The Super Mario titles from Nintendo are arguably the most influential and iconic games around. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably lying through their teeth.
Without the mind of Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto at the helm of these mothership games, there wouldn’t be a Nintendo at all in the late 80s and the 90s. In fact, Nintendo and Mario were the sole saviours of the video game industry; countless retrospectives have mentioned this, so there’s no history lesson needed here.
You also don’t need us to tell you that these games are important in shaping the future of game design and 2D/3D platforming. From the 2D platformer mascots like Sonic to even 3D platforming folks like Klonoa and Crash Bandicoot owe their very existence to the red-and-blue faux-Italian plumber.
What we will do instead is figure out the age-old question: which mothership Mario game is the best? Which ones of these core Mario games deserve the top spot? Which Mario game in the core franchise is great and which ones are best left forgotten?
Before we start, we should define what a core Mario game is:
- A core Mario game is all about jumping and platforming. If the games don’t have these, it’s not on this list. So no SuperStar Saga and Hotel Mario nonsense here.
- It also needs to star Mario. This is why we’re not including Yoshi’s Island: it’s an amazing 2D platformer but its focus is on Yoshi, not the the red-hatted overalls-wearing plumber.
- There are 18 of these titles focused on platforming and level-advancing. Every other Mario game is either a spin-off or an expansion of sorts. We are not including those.
- We’re not going to include the Philips CDI Mario games. Be honest: would you really include them if you were writing this feature?
Another disclaimer: this list is coming from a guy who started out his 2D platforming days with Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3, but has grown fond of the 2D Sonic The Hedgehog series. This distinction’s pretty important so that you know this feature is coming from a guy who isn’t a complete Nintendo fanboy/nutjob.
With that said, here are our picks from the bottom to the top.
18. Super Mario Bros. – The Lost Levels (Famicom)
Let’s start with the most unnecessary core game of the franchise. While not a bad game per se, the Lost Levels is a straight-up expansion featuring evil level design and insanely tough challenges. The game also introduces the purple mushroom which depowers you and kills you if you’re small Mario.
Nintendo released this as a separate game and labelled it as a sequel, but really it’s just Super Mario Bros. Plus and not so much an evolution for the series. It’s just an add-on marketed as a sequel that’s meant to challenge and test the patience of Mario fans. Stuff like this may be alright in the short term, but it’s not the game that will leave a lasting impression in Mario’s gaming culture.
17.Super Mario Sunshine (Nintendo GameCube)
The dark horse of the Super Mario series, this 3D platformer gives Mario a water cannon to deal with baddies and a whole ton of skills to platform his way out of trouble. The game was rushed out to help bolster the lacklustre sales of the GameCube at the time, and it clearly shows.
While the game is interesting, perhaps the big reason why it didn’t do as well as its cousins is because of its complexity and its failure to make its goals and mechanics clearer. With a bit more polish, you’ll find a great game underneath its design quirks.
16.New Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo DS)
What happens when you start taking levels from the Super Mario well chock-filled with NES and SNES ideas? You get the DS “retread” called New Super Mario Bros. Perhaps the biggest new mechanic here is the ability to transform Mario into a giant for a few seconds, but that isn’t creative in the slightest.
The game is fun and it’s nice to have a portable Mario game that’s coloured and pastel-bright. In the end, the game hasn’t aged well and there are now superior portable picks. It’s a product of its time.
15.Super Mario Land (Game Boy)
Mario’s Game Boy debut was great: for the first time, gamers can play a Mario game anywhere. Of course, it didn’t age well since the visuals were tiny, the challenge was minimal, and the control physics were, how shall we put it, less “Mario-like”.
To be fair, the Super Mario Land games morphed into something a little different and then spun off into the Wario series. But still, there were some creative off-kilter bits of gameplay and stage design here and there. Mario fights the last boss in a biplane; you don’t see that every day.
14.New Super Mario Bros. 2 (3DS)
The second New Super Mario Bros. game is a little more creative than its DS prequel, but still it was outshined by the co-op madness that is New Super Mario Bros. Wii at the time. Even on its own merit, the game’s coin-gathering mechanic seems less important than you would think.
Still, there are some clever moments of gameplay, where stages feature coin-littered paths that lure players into making stupid risks. All because they wanted to get those extra few coins.
13.Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES)
Japan’s version of Super Mario Bros. 2 is the Lost Levels add-on we listed above. The rest of the world received this surreal Mario game with tons of innovation for its time. For the first time, you can pick between a much different Luigi (not just a palette-swapped Mario), Princess Peach (or Toadstool at the time), and Toad.
You can also pick up and toss enemies, radishes, and all sorts of things to clear stages and solve puzzles, and discover secrets and warp pipes that will take you further. It may not be the most traditional Mario game, but by golly was it fun. Who could forget the Shy Guys, the ragtime music, and the scary demon mask Phanto?
12.Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins (Game Boy)
Super Mario Land 2 has bigger and better graphics and a revamped gameplay engine. The game also introduces a hat-based powerup system which in the end was more suited to Mario’s evil counterpart Wario and his slew of games. Fun fact: he’s the main antagonist who made his debut here.
This Mario game boasts some of the unusual and inventive stages that test your hat-using skills. Until Super Mario Galaxy came into the picture, this was as close as you could get with a space-themed Mario stage.
11.Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)
The Nintendo 64 iteration of Mario is the most influential and genre-defining game of all time since it made every other platforming mascot go 3D. But was it fun?
Sure, it was technologically groundbreaking and it was fun seeing Nintendo explaining the 3D camera in the world by way of assigning a friendly Lakitu (the cloud-riding turtle) to do a documentary on Mario and his escapades. That being said, this game is pretty standard and a bit rough around the edges. The late-game stages are pretty cruel in terms of the camera not being cooperative in showing you where you’re going.
We will thank Super Mario 64 for paving the foundations for 3D platforming, but we’ll just go straight to the Galaxy and Odyssey games if we want to see an evolution of that format.
10.Super Mario 3D Land (3DS)
Want the best aspects of both the New Super Mario Bros. games and the Super Mario Galaxy titles? Then you should check out Super Mario 3D Land. The fixed 3/4 camera viewpoint was purposely tailored to take advantage of the 3D capabilities of its portable platform, but in truth it made Super Mario 3D Land feel a lot like a platform-centric version of Nintendo’s adventure classic The Legend of Zelda.
While the first half of the game seem standard, it’s the rest of the game and content post-Bowser that fleshes out Super Mario 3D Land. In fact, the 3D depth slider on your 3DS will help you find secrets and figure out what platforms are within reach when you’re checking out a stage or two. Definitely one of the more overlooked Mario games around.
9.New Super Mario Bros Wii (Wii)
The Wii version of New Super Mario Bros. basically relies on its sole game-winning feature: the four-person simultaneous co-operative mode. This mode changes up the game in a manic way, since your teammates can either help you achieve your goal or just hinder you and get in your way.
Nintendo included enough tools for people to either play cooperative or be trolls. Are you going to be that one player who rides on a Yoshi and gobble up others? Are you going to be that guy who purposefully jumps on your friend’s head while he/she is mid-air to ruin their trajectory and make them fall into the pit below?
It’s a shame the game’s single-player fare is standard. Otherwise, this entry would have ranked higher on this list.
8.Super Mario Bros. (NES)
It’s the first, but it’s clearly not the best as evident with its sequel. The first Super Mario game set the template and it is simple, so it has those core elements going for it.
It still holds up even for so long; it’s only outshined by sequels that borrow from the first game’s simple-yet-addictive structure and template. If you want your Mario games simple and less expansive and adventurous, you can’t go wrong with the original.
7.Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)
After Super Mario Bros. Sunshine fizzled, the Nintendo R&D folks had to step it up. So they looked to the stars, and we got Super Mario Galaxy as a result. It’s bigger, it’s more epic, and you get to hop across planets instead of platforms. Your viewpoint is constrained in favour of the designers guiding you to the far reaches of insane and creative level design and planet-hopping.
Super Mario Galaxy is still rough around the edges, but it’s still bombastic and fun to play. It’s only placed in the top ten for reasons we’ll get to later as you scroll down this list.
6.Super Mario World (SNES)
The Mario series put the “Super” in Super Nintendo with this technologically-advanced entry. Not only is there a save feature so that players did not have to play through the game in one sitting, it also introduced a dynamically-changing world that revealed new paths and stages every time Mario completed an area. The game also introduced the dinosaur partner Yoshi, who basically changed the game in a huge way and made many game appearances for years to come because of his abilities.
While Super Mario World isn’t totally inventive (see #2 on the list for that), it is large and expansive in scope. Because of its overabundance of secrets and optional challenges, this SNES classic set the precedence that all Mario games needed a boatload of secrets and stages for players to explore. With the save feature, every gamer who had an SNES at the time (and even now) can take their sweet time exploring the lush giant candy-and-chocolate-themed world of this adventure.
5.New Super Mario Bros. U (Wii U, Nintendo Switch)
This Wii U version of Mario did a great job of blending in the old and new. While the game arrived in the worst time possible for Nintendo, since its Wii U console sold terribly, this game was criminally overlooked. This was due to its ability to flesh out creative levels with a ton of secrets packed in each stage.
The four-player co-op from the Wii game is also prevalent, and the Game Pad novice-friendly multiplayer feature also catered to players who have a less-talented gaming person who would rather have minimal input in the game. Simply put, this game deserves to be in the top 5 in any best Mario game list.
4. Super Mario 3D World (Wii U, Nintendo Switch
Part throwback to Super Mario Bros. 2 and part Super Mario 3D Land but upsized for the Wii U, this four-player co-op Mario game made the chaotic frenzy of the New Super Mario Bros. Wii multiplayer a little more manageable.
Players now get to control either Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach once again in a grabbag of creative quirky levels and stage designs like a train and casino backdrop. This and the cat-suit and doppleganger powerup make for some creative levels and worlds, putting this Mario game above the rest.
3. Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch)
The latest entry in the Mario game series is arguably one of the best 3D Mario titles ever made. The game distils all of its past ideas, takes the sandbox approach from the Nintendo 64/GameCube titles, and then creates an overall better experience. The cap-possession mechanic also creates new ways for players to tackle stages, and even open up new platforming pathways.
What is also great is that collecting the game’s macguffins – Power Moons in this case- did not reset the stage. After you collect one or a necklace of them, you can keep on exploring and even fast travel to any of the previous spots you visited. This is a seamless Mario adventure packed with many, MANY objectives ranging from the simple (buttstomp a patch of dirt to get a Power Moon; it cannot get easier than this) to getting first place in an RC car race which is harder than it sounds.
In other words, it achieved what Super Mario 64 should have done in retrospect: be a colourful open-world action adventure game with fluid controls and a friendly camera interface. And yes, we can never forget the special New Donk City celebration stage.
2.Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)
And this is why the first Super Mario Galaxy isn’t within the top 5: the sequel is far superior in every single way. And it’s all thanks to the addition of Yoshi in the Galaxy universe. The designers took great care in not overexposing Yoshi in mothership Mario games. This is perhaps his second major showing in a Mario game; Super Mario Galaxy 2 shined because of it.
While Super Mario Galaxy had the wow factor in surprising players that a Mario game can excel in the stars and in space, Super Mario Galaxy 2 introduced a ton of variety within that scope. From vast galactic landscapes to retro-2D throwbacks, we almost wished it included Rosalina’s observatory. Almost.
Bottom line: this is hands-down the best Super Mario game set in a 3D landscape.
1.Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)
If you need a Mario game that defined 2D platforming, Super Mario Bros. 3 is that game. It succeeded the first Super Mario Bros. in terms of scope, graphics, and creative level design, and it’s monumentally superior to even Super Mario 64 because it doesn’t need a 3D gimmick.
Super Mario Bros. 3 had a great visual style, an awesome soundtrack, and a huge number of levels and innovations that do not repeat themselves. There are stages with mazes of pipes, stages with a boatload of plants, sky levels, and even one stage where you hijack a Goomba’s indestructible boot to stomp around in.
Even later Nintendo Mario games have trouble trying to top the creative feat that is Super Mario Bros. 3. This game is held in high regard by countless fans, including us, just because it’s a well-made and complete Mario experience.
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