There’s something pleasing about Mario titles that many have aped, yet few have reproduced. I was always a SEGA/Sonic fan, so it took a while to admit that I liked the Italian plumber too -- the games are bright, happy and pit you against a dragon every single time.
In recent years Nintendo have shied (guy’d) away from the third person romps which lit up the flagship titles of the N64, GameCube and Wii, heading back to the much earlier side-scrolling platformer formula. It seems odd that they would switch from the console-selling formula, but then it was odd that they would shift away from side-scrollers in the first place. At least Super Mario Odyssey is going to return to the format!
Without further ado, I’m ranking the third-person Mario games:
4 - Super Mario Galaxy
As the first Mario game on Nintendo’s brand new Wii it certainly had some big shoes to fill. Even though it’s at the bottom of this list, it’s not a bad game. A lot of ideas were introduced, along with quite questionable power-ups (stupid spring…), but the use of gravity was really well implemented.
Every 100 years, the Mushroom Kingdom celebrates the Star Festival -- which Bowser takes advantage of by stealing Power Stars from the Comet Observatory, and kidnapping Princess Peach, on his way to creating his own galaxy. Mario has to help Rosalina, who uses the Comet Observatory to travel the cosmos as its protector, to regain the Power Stars and save Peach.
The Observatory served as a hub quite nicely, but it made collecting all of the Power Stars quite a chore. It included bribing many Lumas (stars that haven’t yet become stars), and the level-altering comets would move at random meaning you pretty much had to chase them down. What’s more, the story basically finishes with the universe ending, and being recreated -- and for a Mario game that’s a little high stakes to pull off properly...
3 - Super Mario 64
I know I’ll get flack for this, but 64 just wasn’t the best. It’s a great game, but it’s like Skittles: some of them have to go first so you can have all of the best ones. The best ones are lime, by the way. Released on the Nintendo 64 over two decades ago, it stuck a challenge to long-time rival Sonic The Hedgehog by literally changing the playing field.
Answering a summons from Princess Peach to join her for cake, Mario finds that Bowser has kidnapped her. The only way to find her is to collect the Power Stars hidden inside all of the paintings in Castle Peach.
Unlike Galaxy the simple plot and low stakes count against it. The hub world being a castle was yet another way to differ from the 2D games of the past, which all had maps. With all of the levels being hidden inside paintings it allowed a lot of variety, and Nintendo went for it with their typical craziness. I played it on N64 and the DS, but it’s not the Mario title I’d want to be stuck on a desert island with.
2 - Super Mario Galaxy 2
Released three years after Galaxy, you would think it was just more of the same -- like a level pack. That was actually my initial thought, until I played it. However, it managed to bring in a lot of new ideas, whilst minimising the use of the previous game’s bad ideas (bloody spring!).
During the Star Festival, Mario is stopped from spending it with Princess Peach when she is kidnapped by Bowser, who intends to build his own galaxy in the centre of the universe. Mario also has to help the Luma captain of a mobile planetoid to regain his lost fuel -- Power Stars stolen by Bowser -- along the way.
Curiously, the story is basically the same as Galaxy -- it’s the Star Festival (an event that occurs once every 100 years), and Bowser steals Power Stars from a ship to make his own galaxy. It really lends credence to the whole “remaking the universe” ending of Galaxy. The ending is less bleak, as all life isn’t recreated, and as I said it added a lot of fun things: there are new power-ups, Yoshi to ride (with his own power-ups), and you can even play as Luigi at certain points! Although I’ve no idea why you would want to do that.
1 - Super Mario Sunshine
Literally the shining star in the third-person titles, as the whole adventure takes place on Isle Delfino -- a tropical paradise. It had a jetpack from the very start, which you should never discount as jetpacks are awesome.
Mario and Princess Peach go on holiday to Isle Delfino, where things go awry when a being that looks like Mario (armed with a paint brush) goes on a rampage covering the island in sludge, and steals the island’s Shine Sprites. Mario has to clear his name, clean the island and return sunshine to paradise.
Mario is armed from the start with the FLUDD (Flash Liquidizing Ultra Dousing Device), enabling him to power wash things clean, or keep himself aloft as an ersatz jetpack. The levels are well designed and have verticality in mind, in a way that the Galaxy titles would end up taking to extremes. There were a few levels that took the FLUDD from you, which served to remind players of Super Mario 64, but for the majority of the game you’re spraying water all over the place. Compared to the settings of 64 and Galaxy, Isle Delfino is fantastic: only one lava stage and absolutely no ice stage. Set aside the fact it’s more upbeat and literally brighter than the others, it has no ice stage! A clear winner.