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Top 100: Super Mario Galaxy 2 doesnt give a crap about story (and I love that)

I love how games have evolved as a storytelling medium. Growing out of the simple writing of the ‘80s and ‘90s, titles like Mass Effect, Gone Home, BioShock, and many, many more show that writing for games continues to mature. It’s an amazing transformation to witness, and yet, my favorite game of the last decade uniformly rejects massive scripts and complex morality. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is all about gameplay, and it does it better than any of its competition.

The Mario games traditionally have perfunctory stories and Galaxy 2 is no different, but chasing Bowser to free Princess Peach is all the excuse needed to explore a universe of perfect platforming. Super Mario 64 defined 3D exploration, but over the years that genre became choked with sprawling worlds and arbitrary collect-a-thons (looking at you, Donkey Kong 64). After even Super Mario Sunshine let me down, I was just about ready to give up on polygonal platforming. Then a Wii game came along that didn’t just change my mind, but exploded my understanding of modern platformers.

The original Super Mario Galaxy replaces vast open landscapes with an expansive universe of smaller planetoids, refocusing the very concept of 3D movement. It allows for so much more personality in stage layout and art direction, as well as offering a much more diverse set of goals. Super Mario Galaxy 2 refines that concept even more, with some of the most creative level design in Nintendo’s history - and that’s saying something.

In May 2010, I dove headfirst into the game, playing Galaxy 2 much longer than I would for a normal review. While my coworkers were discussing the impressive plot twists and characterization of Red Dead Redemption and Alan Wake, I was instead giddily espousing the virtues of that time I turned into a rock, smashed into bowling pins, and then fought a giant dragon named Gobbleguts. I was still pulled in by the stories in those other games, but they just didn’t fill me with the same boundless joy as Galaxy 2’s unadulterated gameplay.

The game straddles the line between fun for all ages and a serious catering to the hardcore. On the surface, levels are built on simple concepts, like balancing Mario on top of a ball. Colorful visual pops, like Yoshi switching from a cool green to a scorching red when he eats a chilli pepper, offer simple, immediate satisfaction. But, respectively, those seemingly basic joys are a cover for complex, physics-based puzzles, and some of the twitchiest jumps this side of Bit.Trip.Runner. Galaxy 2 delivers to both audiences with ease.

I adore how the campaign digs into every new concept, and then does everything it can with it. The red and blue flipping platforms are challenging enough upon their first appearance, but grow in complexity each and every time they appear. Concepts like that one, or gliding with a bird, or finding your way in the dark with a glowing Light Yoshi, are improved with each revisiting. Far from finding them run into the ground, I came to each returning idea thinking “Wow, how are they going to top the last time?” Then I’d find it topped.

Like the starry sky, Galaxy 2 is sprinkled with beautiful moments that seem too numerous to count. There’s the incredible orchestral score. The dazzling graphics that look far too good for the Wii. The warmly nostalgic return to one of Super Mario 64’s best stages. Flying through space on a ship shaped like Mario’s head. My personal favorite - Shiverburn Galaxy’s constant battle between fire and ice - could make for its own game, yet it’s just a pitstop on Mario’s tour of the cosmos.

Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel both deserve very high placement in our Best games ever (opens in new tab) feature, but we had to limit ourselves to just one 3D Mario when making the list. Why was I one of the loudest voices pushing for Super Mario Galaxy 2? Because it found a way to trim what little fat was left on the filet mignon that is the Galaxy concept. The hub world, the bosses, the dialogue, it all got slimmed down to make way for even more action. Galaxy 2 freshens up concepts from the original while also piling on a mountain of new ideas. True, Lubba isn’t as interesting a guide as Rosalina, but you barely have to talk to him anyway as you search out every new star in your path.

Not too long ago, I downloaded Super Mario Galaxy 2 for my Wii U to see if it really held up as well as I remember from 2010. The game enveloped me like a warm blanket, and I was back on the path to conquer Bowser and his cronies all over again. As great as Super Mario 3D World is, Nintendo’s devs at EAD Tokyo have never done better than this game. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone else who has.

Henry Gilbert is a former GamesRadar+ Editor, having spent seven years at the site helping to navigate our readers through the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation. Henry is now following another passion of his besides video games, working as the producer and podcast cohost of the popular Talking Simpsons and What a Cartoon podcasts.