No single series has defined videogames like Mario. This is not mere opinion but rather cold, hard fact: Donkey Kong invented the platformer, Mario Bros. made it cooperative (or competitive, depending on your personality), Super Mario Bros. perfected it, and Super Mario 64 made it work in three dimensions. Even Mario's spin-offs have been hugely influential, whether through Super Mario Kart creating the mascot racer or in Super Mario RPG introducing action and timing to turn-based role-playing games. Sure, the medium would have evolved just fine without him, but through the years he's consistently led the way to better, more polished game design. Of course, this makes for high expectations -- Mario's slightest mis-step is usually treated as abject failure. Certainly he's starred in some genuinely lackluster titles, but even solid but quirky outings that would have been adored under the auspices of a less-revered franchise are often panned by critics and gamers alike.

Super Mario Galaxy should be free of any such contention. It is an exceptional game by any standard, Mario or otherwise. It doesn't invent new kinds of gameplay, but it represents something that is perhaps equally important: A rethinking of how 3D platformers should work. The decade since the N64's debut has seen the genre struggle (and generally fail) to move beyond simply piling needlessly complex controls and obsessive-compulsive item collection on Mario 64's foundation. Galaxy strips away those encumbrances, revisits the essential concepts that made its esteemed predecessor so enjoyable, and then expands on them in new and intriguing ways.

[Click the image above to check out all Super Mario Galaxy screens.]

Granted, it's not a perfectly clean break; Mario still does plenty of collecting. But those elements are far less obtrusive here than we've been conditioned to expect by 10 years of lazy mimicry. Coins simply offer extra lives (plus bragging rights), and while unlocking certain stages requires a fair number of star bits -- candy-like fragments sprinkled throughout the world -- they're abundant enough that you'll meet your requirements in the course of normal play. The previous games' red (or blue) coin collecting missions do return in the form of purple coins -- but these stages aren't required to beat the game. (As a matter of fact, you can't even play them until you defeat the final boss.)

To make collection even less of a chore, Galaxy uses the Wii Remote as a cursor that allows you to gather star bits by simply pointing at them, regardless of how far away from Mario they happen to be. In fact, Wii functionality is incorporated into Galaxy more subtly and effectively than in any action game to date, and it allows for a simplified control scheme that nevertheless offers Mario more varied control options than ever before -- an amazing accomplishment in itself. Only a few sections of the game are entirely reliant on advanced Wii functionality (using the tilt controls to steer Mario atop a rolling ball, for instance), but these are quarantined entirely within stand-alone stages and never intrude on the basic run-and-jump action.

[Click the image above to check out all Super Mario Galaxy screens.]

The streamlined controls are more than simply a reaction to the overbearing interfaces common in modern platformers, too. They're born of necessity, as the worlds Mario travels through really are literal worlds, tiny planetoids scattered throughout more than a dozen different galaxies, and this lends Galaxy's platform gameplay a feel unlike any game before. How many times have you been able to take a running leap that sends you flying so far that you circle a planet's circumference a few times before landing? How often has a game let you jump into the air only to land on the surface of a different world altogether? How many times have you found yourself scurrying about a platform and dodging half a dozen hazards while ducking for power-ups and negotiating rapidly fluctuating gravity? Galaxy constantly tosses you into these situations, and it does so in a completely casual manner that makes them feel like a natural extension of its Mario 64-derived gameplay. And at times, you probably won't even realize how off-the-wall its level design actually is until you stop to consider how fresh it all feels. You've never done these things before in a videogame, but Galaxy makes even the wildest challenge feel almost second nature. Its subtle, intelligent visual design deserves much of the credit for easing players into the unfamiliar; everything you can do (and must do) is indicated by the shapes of platforms, by the placement of telltale shadows on the ground, or by NPCs pantomiming your actions. Only in the latter half of the game does the design falter -- a copy-and-paste level here, too much doodad collecting there, all topped off with a mind-bending final level that might be a bit too demanding for neophyte players who cut their teeth on Nintendogs and Brain Age.

Galaxy demonstrates the difference between a good game and a great game: attention to detail and reliable, consistent game rules. The worlds you'll visit in the course of collecting the game's 120 Stars frequently challenge the assumptions you take for granted when you play a platformer, but the new rules that come into play always operate consistently within their context. There are no "gotcha" moments, no cheap sections of memorization, even in the most challenging special stages. Intuition, logic, and reactions will win the day. Excellent reactions, mind you -- Galaxy is unforgiving at times, like the best classic Mario games. Anyone can beat Galaxy with enough persistence, but complete mastery of the game demands genuine skill.

[Click the image above to check out all Super Mario Galaxy screens.]

Given the Wii's limitations, Galaxy's visuals are absolutely impressive -- especially when you notice that you can look around and see all of a galaxy's planets at once. Still, gamers with HD sets will find themselves wishing the Wii could output at a higher resolution, if only to make the bright, colorful graphics look that much cleaner. It fares even better on the audio front; aside from an abundance of too-chirpy sound effects, Galaxy will leave your ears dazzled. The music ranges from great to amazing, without a false note to be heard. The orchestrated themes are as vast and majestic as befits a game that spans the universe, and the sly interweaving of dynamic sound and classic motifs creates a soundscape that is quintessentially Mario yet uncharacteristically sophisticated. In Galaxy, Nintendo finally makes good on its grand ambition this generation (with only a few small snags): to create a game that anyone can play, but laden with enough depth and intricacy to satisfy its hardcore fans. Galaxy's hub-based design offers much more flexibility than its predecessors; at any given time, a dozen or more new levels may be accessible, including plenty of tricky alternate stages that offer races and time attacks or that challenge Mario to survive massive boss encounters with a single point of health. The levels themselves are designed to be approached however you like, too -- those who prefer to take their time and explore will frequently find themselves rewarded when they stumble upon unexpected alternate paths leading to hidden stars. And those who like to "break" games or perfect speed runs will find much to love in Mario's huge repertoire of skills, power-ups, and tantalizing, just-out-of-reach platforms -- which simply beg for mastery and exploitation. Galaxy channels the spirit of Super Mario Bros. 3 in many ways -- the bite-sized stages, the vast array of specialized power-ups, the airships -- but none are as remarkable as its exhilarating sense of freedom.

In short, Galaxy is one of the most impressive, engrossing games in recent memory -- and quite the contrast to the rest of this year's triple-A gaming crop, which tends toward the dark, the M-rated, and the first-person perspective. Gaming may be growing up (per se), but gamers will always appreciate beautifully polished gameplay and inventive design...even if it's sugarcoated with squeaky baby stars and a goofy cartoon of a hero. Galaxy proves that Mario matters just as much today as he did 25 years ago, and that makes him one of a kind in this medium. But don't play Galaxy simply because Mario is the timeless godfather of gaming. No, play Galaxy because it's fantastic.