Video game aficionados around the globe may not always see eye to eye, but they can all agree on one thing: Mario is a gaming icon. The plucky plumber made his debut in the arcade before fully transitioning to more expansive 2D side-scrolling platformers.
By now he’s branched out to nearly every genre of gaming, from RPGs to tennis, and arguably pioneered the kart racing genre. But there’s one type of Mario game that always feels like an event with each new rendition, and that’s the 3D platformer.
While Mario usually finds himself in a handful of titles every year, often developed outside of Nintendo, his 3D platforming games are different. It can take half a decade between every new 3D Mario platformer, and Nintendo itself fully develops and publishes them from scratch.
Whenever you play a 3D Mario platformer, you know it’s undergone one of the most hardcore creative processes in the entertainment world. It’s been refined and specially calibrated for the utmost enjoyment for you, the consumer.
That’s why the whole whole world was taken by storm when Nintendo suddenly announced they would be releasing not one, not two, but three of Mario’s 3D games in one handy collection with Super Mario 3D All-Stars.
The new collection commemorates Mario’s 35th anniversary and is only available for a limited time, and it features three of Mario’s most legendary 3D adventures: Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. Being a Mario veteran, I’ve played all three titles extensively and know each of them like the back of my hand. And with this new release, I got to thinking: comparatively, which of these is the best?
It’s not an easy question to answer. And it would be even more difficult to answer if we included Super Mario Odyssey or even Super Mario Galaxy 2 into the mix. So for this comparison, I will only be looking at the three games included in 3D All-Stars. And spoiler alert, if you are in the unlikely position of having never played these games, I will be covering key plot twists and characters in this article.
Super Mario 64
In many ways, it seems like Super Mario 64 should be the one to take the crown. After all, it not only paved the way for all of the other titles in the collection, but also defined every 3D platformer that followed it. It set the industry standard back in a time when nobody was quite sure how video games would make the leap from 2D to 3D. That was a monumental task, and one that Super Mario 64 not only took upon itself but successfully completed with flying colors. The game was revolutionary.
Staff working on Super Mario 64 were infamously under so much pressure to make it a success that by the end of its production, several programmers were so burned out that they retired from the industry altogether. Their hard work paid off though, as the game still holds its own nearly 25 years later. It’s a bonafide classic that has gone down in history for its innovative gameplay and design.
But being first doesn’t always mean being best. Indeed, Super Mario 64‘s camera is notoriously buggy. And the controls are bit more slippery than some moderns gamers might be willing to tolerate. Not too mention the blocky look of those polygonal models that people seem to either love or hate. Or the repetitive Bowser battles. Truth be told, as historic as the game was and is, aspects of it have noticeably aged over time.
Still, the game is bursting with personality that even Nintendo has found difficult to match in the years since its release. Little touches like casting Lakitu as the camera guy who you can actually see following Mario around when you pass by a mirror still amazes me.
And the music… oh, the music. Super Mario 64‘s soundtrack is such a landmark of gaming music. The excellence of the music in this game cannot be understated, sometimes I find it difficult to believe it was composed by humans. It’s like Beethoven, this stuff sounds like it came from the heavens and was assembled by angels.
The game saw a rerelease on the Nintendo DS which is a joy to play if you have a 3DS due to that system’s lovely analog stick. The rerelease gave the graphics a facelift and allowed you to play as not only Mario, but also Yoshi, Wario, and Luigi.
Many fans see the DS edition as the definitive version of the game. That said, for the purposes of my comparison to Sunshine and Galaxy, I’m only going to be considering the original 64 release.
Super Mario Sunshine
Speaking of Sunshine, for the longest time I would have said it was easily superior to 64. The game remains a fixture in my middle school memories. It took Mario from the Mushroom Kingdom and dropped him onto the tropical Isle Delfino. For many, the fact that the whole game takes place on an island seems to often be cited as a negative, but I personally love the setting.
For one, I’m a sucker for islands (heck, I moved to one). For two, it’s nice to see a Mario game take a risk like that and change up the formula by committing to a single consistent theme throughout an entire game. And you’ve got to hand it to them, they still did a great job at keeping the levels feeling fresh and unique.
In fact, the game took a lot of creative risks. Mario must use a talking hydro-powered jetpack device called FLUDD to fly and hover around, spray enemies, and clean up graffiti. This is such a disruption to the entire Mario formula, and yet Super Mario Sunshine boldly sticks with the concept throughout the whole proceeding. And, here’s the kicker: it actually works. Even when using FLUDD to fire rockets from a rollercoaster at a mecha version of Bowser.
I feel completely at home using FLUDD to hose down piranha plants. I love the sensation of creating my own virtual Slip ‘N Slide by spraying a bunch of water in front of Mario and diving right into it. The fact the Nintendo was attempting some MCU-levels of synergy by alluding to the fact that Professor E. Gadd from Luigi’s Mansion fame was the inventor of FLUDD just adds icing to the already scrumptious cake.
Sunshine also introduced Bowser Jr to the series, who has gone on to become one of my favorite characters and a staple of the franchise. While Koopa Kid and the Koopalings will always have their place in the pantheon of Mario characters, Bowser Jr takes the best out of all of them and consolidates them into one lovable package.
Obviously, being a released on more powerful hardware that was the GameCube, Sunshine‘s graphics are a big step up from 64‘s. Heck, the water still looks more realistic than most games even released today.
That said, the soundtrack, while solid, doesn’t hold a candle to Super Mario 64‘s tunes. And the exclusion of Goombas is a glaring stain on the title. Replacing them with some shoddily designed replacements called Strollin’ Stus was an even more heinous of a crime. Later on Nintendo would perfect creating tropical island forms of classic characters with Pokémon Sun and Moon, but Sunshine‘s attempts were mostly abject failures.
And that final showdown in Bowser’s hot tub was… well, look, it wasn’t as bad as people say, but let’s not kid ourselves – while it was certainly a fun experiment it was also definitely underwhelming. 64‘s Bowser battles may have been monotonous but that jacuzzi thing felt half-baked at best.
So while I still absolutely adore Super Mario Sunshine and I am even more grateful for its existence now than ever before, especially seeing how Mario was become even more plastic and corporatized over the years (which is the opposite of Sunshine), I can’t pretend that it’s irrefutably the best 3D Mario platformer.
Super Mario Galaxy
Finally, there’s Super Mario Galaxy. I was a freshman in college when it was released, and while it was a day one purchase for me, I won’t lie – I was slightly disappointed with it after my first playthrough.
Look, after 64 and Sunshine, I had a certain expectation of a 3D Mario platformer, and Galaxy just didn’t scratch the itch. Yes it’s gorgeous. Yes it’s fun. Yes the soundtrack is godly. But you have to understand, I went in expecting the free-roaming sandboxy feel of Mario’s previous 3D excursions.
Galaxy was certainly a more refined experience. It definitely polished off some of the rough edges of its predecessors in exchange for a cleaner, more linear experience. But I missed the wacky experimentation of the other games. Yeah, Mario had new power-ups in Galaxy which were fun to mess around with – but it still felt too safe for my tastes.
And I would still contend that there’s something to be said for that more chaotic, experimental vibe of 64 and Sunshine. However, Galaxy has grown on me over the years and I must admit, it now feels like it was the culmination of everything the programmers, designers, and creators over at Nintendo had learned from Mario’s previous 3D installments. It really trims the fat and leaves you with a lean but very delicious gaming experience.
Going back and replaying each title in the series, it’s easy to point out both the strengths and weaknesses of 64 and Sunshine. But for Galaxy, it’s much more difficult to hone in on any legit weaknesses. The entire package is so well-realized.
I guess if I had any nitpick, it would be that the hub world isn’t as fun to explore as Peach’s Castle in 64 or Delfino Plaza in Sunshine. The motion controls could also be a source of contention for some gamers, but I personally felt they worked well here although I’m not usually a fan of them.
Beyond that, however, Galaxy captures a perfect balance of classic Mario fun akin to his more linear sidescrolling adventures, complimented by one of the most 3D experiences of any Mario game (what with traversing entire planets with altered gravity mechanics). It also introduces a wonderful new addition to the roster of characters with Princess Rosalina, who actually has some depth to her and brings more to the Mario lore than any other character in the canon.
The game’s challenges, levels, and boss battles all feel evenly paced. Everything is as it should be. And again, the soundtrack truly is godly. Honestly, if I put away my nostalgia glasses for 64‘s music, Galaxy‘s somehow manages to be even better.
Truth be told, if I put away my nostalgia altogether, Galaxy is indeed the best of these three games. But that’s not meant as a diss on the other two games, both of them are easily 9 out of 10s. Galaxy just happens to be a 10 out of 10.
So with Galaxy taking the top spot, where do the other two fall on the list? Well, while it will still always have a special place in my heart and I will forever respect it for the bold directions it took creatively, Sunshine would place third on my personal list, while 64 would occupy second place.
Here’s a simpler breakdown:
- Super Mario Galaxy
- Super Mario 64
- Super Mario Sunshine
The fact that I can play all three of these treasures in one package with Super Mario 3D All-Stars is honestly a dream come true.