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.