Putting this Mario trio side-by-side shows evolution in design – certainly more so than with the 2D iterations beforehand – and a notable cultural change. Mario 64 existed in the earliest reality show bubble, where a camera follows and traces Mario’s steps around the Mushroom Kingdom, broadcasting them to viewers. MTV’s The Real World debuted in 1992, Mario 64 in 1996, and it’s as if the two were in lockstep with one another – indirectly, of course.
For Mario Sunshine, the first post-9/11 mainline entry, the focus became social change, choosing a growing pollution epidemic, if adding the soft Nintendo touch. It’s never brash, just calming. The island nation, no doubt a stand-in for Japan, needs saving from an oily goop and in the real world, only a few years after a Russian oil tanker sunk in the Japan Sea.
Then Mario Galaxy, pure, unfiltered escapism, timed perfectly as to encounter a pre-recession state, boldly colorful and cheerful. It’s the best of the three. The fluidity and motion locked in those things Mario 64 and Sunshine tried (and failed) to do. While those two (Mario 64 in particular) needed to shrug off ingrained design sensibilities to work – and truthfully, they no longer do – Galaxy connects because it’s what Mario needs to be: Freeing and forward-thinking innovation that lasts rather than exists in a moment.
One out of three succeed, but that one is special.