most significant change to play style, though, comes in the form of Yoshi. Whereas Yoshi’s initial introduction to 3D Mario in Super Mario Sunshine was, let’s say, hit or miss, here, it’s the most intriguing and enjoyable the green dinosaur has ever been in the sidekick role. In Super Mario World, Yoshi was never really a requirement, so much as an alternate way to reach a goal that you otherwise could have gotten to another way. Yoshi often served to mostly make things easier, or as a way to expedite a process by swallowing a particular Koopa shell and gaining a power such as flight. In Galaxy 2, though, entire levels are designed around the idea that you have Yoshi: riding the green dino is expected, is required, and since playing with Yoshi is different than playing without, it creates far more depth in Galaxy 2’s design, more diversity of levels and challenges to overcome. It’s a perfect integration of 3D Mario gameplay with the concept of Yoshi, translated into the 3D space with far more success than on the previous attempt. And better, too, than Yoshi’s reintroduction to the 3D Mario space in Odyssey.

Yoshi doesn’t eat enemies in Galaxy 2, so much as slurp them up with his tongue and then spit them back out as projectiles. This is crucial for destroying certain obstacles, for damaging enemies — including some bosses — and for disposing of some foes that Mario can’t just jump on or spin attack, like the spike-covered Spinies. There are platforms designed just for Yoshi and, more specifically, Yoshi’s tongue, used to flip jump your way up and across and over gaps and chasms and through levels. Yoshi also has his own power-ups for tackling challenges within a stage. There’s the Blimp Fruit, which makes Yoshi float. The Bulb Berry, which works to reveal hidden platforms over a short time limit. And the Dash Pepper, which, well, you get it. The Yoshi stages are far different experiences than the standard Mario ones, and it helps keep the game fresher than its predecessor, even though it’s an extension of that game’s concept, even though it was initially designed with “More” in mind.

The introduction of Yoshi alone, and how successfully it was implemented, would be enough to put Galaxy 2 over the original. But it’s the everything else that puts this game ahead of nearly every other Nintendo has its name on. The introduction of Comet Medals pays off in two ways: for one, the stages where comets change the way you play and whatever challenge you need to complete in order to earn a star feel a lot less randomized, as these modified levels now show up only in stages where you’ve collected a comet medal. And since it’s now easier than ever to backtrack, the sheer volume of them in Galaxy 2 isn’t a problem like it would have been within Galaxy’s framework. Secondly, finding the Comet Medals themselves brings about platforming challenges to overcome. Sometimes they’re in plain sight, but they’re often hidden in such a way that, if your goal is simply to complete a course as quickly as possible without exploring even a little bit, you’re not going to find them. And they are required in order to find the game’s 120 stars, since they are the keys that unlock additional levels within the galaxies of the game.

It is legitimately challenging to collect all 120 stars in the game, but here’s the thing: you will want to do so. There are another 120 stars in it for you if you manage to get the first 120: while they are not given their own full stages, they are instead hidden within the ones you’ve already played. You’re basically playing hide-and-seek with these stars, which tend to be off the path you initially played on. Before you can get to that point, however, you’ll have to complete the game’s minor and major challenges. The minor ones are scattered throughout the basic set of worlds and galaxies: they’re just some tough, regular stages, this isn’t some official in-game designation I’m using here. The most difficult levels in the game, these major challenges, are found beyond your battle with Bowser and the resolution of the game’s plot, and many of these can only be accessed through a combination of star collection and a significant number of Star Bits. Not only are Star Bits how you will gain the most extra lives in Galaxy 2, but they’re also required for opening up locks throughout the game worlds, giving you access to more and tougher stages. Grab them when you see them.

Galaxy 2 isn’t just excellent for what separates it from Galaxy: it’s also wonderful for all of the reasons the original was, too. I’ll save you a full rehash or reread, and just leave you with this from my Galaxy writeup:

One of the best parts of Super Mario Sunshine were the bits where Mario, sans FLUDD backpack, had to traverse difficult, nonsensical platforming stages that don’t exist in any form outside of a Mario game. Much of Sunshine was designed around “here is the grassy level” and “here is a village” and “here is the water level” like most Mario games are. And that’s fine! It works, it worked. But the parts that were like “you are now in some weird dimension where you must cross these rotating platforms to get to the goal without falling into an abyss with no bottom” stood out for their weirdness, their difficulty, their being completely unbound from any rules of convention for what they should be designed to look and play like. Galaxy is basically an entire game built on that principle.

Mario is in space, and therefore, gravity and its effects on platforming are more of a factor than they had ever been before. In previous Mario games, gravity and the physics mattered, sure, but in the sense that Mario would come up, and would, like everything else, eventually come down. In Galaxy, though, Mario can often avoid running right off of the edge of a platform, because he’s just going to run from the top of it to the side of it to the bottom of it, sticking to its surface the entire time, trapped by its gravity. Or he can high jump and then do a spin move to jump even higher that will allow him to escape the gravitational pull of the platform or planetoid that he’s on, in order to land on a different one and continue his adventure. It opened up so many new possibilities for play and interaction with the worlds that Mario visited.

Some stages are actually reused from the original Galaxy, but with some new wrinkle included. Take, for instance, the Stone Cyclone Galaxy, which is essentially a clone of Super Mario Galaxy’s Cyclone Stage stage. Galaxy’s version of this stage isn’t particularly difficult, once you figure out what it wants from you. Galaxy 2’s version, though, is sped up significantly, which is no small thing for a stage that demands precise jumps both in timing and landing, all while you’re being chased by Thwomps that are essentially unavoidable and will crush you if your timing is off. Check this out:

That’s actually a pretty straightforward way of handling the level: you can decide, instead, to do some doubling back, to make some extremely death-defying long jumps to nab those center silver stars and the Comet Medal, if you so choose. Or if you’re desperate enough to attempt it. Either works! To make matters worse, the second stage for the second star is timed: you need to pick up clocks that boost your time in order to reach the end. You will play this stage again and again until you get it, but it’s not frustrating in the way that makes you quit or say that things are unfair. It’s the kind of difficulty that pushes you forward, that challenges you, that you know you can figure out with practice. It’s oh so rewarding when you finally do, too.

The gameplay is still just so smooth, the best Mario has ever felt in 3D. There’s something ever-so-slightly off in the way Mario moves in Super Mario Odyssey, even, a downgrade compared to how effortlessly he responds to your inputs in Galaxy 2. Maybe it’s because so much of the focus on Odyssey is on how Mario is going to move inside the creatures and objects his hat possesses, while Galaxy 2 simply has a few suits and focuses primarily on standard Mario movements and the addition of Yoshi, but regardless of the why, Galaxy 2 just feels better to play, and more correct in that feeling, if that makes sense.

It helps with the overall package, too, that Nintendo accounted for both the increased difficulty and that not every single person playing Galaxy 2 would have played Galaxy, but that most were likely return players. The game does not have forced tutorials for anything, as it works under the assumption that you played Galaxy. The tutorials do exist, however: they’re in signs scattered throughout the game, presented as videos that show you what Mario is capable of. Galaxy 2 also borrows and makes its own the concept first introduced in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, where the game will assist you in a stage you’ve repeatedly died in. You don’t get full credit for these stages where Rosalina is helping Mario to the end, in the sense that the bronze star you’re awarded doesn’t count toward your grand total of collected stars, but it does keep you from having your progression halted. At least until you come upon an instance where you need a certain number of stars to progress. But that’s motivation to go back and try to complete something yourself.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is so incredible that my immediate reaction to Nintendo not including it in the Super Mario 3D All-Stars package is that it was simply too good to not get its own HD re-release. It’s hard to tell if that was just optimism so I could move on from thinking about it, or if Nintendo did plan such a thing but was stymied in development by the challenges of the pandemic, but the point is just that it didn’t feel wrong to separate it from 64, Sunshine, and its predecessor. Galaxy 2 is just that good, and that it’s only available if you have a Wii or a Wii U is its one downside. It’s the best Mario game out there, the third-best thing Nintendo has ever made by this project’s count, and you need either a system that failed to sell or one that sold well but launched 15 years ago if you want to play it.

If you have somehow never played it — and that’s entirely possible, since it sold 7.41 million copies, or 5.39 million fewer than Galaxy did — you absolutely have to do so. It is better than the game it is a sequel to in every single way, except for its soundtrack, which is incredible, but ever-so-slightly worse than the original’s best-in-class showing. It is the superior version of the superior version of Mario. It will delight you, it will challenge you, it will stun you with its imaginative design, its ability to bounce and shuffle between ideas and concepts, its faith in the player to overcome whatever obstacle is put in front of them. What an absolute joy of a game, the as-of-yet unmatched pinnacle for an icon.

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