3: Super Mario 64
Platform: Nintendo 64
The one that started it all. Super Mario 64 belongs on any list of the greatest video games of all time. The fact that it’s number three on this particular list is a testament to the quality of the series.
Super Mario 64 really shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. 3D gaming was still in its infancy, and Nintendo, like everyone else, was walking into uncharted territory. Even if they were to pull it off, you might expect a successful experiment at most. Instead we got a timeless masterpiece.
Super Mario 64 was the first time Mario could move so freely. His arsenal of moves was bigger than ever, and each level took full advantage of what Mario, and Nintendo, could do with their new frontier.
The likes of Banjo-Kazooie and many other early 3D platformers would all replicate the formula established here. Mario would traverse Peach’s Castle (the greatest hub world in gaming to this day), and through its paintings he would enter many new worlds. These levels would each have a series of objectives to complete if Mario wished to claim every last Power Star. More stars meant Mario could break the magic barriers surrounding Peach’s Castle, and delve deeper into more levels until he met with his archnemesis Bowser in one of gaming’s greatest encounters.
This also, strangely, feels like the definitive version of the Mario/Bowser/Peach story. Later games would add new characters and story elements, and earlier games introduced us to this plot. But the Mario/Bowser/Peach dynamic feels like various simple interpretations elsewhere. 64’s version of the tale now feels like its heart.
But Super Mario 64’s greatest triumph is how well it has stood the test of time. Whereas a number of would-be “best games of all time” that were released a few short years ago are being re-evaluated to see if they live up to their initial praise, Super Mario 64 is still, rightfully, placed on a pedestal. Its accomplishments in its day were unparalleled. And you won’t find many games that are still this fun, even by today’s standards. If it weren’t for some clunky camerawork, it’d be perfect. As it is, Super Mario 64 is “merely” one of the best games of all time.
For those of us who can remember Super Mario 64 at its launch, it was pure magic. And for those being introduced to it today, it’s still one of gaming’s greatest fairy tales.
2: Super Mario Galaxy
Nintendo has a way with threequels. The second entry in the big N’s most iconic franchises tend to dumbfound players – as was the case with not only Sunshine, but Super Mario Bros. 2 and The Adventures of Link before it – then the third entry serves as a glorious return to form. The journey from Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario Bros. 3 and The Legend of Zelda to A Link to the Past speak for themselves. And then we have Super Mario Galaxy, which continued this tradition in the best way possible.
Back when Galaxy was first released, we still had to wait a good few years in between 3D Mario games (a tradition I hope Nintendo returns to down the road). It was nearly six years between 64 and Sunshine, and an additional five before Mario would venture into space itself with Galaxy.
In retrospect, it actually seems pretty weird that it took Nintendo that long to send Mario to outer space. Given the plumber’s gravity-defying jumping abilities, it seems like it should be a given for Nintendo to contort it with a literal emphasis on gravity. Not to mention he’d been chasing down stars for years, it only makes sense that he should be blasted off straight to them.
What a perfect combination it was. Whereas Sunshine’s tropical island motif quickly ran out of steam, combining the Mushroom Kingdom with outer space gave Nintendo a limitless canvas to work with. Sometimes Mario was grounded on a more traditional, free-roaming planet. Other times he’d be traveling in all directions and jumping upside down on a series of miniature planetoids. Lava worlds met ice worlds, and surfing contests took place on the backs of manta rays in rivers suspended in the sky. There was never a shortage of ideas.
The game itself was polished to near-perfection, with a mostly-automatic camera never losing the right focus, controls that couldn’t be smoother, and level design that still stands as some of Nintendo’s best. But what really added to the whole experience was the creativity of it all.
The Mario series has always been weird. There’s no denying that. And it seemed during the 2000s Nintendo came to a realization of just how weird the series really was. They mostly played up this weirdness for laughs (to great success) in the Mario RPGs and later in games like Super Mario 3D World. But with Galaxy, Nintendo took a different approach, as they seemed to acknowledge that there was something beautiful to be found in this weirdness. Nintendo emphasized the beauty of this surrealist fairy tale with otherworldly visuals, a strong orchestrated score, and a bit more focus on story, which was capped off with the character introduction of Rosalina, who provided a genuinely touching side-story, and was a character who one could argue was, plot-wise, the real star of the game.
Galaxy remains a definitive example of a classic of the medium.
1: Super Mario Galaxy 2
Whenever one of Mario’s greatest titles is released, people often ask where the series can go from there. This was doubly true with Super Mario Galaxy. After all, after venturing into the far reaches of space, where exactly can you go from there?
We were all quite surprised when we found out Nintendo was sending Mario right back to the stars. Super Mario Galaxy 2 marked the first time a single Nintendo console housed two 3D Mario games. And with only two and a half years separating the two Galaxy titles, many questioned if this sequel was a mere cash-in on Nintendo’s part.
As it turned out, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Galaxy 2 retained the gravity-based formula of its predecessor, but combined it with a structure and tone that was all its own. The hub world is more or less replaced with a world map to ensure a more instantaneous sense of fun, the levels expand on what the original game started with an even greater variety, with every level presenting a new idea. Mario had more power-ups, more gravity, and more weirdness than even the first game would know what to do with.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 polishes what was already a more-than winning formula, and turns it into one of the most finely executed of video games. You won’t find many games that boast even half of Galaxy 2’s structural excellence.
Another aspect that separates Galaxy 2 from its predecessor is that, while the original celebrated the weirdness of its series, Galaxy 2 seems to be a celebration of video games themselves. It’s pure, non-stop fun and invention the whole way through.
It’s often the more cinematic and movie-like games that are used in “video games as art” discussions. But Galaxy 2 is a game that proudly showcases that video games themselves, even in their purest form, are an art. No cinematics or social commentaries required.
Nintendo could have wrapped up the Galaxy concept with just the first game and we would have been left with an all-time classic. There was never really a need for a Galaxy 2. But that only adds to its appeal. It is the unnecessary masterpiece, a gift of a game. And the finest 3D Mario adventure to date.