The Greatest Games: Super Mario Galaxy (2007) and Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)

Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
Developed by Nintendo EAD Tokyo

Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)
Developed by Nintendo EAD Tokyo

Most video game sequels go in a few obvious directions. Like Left 4 Dead 2, some simply improve the mechanics until the original is reduced to obsolescence. Like Twilight Princess in relation to Ocarina of Time, some stray too close while failing to capture the same magic. Like the other Zelda games, some sequels go out of their way to carve out their own niche. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the rare sequel to simply match the quality of its predecessor on nearly every level. Both feel individually essential as two of the finest examples of 3D platforming.

Super Mario 64 was an essential work in bringing the platformer into the third dimension, but its clunky mechanics in comparison to the smoothness of SMB3 and Super Mario World correlated to a shift in level design. Nintendo built bigger levels with more areas, changing the focus from smoothly bopping off of enemies while racing toward the end to exploration. This became perhaps the definitive form of the 3D platformer, but there was still room for other games to capture the simple magic of essentially running an obstacle course.

With smoother controls and a shift back toward more linear level designs, Super Mario Galaxy felt like a return to the classic Mario formula. If 64 was about exploration, Galaxy was instead about navigation – most levels would lock you onto a minor planet until figuring out the path forward. Most of the time, this would be as simple as finding the next launch star to shoot off toward the next section, but getting there was always inventive.

Part of this is Super Mario Galaxy’s unique take on the power-up system. In most of the older Mario games, these power-ups simply made the game easier. The classic Super Mushroom gave Mario another hit before failing, while the Fire Flower made it possible to fight enemies from a distance. In Galaxy, the power-ups are more situational, meaning the individual areas which include them are built around their functionality. These don’t quite have the iconic element of these older power-ups due to this, but they help each section of Galaxy capture its own charm.

Part of the appeal is purely mechanical. Mario feels smoother in 3D than ever before, as his methods to combat enemies feel more natural. The spin attack is key to this; where punching and kicking required sometimes difficult directional input, spinning allows for the entire area around Mario to be attacked. This lends itself to quicker, less precision-based enemy encounters. It is difficult to overemphasize how fluid this game feels due to this simple change. Simplicity of movement was key to the initial success of the series, and it took over a decade to get it down pat with a third dimension – but they finally succeeded with Galaxy.

More than a refinement, Super Mario Galaxy also pushes boundaries by questioning the very core of the platformer. Based on a simple understanding of gravity, most platformers are built around the idea that falling off the stage means instant death. Galaxy shakes this up with gravity being processed in varying directions. Most of its stages wrap around to simulate the idea of minor planets. The danger of falling is still there, but made obvious with black holes. The fact Nintendo managed to make this both function and so easy to visually process as a player is one of their most astounding feats. Moments where you jump from one planet only to have gravity shift toward another are awe-inspiring.

The two Super Mario Galaxy games can be praised for capturing the spirit of the classic Mario games and perfecting the controls of the 3D installments. But Galaxy goes a step beyond due to its unique mechanics. These power-ups and the use of gravity resulted in some of Nintendo’s most inventive level designs. The fact that they sustained this creativity across two full entries is truly astounding.

The Greatest Games: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
Developed by Nintendo EPD

Breath of the Wild just might be the most ambitious Zelda game yet, transposing the traditional dungeon puzzles all across an open world map. While trying on this new form, The Legend of Zelda manages to maintain its colorful style. And despite all the space, the central cities are among the most populated places in the series. Like The Witcher 3 and Skyrim, this is an open world game which never feels empty or lifeless.

In classic Nintendo form, Breath of the Wild sets itself apart by capturing the large scale of an open world game while maintaining a simple focus. The grand majority of side quests in this game revolve around shrines, which reward the player with orbs which can be exchanged for increased health or endurance. By letting the player know what they stand to gain by completing each shrine, BotW offers a straightforward sense of progress despite its open nature. While some might deride the lack of complexity, this simplicity separates this experience from its endless competition.

The puzzles themselves are expertly designed. Many are built around Link’s unique tools and end up being ingenious timing or physics puzzles. A few more offer challenging battles. The best go a step beyond and involve the outside world. Some involve finding the right thing to gain access, like one shrine demanding Link approach while riding a buck. At the far corners of the map are a few labyrinths which feel like mini-dungeons. My absolute favorite is Eventide Island, hidden in the southeastern corner of the map and only accessible with a hefty stamina wheel. This sequence operates as a microcosm of the full game, stripping Link of his armor and items and forcing him to make do with what he finds until he manages to find and place three orbs.

Navigating the world itself can be its own puzzle. Each major location has a tower which must be climbed to reveal that section of the map. This again offers some form of a guided experience, as the tower will usually be the first place the player will want to tackle. Each of these have their own dangers to overcome, adding to the sense of this game being a series of micro-dungeons. Yet travelling is never a hassle – the game offers fast travel to any of its towers and shrines.

Each corner of the map has its own immersive gimmick. Cold mountains and an active volcano require the right gear to safely navigate. The Lost Woods are as dizzying as ever, while the Gerudo town requires Link to pass as a woman to enter. Adding flavor to many smaller locations is a bardic bird named Kass who will sing songs hinting at hidden shrines. BotW has a dense cast for a Zelda game with many heroic figures, yet this wandering accordionist stands above the rest thanks to being the one recurring face among the wilds.

The art style might be The Legend of Zelda at its best, mixing the vibrant colors of The Wind Waker with the more realistically proportioned designs of the other games. Anytime I climbed to the top of a tower, I had to take a moment and look around to take in the sights. The Hyrule Compendium encourages taking a closer look, letting Link keep track of every creature, enemy, and item he stumbles across by taking a picture. Everything from the mountains to the wildlife to the trees is a wondrous sight.

This Hyrule is a partially ruined world, and nothing quite reinforces this like the guardian stalker. These mechanical, spider-like beings hunt down anything which crosses their line of sight. Areas like Hyrule Castle Town remain largely inaccessible due to their presence, and the reward for finally crossing the field is a saddening glimpse of what was lost. The stalkers also have a simply anxiety-inducing theme anytime they begin their hunt, with most encounters devolving into a mad dash behind cover just to make the music stop. There will be several times you abandon all current goals just to panic and dive off a cliff, and there’s nothing quite as fulfilling as finally learning how to take these suckers down.

This game is filled with some surprising emotional depth, especially once you unlock a feature on Link’s Sheikah Slate (the legendary ancient iPhone) which allows him to regain lost memories by visiting certain places on the map. These moments really help build the otherwise distant relationship he now has with Zelda, who’s been busy warding off Ganon during the 100 years that Link was unconscious. This is absolutely Zelda at her most complex, and the reversal of her being the one trapping Ganon this time is a perfect note.

Yet the most powerful moment comes completely out of nowhere and largely by chance. Link has a tendency to climb all over everything to try and get to new locations. When he climbs onto the railing of a certain bridge, an NPC will mistake his unthinking heroics for a suicide attempt. What makes this moment so compelling is its unexpectedly organic nature. Most conversations with NPCs are prompted by the player, and the few who reach out are usually there to block access to certain areas. No one expects an interruption in this particular location with this particular trigger. It’s a small moment, yes, only accounting for a few lines of dialogue. But Breath of the Wild is all about hundreds of small yet brilliant moments stitched together.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers the same scale as any massive open world game. What makes it stand out is the vibrant Zelda charm mixed with Nintendo’s penchant for simple yet expansive creations. Skyrim can feel like several distinct episodes while The Witcher 3 is firmly divided into acts. The unique aspect of BotW is that Link conquers these many shrines to gain better favor with the goddess before confronting Ganon. Even taking down the Divine Beasts is in purpose of that central conflict. By shaping every action around this battle, Breath of the Wild manages to feel like one distinct journey from beginning to end; the only difference is how you get to that end.