Super Mario Galaxy
released on Nov 01, 2007
by Nintendo EAD
A 3D platformer and first Wii entry in the Super Mario franchise, Super Mario Galaxy sees Mario jump across planets and galaxies with varying items, enemies, geographies and gravity mechanics in order to reach his enemy Bowser, who has attacked the Mushroom Kingdom and hijacked Princess Peach's castle with her inside.
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The mark of 3D Mario’s evolution seems to be distancing him from the setting of the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s not as if Princess Peach’s magical monarchy is restricted to the 2D X-axis, nor does it have to be endemic to the warped, bulbous aesthetic that represented the antediluvian era of 3D gaming seen in Super Mario 64. Still, Super Mario Sunshine didn’t simply render Mario’s visuals more efficiently on the Gamecube’s hardware just to make the Mushroom Kingdom look clearer like the player received a pair of prescription contact lenses. Mario’s stark evolution between his N64 and Gamecube outings was so monumental that the developers felt the need to celebrate, making Super Mario Sunshine a holiday in every context of the word. When Mario’s next adventure on Nintendo’s subsequent console, the Wii, debuted early in the system’s lifespan like the previous 3D Marios, Mario did not return to his homeland like any responsible adult eventually does after their vacation. The plump plumber now fancies himself as somewhat of a globetrotter now, expanding the vast parameters beyond the familiar backdrop of the fungal domain that served as the traditional environment for so many Mario titles. The Wii was Nintendo’s first case of a radically implemented peripheral paying off in spades, and their flagship franchises needed to reflect the glory of their success after the Gamecube somehow failed to meet the same sales numbers of the N64. Mario’s next adventure after Sunshine did not repeat the premise of a vacation gone awry in another typical frivolous locale like a ski resort or a city in Europe. As Nintendo would most likely attest to, the guy who originally coined the adage “the sky’s the limit” obviously existed far before space travel was feasible. Super Mario Galaxy is the peak of Nintendo’s ambition for a Mario setting, as they put the plumber in the boundless reaches of the cosmos.
While Super Mario Galaxy is Mario’s first foray into the final frontier (in the mainline Super Mario series), Nintendo is no stranger to crafting an IP around science fiction’s quintessential setting. Just use the event match “Space Travelers” from Super Smash Bros. Melee as a reference for how many franchises Nintendo has already oriented around space and its infinite possibilities. However, the overall consensus Nintendo seems to convey with their bevy of intergalactic IPS is that flirting with the unexplored vastness of space is a harrowing prospect. Visiting an alien world leaves someone in a constant state of peril in Metroid, while the inverse of aliens landing on Earth’s soil in Earthbound spells a disorienting, reality-bending destruction for the third planet from the sun. The asteroid belts are the center of galactic warfare in Star Fox, and the futuristic racing in F-Zero surpasses the recommended speed capabilities for the general welfare of a human being. Kirby’s depiction of outer space is more pleasant, but the twee, Candyland aesthetic of Dreamland is perhaps too removed from reality to maintain a tangible boundary in the realm of science fiction. Overall, Nintendo’s sentiment regarding humanity’s hypothetical peak of colonialism is that attempting to tame the spectacle of space should be approached with extreme caution. Nintendo shares the same contemptuous attitude for outer space that Werner Herzog had for the humid wilderness of the jungles in the Amazon, but this negativity could not be conveyed in a Mario title. Making the young, general audience of Mario feel pangs of existential dread while looking up at the night sky is counterintuitive to the lighthearted appeal of Mario that makes him Nintendo’s golden boy. In order to maintain Mario’s image, Nintendo had to reassess its outlook on setting its characters around where the stars call home. From a more positive perspective, nothing is more strikingly magnificent than outer space. The immeasurable parameters of the cosmos are alluring to anyone who thirsts for adventure. Realistically, any mortal man would naturally perish in the untamed, empty void of space without a painstaking amount of preparation, and there’s only so much area we can cover. Still, the thought of gallivanting around the cosmos jubilantly tickles a primal center in man and makes him feel like a futuristic conquistador. This elated sense of romanticism for space travel that we are still striving for can be achieved vicariously through Mario, and the spectacle of it all is what Super Mario Galaxy revels in.
The Star Festival is not a Mushroom Kingdom tradition any of the Mario lore from previous titles has elucidated on, yet it is the momentous event that sets the scene in Super Mario Galaxy’s introduction sequence. Mario is invited to the ceremony taking place in the castle’s plaza by Peach, who also wants Mario to check out a peculiar creature not seen around the Mushroom Kingdom. This event is of course interrupted by Bowser and his Koopa army, as par for the course in establishing a Mario game’s narrative conflict. Take a wild fucking guess what Bowser and his air fleet are here to do. If your answer was anything else but to kidnap Peach, you are beyond saving. Not only does Bowser fail to deviate from his usual evil schemes, but he dips back into the idea pool from previous executions of kidnapping Peach. Bowser extracts the entirety of Peach’s Castle out from the earth with the tractor beam of a giant UFO, which should ring familiar to Paper Mario if that series is canon. Instead of only keeping Peach’s royal estate suspended above the clouds, Bowser penetrates the planet’s stratosphere to keep Peach at eye level with the stars. One would think Mario already being on the scene would nip Bowser’s newest attempt in the bud, but a particularly skilled Kamek blindsides Mario and sends him rocketing off into the night sky. When Mario awakes from his defeated stupor, he finds himself beside the creature that Peach wanted him to see: an incandescent star-shaped blob known as a Luma. To Mario’s surprise, the floating pillow is more articulate than one would expect, as it brings Mario to a blonde woman wearing a silky nightgown named Rosalina. Rosalina is the leader and matriarchal figure of the Lumas, and their space-traveling capabilities have been deterred by Bowser snatching up the power source that Mario must retrieve. At this point, I can confidently state that the general plot of a mainline Mario game is superfluous to the game’s overall appeal. As long as the premise behind Bowser’s annual princess snatching is fresh, Nintendo can get away with setting the same ol’ point of conflict they’ve stuck to for every iteration of Mario.
Before I discuss Super Mario Galaxy’s strengths in exuding the majestic aura of outer space, I feel as if there is an planet-sized elephant in the room that might bother some of the more obsessive-compulsive crowd. While he’s obviously a fictional character, Mario is still a human being with the same anatomy as a real person (albeit rendered cartoonishly), so how can he gracefully fly through endless anti-gravity like he’s Peter Pan? Shouldn’t his eyeballs be overflowing with blood while his head inflates like a balloon until it pops from the physical pressure? I’ve never personally witnessed the effects of space exposure on someone, but I’d be willing to bet that this is the most likely scenario. The answer to this question is that Nintendo figured no one would notice or care about the semantics. Mario has been swimming underwater without needing to ascend over the surface for a breath of air since the first Super Mario Bros., and we’ve never questioned whether or not Mario houses a pair of gills under his hat. While Mario resembles a human, Nintendo’s intention for the grand champion of video game characters is to act as a mustachioed vehicle for fantasy wonderment that forsakes all realism. That druggy joke everyone makes about Mario’s universe is simply Nintendo attempting to present an elated sense of splendor appropriate for all ages. Super Mario Galaxy arguably sets up the pinnacle of Mario’s ecstasy initiative given the overwhelming scope of traveling throughout the universe with nothing but the clothes on his back. The game’s presentation needed to be especially accommodating to the player to fit this grand spectacle. Super Mario Galaxy’s presentation doesn’t make biblical, sprinting leaps in improvement over Sunshine, but the level of refinement it does add is still readily apparent.
Then there’s the case of the other elephant in the room that might make people skeptical of Super Mario Galaxy’s technical prowess. As one could assume with a Wii title, motion controls are incorporated into Mario’s control scheme here. Before this revelation causes enough revulsion to deter them from playing the game, I can assure you that the system’s idiosyncratic gimmick does not compromise on 3D Mario’s significant evolution that was much needed since Super Mario 64. Naturally, Nintendo seemed to have the greatest understanding of how to practically implement motion controls for the games on the Wii as opposed to the countless amounts of shovelware that polluted the system. Surprisingly, the trick to unlocking the functionality of this fanciful piece of hardware is to keep things simple, as seen in the control scheme of Twilight Princess at the console’s launch. The analog stick on the nunchuck works as well as any other controller despite its intermittent relationship with the Wiimote, and every bit of movement with Mario is slick and responsive. Mario can still execute the same level of acrobatic agility that made him a joy to control in Sunshine, even with the unorthodox Wii controller. The diminished gravitational pull of outer space does not affect the grace of Mario’s triple jump or leaping backflip, nor does it change the crushing impact of his signature ass stomp. The slide maneuver that Mario performed in Sunshine is no longer available, most likely because constantly using it has caused a serious case of crotch burn. Instead, Mario reverts back to both the leap and the crouched super jump seen in Super Mario 64, with the considerable advantage of the Wii’s presentational prowess to make the execution incredibly fluid. The point of uncomplicated innovation with motion controls is a new attack. By swiping the Wiimote like a baton, Mario elegantly makes a 360-degree spin that knocks out any enemies in his vicinity, with a brief cooldown represented by the small Luma icon that gave Mario this ability. With a new frame rate standard that is as smooth as the wax from a Koopa’s shell, the already sprightly Mario has never felt so adept in his physical capabilities, even with the additional aspect of a gravity-challenged environment. The only awkward thing the player still has to contend with is the camera, as the player is relegated to the nunchuck’s Z button that only centers the camera to Mario’s front instead of offering the fully analog control featured on the Gamecube.
The introduction sequence where Mario makes sense of his surroundings sees him sets a misleading precedent. A wide shot juxtaposes the grassy sphere that cushioned Mario’s fall with the immense void of space, leaving the player with the impression that Mario is hopelessly lost. While this existential scene may suggest that Nintendo has reverted back to their prejudices, the tone quickly changes for the duration of the game when Mario reaches the game’s hub. As I’ve always expressed, an effective video game hub should serve as a placid nucleus at the center of the more chaotic areas that surround it. Galaxy’s predecessor on the N64 was the architect that established the design and atmosphere appropriate for a hub, and Galaxy’s delivers on the same standard. When Mario arrives at Rosalina’s Comet Observatory perched high across the starry, astral stratum, it’s but a dim, hollow shell thanks to Bowser seizing its power source. Though the faded stillness might evoke a sense of eerie tranquility, it’s not indicative of the observatory’s peak effectiveness as a hub. As Mario collects the Grand Star power sources, the individual sections of the observatory regain their luminescence. Once every area is restored, the player can fully see the magnificence of the observatory. Essentially, it’s Peach’s Castle from Super Mario 64 in space. The grounds of the observatory may exist around the exterior coldness of outer space, but it still manages to exude the same aura of coziness. Rosalina and the Lumas have built the living essentials around this traveling space palace that one would find in Peach’s castle, such as a kitchen, library, bedroom, garden, etc. If Mario accidentally missteps into the ether of space here, an undisclosed safety net will encapsulate him in a bubble and bring him back on solid ground. That level of security and base hominess, especially considering the hostile environment it lies in, gives the observatory the status of a space sanctuary. On top of that, how can a place surrounded by the Squishmallow-esque Lumas be anything but comforting?
The observatory also streamlines the level placements compared to the ones in the previous 3D Mario games. In both 64 and Sunshine, the player oftentimes had to be exceptionally observant in spotting where some levels were, such as the insides of Boos and indiscernible walls in 64 and the tops of shine towers in Sunshine. Here, Rosalina charts the amount of Power Stars Mario has collected at the center of the observatory and how they coincide with progress. Around three to four different levels are found in the igloo-shaped rooms that serve as the observatory’s homey places of relevance. Guiding Mario up to the blue star on the ceiling shows the handful of levels in relatively close orbit to one another. Restoring power to the next room of the observatory is a matter of collecting enough stars to unlock the boss galaxy and grabbing its Grand Star. Unlike Sunshine which forced the player to earn most of the stars from each level to progress, Galaxy allows the player to collect any of the Stars from any arbitrary source. Thank God, because this was the largest detriment that Sunshine implemented that deviated from the sound method of progress in 64 that didn’t need to be changed. Reverting back to each main collectible sharing equal value shows that Nintendo learned its mistake, and Galaxy is more approachable as a result.
I claimed that outer space was a perfect setting for a 3D platformer game while discussing the strengths of the Ratchet & Clank franchise. The immeasurable breadth of what exists outside Earth is too incomprehensible for our feeble human existences, so ruminating on the possibilities verges into fantasy territory. Ratchet & Clank took full advantage of this in providing the 3D platformer archetype of a wide variety of level themes that took place on the game’s myriad of different planets. As clever as working around this tired trope was, Insomniac’s PS2-era IP was still technically copying the template that Super Mario 64 pioneered. Super Mario Galaxy naturally uses the realm of outer space to channel its birthright as a Mario game and provide a diverse range of space levels just as Ratchet & Clank did. Super Mario Galaxy’s various levels run the wide gamut of classic 3D platformer levels such as the obligatory fire and ice themes, and the “Freezeflame Galaxy” combines both as a self-aware nod to how commonplace the contrasting elements are featured in these kinds of games. “Dusty Dune Galaxy” carries on the Mario tradition of a desert level, with Dry Bones and the cacti' enemy Pokies as the appropriate sand dwellers. The sunny “Beach Bowl Galaxy'' might be the sole continuation of Sunshine’s tropical vacation theme. Still, Mario couldn’t potentially fall off the resort if he swam too deeply in the ocean waters, unlike this celestial beach. “Ghostly Galaxy” manages to emulate that haunted mansion level seen in previous Mario titles, and “Space Junk Galaxy” touches on the subject of space pollution. “Toy Time Galaxy” is one of my personal favorites because the childish, Lego-like aesthetic is just darling. While each of these levels is obviously unique to one another, one consistent trait between them all is the prominent backdrop of the cosmos. The broad reaches of outer space never leave the player’s peripheral vision. Whether the background color is light or dark, the infinite scope of space makes the foreground seem like an insignificant rock in a universe with billions of others. The space setting compliments the empty graphical space that made so many levels in Super Mario 64 look surreal without that context.
Super Mario Galaxy also whittles down the areas of a 3D Mario game with linearity. The galaxies of the game boil down to two different points of design. Most of the platforming involves hopping across a series of airborne planetoids placed with the same verticality. Once Mario reaches a more distant section of a level, a Launch Star will blast Mario further with one shake of the Wiimote, guiding his flight with the same level of accuracy and elegance as his initial arrival. The final objective at the end of the path will be obvious to most, so referring to the title of the objective is unnecessary, unlike the previous two games. Across the three or so star missions, the level will slightly change its layout to lead Mario to a different objective. This change-up means that while the level always offers more to discover, the linear trajectory to each Power Star feels more contrived. Even areas with a more freeform plateaued design like “Honeyhive” and “Golden Leaf Galaxy” still provide formulated clues to lead the player in the right direction. The indirect collectathon format that Super Mario 64 implemented was what defined 3D Mario, but it seems like Nintendo deviates further from this design philosophy with every subsequent entry. The linear design of Galaxy reminds me more of the classic levels from the 2D Mario games, something that Nintendo could now achieve in their third 3D generation that the primitiveness of the N64 would’ve fumbled on. Also, clearing one narrow objective is still more appropriate for the boot-out system that Galaxy still carries over.
The boot-out system now will only eject Mario from a level once he’s completed his mission and collected the star. For the first time in a 3D Mario title, checkpoints have been applied to each level, probably on account of how linear each of them is. The checkpoints are not defined clearly by a symbol or icon, but Mario will still be resurrected in a wanton section in the level upon dying. On top of this, Mario most likely won’t die too often because he either invested in adherent footwear, or the gravity in space is ironically more gripping than it is in either the Mushroom Kingdom or Isle Delfino. All Mario has to worry about here is sometimes misjudging a jump from one piece of space rock to the next and facing the vacuuming wrath of the black hole situated somewhere in each level, the great and physically questionable mediator of the cosmos. Mario’s health bar has been lowered to fractions of three, but coins that regenerate Mario’s health will consistently spill from enemies. In addition to Galaxy lowering the stakes of danger, the game will also grant the player an abundance of extra lives. Star Bits, Galaxy’s celestial currency that looks like space Dippin Dots, will add an extra life after collecting only fifty of the dinky, colorful space flakes, which Mario can scrounge up simply by waving around the Wiimote’s cursor. Peach even sends Mario a care package of five 1-Up shrooms whenever the player starts playing the game again. Peach is so prepared for being kidnapped at the point that she is sharing her hostage rations with Mario. It goes without saying, but Super Mario Galaxy is far easier than the previous two 3D Mario games. Considering Mario’s titles are intended to be relatively stress-free experiences, Galaxy’s diminished difficulty feels more suitable.
But what about the thrill of a challenge that every video game should provide regardless of their high accessibility? Astonishingly, Super Mario Galaxy still offers this in a bevy of opportunities, but not along the normal route of star collecting. Off the beaten path of the main planets are those with only one objective that can supplement the star total if the player finds it necessary. Plenty of these come with feeding the jovial “hungry Lumas” enough Star Bits to make their own “big bang” and become a new level. Feeding these gluttonous pink globs comes recommended because it’s the only way to expunge the overflowing amount of Star Bits in Mario’s wallet. A common source of extra challenge is the periodic occurrence of the various comets. The additional layer of challenge coincides with the type of comet in orbit, which ranges from racing Shadow Mario, completing an old task with a time constraint, beating a boss in one life, etc. Those few who felt bereft of Luigi will be excited to know that gaming’s most famous second fiddle at least has a supporting NPC role of seeking out Power Stars in inconspicuous corners. Looking around outside the intended avenue in some levels will net Mario a “secret star,” and the total three will create a green Launch Star to propel Mario to the three most challenging stars in the game. Whether it be balancing Mario on a ball, a manta ray, or keeping his bubble from popping, each of these unyielding endurance tests will require extreme proficiency with the game’s motion controls.
While Galaxy approaches 3D Mario’s level design with a radical divergence, it reinstalls plenty of attributes from 64 that Sunshine had omitted. Sunshine’s intention was to literally and figuratively take a vacation from the Mushroom Kingdom and along the way, the fresh environment felt perhaps too alien from Mario’s core hallmarks. One aspect removed from Sunshine was the various power-ups like the invincibility star and the fire flower, for the latter would contradict the utility of the water nozzle fuzed to Mario’s back. I am happy to report that both of Mario’s signature temporary boosts are back for both plow through groups of enemies and to light torches respectively. The developers even added an ice flower to complement the fire flower where Mario can skate on water like a snowman Jesus. Besides the power-ups with fleeting periods of use that were standard in 64, Galaxy recalls a time before the 3D era when Mario could wear a power-up like a costume for as long as possible before it dissipated upon taking damage. A mushroom with black and yellow stripes will transform Mario into Bee Mario, who can stick to honeycomb walls and fly for a short period depending on a stamina gauge. A translucently white mushroom will test Mario’s mortal coil as a Boo with Mario’s mustachioed visage instead of the wide, gnarly smile of the deceased Mario enemies. Boo Mario can endlessly float and make his form immaterial to pass through solid bars. Mario must avoid light as a Boo, and be careful not to touch any water as Bee Mario unless they want the power to be prematurely stripped from them. Spring Mario is the last one to round out the trio of new forms, and the rigid mechanics make it feel more gimmicky than the other two. Whether or not you find these suits adorable or they’re phobia triggers (relating to ghosts and bees, but I’m sure there’s some weirdo out there who runs away screaming when they see a Slinky), one can’t deny they provide another layer of variety to a game that already revels in diverse gameplay.
Sunshine also seemed to jumble Mario’s combat to a confusing degree. Sure, spraying down enemies with F.L.U.D.D. like rioters in the streets was effective enough, but the high-octane hydro pump was mostly intended for cleaning and uncovering secrets under the sticky mess. Truthfully, there weren’t too many enemies situated around Isle Delfino to really highlight the fighting potential of F.L.U.D.D. For some reason, the infinite reaches of space feel more like Mario than the vacation resort. Either Bowser invited his entire fleet to join him on his mission of galactic conquest, or Goombas and Koopas are part of every Mario ecosystem except on Isle Delfino. Bullet Bills will furiously tailgate Mario, and the stone behemoth Thwomps will still pulverize Mario if they catch him under their infuriated gaze. I’ve just now realized that I’ve already mentioned a smattering of staple Mario enemies absent in Sunshine beforehand, which shows the extent that the developers took to remedy the lack of familiar Mario foes featured in the previous game. Hell, the Cataquacks make their return to again hastily catapult Mario, solidifying them into the Mario enemy canon.
Because F.L.U.D.D.’s primary function wasn’t combat, Sunshine’s bosses were always a tad disorienting as a result. They always required unorthodox means of disposal that tended to verge into unnecessary circuity. Bosses in Galaxy are obstacles at the pinnacle of a few Power Stars routes. Like every other aspect of the game, they are all an assorted bunch, and all it takes to defeat them is a variation of Mario’s own innate abilities. The evil Beyblade Topmaniac only needs to be jumped on and batted into the circulating electric currents surrounding the arena. The mean, mighty Monty Mole, Major Burrows, needs a little earthquake caused by Mario’s posterior to unearth him and stop him from chasing the poor bunnies from beneath the ground. The swinging of the black Bomb Boos to erode the rocky exterior of the phantom Bouldergeist reminds me of flinging Bowser by his tail in 64. Bosses like Bugaboom and Baron Brrr require the use of the new power-ups to defeat, but only in conjunction with Mario’s natural talents. Each boss also takes a measly three hits with slight increases in difficulty between them, signaled by a fuming rage that signifies an increased level of aggression. They’re all quick bouts as well as opposed to the many instances of waiting we all had to endure with Sunshine’s bosses. Bowser Jr. and his father trade-off as the apex of each room’s solar system. Bowser Jr. will present a new machine or other foe and taunt Mario from the sidelines, the standout being a towering mech in which climbing up its skyscraper legs channels Shadow of the Colossus. Bowser’s three duels are practically the same with Bowser adding another move with each following fight to prolong it marginally. The paths up to Bowser harken back to those from Super Mario 64, which include the most engaging platforming sections involving the manipulation of gravity. Big or small in significance, the big baddies across the universe finally provide substantial boss fights in a mainline Mario game.
Underneath the action of jumping from planet to planet is a layer of emotional depth seldom explored in the mainline Mario games. As exhilarating as it is to easily soar through the cosmos as Mario is, there is a sense of sentimentality to man’s relation to the grand scope of the universe. Once Mario unlocks the library, Rosalina is seen reading an illustrated children’s book detailing her backstory of how she came to the position of the Luma’s leader as a little girl. Chapter by chapter, a younger Rosalina becomes more comfortable with the alien atmosphere of space thanks to the company of the Lumas, but her homesickness makes her yearn for her old concrete life on Earth. She finally becomes content when she comes to terms with her old life perishing to no return and finds new happiness in her new status. It’s optional to read along with Rosalina, but it comes recommended because it aids the impact of the ending. Once Mario stops Bowser at his final fight and thwarts his plans to craft a galaxy in his image, catastrophic damage is done to the universe. A black hole of an impeccable scale swallows the remains of Bowser’s newest failure, and the entirety of all that exists seems doomed. However, a Luma sacrifices itself to create a fission of new life in the old one’s place, a rebirth of life. I’m not sure if it’s the image of Mario floating in the light ether of new existence, but the whole scene caused a lump to warble around in my throat. Returning back to the Mushroom Kingdom as pristine as it was before the beginning events may be a cop-out of sorts, but I still felt as if Mario went through the same rebirth arc as Rosalina did in the process. Only the first Paper Mario made me feel stirred up to this point, and I expect Mario spin-offs to be the only games to resonate emotionally.
Super Mario Galaxy’s ethos isn’t really to quell any anxieties relating to space travel. Mario’s breeziness through the final frontier is not indicative of Nintendo's attempt to condition future space imperialists to show that conquering the cosmos is an easy task. Rather, Mario’s ease in every aspect of the game is Nintendo perfecting all of 3D Mario’s attributes. Ironically, the mainline Mario title that implements motion controls is the smoothest and most agreeable he’s ever been in a 3D outing. Mario had finally come full circle in the third dimension to deliver on the same presentational and mechanical expertise he did when he was rendered with pixels, and here I thought there wasn’t much to improve on after Sunshine. Mario’s mark of accessibility is directly intertwined with Galaxy’s flawless performance. Many may argue that linear levels and a constant bounty of extra lives aren’t an improvement, but I believe it shows a more direct focus on what 64 and Sunshine established. The extensive amount of variety in the game from the areas, power-ups, enemies, and bosses will always keep the player intrigued. All the while, the gorgeous, cinematic depiction of the cosmos and the bittersweetness of existence beneath it all made my jaded, cynical heart melt like chocolate. If something as wholesome as Mario doesn’t cause that sensation, then what is he really good for? If space travel is the peak of human accomplishment, then the same can be said for the Mario series.
Literally a perfect game with no flaws. Mario hits every time, and this is the best one.