There’s certainly very little suspense with these kinds of things. Anyone familiar with the Super Mario franchise can figure out at this point which two games are going to top my list, whether people disagree or not is another story. Rather than dive right into these last two games, I think it is important to point out just how many of the games that I’ve talked about could have been number one. Super Mario 64 seems like an easy one to argue in favor of. What the original Super Mario Bros. did for the 2D side-scroller, Super Mario 64 did for the 3D platformer. Only the games to follow in that genre have really done very little to deviate from the Super Mario 64 style of gameplay. Sure the worlds have gotten bigger, and the graphics have certainly improved, but the core mechanics are still mostly in play. Super Mario Galaxy 2 could also be argued as top dog. The inventive gameplay of the Galaxy franchise has a ton of appeal, and Galaxy 2 is bigger and harder than its predecessor. In a world where Mario games seem to be getting easier and easier, it’s nice to know some of the games are trying to hang onto some semblance of difficulty. And of course Super Mario Bros. 3 will always have a claim to best Mario title on the planet. It’s the game that really expanded on the Mario world for the first time giving gamers tons of variety in terms of level design, power-ups, boss fights, and basically every other aspect of the game. Many of the titles today still borrow heavily from Super Mario Bros. 3, and I feel like I could go on for another two-thousand words on the subject and it still wouldn’t feel like enough.
In short, Mario has had a lot of great adventures over the years. As overexposed as he tends to get, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of just how important the character has been to gaming. A lot of people my age claim to have outgrown Mario, but I don’t think that’s possible. You can’t outgrow fun, just lose touch with it.
2. Super Mario Galaxy (2007, Nintendo Wii)
Super Mario Galaxy wasn’t the first title to take Mario into space, but it’s definitely the most memorable. Galaxy is basically the sequel to Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario 64 before it as Nintendo decided Mario’s 3D adventures were ready to continue on the Wii. Many people were curious how the Wii’s motion controls and Mario would meld, as I think many assumed Nintendo would use the game as a way to showcase what the console was capable of. Instead, the developers for the game mostly downplayed the Wii’s motion controls in favor of a fairly traditional scheme. Mario was still controlled via analog stick and he could bounce around just as he could in the two previous 3D games. The only addition for the Wii was a spin attack that could be initiated with a simple flick of the wrist. The Wii remote could also function as a pointer and could fire star bits. These star bits could momentarily stun enemies but it mostly was just a tack-on feature. I assume most forgot the feature even existed while playing.
Where Nintendo sought to distinguish Galaxy from the prior Mario games was to place an emphasis on gravity. Mario would travel from galaxy to galaxy, planet to planet, and encounter all kinds of unique situations. Some levels had Mario sticking to tennis court sized planets that were still large enough to apparently have a gravitational pull. This could lead to some really disorienting experiences with Mario basically upside down or sideways but the game’s camera was so well crafted, and Mario so weighty, that it rarely felt as bad to the player as it looked. I know initially I was skeptical at just how good a game could be that focused so much on trying to disorient the player but Galaxy proved me way wrong. Running and jumping from planet to planet, sometimes within a level, was pure joy. The only comparable experience I can even compare it to are those warm, fuzzy feelings I had when playing Super Mario 64 for the first time. Mario handles so well and the level design is so spectacular that it’s hard to not constantly wonder what’s next while enjoying the present.
Since this is a Mario game, there are numerous power-ups available to experiment with. Of the new ones, the best and most enjoyable is definitely the bee suit which allows Mario to fly for short bursts. Bee Mario flys just by holding down the A button, but he can ascend for so long before he needs to “recharge.” It’s all pretty quick, but the ability to fly is curbed just enough to keep the player from flying constantly. For more intense flight, there’s a special power star that lets Super Mario impersonate Superman. It only exists in kind of a bonus level, but is fun while it lasts. Some of the new power-ups are duds, like spring Mario who can do nothing but bounce which gets frustrating, and there’s some sequences where Mario has to balance on a giant ball. For the first time in a 3D Mario title, the fire flower makes an appearance as does its opposite, the ice flower. Both are kind of interesting in that they function very much like an invincibility star in that they only bestow Mario with special abilities for a brief period of time. This does lend itself well to some puzzle situations, but it is a little disappointing to not be able to remain as fire Mario until damage is taken.
From a technological standpoint, Super Mario Galaxy is a star. The Wii was never considered a powerhouse by any means, but Galaxy looks great. The environments are varied, the color pallet is gorgeous, and many of the enemies dwarf Mario, especially Bowser. The music is high quality as well, composed mostly of orchestral instruments giving it a very “Zelda” feel. The plot for the game is basically the same as always, though the character of Rosalina is introduced which makes things slightly more interesting. The game’s storyline may not be enough to get gamers to keep coming back, but the numerous objectives and hidden stars will. As with Super Mario 64, each level has stars for Mario to collect and after collecting a certain amount challenge stars begin to appear. This is where the game really turns up the difficulty and gives Mario vets a true challenge. It’s probably not as hard as its sequel, but it strikes a very nice balance between challenging and frustrating. That, along with all of the other positives I’ve cited, is why Super Mario Galaxy is the best of the 3D Mario titles to date.
1. Super Mario World (1990, Super Nintendo)
The mark of a truly special game is one that is inherently fun. There are many games where aspects of them fit this description. Mindlessly rampaging in any of the Grand Theft Auto titles is always a blast, political correctness be damned. When it comes to multi-player, I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun with a game than I did with Super Bomberman and three of my buddies. Both of those games contain moments of pure joy, but neither is able to achieve that and hold it for the entire duration of the full game. Super Mario World is a game that is non-stop entertainment from start to finish. Expertly crafted level design, colorful visuals, and tweaks to the Mario formula helped introduce a legion of fans to the Super Nintendo making Super Mario World not just the best Mario game, but the best pack-in game of all time.
Super Mario World was not the leap forward for Mario that Super Mario Bros. 3 was. It didn’t have to be as that game was nearly perfect itself. It only needed to improve upon it and give gamers a reason to play Super Mario World other than its inherent “newness.” Obviously, that’s easier said than done as many developers have tried to improve upon a game like Super Mario Bros. 3 and failed. When it came time to create Super Mario World, it would seem Nintendo took a back to basics route when comparing it with its predecessor. Power-ups were de-emphasizd as the game only included two permanent power-ups (aside from the mushroom) for Mario and Luigi: the venerable fire flower and the shiny new super feather. The fire flower worked the same as always, but the feather gave Mario a yellow cape and the ability to fly. Rather than have the cape mimic the raccoon tail, it worked in an entirely different manner. Mario still had to run to take-off, but once airborne Mario zoomed to the top of the screen before dive-bombing back to the ground below. This could double as an attack, but if the player so desired Mario could be made to “parachute” his cape for extended flight. It took some getting used to, but once mastered a player could easily soar Mario over an entire level.
The other major gameplay addition was Yoshi. Yoshi functioned as a power-up himself, giving Mario not only an extra hit but also giving him a new attack. Atop Yoshi, Mario could direct his dino servant to devour all kinds of enemies. As a bonus, certain turtle shells gave Yoshi special abilities such as fireballs or his own ability to fly. Mario could also use Yoshi to reach higher places or travel over certain terrain. Green Yoshi was the standard, but different colored Yoshi’s existed in the secret Star Road area that had limited power-up potential, but also an exploitable skill (the blue Yoshi, for example, would sprout wings and fly with any turtle shell in his mouth, while green Yoshi could only do so with a blue shell) that had its own advantages.
The storyline for the game was really no different, other than the fact that Mario is on vacation in Dinosaur Land. Mario still has to topple Bowser’s seven children before facing him to save the princess. Where the game stands out is in its scope. Super Mario World is appropriately titled. It may not seem huge compared to today’s games, but at the time it seemed massive. Each world is distinct and varied as well, and they’re full of hidden exits and secret levels. This made Super Mario World both challenging and highly replayable. Some staples of future Mario games were introduced in this one, such as the Ghost House or Wiggler enemy. Furthermore, the game was hard. It eased the player in with the deceptively tame first world but the difficulty increases as the game moves on. There are plenty of scrolling levels, levels with small platforms for Mario to negotiate, and levels requiring some puzzle solving to escape. The boss encounters with the koopalings were also more varied, and the final showdown with Bowser was satisfying as well. And if the main game was too simple for some, the Special Zone provided its own brand of torture with many having their own personal nightmare level among one of them.
Aside from the bells and whistles, Mario also handled better than ever and the score was another strong addition to the Mario universe. The main melody is used throughout, though I was also most fond of the subtle bongo notes introduced whenever Yoshi shows up (a trend that has continued over the years). If the game has short-comings, it’s that there are less mini games when compared with Super Mario Bros. 3. The lack of more power-ups is also a slight mark against the title when holding it up to the others, but it’s the gameplay that matters most. Always. When it comes to Super Mario World, there just isn’t a better Mario game on the planet. Everything that came before it was refined and improved upon to craft the perfect platformer. Nintendo wisely chose to not truly follow-up on the title for well over a decade because it couldn’t be topped. There was nothing left for Mario and Nintendo to prove with this genre. And over twenty years later, Mario still hasn’t appeared in a better game.