Super Mario Galaxy is the spaciest space game of all time.
To be fair, it doesn’t seem that way at first glance. Mario is a plumber from Brooklyn by way of the Mushroom Kingdom, which isn’t the kind of CV you need to get into NASA. The planets have nonsensical and inconsistent gravity, the stars have big cartoon eyes and goofy singsong dialogue, and all of outer space is ruled over by an amazonian princess with a magic wand. But, beyond all the parts of Mario Galaxy’s space that put it squarely in the Disney afternoon sector of the universe, its mechanics are not only what make it unique among platformers, but the only game I can think of that’s both about space, and actually feels like it earns it.
The thing with most sci-fi games is that they leverage the narrative possibilities of being in space, but so rarely do they play around with the mechanical considerations. For example, there isn’t any particular justification for Mass Effect being set in space. Aesthetically, it’s as off-brand Star Trek as all get out, but let’s be honest here, the Reapers and biotics are basically magic already, it’s not a stretch to reset it as a fantasy story. Similarly, Dead Space is a take on Alien, which is to say, standard horror, but in space. There’s nothing intrinsically “space-y” about your experience with it, beyond what you see on screen as you play.
Mario Galaxy has the space setting, sure, but it ties in the fact you’re in space to the very core of the game’s mechanics. Mario has often been accused of not really shaking up its gameplay between entries, at least not since 1996’s Super Mario 64. It’s not a totally inaccurate accusation either- Mario runs, jumps, chomps on mushrooms, same way he has since 1984. The only thing Galaxy really adds to the experience is making you constantly consider gravity, which is a lot bigger of a deal than it sounds.
Gravity is a lot like air. We’re constantly interacting with it, using it, and vaguely understanding it, but we never actually actively consider it for most our day-to-day. Galaxy takes place on a series of planetoids floating in the abyss, and each planet has its own gravity, which the game asks you to take into account as you try to hop, skip, and spin your way to sweet, sweet stars.
Galaxy started its life as a take on Super Mario 128, a tech demo for what would eventually be the Gamecube. In that demo, often billed by magazines of the time as a sequel to Super Mario 64, 128 Marios are just sort of hanging out in a sphere. It’s not a super incredible game idea, but the fact that 128 Marios were on screen at once was meant to be impressive, as long as you didn’t consider the fact that they weren’t animating, and none of it was in real time. Apparently, the concept of a sphere stuck in Director Yoshiaki Koizumi’s mind, and while making a game based around round levels, he struck on the idea of a Mario set in space, where gravity plays a significant factor in getting around.
What’s interesting is that while locomotion has always been the driving force of Mario games, the “innovating” factor of each game wasn’t ever related to the world. Super Mario Bros.’ big step up from every other platformer was that Mario could change directions while he jumped. Mario 3 and World added flying, and thus diagonal movement, while Mario 64 gave Mario himself new tricks for traversing the z-axis, like triple jumps and butt stomps. Even Sunshine, Koizumi’s previous game as director, gave Mario a jetpack-slash-water-gun with the intent of making more vertical levels for players to scale, perhaps inspired by Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong. But no game changes the rules of the world quite like Galaxy. 64 may have added a new dimension to hop around in, but at its heart, the world operated pretty much the same way as in Mario 1. In 64, the earth is flat, and gravity brings you back down. In Galaxy, gravity can be abused to zip around planetoids faster than simply walking. In 64, Mario wall jump to reach higher spaces. In Galaxy, Mario can put himself into orbit to build momentum for a jump across a star system.
There's no way to get around the fact that Galaxy is a space game, not simply because it was designed as one from the ground up, but because the fact that it takes place in space informs your moment-to-moment gameplay. There's a theory that the genesis of Galaxy is in the levels of Sunshine where Mario's jetpack is taken away, and he has to deal with classic Mario-styled obstacles courses, instead of the more open-world style levels the game is made up of. I'm not sure how true that theory is, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Where 64 and Sunshine are focused on open world traversal, Galaxy and Koizumi's later Mario games are expanded obstacle courses, much like in Mario 1 and 3. Not only that, but by paring down Mario to his essential components (running, jumping) in those Sunshine levels, Koizumi may have realized that the only way to really change up and innovate the running-and-jumping experience is to have the environment explicitly affect it. Thus: gravity.
Galaxy has more than its fair share of levels that have nothing to do with gravity beyond the fact that it keeps you on the stage. Actually, it has a ton of levels that are big and open, much like 64's. But even those stages feature a big ol' black hole beneath the stage, always reminding you that yes, you are in space, and it will destroy you given the chance. It's a cute excuse for why dropping off a level kills you in Mario games, but it ties in nicely to the mechanizing of space. Deaths aren't random and arbitrary in Galaxy. Unless you died because an enemy hit you a whole bunch (unlikely) you died because you misread gravity and didn't utilize it properly. In Galaxy, outer space is ever-constant, and the void is breathing down your neck as you play.
Arguably, gravity has always been a mechanical force in Mario games. Mario does always come back down after he jumps, and even Mario 1 took great pains to make sure Mario could defy gravity by altering his momentum and direction as he jumped. But wanting to turn around during a jump is a natural instinct. Committing to a jump is a scary concept when it could easily cost you a life, and part of what made Mario 1 so impressive at the time is that it never asks you to commit to a jump before allowing to figure out how to make it. But the fact that Galaxy makes sure the concept of space is part of every consideration you make as a player is what makes it so unique. The mechanics of being in space are baked into it at a conceptual level, and there's no game more outer-space-y then Mario Galaxy. Whether you're using gravity to speed through a level, or being reminded that a supermassive black hole is constantly seconds away from swallowing you, there is no moment of the game where you're allowed to forget "oh yeah, I'm in space."
Well, maybe during that one level where you run all over Luigi's face.