It’s a heady responsibility, being labeled as the sequel to Super Mario 64. I mean really, how do you properly follow up the game that more or less invented the 3D platformer genre? Many considered 2002’s Super Mario Sunshine to be just that by simple deductive reasoning. It was the second 3D Mario platformer in the series, so naturally, that makes it a Super Mario 64 sequel, right? For many other Mario fans, though, while the game’s quality was undeniable, they found it a bit… safe. Subdued.
Then, in 2007, came Super Mario Galaxy.
This new Mario adventure was far more than a trek through a magical castle or tropical paradise. For the first time ever, the entire universe was Mario’s playground, and it was clear that Nintendo was pulling out all the stops with its most ambitious Mario title to date. Even before release, gamers the world over were enchanted at how astronomically epic the next big step in 3D Mario games looked — and upon release, it lived up to the hype. 15 years ago on this very day, the true sequel to Super Mario 64 had finally arrived, reaching (and in many areas surpassing), the lofty heights of its predecessors.
Super Mario Galaxy wastes no time showcasing to players just how magical it is. The game opens with Mario happily bounding down a starlit path as colorful candylike projectiles rain down around him, making his way to a familiar sight: Peach’s castle from Super Mario 64, looking more glorious than ever, lit up against the backdrop of the starry night. The game also wastes no time bringing in the conflict. Yup, it’s good ol’ Bowser again, crashing the Mushroom Kingdom’s Star Festival with a fleet of airships — and one unexpected addition: a friggin’ spaceship!
The Koopa King confidently declares that he’s taking his aspirations to intergalactic levels this time, and showcases his intentions by tearing Peach’s castle out of the ground with laser beams and rocketing off with it into the vast depths of outer space. Thankfully, Mario has managed to make it on board the shanghaied castle, but his attempts at rescuing Peach are abruptly halted by a Magikoopa blast to the face that sends him hurtling into the unknown starry expanse.
Mario regains consciousness, only to find himself on a small grassy planetoid somewhere in space. The only way he can learn what happened to him is by chasing after and catching a trio of chubby starlike creatures called Lumas that take the form of space rabbits. It’s here that players are slowly eased into the gravity-bending gameplay that characterizes the title. The trek leads him into one of Bowser’s mechanical bases, where puzzle solving and typical run-and-jump Mario combat are blended together masterfully as he breaks a power star out of a giant force field.
If you’ve played the previous two 3D Mario titles, you’ll grasp the controls quickly, if not instantaneously. The use of the Wii remote in gameplay feels very intuitive, like a natural extension of Mario’s abilities. And that's no surprise for Nintendo and a game with its eternally popular mascot, is it?
A simple flick of the controller will cause Mario to perform a spin that can take out enemies or launch him from the appropriately named 'launch stars', which send him soaring through sky and space with spectacular flair. Occasionally the motion controls may be used in more wonky situations, such as balancing atop a ball or riding a giant manta ray, but mercifully, these sections are few and far between and don’t really detract from the polished normal platforming gameplay.
The game’s story unfolds in pretty typical Mario fashion, but with a cosmic twist: Mario must explore the cosmos, gathering enough power stars to fuel a spaceship piloted by the enigmatic Princess Rosalina to find Princess Peach and stomp out Bowser’s plans for universal domination.
Whereas the aforementioned Super Mario Sunshine played things fairly safe with its level tropes, the entire game featuring variations of tropical locales, Galaxy revels in its variety. Of the game’s 42 levels, known here as “galaxies” (a term that the game uses pretty darn loosely and would make an astronomer foam at the mouth), many are standard Mario tropes. You have your grasslands, deserts, volcanoes and the like, but designed in such a way to take advantage of the new gravity-based gameplay, giving them a fresh feel that’s unique to Galaxy’s aesthetic.
Where the game’s creativity really shines is in its more unconventional levels, particularly those set within the glorious backdrop of space. Tumbling through the stars while gentle piano music plays in the background is an ethereal experience like no other in any platformer I’ve ever played. Sadly, the powers that be decided to tone down many of the “spacey” elements of the original game for the sequel, replacing them with blue skies that gave Super Mario Galaxy 2 more of a grounded feel. This decision resulted in Super Mario Galaxy having a unique, otherworldly atmosphere that we’ll likely never see—at least to the same extent—in a Mario game again.
Another area of the game much lauded by fans but decried by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto was the backstory of Rosalina, the princess of the Lumas who helps Mario on his quest. Game director Yoshiaki Koizumi gave the character a tragic backstory that could be unraveled in a series of storybooks accessible from the hub world. Allegedly, Miyamoto was so against the idea of adding story elements to certain games that Koizumi often had to sneak them in under his nose. Needless to say, any elements of a deeper story were barred from the sequel — another aspect from the original Galaxy that makes it unique among Mario games.
And how have I gotten this far into the article without discussing the sheer majesty that is Super Mario Galaxy’s soundtrack? Really, a writer could probably pen an entire article gushing about it, but musical notes speak louder than words. (Seriously, check the Youtube video embedded below before coming reading on. I’ll wait.)
As befits a game of this magnitude, Nintendo opted to bring in a full 40-piece orchestra to perform a number of its tracks, which was a rarity for Nintendo games — and many video games in general — at the time. From the hauntingly beautiful Space Junk Galaxy to the sweeping grandeur of the now-iconic Gusty Garden Galaxy, don’t be surprised if you find a tear or two rolling down your cheeks while listening. Very few platforming game soundtracks aside from the likes of, say, Donkey Kong Country or Celeste are able to make me emotional from sheer musical quality alone, but Galaxy’s is certainly among them.
The Super Mario video game franchise is one of precious few in the history of the industry where someone can throw around phrases like “special”, “timeless” or “masterpiece” and you have to ask them which game they’re referring to. Super Mario Galaxy is definitely among them, if not at the very top of the list.
All of Galaxy’s elements — its pitch perfect platforming, masterful antigravity gameplay, hauntingly beautiful atmosphere and inspired orchestral soundtrack — blended together in a way that has, in my opinion, been unmatched by any Mario game before or since. Like the special comet that passes through the skies of the Mushroom Kingdom every 100 years, Super Mario Galaxy was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a star that shines just as brightly today as it did 15 years ago.