Nintendo’s Super Mario series is so monumental to the medium of video games that you might even think of the mustached plumber when you hear “video games” mentioned at all. From his earliest days as “Jumpman” battling Donkey Kong, to his latest adventures on the Nintendo Switch, Mario has consistently been one of the greatest characters in video games. He’s such an iconic character that countless video games have had him as the star, and we attempted to rank them.
For our list, we had two main criteria. First, the games have to be platformers — either 2D or 3D. This eliminates Mario sports games, the Mario Kart series, role-playing games, and all the Mario Parties. Secondly, the games have to have Mario himself as the lead character. This eliminated Super Mario Land 3 and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. In the end, we were left with 20 games. None of them are bad, but we did have to name a loser. We also chose to omit The Lost Levels and instead considered Super Mario Bros. 2 as the definitive second game in the series.
This is the Super Mario series, ranked from best to worst.
Making the jump from side-scrolling 2D to 3D platforming for Super Mario 64 was a risky move for Nintendo and the Mario series, but it succeeded in a way few other games ever had. Mario’s running, jumping, and flipping translates perfectly to the Nintendo 64’s polygonal visual style, with creative levels encouraging exploration and problem-solving in addition to traditional platforming.
Super Mario 64 is one of the few 3D platformers from the 64-bit era that has aged gracefully, and it’s just as playable in 2019 as it was when the Nintendo 64 launched more than two decades earlier, especially now that it was included in the 3D All-Stars pack. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that it was the first mainline Mario game to star Charles Martinet — a role that has been iconic ever since.
Nintendo bizarrely chose to ignore the formula established in Super Mario 64 with future Mario games … or at least the company did before creating Super Mario Odyssey. Set in a series of large, open environments filled with platforming challenges and secrets, Odyssey is Nintendo platforming at its very best. The character “Cappy” allows Mario to turn into nearly any object, giving him dozens of new abilities and options for beating levels.
The game’s gorgeous mix of realistic foliage with Mario’s classic cartoony frame makes it hilarious at every turn, as well, and Odyssey’s jazzy soundtrack and creative 2D segments make it one of the most inventive games in the series yet.
The Super Nintendo Entertainment System had a lot to prove, as Sega had beaten it to the 16-bit market with the Genesis. Naturally, Nintendo chose Mario to lead the charge and delivered the endlessly fun Super Mario World. Though the game followed the same basic formula as the original game and Super Mario Bros. 3, its increased use of items and diverse cast of enemies make it, unlike any other Mario title.
Spin-jumping to save yourself from death became a staple for the series because of Super Mario World, and the game’s cheery visual and audio style can brighten anyone’s day. And then, of course, there’s Yoshi — we fell head over heels in love with the green dinosaur and have Super Mario World to thank.
Nintendo went in a very different direction with Super Mario Bros. 2, and it was one that not all fans could appreciate. For Super Mario Bros. 3, the series went back to its platforming, enemy-stomping roots, but the game wasn’t a simple rehash of the original.
Instead, it introduced creative sub-bosses that you’d fight on your way to Bowser, along with more power-ups and crazy secrets that could allow you to skip a portion of the game. Perhaps its only weak spot was its art style, which was meant to resemble a stage play but instead appeared almost lifeless in comparison to the other games.
Nintendo doesn’t generally make direct sequels to its games, as it tends to alter them in significant and fundamental ways with each release. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of the exceptions to this rule, as the first Wii game’s massive popularity and success made it an obvious candidate for a follow-up.
Galaxy 2 keeps the same planet-exploring gameplay style of its predecessor but brings Yoshi back to the party. The dinosaur can eat enemies and even dash up vertical surfaces, leading to creative and challenging obstacles.
Is there any level in video games more iconic than Super Mario Bros.’ World 1-1? Super Mario Bros. not only revolutionized platforming games when it was released in 1985, but it also helped to revive the video game medium itself. The Nintendo Entertainment System needed a console-seller to convince families home gaming was viable after the video game crash of 1983, and Super Mario Bros. led the way. Since then, Mario has battled Bowser to save Princess Peach, and we’d return to the first game any day.
The Wii’s motion-control scheme made it the console of choice for younger players and those less familiar with video games themselves, but Nintendo didn’t dumb down Mario when it launched Super Mario Galaxy. The game mixed the excellent 3D platforming first established in 64 with gorgeous space-themed environments. It highlighted the strengths of the Wii without emphasizing its technical limitations, and its waggle and pointing controls helped to introduce a whole new way to play games.
The Wii’s unique features were immediately apparent to all players, but the 3DS didn’t have the same luck with its glasses-free 3D technology — at least not right away. When Super Mario 3D Land launched, however, it all started to make sense.
The course-based 3D platformer felt like the earlier 2D games were simply given a third dimension, and with the ability to better gauge jumps by making use of the 3D technology, 3D Land remains one of the tightest-controlling 3D platformers ever. Sure, it didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it certainly made it a lot easier to use.
Left without the 3D capabilities of the 3DS, Nintendo nonetheless developed a home console follow-up to Super Mario 3D Land with Super Mario 3D World. After that console failed to give this game as much attention as it deserved, they ported it onto the incredibly popular Switch, but also bundled in a brand new mode called Bowser’s Fury. The base game is an expanded 3D Land in every way. There are more stages, characters, power-ups, and overall fun. It is a pure joy to play from start to finish. Plus, this is where we first met Captain Toad, who would later go on to star in his own game.
Bowser’s Fury, on the other hand, gives us a new way to play in this 3D World format by swapping out obstacle course style stages for a singular open level like we got in Odyssey. It is a smaller addition to the game, but features a lot of concepts that we suspect Nintendo is testing out for a future game to expand on more fully. Either way, it is a more than welcome addition to an already stellar game.
The sequel to the hit Wii U title tried to add more of everything and, for the most part, succeeded. Super Mario Maker 2 gave players more items, enemies, and mechanics to mess around with, and also provided users with over 100 levels made by Nintendo for inspiration. It was still hampered by lackluster online play, and no easy way to sort through the thousands of bad levels to find the good ones, but it certainly was a step in the right direction. Plus, the ability to take the game on the road — along with improved graphics — makes this one of the best games on the Switch.
Perhaps the most experimental game in the series since Super Mario Bros. 2, the GameCube-exclusive Super Mario Sunshine threw Mario onto a tropical paradise armed with his trusty F.L.U.D.D. cannon. The multi-purpose device gave Mario the ability to clean up gunk on the ground, perform acrobatic maneuvers, or even just fire at enemies.
Sunshine represented Nintendo at a time when the company had once again become an underdog, and its bold move away from standard Mario conventions emphasized the scrappy design philosophy. Despite this, Sunshine hasn’t aged particularly well, with a finicky camera making it hard to come back to. Even the Nintendo Switch port as part of the 3D All-Stars pack didn’t address these issues as many hoped.
A refined take on the New Super Mario Bros. formula, New Super Mario Bros. U isn’t exactly the life-changing experience of the first game or Super Mario 64, but it’s well-designed Nintendo platforming with a healthy dose of humor and whimsy.
Freezing Dry Bones and sending fireballs and Bowser’s minions remains a whole lot of fun in the Wii U game, the Switch’s New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe bundles in extra challenges and the New Super Luigi mode for even more platforming goodness.
The original Super Mario Maker was an excellent game, bogged down by the fact that it launched on the poorly received Wii U. Allowing players to channel their inner creativity, Super Mario Maker provided a large degree of freedom for them to craft their own levels. These could then be uploaded online for others to enjoy, leading to hundreds of incredibly complex levels that were arguably just as fun as those made by Nintendo. Of course, there were also thousands of not-so-great levels, slowing down the experience and making it a challenge to find anything worth playing.
Super Mario Bros. 2 was never even supposed to be a Mario game. What began as Doki Doki Panic in Japan was given an all-new Mario aesthetic for release in North America, where the Lost Levels version of the game was deemed too difficult.
You throw vegetables at enemies instead of jumping on their heads and there are very few recognizable characters, but it would be unfair to paint Super Mario Bros. 2 as a bad game. It just doesn’t feel like a Mario game, back from a time when Nintendo hadn’t nailed down the series’ staple features yet.
New Super Mario Bros. seems like an oxymoron at this point, but back when the game released for the Nintendo DS, it had been years since fans had gotten a 2D Mario game. Built for classic Mario players and featuring the series’ famous Goomba and Koopa enemies, it nevertheless had its own unique mechanics, such as the Mega Mushroom, and showed that the modern art style was still perfectly suited for two dimensions.
Balancing difficulty and fun for younger players has always been at the heart of the Mario series, but Nintendo stumbled with New Super Mario Bros. 2. The game was based almost entirely around the concept of collecting coins, with certain power-ups giving you an obscene of them without anything to offset this. You can easily get through the entire game in an afternoon, and yet you’ll feel little satisfaction after actually finishing it. New Super Mario Bros. 2 still has the classic Mario platforming controls, but not much else.
For years, Nintendo resisted putting its games on mobile devices, but after paving the way with applications like Miitomo, the company finally released Super Mario Run. Essentially a tap-to-jump take on the New Super Mario Bros. formula, Super Mario Run doesn’t offer the same exploration-heavy platforming challenges of its big siblings, but its simple control scheme and classic Mario flair are still both welcome on phones. Its pricing scheme — $10 to unlock all levels — is also reasonable, and it’s the perfect game to play while you wait to return home to your consoles.
The GameCube was one of the weakest-selling Nintendo consoles ever, but its follow-up, the Wii, was one of its biggest hits. Unfortunately, that occasionally meant Nintendo released bare-bones versions of its games, knowing casual fans would be interested in them anyway.
This was the case with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a game that introduced a handful of new power-ups and multiplayer options but did little else to separate itself from the pack. Still, the Wii Remote was the perfect controller for the simple platformer, making it one of the best-selling games of all-time.
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins is likely the game fans were hoping for the first time around, as it provided a gameplay experience similar to the NES and SNES, albeit with the gross greenish graphics of the original Game Boy systems. Some of the power-ups featured in those games were also included in Super Mario Land 2, and it introduced us to everyone’s favorite portly, greedy anti-hero: Wario. Still, there are plenty of better options for playing Mario on the go today, including Super Mario Bros.
Game Boy owners hoping to experience a full-fledged Mario adventure on the go were likely disappointed when Super Mario Land was released — if they could convince themselves it wasn’t the best game in the world at the time. Super Mario Land kept the basic skeleton of its console brethren but used a putrid art style and low-quality tunes (including some public domain music).
At the time, it was still revolutionary to play something like this on a system you could fit in your pocket, and it did experiment with different gameplay styles, but Super Mario Land pales in comparison to what came next.
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