After the collect-a-thon craze died down from N64/PS1 era and open-world games took a left turn in the GameCube/PS2 era, Nintendo decided to leave Sandbox Mario alone for a bit. They narrowed down the scope of the worlds and focused on the Platforming aspect of a 3D Platformer. As much as I missed Sandbox Mario during the Wii era, I think this was a smart move to help Super Mario Galaxy 1) stand out from previous 3D Mario games, and 2) carry on the torch during a period when Platformers were 100% out of style.
I hate to admit it, but by reining in the exploration and designing more linear environments, Nintendo made Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2 a perfect cocktail with Sandbox Mario’s world design / theming, and 2D Mario’s fun of overcoming a finely-tuned obstacle course. It’s all the strengths of previous Mario games with (almost) none of the setbacks.
This doesn’t mean the games are flawless. Both of them have a free-roaming “hubworld” with the Observatory in the first game, and Starship Mario in the second game, but they’re tiny compared to Peach’s Castle and Delphino Plaza; they act more or less as a fancy level select screen, a place to catch a breather before the next challenge. I’ll take what I can get. Each level has a set path, and most give you a very short leash to stray from that path. You are still booted out of each level, which will never not be tedious. A few “bad apple levels” slip in as well, most of which use frustrating Wiimote controls (I’m looking at you, Rolling Green Galaxy). Those levels and the comets made Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 difficult to 100% complete.
But all of these flaws feel minor considering what Galaxy 1 and 2 get right. If we were to compare all the Mario games to roads, then Super Mario 64 and Sunshine are scenic country roads that go off into the wilderness. There’s plenty of exciting vistas to explore, but the roads are unpaved and full of bumps (i.e., the camera, Rainbow Ride, Chucksters, etc.). The Galaxy games, on the other hand, are less scenic, but they’re smoothly paved roads with only a pothole or two in the way. Depending on what you’re looking for, you are going to either prefer the “roughing it” approach of the sandbox games, or the finely-tuned “glamping” of the linear games. I love both, but I find myself gravitating (pun intended) towards the sandbox style.
However, the fact that Galaxy 1 and 2 are comfy and approachable doesn’t mean that they don’t stand out. Several linear 3D Platformers are fun, but most level concepts I see could also be done in 2D. The Galaxy duo, by designing around small planetoids, must be in 3D. Not only that, the way these games toy with gravity totally reconstruct how you conceive and navigate 3D space (though some like my wife can find that disorienting). There’s nothing as mind-blowing as walking around a small sphere for the first time and seeing Mario seamlessly walk around its entire surface. There’s no other game that can do what Galaxy does. It’s wholly unique, a design philosophy of its own.
The creativity for these levels is through the roof. There’s a reason they made a sequel to Galaxy, and then basically recycled the ideas again for Super Mario 3D Land and 3D World. The level mechanics they introduced are the best in the entire series. You have gravity switches, beat boxes, Cosmic Clones, not to mention the best power-ups ever like the Spin Drill and Cloud Mario. In most linear Mario games, I find myself unable to recall specific levels, but Galaxy 2 especially bucked this trend with Chompworks Galaxy and Hightail Falls Galaxy. The Comet Medals and hidden stars also gave me just enough exploration to feel satisfied.
I think the Outer Space theme is a perfect solution to one of Mario’s longest-running problems (outside of Bowser always kidnapping Peach) — floating platforms are fun to jump across, but they make absolutely zero sense when you look at them. Other Platformers like Donkey Kong Country have immersive ways to jump over obstacles and traverse levels, but Mario’s floating blocks always feel a bit “video gamey.” The Galaxy duo lean into that silliness, and in doing so, they close the gap of your disbelief by putting Mario into a fantastical version of space. It’s a genius theme for our plumber friend, and when paired with the soundtrack, the games exude a grand, epic tone.
As much as I prefer the sandbox approach, I have to tip my hat to Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 for giving me some of the best Platforming experiences of my life, without taking much away from what made 3D Mario special to begin with. After over 10 years, these games hold up considerably well and still impressed me.
That leaves only one 3D Mario game left that I haven’t played / reviewed, and that will be coming to the Switch in early 2021. We’ll see how Super Mario 3D World iterated from 3D Land and whether or not it deserves the criticism people give it.