A series with as many epoch-defining entries as Mario is bound to mark a few special spots in your gaming history. My first videogame was Super Mario World. Super Mario 64 inspired me so much that I wrote my very first review about it, aged 8. But after that, as with any favourite series, it settled into a comfortable rhythm; you know what to expect, and you're delighted every time you get it, but it doesn't change your world any more. I didn't think that a Mario game could have that kind of impact on me again. But this year, it did.
In the year of Mario's 25th anniversary, Super Mario Galaxy 2 asks: where can we go? And it answers: anywhere we like. We can fly through the universe, landing briefly on bright planetoids populated by fantastical creatures. We can dive into abstract realms of primary-coloured, wood-textured objects, slowly rotating in nothingness. We can swim through shimmering orbs of water, suspended in space. We can climb the clouds. We can go to the future. And we can go to the past.
The Throwback Galaxy was the moment that cemented Mario's place in my personal history. After five worlds of indescribable, wild loopiness, levels that scramble your definition not only of a Mario game but of platform games themselves, Mario Galaxy 2 plops you down without warning on a perfect recreation of Super Mario 64's Whomp Fortress. Upon landing, upon hearing those first few notes of jazzily rearranged music, there was a moment of confusion where my heart soared and I didn't quite know why. Then I recognised my surroundings, bubbled up with glee, and suddenly realised that Super Mario Galaxy 2 was my favourite videogame of all time.
Where New Super Mario Bros. looks to the past for a template, Galaxy 2 only reaches back for occasional inspiration, each time returning with something wonderful. In one galaxy, you're running around a 2D Mario sprite constructed from squares of lava and fast-disappearing platforms. At one point you're rolling Mario around on top of a ball to a remix of the Rainbow Ride theme. There are allusions to every Mario game in here - even Sunshine, in the form of calming expanses of sunkissed tropical seaside and good-natured, hula-skirted Piantas - ranging from bold, knowing homages to the faintest echoes, the briefest snatches of recognisable music. It warmly opens up its arms and embraces its own history. It's proud of where we've been.
And all that in partnership with such boundless, vivacious novelty. Mario Galaxy 2 throws ideas around with almost obscene abandon. Gimmicks that could support an entire game are dropped in for a single galaxy and taken away again without a second thought, played like killer one-liners. The only thing tethering these worlds together is a certain sweet madness and an abstract but intuitive gravity. Gravity flips around, platforms disappear, you're stuck to the ceiling and catapulted between geometric blocks, floating orbs and winding tubes of shifting sand at a second's notice, and yet somehow you always know which way around you're supposed to be.
Mario Galaxy 2 is a series of dizzying anecdotes, sugar dreams and hallucinogenic episodes condensed into tiny, full-to-bursting vignettes. There's the strangely terrifying experience of being dogged by endless replays of your own thoughts in the form of Shadow Marios, there's the celebratory nostalgia of the Throwback Galaxy, there's the taut, tense self-control of the Flip-Swap Galaxy and the breakneck thrill of a Tall Tree speed run - and none of it lasts more than five minutes. It never settles for a second, guiding you by the elbow from novelty to novelty at a breathless pace, always pointing excitably towards its next new idea.
It's so well-made, too. That's an obvious thing to point out about a Nintendo game, but it's easy to forget. After a while, you take the solidity and precision of these worlds for granted. There's such a gorgeous physicality to everything: Yoshi's flicking tongue, the chime of coins, big, chunky switches, Mario's spin, and of course Mario himself, who leaps, runs, skids and cartwheels with as much playful athleticism as ever.
Despite Super Mario Galaxy's desire to lavish entertainment upon you, it doesn't give itself up easily. It's a hard game, packed with secrets, and always perfectly fair. There's never more than a moment of congratulation before you're moved on to something more difficult. Over the course of Mario Galaxy 2, you see its worlds again and again, but every new star or prankster comet gives them a new face, often turning your expectations and experience against you with a cackle. Dangerous, high-speed races become exacting purple coin challenges, colourful playgrounds become demanding speed-runs, Green Stars hide in nooks that you didn't know existed. It's always remixing itself as well as Mario history, continually reinventing on the spot.
It's embarrassing how many ideas it has. Sometimes, in its very best moments, Super Mario Galaxy 2 seems to exist on a separate plane from everything else. This year has been the best in my memory for games I've loved - Bayonetta, Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain and Red Dead Redemption have all reinforced my faith in this as the most startlingly diverse, stimulating field in all of entertainment, and in any other year I may well have been writing about Deadly Premonition as my personal favourite. I certainly didn't expect my defining game of the year to come from a series that I've known intimately for so long. After two and a half decades, the Mario series still fizzes with a breathless sense of possibility.
So why did I only realise that Super Mario Galaxy 2 was my favourite game of all time 30 seconds into the Throwback Galaxy? It wasn't simply because it showed me an emotionally charged moment from my own gaming history - it had already blown me away with its inventiveness. But it was then that I realised that Mario, in many ways, is what videogames are to me, what they've been to me since my childhood. They're imagination, playfulness, creativity, inclusiveness, fun, challenge. They're unexplored worlds.
I realised, at that moment, that Mario Galaxy 2 is my definition of a videogame - or rather, the definition of what I'd like videogames to be.