Super Mario, the portly plumber with the black moustache, is not just the mascot for Nintendo but the ambassador for all video games. Gamers are intimately familiar with Mario, his history, forays into pop culture, and of course his games. He was the nameless Jump Man before he was Mario and though early titles like Mario Bros., which introduced brother Luigi, kept true to the plumber occupation it was Super Mario Bros. that helped launch the Nintendo Entertainment System into video game legendary status. Since then, Mario, usually alongside Luigi, has appeared in a great many games in either a starring or supporting role. He’s dabbled in just about every genre save first-person shooter (don’t take that as a suggestion, Nintendo) and has done so successfully, for the most part. He’s been challenged along the way by other would-be mascots and felled them all.
Mario’s games are typically of a high quality, and while some are better than others, there really are no true lemons. These next few posts are going to attempt to distinguish the best from the not best, but in truth, all of the games to follow are still a good time, even today. This list only concerns itself with Mario’s starring platform adventures which began with Super Mario Bros. in 1985 and will continue this fall with Super Mario 3D World. Excluded are two titles which borrowed the Mario name for marketing purposes, namely Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. I think most would agree those two games are actually the first in new franchises for Wario and Yoshi, respectively. This also excludes those educational Mario titles that popped up on the Super Nintendo, and the few games starring Luigi. I considered excluding Mario’s 3D adventures and relegating them to a separate ranking but decided against it. They’re still Mario titles, and whether the game is a side-scroller or in 3D, they actually manage to play very similarly. Maybe it would just be easier to list the games about to be ranked, so here they are in chronological order of release: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2/The Lost Levels, Super Mario Bros. 2/Super Mario USA, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario Land, Super Mario World, Super Mario Land 2, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, New Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Galaxy, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario 3D Land, New Super Mario Bros. 2, New Super Mario Bros. U. That’s 16 Mario titles in total, and if this thing drags on long enough, maybe I’ll do a 17th as a postscript for Super Mario 3D World, though the pile of dust that has collected on my Wii U suggests that won’t be happening. On to the rankings!
16. Super Mario Land (1989, Gameboy)
Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to immediately pick on the Mario title with the least amount of technological backing, but I’ll reiterate what I said in the intro which is that all of these games are worth playing and remain so. That said, Super Mario Land is basically a scaled-down version of the original Super Mario Bros. for the then recently released Nintendo Gameboy. Nintendo should be commended for actually not just porting Super Mario Bros. and actually giving Super Mario Land its own distinguishing characteristics. Set in Sarasaland, the game puts Mario in an Egyptian inspired setting with tried and true Mario gameplay. There are some noted differences from the console games, in that Mario’s fireballs shoot at an angle and bounce off walls and hearts are used for extra lives while coins function as a currency. There are also some scrolling levels where Mario pilots a spaceship or submarine which help break up the routine. Otherwise, it was a pretty basic platforming-side-scroller. The Gameboy’s display made it a little tough on the eyes, and Mario felt a little loose as a result. Gamers who had this title in 1989 mostly seemed to enjoy it, even though they knew they were getting a somewhat lesser experience than what they had on their home consoles, but considering the Gameboy’s main competition was Tiger handheld games, they were pretty content to have Super Mario Land.
15. Super Mario Bros. 2/The Lost Levels (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1986)
By now, anyone with an interest in video games is well aware of the story of the “original” Super Mario Bros. 2. It was a Japan only release for a couple of reasons. The main reason was the difficulty which Nintendo of America thought would prove too frustrating for US gamers. Also, Nintendo of America wasn’t very impressed with the title simply because it was too similar to the original Super Mario Bros. For that, we should be thankful as NOA was absolutely right with that stance. Super Mario Bros. 2 would eventually be released as The Lost Levels in the US alongside the other NES Mario titles in the Super Mario All-Stars compilation released on the Super Nintendo. The game basically plays like a set of add-on levels for the original title. The original was such a massive success, that Nintendo of Japan felt it had to strike quick with a sequel. When early attempts at a sequel proved too ambitious (more on that to follow), this game was created in its stead. It’s basically just a harder version of the original, with the addition of poison mushrooms and Luigi being given his own characteristics (higher jumps but slippery feet) to make him play different from Mario for the first time. Needless to say, when the game was eventually released in the US, few American gamers felt like they had really been missing out on anything.
14. Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985)
The original, but not still the best, Super Mario Bros. set the standard for all Mario games to follow. These types of lists are always a little tricky because one is forced to weigh present value against past value. My take is always to just judge the games as they are. Perhaps that gives the modern titles a huge advantage but a good game is a good game, regardless of era or graphical horse power. Plus, games should be better today than they were 20 years ago as I’d like to think we’re always moving forward. With that out of the way, it should be said that Super Mario Bros. still holds up today as a fun and challenging game, just one notably simplified. It’s the classic “go right” game and the player is expected to run and bounce along to each stage’s flag pole in an attempt to rescue the princess. The clock actually plays a role in this game, as opposed to the more recent games, and later levels force the player to hold the run button throughout. The game’s challenge is mostly found in negotiating jumps and platforms that become smaller as the game goes along while dodging classic Mario enemies like koopa troopas and Lakitu. It’s true that it may be hard to impress a young gamer today with the original Super Mario Bros., but it is a textbook take on the genre it launched even if its sequels have improved upon it immensely.
13. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (Gameboy, 1992)
Super Mario Land 2 was a huge improvement over its predecessor. It borrowed heavily from the the current console games in terms of defining Mario’s look and power-ups and pushed the Gameboy to produce one if its best looking and best playing titles. This game also introduced Wario, who served as the primary antagonist for Mario for basically the only time before becoming a playable character in his own line of games. Super Mario Land 2 held onto the first game’s quirks while giving Mario some new power-ups, most notably the bunny ears. Mario being able to fly had been a big deal since Super Mario Bros. 3 so it’s no surprise he was able to do the same in this game. Keeping things weird, as they were with a raccoon tail bestowing flying powers in SMB 3, the bunny ears let Mario fly by rapidly pressing the jump button. Mario didn’t gradually descend, like he did with the cape and tail, so it gave Land 2 a unique feature. The fireballs had their angled shot replaced with traditional fire power, and the game had a map layout like Super Mario World. The worlds the map is segregated into can be played in any order, giving this game a less linear feel, and secrets abound which help the replay factor. Which is a good thing, because the 32 levels will be breezed through by Mario veterans making Super Mario Land 2’s biggest weakness its short duration. This is a fun game though, and it was the first Gameboy experience that came close to matching the console one where Mario titles are concerned.
12. New Super Mario Bros. 2 (Nintendo 3DS, 2012)
I did a big write-up on this one around the time it was released, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice to say, if anything my opinion of the game has lessened since. It’s a fun experience, but in general it did little to nothing as far as advancing the series goes. The focus on coin collection was a mistake as it didn’t add to the experience. The much publicized street pass functionality and downloadable content was basically a dud, and the game’s difficulty was basically non-existant. This is a by-the-numbers Mario game, and its sister-title New Super Mario Bros. U is the far superior game, and not just because it’s on the more powerful console and in HD. I did enjoy the return of the super leaf power-up as well as the inclusion of the Koopa Kids and the game does not have a shortage of levels.
11. New Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo DS, 2006)
New Super Mario Bros. was a supremely refreshing title when it was first released in 2006. A new side-scrolling Mario game had not been released since 1992’s Super Mario Land 2, unless you count the Wario and Yoshi games in between. New Super Mario Bros. was a like a kid’s dream of what the original Super Mario Bros. could have been with mega mushroom power-ups and the mini mushroom, letting Mario shrink to a microscopic size. Of the two, the mini mushroom was actually the better as controlling a lightning quick Mario was a lot of fun. Not that it wasn’t fun to control the Godzilla-like Mega Mario, but it got old after a few experiences. Mario also retained some of his 3D controls like the ability to double and triple jump. Not very useful, but a lot of fun. The game is also massive with 80 levels to explore, some of them only unlocked after finding the various star coins hidden in each stage. Like its sequel, the game’s biggest drawback was its lack of challenge. Notably trickier than the follow-up, but still lacking compared with the well-balanced Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario 64. This is a good game though, and as you can probably guess from these rankings, I actually recommend it over New Super Mario Bros. 2 for its tighter gameplay and better level design, though the level design is actually a weakness for the game when compared to other Mario titles. This one was a nice nostalgia trip in 2006, and even though the New Super Mario Bros. franchise has had a hard time living up to the classics, I still think we’re better off for having it.