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Every Mario game, ranked
(The Washington Post illustration; Nintendo)
ByGene Park
May 6, 2020
The Super Mario series is 35 years old, and reported rumors strongly suggest that Nintendo will be remastering the franchise’s greatest 3D outings for the Nintendo Switch.
In case you’ve just come out of a warp pipe after 35 years, Mario is THE video game character. The first Super Mario Bros. in 1985 essentially rescued the video game industry. Having appeared in more than 200 titles, Mario fronts the best-selling video game franchise of all time with 600 million sold since his first appearance in 1981′s Donkey Kong. Mario games either invent or elevate entire genres, like Super Mario Kart starting the battle kart trend, or Super Smash Bros. inventing the party fighter.
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With 19 different titles across the “main” series of Super Mario games, each title hits different for different people. An objective ranking of core Mario titles is impossible; Still, we’ll try our best. Many of these games are likely interchangeable depending on a variety of personal factors, including mood, nostalgia and preference. In fact, every game on this list is at least very good, with the best ranking among greatest games ever made. Even the worst Mario game is usually just fine.
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Similar to our The Legend of Zelda rankings last year, here are the three criteria we’ll use to determine placement.
We’re also not including any spinoffs — otherwise this list would run for pages. We’re relying on Nintendo’s Mario homepage that lists all the Nintendo-approved “core” titles for the alleged plumber, and using the U.S. release year as well.
Many of you will disagree with this list, and odds are, you’re probably right! Polygon’s rankings, for example, are wildly different from ours. Let us know your rankings in the comments below.
Super Mario Run (Nintendo)
19. Super Mario Run (2016)
If Mario games can be defined as “the player controls Mario,” the iPhone game plays fast and loose with that definition. Super Mario Run is actually similar to the “endless runner” genre, in that the game propels Mario forward for you, and you have to time his jumps. This is a concession to touch-screen controls, a huge ongoing hurdle for mobile gaming. The levels also end, but because of the limited player interaction, the stages are very linear. If anything, it’s more of a rhythm game than a platformer. For what it is, it’s an extremely polished and beautifully rendered 2D Mario runner. It’s just barely a Mario game.
Super Mario Land (Nintendo)
18. Super Mario Land (1989)
Now we move on to Mario’s first-ever portable outing. Super Mario Land paired with Tetris to build an argument for Nintendo’s new Game Boy portable concept. Land was the essence of the original Super Mario game, shrunken down to a very short experience. It also gave Mario a submarine and fighter plane. It’s memorable, but mostly for its place in history as gaming’s first mobile scrolling platformer.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 (Nintendo)
17. New Super Mario Bros. 2 (2012)
Contrary to his first scant outing, Mario’s last 3DS title was about excess and abundance. Most notably, it’s the only game that puts collecting coins, a longtime Mario tradition, front and center as a mechanic. As Mario games evolved, Nintendo has struggled to keep coin collecting relevant, especially since the extra lives you get after collecting 99 coins are becoming more obsolete. Besides rescuing the princess (again), Mario and Luigi must also gather as many coins as possible, all for naught. I collected literally a billion coins in New Super Mario Bros. 2, and all I got was a lousy new title screen. This game only ranks this high because at the very least, it’s still a very good 2D platformer in the style of the New Super Mario line. Just don’t bother with the cash.
Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo)
16. Super Mario 3D Land (2011)
What if 3D Mario played like a 2D one? It’s been a question posed since Super Mario Sunshine’s secret levels, and 3D Land was Nintendo’s first answer. The isometric perspective allowed Nintendo to fully use the 3D capabilities of the Nintendo 3DS, enhancing the platforming for anyone who bothered to bump up the 3D effect. The platform looming in the back would be pulled forward, introducing depth perception in a Mario game. The rest of the title is surprisingly bare-bones, which makes it easy for lapsed Mario fans to pick up and understand. It’s also home to the best Bowser fight in the series.
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (Nintendo)
15. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (1992)
If the first Mario Land aped the first Super Mario, his second portable journey mirrors his celebrated third title. More importantly, the Mario universe expanded with his bizarro greedy new rival, Wario. It’s also the first Game Boy title to return to the Mushroom Kingdom. The graphics were bigger and bolder, which meant for some restrictive but truly oddball level design, including a giant LEGO-style Mario. This is when Nintendo started to think outside of the box when it came to level settings.
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14. New Super Mario Bros. (2006)
Mario’s first Nintendo DS outing was also his grand return to his roots. It’s a bare-bones reimagining of 2D Mario platforming with fancy new 3D graphics. This simplicity is the game’s strength and greatest weakness. Despite a new mushroom that turned Mario into the size of the screen, NSMB struggles to stand out in this crowd, even against its otherwise inferior sequel. But it’s a gentle, breezy play, and really the first portable Mario game to feel like a full-sized release. And its aesthetic would define 2D Mario indefinitely, one still used in the latest Super Mario Maker.
13. Super Mario 3D World (2013)
If it isn’t obvious from the name, this is the 3D Land concept evolved. It also threw in the four-player multiplayer popularized by the New Super Mario line. What we got was chaos on the Wii U. 3D World was an explosion of new level concepts, once again expanding upon the Sunshine secret levels that worked so well. The multiplayer aspect never worked when it came to being cooperative, but it’s hard to believe that was the intent. Cooperative players still competed against each other to score the most points, and every game felt like a battle royale to the finish. Also, it gave us the cat suit. Sometimes a single power-up is all it takes to make a Mario game unforgettable.
12. Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988)
The first weird Mario game. The game’s origins are famous: It was actually a completely different game called Doki Doki Panic in Japan, redesigned as a Mario sequel for the West. Along with the second Zelda, this game established Nintendo as a developer and publisher that wouldn’t rest on its laurels, no matter how young a popular series might be. This wasn’t a game about jumping on bad guys, it was about picking them up. It was also the first Mario game to give you a distinctive, meaningful choice in who you want to be. Luigi isn’t just a green Mario, he’s taller, could jump higher and isn’t as strong. Princess Peach could fly, and Toad was a heavyweight lifter. It’s ironic that the game that takes place entirely in a dream helped make Mario’s cast of characters feel more real than ever.
11. New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009)
Yeah it’s just a better version of the DS series on console, but Mario’s first console 2D game in years felt like it picked up right where Super Mario World left off. Played by itself, it felt very much like a high-definition sequel to the Super Nintendo launch title. But this game’s greatest strength and weakness both lie in the chaos from playing with three other players. The levels never really felt designed for cooperative play, and indeed, many of the concepts are just lifted from the DS game. But it almost feels like an intentional experiment to throw four players into a traditional Mario game. Mario games are among the most balanced ever made. In this game, balance went out the window at the expense of fun.
10. Super Mario Sunshine (2002)
The first GameCube Mario was also Mario’s grand return to 3D adventuring, after Super Mario 64 blew the doors open for the genre. As a result, Super Mario Sunshine is packed with ideas. Instead of Mario’s traditional powerups like flowers and stars, which gave him additional new powers, Sunshine’s water jetpack did something revolutionary. It enhanced Mario’s core abilities of jumping. It dared to redefine what regular Mario felt like. This led to an ambitious open-world design that was a bit confused. They never quite figured out the appropriate amount of challenge to fit with Mario’s newfound freedom to fly and hover. But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that this is probably still the most fun version of Mario to control. Making Mario fun and useful and challenging was a big lesson Nintendo carried over to its later Switch release. And Sunshine’s secret levels, which removed the water jetpack, were a direct inspiration on the winning Galaxy series. Like water, Mario Sunshine’s ideas only needed a proper container to take shape.
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9. New Super Mario Bros. U (2012)
As you’ll see later in this list, Nintendo often celebrates its latest console by throwing a housewarming party in the shape of a new Mario game. Sadly, this title’s new pad wasn’t that great. The Wii U console’s “Big Idea” was using a separate tablet as a controller, so Mario U allowed a fifth player to create platforms to either hinder or help the other four players. It’s more chaos for chaos sake, and it was fun, despite the tablet’s eventual failure as a living room device. Much of the game was copy-pasted from the previous adventures, including the music. And although the world map tried to mimic Super Mario World’s, it wasn’t well integrated (the desert map becomes the snow map with zero transition). The New Mario series has been about removing invention and flash for the sake of creating a straightforward Mario game. Of all the games on this list, this is the least inventive. And because of that, it’s also the tightest.
8. Super Mario Maker (2015)
It’s not true that you’ll never need another 2D Mario game after Super Mario Maker. You can’t really recreate the thoughtful pacing other games on this list provide. But it’s almost true, which is enough to make Super Mario Maker 1 (or 2 for the Switch), a must-own for any Mario fan. Mario’s nerdiest fans would often create their own levels using graphing paper. To have a game that gives us the paper and all the tools we could ever want is a dream come true. And it’s the first Mario game to have a thriving creative community.
7. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)
Level for level, this is probably better than the first Galaxy. Nintendo thought of making this an update to the first Galaxy, but it had enough level concepts to fill an entire game. And we’re glad they did. Mario levels are designed to introduce a new obstacle or challenge, present a variation of that same challenge later, and end with a finale course that puts everything you learned to the test. Every new level felt like an introduction to an amazing new game. It’s not, it’s really just a retelling of Super Mario Galaxy. Despite that, it’s incredible that the only true consecutive sequel to a console Mario game never once felt like it was running out of new level ideas.
6. Super Mario Odyssey (2017)
This game is the promise of Super Mario 64 finally fulfilled: Open worlds with secrets and stars to find, Mario with the same robust acrobatics he had in 1996, and a camera that you can finally fully control. Moreover, almost every enemy is itself a power-up, giving Mario more abilities than ever before. However, grand, vast levels like the Metro and Sand Kingdoms might give the impression that this covers more ground than the previous titles, but it really doesn’t. If anything, it’s overstuffed with items to hunt that aren’t all that fun to hunt for. With almost 900 Moons to find, many of its secrets were a bit bland. It’s empty calories, but it doesn’t take away from what many would call the definitive 3D Mario adventure.
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5. Super Mario Bros. (1985)
This is probably history’s most important video game. It rescued the entire industry from the infamous 1983 market crash. It gave rise to two decades of Japanese dominance in video games. Beyond that, it also introduced new possibilities of narrative (story cliffhangers after every castle) and game design (unlike other games at the time, Mario had a slow, natural difficulty curve that made it playable for anyone). Nintendo’s resident genius and creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s meticulous level design philosophy ensured that it’s simple enough to play and understand.
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But underneath the simple gameplay are layers and layers of complex design decisions that gave root to so many video game genres today, including the important consideration of gravity and weight, how Mario feels as he jumps and runs and slides. Miyamoto knew players would resonate with the feeling of weight, gravity and the fear of falling, as they’re all innate human sensations. Beyond the mathematical precision of level design, Miyamoto saw a deeper connection between our humanity and our desire to play. It’s why the first Super Mario Bros. remains a timeless classic.
4. Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990)
This is the “Link to the Past” of Mario games, the one that defined the series for years to come. It is the creative apex of the 8-bit Nintendo era. Yes, other games on this list also have dozens of levels brimming with new gameplay ideas. But the third Mario showed such early confidence in its ideas, it kept some of its best ones (like the Tanuki and frog suits) to only a few levels. It broke the “run, jump or die” mechanics of platformers and games by giving us secrets to explore, and wonderful reasons to revisit and reconsider the levels we just beat. Mario games weren’t just about surviving anymore. This time, we have a map (which has become a series mainstay), and it’s about exploring and reliving past experiences in new ways.
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3. Super Mario 64 (1996)
The current history of video games can be split between an age before and after Super Mario 64. In the 90s, video games were growing to three dimensions, and characters and cameras thrashed and flailed around as developers struggled to depict how to move in this new space. Once again, Mario showed everyone how it’s done in a single try. As the first Mario game defined platformers, the launch Nintendo 64 title wasn’t just a showcase for the console, it was a showcase for gaming’s future. Nintendo demonstrated to the industry and players how to move in 3D, and video games haven’t been the same since. Mario’s acrobatics weren’t just passable, they were exceptional. He felt like a true superhero. The castle that acted as a hub world was a playground for the world to acclimate itself to gaming’s future.
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It’s aged better than Zelda’s Ocarina of Time. Played in 2020, the levels are still large and plentiful, still offering more than many games today. Really, the only huge flaw is the game’s camera, which was controlled by the C buttons on the Nintendo 64. That was a blueprint for the right-analog movement that’s become standard today, and if the remasters of Mario 64 are true, we may really be one camera tweak away from finally having a perfect version of Mario 64.
Miyamoto and co. made many design concessions in the jump to 3D, reimagining what life and death even means for Mario. They made platforms bigger so players could land easier in this new space. Powerups were redone from top to bottom to accommodate the new perspective. Yet, despite all these changes, it still undeniably felt like a Mario game. These new accomplishments, while staying true to its core principles, resulted in a peerless and miraculous piece of architecture and art.
2. Super Mario World (1991)
This is truly the only 2D Mario game anyone really needs. It’s an evolution of Super Mario 3 for sure, but as the launch title for the Super Nintendo, it still needed to be more. It needed to be more colorful. It needed even more secrets to be replayed. It needed a stronger story, more characters. And it needed to be accessible enough for any new gamer to play. While the other Mario games were pretty difficult (especially the third one), World made concessions in design and powers to make it easy and fun for anyone to revisit. It locked away its hardest challenges for the most dedicated players.
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World also gave us Mario’s first real meaningful expansion to his core move sets besides running and jumping. This time he could spin jump, throw items upward, he could pocket items for later use, and he meets Yoshi for the first time. The levels may lack the manic creativity of Super Mario Bros. 3 and some of the other titles on this list, but what it makes up for is the refreshing continuity of its world. Its map wasn’t just split into “snow levels” and “desert levels,” there was more intention to make Mario feel like he’s exploring new areas. And the ability to save was game-changing: 1-ups no longer mattered as much, and the designers were finally free to make the levels as intricate as possible, with puzzles leading to even more worlds.
Picking between Super Mario Bros. 3 and World as the best 2D Mario game is a harrowing exercise, and there’s likely no right answer. For this list, World gets the win because it was the first game to make us feel like we were visiting uncharted territory.
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1. Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
It’s the most thematically cohesive title in a list full of incredible games. If Mario games always feel confident, the first Galaxy for the Wii knew it wanted to be the grandest conception of Mario’s previous ideas, a maximalist masterpiece a la Sgt. Pepper’s or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s the product of the best lessons of Super Mario 64, Sunshine’s secret levels and Super Mario World’s sense of exploration and wonder. It was a game so good, Nintendo took the very rare, remarkable step of repeating it with Super Mario Galaxy 2.
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Galaxy 2 may have more creative levels, but we’d be kidding ourselves if presentation isn’t part of this consideration, and the first game sings in ways its sequel doesn’t. The music, the artwork, the space theme (which they left behind in the sequel) and even a charming, melancholy story all combine with the levels to become something greater than the sum of its parts. And Galaxy was certainly no slouch in unique level design, redefining the concept of gravity as fast as every few seconds. But the game also gave you a living space to breathe, rewarding your progress with a lovely waltz in the observatory hub world by a small chamber accompaniment that would eventually be joined by a full-throated orchestra. It featured the first live recordings for a game by legendary composer Koji Kondo. Pair the music with Mario rocketing from planet to planet, and you have a luscious, indescribable experience.
Mario games typically contain multitudes of happiness. Super Mario Galaxy’s setting is the infinite emptiness and uncertainty of the universe, daring to be just a little bit sad, a little mysterious and kind of scary. Against the backdrop of this chaotic void, Super Mario Galaxy reminds us that it’s up to us to fill this vacuum with the limitless resources of our imagination, and that the unknown can still lead to adventure and wonder. The game’s enthusiasm for you, the player, echoes through Mario’s whoops and hollers, cheering you on to run, jump and soar through it all.
The best Mario games feel like dancing on air. Super Mario Galaxy will sweep you off your feet.
What’s your favorite game? Sound off in the comments.
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