By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
[Mario collage used in cover image courtesy of: MarioFanForevah]
There are about 7,381 Mario games…give or take. But at the center of that vast library is a set of clearly-defined core Super Mario platform games that serve as their own flagship franchise. Here is ranking of those games, going from worst to best. Of course, a “bad” Mario game is like a “bad” Skittles flavor, and I’m about a big of a fan of Mario (and Skittles) that you’ll ever meet. So take even my criticisms of the lesser games on this list with a grain of salt before you type up your angry comments–save those for when you see that I included Super Mario Run in this list.
Also, I have decided to leave out Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island and Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land, as they feel more like first entries in their own series than they do Super Mario games, and were only named as such for marketing reasons (and Yoshi’s Island also wasn’t even called originally Super Mario World 2 in Japan, anyway). And of course, Super Mario All-Stars and Super Mario Maker were left out for what I hope are self-explanatory reasons.
#18 – Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (aka Super Mario Bros. 2 Japan)
The 8-bit era isn’t known for how easy its games were. There is a reason why the term “Nintendo Hard” exists, after all. But typically, a well-designed game balances challenge with fairness, meaning that cheap, gimmicky deaths are rare, if non-existent, and it’s only lack of patience and skill that allow a game to beat you. For the first—and still basically only—time in Super Mario history, the fairness inherent in the challenge of Lost Levels is often non-existent. Things like invisible gusts of wind that randomly affect your trajectory mid-jump, warp zones that send you to earlier levels, and poisonous mushrooms that harm rather than help you all conspire to make Lost Levels less of a game to challenge Mario vets as to outright punish them.
#17 – Super Mario Land
Game Boy games eventually got relatively close to the quality and the visual fidelity of NES games. But for awhile there, the platform was largely a place where NES franchises were shrunken down and severely hamstrung by the system’s limitations. Super Mario Land did its best for its time, but that wasn’t remotely good enough, especially considering Japan had already gotten Super Mario Bros. 3 at that point. The whole game just felt “off” as well, from projectiles that were like bizarre slow-motion bouncy balls careening all over the screen to the extremely forgettable final boss named…Tanaka? Tobago? It doesn’t matter. There is a reason that he, and most of the ideas introduced in this game, were never revisited in any significant way ever again. The moment the sequel to this game came out, there was no reason to play or even think about it ever again.
#16 – New Super Mario Bros. 2
It’s strange to think about now, but there was actually a period in the mid-00s where we were burnt out on core Super Mario games. One of five Super Mario titles released in just four years, NSMB2 doesn’t really do anything offensive to the series’ formula, but it also does almost nothing new for it, either. They could’ve done more interesting things with the emphasis on coin-collecting in the game rather than just have you constantly bombarded with them every step you take. It felt like a half-baked attempt to inject something unique into what was essentially a very by-the-numbers New Super Mario Bros. game. And once we got a taste of the multiplayer side of the series on consoles, going back to playing the game as a solo affair just didn’t quite cut it anymore.
#15 – Super Mario Run
A little more complex than a typical mobile endless runner, but not quite deep enough to be comparable to the better traditional Mario games, Super Mario Run struck a decent balance between those disparate worlds. It’s obvious that the game was designed to give Nintendo fans something to play on their phones, but also leaving them wanting to go back to their 3DSs when they yearn for a “real” Mario game to play. Still, the fact that Nintendo didn’t go the route of so many of their contemporaries, and try to just stick an existing classic Mario on mobile and shoehorn some barely-functional virtual buttons into it speaks to Nintendo’s commitment to at least trying to make the most of the platform instead of just looking to earn a few easy bucks from it. And after Miitomo, we had plenty of reason to be worried about what a mobile Mario game might play like…
#14 – New Super Mario Bros.
The Game Boy Advance came and went without a single original Mario platformer—and worse, all it had was ports of SNES games and half of Super Mario All-Stars, sold to us in pieces. 3D Marios are great, but 14 years is a long time without a 2D installment. Because of this, we probably enjoyed NSMB a little more than it deserved. It certainly isn’t a bad game, but after such a long wait—and after the last handheld 2D Mario was so fun and creative—NSMB just felt a bit like going through the motions. And the DS wasn’t exactly a polygon powerhouse so the character models and environments lacked the pop of earlier pixel games and later New games with more processing muscle behind them. All that said, it was great to have Mario back in (sort of) 2D again.
#13 – Super Mario Bros.
This game’s place in video game history can’t be denied. While naysayers love to point out that it wasn’t technically the first platform game, it was certainly the first great one, and laid the foundation for the genre—and action video games in general—for an entire generation. However, as great and revolutionary as Super Mario Bros. was when it was released, its formula was greatly refined over the next few 2D sequels, hence its fairly low ranking on this list. But that should be looked at as more of a testament to just how much ridiculously better the series got than as a knock against the original’s quality. Make no mistake—even the original Super Mario Bros. is still one of the best 8-bit platformers of all time.
#12 – New Super Mario Bros. U
Mario finally going HD was reason enough to be excited, but fortunately, NSMBU still added some new elements to the admittedly long-in-the-tooth “New” formula. The squirrel suit was a nice addition and a more fun flying alternative to the propeller hat, and old powers had new wrinkles, like allowing you to run up walls after swallowing a mini-mushroom. The tablet functionality, which allowed a fifth player to conjure platforms out of mid-air, seemed more like a “little brother” compromise than a genuine gameplay feature. But one addition that NSMBU brought to the franchise that can’t be understated is a DLC add-on pack, which revolved around Luigi and transformed the game into a series of tense, lightning-fast time trials. Taken as a whole, it’s a solid–albeit a bit too familiar–package.
#11 – New Super Mario Bros. Wii
NSMBU is probably the superior game, and iterates on a lot of the framework found here, but the novelty of tackling a Mario game for the first time with up to three friends simultaneously is an experience that we’ll just never be able to have again. That reason gives NSMBW the edge to its Wii successor, if only slightly. Nintendo has carried the torch for “couch multiplayer” a lot longer than most other companies, who had been progressively abandoning it since the introduction of online play, and few games this side of Mario Kart are a better demonstration of why playing on a couch elbow-to-elbow with three buddies is always going to be more fun than playing online than New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Of course, it’s also often a fight with those three friends, but that’s part of the fun.
#10 – Super Mario 3D Land
With a handheld system that could finally push 3D graphics (literally), Mario’s portable adventures left the 2D plane for the first time with this inventive game. 3D Land felt almost like a sampler platter of the history of Mario games up to that point, with the linear levels of the 2D games combined with touches from the 3D ones, like the gravity-bending sections of Mario Galaxy. Other firsts that 3D Land brought to 3D installments in the franchise were Mario changing sizes, and having flag poles at the end of stages. Old school fans might have been disappointed to see yet another Nintendo franchise seemingly leave 2D behind for good, but as far as compromises go, Nintendo has never done a better job of blending the two styles as they have with this game (and its follow-up).
#9 – Super Mario 3D World
When the New series began to co-exist on both consoles and handhelds, it was perhaps inevitable that other Super Mario sub-series would experiment with crossing platforms. And so it happened when the Wii U got its first–and only–“3D” Mario in the form of Super Mario 3D World, a successor to the similarly-named 3DS game. Further proving that the series was all about taking elements from both 2D and 3D games, 3D World finally introduced true co-op play to a 3D Mario game. What made the multiplayer even more special in this case is that, rather than having two palette-swapped plumbers and two generic Toads, we got the same four-person squad as Super Mario Bros. 2, complete with unique abilities. Some of us wanted Galaxy 3, others, Sunshine 2. But what we got was this fantastic, creative entry.
#8 – Super Mario 64
Lists like this are most fair when they strike a balance between how great a game was “for its time” and how well it has held up since. It would be short-sided to judge Super Mario 64 either entirely by how good it was in 1996, or by how good it is in 2017. Meeting somewhere in the middle, it remains an incredibly well-crafted adventure that is more playable two decades on than most of its 3D platforming peers released even years later, but its flaws do become much harder to forgive in retrospect (obtuse objectives, far too much retreading of the same areas, controls that aren’t as tight as subsequent 3D Marios, fairly bland environments, etc). Again, though, being outranked by other 3D Marios is more about how well they built on Mario 64’s foundation than a statement of its own lack of quality.
#7 – Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins
This is how you do a Mario game on Game Boy. Taking a bit of Super Mario World but adding in the kind of creative risk taking and reckless abandon that Nintendo typically saves for the portable installments of its franchises, SML2 has way more personality than an 8-bit black and white game deserves to have. While the Wario Land franchise that would eventually spin off from this one is outstanding, it’s still a shame that one completely turned into the other instead of them both continuing in tandem. It would’ve been nice to see at least one more stab at another proper handheld Mario game before we would have to wait an excruciating 14 years of ports and remakes before the series returned with a new core entry on a portable—and one that didn’t end up exactly reinventing the wheel, either.
#6 – Super Mario Sunshine
The GameCube saw Nintendo taking some of the biggest risks with its properties that it has ever taken: Metroid in first-person, cel-shaded Zelda, Luigi as a Ghostbuster, a Donkey Kong platformer with bongos as a control input. Then there was Mario Sunshine, which takes the basic framework of Mario 64 and turns it into a game where Mario is in a tropical paradise and has a water-powered jet pack. Leave it to Nintendo to build an entire game around one of the most hated tropes in platform games: water-based levels. However, like the other games listed above, Sunshine triumphed in spite of—or more accurately, due to—the creative left turn, giving designers the opportunity to create levels and challenges for Mario that made excellent use of the setting and the unique gameplay mechanics.
#5 – Super Mario Galaxy
It was tough to know what to expect out of the Wii’s first Mario game. Would it rely on all kinds of motion-controlled, waggle-based gimmickry that would grow tiresome after a few hours? No, it would not. What Galaxy did do was give us Mario’s most inspired adventure in years, if not ever. Taking the open worlds of previous 3D Mario games and confining them to unconnected planets meant that there didn’t have to be any kind of cohesion between the worlds, which let each one be completely different than the last. And being able to run up walls and along the underside of the floating celestial bodies ranks up there with the best first-time Mario experiences. A messy hub world and power ups that relied too heavily on disappearing after arbitrary time limits were the only things that hurt the experience. If only they got another shot to make it right…
#4 – Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka Super Mario Bros. USA)
We all know the story: This isn’t the original Super Mario Bros. 2 but was an existing non-Mario game that was retooled as one for the West and blah blah blah. All that matters is the final product, which in this case remains one of the Mario franchise’s most left-field installments—and one of its best. The first time you try to stomp on an enemy but it doesn’t die, and instead just leaves you standing on the creature while it goes about its business, you knew you were in for a completely different experience. Across 20 brilliant, imaginative levels, some almost adventure game-like in their depth, Mario, Luigi, Toad, and the Princess take players through a ride that ends up being merely Mario’s fantasy…and our dream come true.
#3 – Super Mario World
Following up the short, almost setpiece-esque levels of SMB3, Super Mario World introduced massive, cavernous, labyrinthine levels to the series, making each stage feel like an adventure all its own. The introduction of Yoshi can’t be understated, nor can the addictive nature of the hidden alternate exits that kept players busy for months and months. The cape initially seemed more limiting than the raccoon tail, but those that put in the time to learn to use it properly found it to be one of Mario’s most versatile power ups. The sheer variety of level types in this game were staggering for the time, and still impress today, over 25 years later. So groundbreaking and timeless is this game that when it was ported to GBA 11 years later, it felt as much like a game from 2002 as actual GBA games released in 2002 did, even with zero visual improvement (and a sound downgrade, no less).
#2 – Super Mario Galaxy 2
Here it is: the ultimate 3D Mario game. And if it weren’t for one other pesky game that exists that happens to be pretty much perfect, it would be the ultimate Mario game, period. Galaxy 2 takes everything great about the original, discards all of the things it did wrong, and then manages to include levels and ideas that are somehow even more creative and original. It also doesn’t mind kicking your butt, and those that claim that Nintendo abandoned hardcore gamers with the Wii should play a few hours of Galaxy 2 before being so certain of that assertion. Such a masterpiece is this game that if Nintendo did an HD remaster and changed nothing else about the game, it would absolutely still be worth paying full price for and still be better than most games available today.
#1 – Super Mario Bros. 3
What is there to say about SMB3 that would even do it justice? You can put any number of words or phrases into the sentence “It is the greatest _____ of all time” and it would be an arguably factual statement: platformer, side-scroller, 8-bit game, NES game, Nintendo game…video game. And, really, doesn’t being the best Mario game of all time also automatically imply all those other things, anyway?
Check out my other “Worst to Best” lists:
- All 34 Castlevania Games Ranked from Worst to Best
- All 11 Metroid Games Ranked from Worst to Best
- All 13 Contra Games Ranked from Worst to Best
- All 41 Video Game Movies Ranked from Worst to Best