Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 23, Super Mario Galaxy

The game that fully sold me on 3D Mario by successfully shedding the conventions that Nintendo hadn't fully dispersed with before.

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.

Now, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Sunshine back when they came out for the Nintendo 64 and GameCube, respectively. Hell, they both made it onto this list, one that purposely is ignoring nostalgia and historical importance in its decision making, which should tell you that I loved them plenty back in the day if I still feel that strongly about them today.

It wasn’t until Super Mario Galaxy came out for the Wii in 2007, though, that I felt Nintendo had made a 3D Mario that was at the same level as what they had achieved in just two dimensions. Galaxy was the most hooked I had ever been on 3D Mario. It took the least time for me to complete of any of the three: not in time played, but in how much real-world time passed before I had completed it. I could not pull myself away from it, and that’s where what free time I had in between college classes and working multiple jobs went. It’s the game that fully sold me on the idea of 3D Mario, as wild as that might sound, but its divergence from what was possible in the 2D space went far beyond what 64 and Sunshine achieved, and because of that, it managed to surpass all that had come before. You can’t ask for a better endorsement of the decision to go 3D than that.

Galaxy is no longer my favorite 3D Mario or Mario in general, but that’s mostly because, unlike with some series Nintendo produces, there is much closer to a 1:1 correlation with quality and release order when it comes to 3D Mario games — make sure you give that “closer” appropriate emphasis in your head. You’ll notice that Zelda games are spread out throughout this list without much mind for what year they hit shelves, and the same goes for Fire Emblem and Metroid, but 3D Mario games are kind of a different beast. Nintendo is, more so than in any other of their other series that have existed for three-plus decades, building on what came before and introducing that in a new space, and it more often than not results in a 3D Mario better than the last one. Being less reliant on story and themes than a Zelda or Fire Emblem helps in this regard, as does the point of Mario being more about exploring the genre of platforming and what it can do and be in general. A Zelda might have a specific, unique hook, but it’s still very much Zelda at its core, and the same goes for FE. Mario might have many of the same foes and basic play styles across his games, but like with his role as a mascot for whatever other kind of game Nintendo wants to release, Nintendo can slot him into whatever kind of platforming adventure they want to, and it therefore becomes Mario.

Just take a minute to think about how wildly different Sunshine, Galaxy, 3D World, and Odyssey all are from each other, in terms of not just the kinds of worlds you explore, but how you are supposed to go about exploring them. Even with the varying gameplay styles, though, 3D Mario is less about the right hook and more about pushing the envelope than Nintendo’s other work is, and Galaxy pushed the proverbial envelope in ways that left Mario’s past comfortably behind it: not just its 2D past, but its more recent 3D past as well.

Visually, Galaxy remains a stunner. Its recent (albeit temporary) move to HD as part of the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection on the Switch was a welcome reminder of that, but even on the Wii, in just 480p, the game is wonderful to look at, easily one of the Wii’s best-looking titles despite coming out in 2007. Sound is where the game truly shines, though: the usual lovely Mario sound effects and attention to detail in that space are here, but it was also Nintendo’s first foray into a fully orchestrated score for one of its games, and it helped make for what still might be the best soundtrack to a Mario game that exists, and one of the greatest soundtracks Nintendo has ever released.

Seriously, try listening to Egg Planet without wanting to immediately start planet-hopping and yelling “woo hoo,” because you can’t. It was designed for expressly that purpose, and it succeeded:

The orchestral score helped make Galaxy feel significant, to feel huge, to feel as epic as a game that takes place in space should feel. It sounds as otherwordly as it was supposed to when it was supposed to. Yes, I’m going to throw another track at you: Battlerock combines traditional orchestral sounds with the kind of background sound effects befitting a video game with “Galaxy” in its title, to create a Koopa-centric level theme as good as anything Nintendo had ever produced in that vein before:

It’s truly perfect — not just Battlerock and Egg Planet, but the whole damn score, including the non-orchestra and updated throwback tracks that are credited to Mahito Yokota instead of to “Mario Galaxy Orchestra” — and maybe Galaxy’s most enduring feature, which is saying something since it featured what was, to that point, the absolute best in 3D Mario gameplay and level design, too.

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.

The various galaxies you visit in your quest to find the stars that will power Rosalina’s space station and allow you to search for Princess Peach — who has been kidnapped by Bowser and his new ability to travel in space instead of just in the Mushroom Kingdom — are designed in some traditional ways, but usually not. And they aren’t even all that traditional when they do hew that way. That’s because each of the planets you visit in the different galaxies (really, different solar systems, but no one asked me) are these free-floating stages, even when they do look like your more traditional grassy, hilly area, or desert stage, or what have you. You are always at risk of falling into the abyss, except now it doesn’t fall to nowhere, but instead, into a black hole. The planets are often round, but they don’t have to be: a planet can be a child’s train track with a toy train on it, blown up to the size of a real train. A planet can be made up of rotating or vanishing platforms. A planet can be whatever Nintendo wants it to be in order to create the stage they wanted to make, and I think that’s neat.

“Make the levels you want” doesn’t sound all that revolutionary, but it allowed a break from the kind of level design Nintendo had already experimented with in the 3D Mario space, and let them create a game that was wholly unlike its 2D predecessors. Super Mario Galaxy isn’t any form of 2D Mario translated into a 3D space. It was a fully brand new experience, one that carried on the spirit of experimentation of its 2D predecessors, but that was about it. Nintendo might as well have made an entirely new character for Galaxy, but why do that when Mario exists almost specifically so that you can make these new worlds and new games and be able to immediately attach a certain level of know-what-you’re-getting cache to them?

It wasn’t just that these free-floating stages existed, but it was what Nintendo EAD Tokyo did with them that makes the whole package sing. 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.

Given all of this praise for Galaxy, you might be wondering what is it doing at number 23 on this list? Well, for one, we’re well into the point of this project where most of what I have to say about these games is extremely positive, so, Galaxy isn’t special in that regard. There are a few quibbles, though, the kind that keep it from being absolute tippity top of the mountain tier. I genuinely dislike the world navigation in Galaxy: there is much less to do in Rosalina’s ship than there was in Peach’s Castle of Mario 64, or in Sunshine’s Delfino Plaza. So, instead of a place you can do some exploring in to find secrets and additional stars or what have you, you just end up with a too-large hub that forces you to remember where every stage you might want to play sits, that is kind of annoying to traverse since it goes both outwards and upwards in its design. Super Mario Galaxy 2 fixed this issue by introducing an overworld, like the kind you’d see in a 2D Mario, and it makes it so much easier to revisit old levels and see which ones you still need to collect stars in. Galaxy’s hub was an annoyance pre-Galaxy 2, but it’s a real aggravation post- that.

This setup that Galaxy uses works to discourage you from actually collecting all of the stars hidden in the game: it’s just not very user-friendly. Really, though, it’s pretty easy to dismiss in a context other than “which are the best Nintendo games ever,” but that’s the one we’re working with here. Similarly, Super Mario Galaxy might absolutely rule, but it’s also not on the same level as its successor, Mario Galaxy 2, for reasons beyond level navigation. If Galaxy 2 didn’t exist, Galaxy might actually rank a bit higher than it does. But the fact that there is a game out there that approaches a similar aesthetic and gameplay hook and game design, and does all of it better, docks Galaxy a few proverbial points. 3D Mario games don’t have sequels, except in this one case, so Galaxy is really the only Mario game that has to shoulder this burden of direct comparison. If you had to choose just one, you’d choose Galaxy 2 every time, which makes Galaxy slightly less essential than it is.

Only slightly, though: as said, we’re still talking about the 23rd-best game Nintendo has developed or published, out of over 1,000. We’re talking about differences not of percentage points but of what comes after a percentage point’s decimal, when you look at it from that perspective. Galaxy is essential, even though Galaxy 2 exists: if I think the game ranked 101 is absolutely worth exploring today, if games that didn’t even make the list get that sentiment from me, you can be sure I feel that way, but only more so, about the one ranked 23.

Of course, if you missed out on the aforementioned Super Mario 3D All-Stars before Nintendo’s digital scarcity ploy came to its end, you’re going to have to either convince someone to part with their physical copy of the Switch release in order to play Galaxy, or dig out your Wii. If you have a Wii U, Galaxy is available on the eShop, or you can play the disc itself if you’ve got that or prefer to get that version of the game, so you are not without options. Luckily, Galaxy was one of the Wii’s best sellers, on a system that sold over 100 million consoles, so there is no shortage of copies of the game out there in the wild. You can find a used Wii edition out there that’s even cheaper than the Wii U’s inexpensive digital version. And you should, whether you’re just revisiting an old favorite or you somehow haven’t experienced one of the best things Nintendo has ever managed, whether you’re talking with Mario or in general.

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