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Ranking the core Super Mario games

If it stars Mario and involves platforming, it's in here

Following the release of Super Mario Odyssey, it's time once again to ask that ages-old question: Which Mario game is best? Rankings like this are wholly subjective, of course, and "best" is even more so. What makes a Mario game great? The level designs? The visual style? The degree of imagination on display? How much you enjoyed it as a 10-year-old?

To keep things interesting (and reasonably balanced), my rankings combine two primary factors: How great was the game at the time of its debut, and how does it hold up now? A few of Mario's biggest hits feel a little rough in hindsight. Take Super Mario 64: While it would be difficult to justify giving a game with a clumsy 3D camera system top marks, neither should a game that revolutionary be pushed to the bottom of the rankings simply because, at the time of its creation, video game creators were still figuring out how to represent open 3D spaces.

So, I've weighted both the "then" and the "now" together. And yeah, there's probably a little nostalgia in there, too.

I’ve also limited the list to core Super Mario games. As for what constitutes a core Super Mario game: Any Nintendo-developed platform action game that stars Mario beginning with 1985's Super Mario Bros. If it has Wario, Yoshi, Peach or Toad in the title, it doesn't count. And the less said about weird third-party projects like Super Mario Bros. Special, the better.

Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels

18: Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (Famicom Disk System, 1996)

Let's begin by establishing a basic truth about this list: There's no such thing as a bad Super Mario game. The franchise has been the foundation of Nintendo's game empire for three decades now, and the company treats each new sequel with the appropriate gravity. That said, Japan's version of Super Mario Bros. 2 — which first appeared in the U.S. on Super Mario All-Stars as The Lost Levels — flirts more dangerously with the wrong side of the quality line than any other entry in the series. We can probably pin that on the game's short development cycle: It shipped less than nine months after the original Super Mario Bros. as a way to get another big title on the company’s new Famicom Disk System peripheral. Also, the creative leads also managed to ship a little thing called The Legend of Zelda in between those two Marios. You get the sense Lost Levels wasn’t given much TLC.

The problem, ultimately, comes down to the way Lost Levels violates some of the core tenets of the Mario franchise: Nintendo designed it as an expert-mode follow-up to Super Mario Bros., and as such it frequently breaks unstated game design rules to frustrate players in ways that the company normally tries to avoid. From “power-up” mushrooms that can kill to levels that can only be completed by finding invisible blocks, The Lost Levels delights in twisting an expert player's expectations. And that's fine, but it doesn't quite work in this context; Nintendo revisited the idea years down the line with unlockable and downloadable post-game extensions for the likes of Super Mario 3D Land and New Super Mario Bros. U, and presenting these challenges as bonus levels worked a lot better.

As a standalone release, though, Lost Levels kind of feels like paying full price for a collection of Super Mario Maker troll stages. Maybe even Nintendo's designers have the same cruel impulses as the rest of us; let's just be glad they got those out of their system back in the ’80s.

New Super Mario Bros.

17: New Super Mario Bros. (DS, 2006)

While Lost Levels may not have spent enough time in the oven, the problem with New Super Mario Bros. may have been that Nintendo let its 2D platforming efforts lay fallow a little too long. Aside from some wild bonus stages in some of the Super Mario Advance titles, Nintendo didn't create a new 2D Mario adventure between Yoshi's Island in 1995 and NSMB more than a decade later. Indeed, this feels like a warm-up exercise more than a proper game, filled with recycled ideas and offering very few new inventions. Its main contributions to the series? The ability to turn Mario huge for a few seconds and smash up the stage, or to make him very tiny in order to slip through cracks and find secrets. It's fun, but it lacks in the creativity we expect from Mario games.

And fair enough. It sold incredibly well, and every Mario outing since NSMB has introduced many wonderful new elements, so this clearly was the game both Nintendo and its fans needed in 2006: A wobbly first step toward future greatness. Alas, it hasn't aged quite as well as its peers.

Super Mario Sunshine

16: Super Mario Sunshine (GameCube, 2002)

Seemingly once again, time was the enemy here. Super Mario Sunshine feels like a game poised at the cusp of brilliance, and with another year of development it probably could have been one for the ages. Unfortunately, the weak performance of the GameCube meant that Nintendo had to rush Sunshine to market, and the lack of final-pass polish really hurts the game — maybe more so than it would have affected any other Mario title.

It stands as the single most complex entry in the series, saddling Mario with a water cannon. The game expects players to master a lot of different skills. Some skills are intrinsic to Mario himself, some not, but almost always they’re at odds with one another. For example, the camera uses the standard Y axis for the 3D camera and inverted for in-close aiming. These clumsy little design quirks — not to mention the frequently vague goals and frustrating penalties for a single mistake — get in the way of a marvelous world that rewards exploration with many little secrets. Look carefully and you'll find an interesting game here, but it fights you every step of the way.

Super Mario Land

15: Super Mario Land (Game Boy, 1989)

Super Mario Land barely qualifies as a "core" Mario game, given that the main talent behind its design worked under Gunpei Yokoi in Nintendo's R&D1 division rather than for Shigeru Miyamoto's R&D4/EAD group. Eventually, the Mario Land games would become Wario Land and do their own thing. Here at the beginning, though, Super Mario Land seemed like the ultimate sales pitch for Game Boy: A Mario game you could play anywhere! This actually turned out to be a less compelling sales pitch for Game Boy than Tetris, but Mario's adventure in the forgotten kingdom of Sarasaland still has plenty to offer.

Forgive the teeny-tiny visuals, low difficulty, extreme brevity and slightly off-kilter control physics; those constraints arose from Super Mario Land's distinction as the first-ever portable scrolling platformer. It nevertheless manages to be a fun little foray into the "weird" Mario realm. It's the only game where Mario battles yōkai before gunning down the final boss in a biplane, and that counts for a lot.

New Super Mario Bros. 2

14: New Super Mario Bros. 2 (3DS, 2012)

While far more creative than its DS-based predecessor, New Super Mario Bros. 2 still left a lot of players feeling unsatisfied. No doubt that came in part from the fact that NSMB2 dropped the addictive cooperative play of New Super Mario Bros. Wii ... and in part from the way the game focused on the idea of gathering wealth. It feels like Nintendo took criticism of how easily players could stock up extra lives (usually by gaining 100 coins) in modern Mario and presented NSMB2 as a reaction: A game in which you gather so many coins that 1UPs become trivial commodities.

The controversial coin-gathering gimmick (which, let's be honest, really seems like more of a Wario thing) tends to overshadow the fact that, underneath it all, NSMB2 featured some interesting and clever level designs ... many of which subverted the compulsive cupidity of video gamers, luring them to take stupid risks by enticing them with coins they honestly didn't need. This pony played up its one trick a little too enthusiastically for its own good.

Super Mario Bros. 2

13: Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES, 1988)

America's Super Mario Bros. 2 was as lighthearted and fresh as Japan's Super Mario Bros. 2 was cruel. So what if this game didn't start out as a Mario adventure? It plays like one, albeit a slightly surreal one full of kooky ideas. This game gave real substance to Mario's allies, introduced tons of enemies that would show up down the road, and turned both Toad and Princess Peach (err, “Princess Toadstool”) into active participants in the Mushroom Kingdom's adventures. A jaunty ragtime soundtrack and unique "plucking" mechanic mean its meandering, secret-packed stages are fun to explore even today.

Super Mario Land 2

12: Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins (Game Boy, 1992)

The only Mario Land game to truly feel like Mario, Super Mario Land 2 went with a completely different look and style than its predecessor. Along with the game's impressive cartoon visuals and unique hat-based power-up system, it also presented a more personal quest for Mario: His rival, an uglier version of himself named Wario, tried to steal the hero's thunder for himself. Featuring some of the most unusual and inventive stages ever to appear in the franchise, this was the game most people had hoped for from the original Super Mario Land.

Super Mario 64

11: Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, 1996)

Truly one of the most influential and defining games of all time ... but is it still any fun? Super Mario 64 did a brilliant job of adapting the elements of 2D Mario into the third dimension, transforming Super Mario World's dynamic world map into the playground of Peach's Castle, where you uncover portals to different levels by exploring. Nintendo paid loving attention to the smallest practical detail, even explaining the 3D camera as flying rascal Lakitu filming a documentary about Mario's journey.

That said, by modern standards, Super Mario 64 feels pretty rough. The uncooperative camera reminds you that, oh yes, Lakitu is a bad guy who hates Mario and wants him to die. The stages themselves turn out to be fairly small in hindsight, and many of the late-game challenges demonstrate an unusual level of cruelty (not helped at all by that vexing camera). Super Mario 64 helped define 3D game design, and there's no shame in its successors having leapfrogged it ... but these days, most people would rather play Galaxy or Odyssey.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii

10: New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii, 2010)

An enormous step forward from the staid New Super Mario Bros., the Wii game took advantage of being on a home console not only by offering greatly improved visuals over its DS predecessor but also by offering four-person simultaneous cooperative play. It's impossible to overstate what a manic game-changer that single addition proved to be. Played solo, NSBM Wii feels more or less like standard Mario fare, with a few interesting new additions (like a slippery penguin suit) to liven things up.

Played with three other people, on the other hand, the game becomes wild and unpredictable, with moment-to-moment outcomes shaped by the whims of your partners. Are they feeling helpful? Cruel and trollish? Do your teammates have the slightest clue how to even play Mario? Nintendo included just enough tools for expressing spite here — including the option to gobble another player with Yoshi! — that even a well-meaning team can tumble into friendship-destroying goof-ups and scream at one another in rage. It's great.

Super Mario 3D Land

9: Super Mario 3D Land (3DS, 2011)

No relation to Super Mario Land, Super Mario 3D Land cleverly split the difference between the 2D mechanics of New Super Mario Bros. and the more expansive 3D design of Super Mario Galaxy. At times, the fixed-perspective 3/4 camera viewpoint (intended to utilize the 3D capabilities of the 3DS) almost made the game feel like classic Zelda ... a connection made explicit in things like a stage designed in the spirit of an NES Zelda dungeon.

What really elevates this game, however, is just how much material Nintendo crammed into it; once you beat Bowser, you discover the whole game is only half over and a far more difficult remix of the game awaits you. It’s also notable as one of the few 3DS games to use the system’s 3D screen as more than a gimmick — that depth slider goes a long way toward mitigating the murky spatial relations of isometric platforming.

Super Mario Bros.

8: Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985)

The simplest game on this list by far, but that purity works in its favor. The original Super Mario Bros. may not have a ton of power-ups or enemies or settings, and its 32 stages are really quite brief in hindsight — you can easily complete the game without warps in less than an hour. But as a game created for the express purpose of squeezing maximum performance out of an extremely limited amount of storage space, nothing in Super Mario Bros. feels superfluous or pointless. Every block, every enemy, every power-up has a purpose.

Meanwhile, Mario himself is every bit as much fun to control as he was more than 30 years ago. Not every landmark video game holds up after three decades, but Super Mario Bros. kicked off this franchise’s habit of being an exception to so many rules.

Super Mario Galaxy

7: Super Mario Galaxy (Wii, 2007)

After Mario's second free-3D foray in Sunshine fizzled, Nintendo reconsidered what it means to explore 3D space. For Galaxy, it took a cue from the success of New Super Mario Bros. and added more constraints to the player's point of view. But don't mistake this for a simple romp through side-scrolling worlds; on the contrary, the Galaxy team used its guided-camera approach to get weird with the idea of virtual locations. Mario travels across wide open spaces, then flings himself through space to land on tiny planetoids, comb the interiors of asteroids, climb through tubes, battle across galactic war fleets, paddle through planet-sized oceans and ultimately face down against Bowser in a dizzying inferno at the end of the universe.

And if that seems a lot to parse, the game also included an asymmetric multiplayer mode that allowed young or inexperienced players to assist by snagging items and boosting Mario's jumps, all using the Wii remote as a pointer.

Super Mario World

6: Super Mario World (Super NES, 1991)

Nintendo took a technological leap ahead with the Super NES hardware, and Super Mario World (which launched alongside the console) reflected that forward momentum: Unlike the adventures that had come before, Super Mario World offered persistence. Not only did it include a save feature, meaning players no longer had to complete the game in a single sitting, it made full use of that battery backup by causing the lands Mario explored to evolve as he conquered each area and unlocked new paths and stages.

Super Mario World lacks the blissful sense of invention seen in Super Mario Bros. 3, the freewheeling certainty that each and every stage would be different from the last. What it lacks in manic creativity, however, it makes up for with scope. Its sprawling, secret-laden stages set the tone for future Mario adventures, rewarding players for successful exploration with the best possible prize: Even more stages to explore. The ability to save progress freed Nintendo's level designers to create more intricate stages (and often more mysterious ones, thanks to the new Ghost House levels): Challenges that players could chew on for a while and come back to in a later session. Oh, and Super Mario World introduced Yoshi. You know, that game-changing partner for Mario in this and numerous games to come.

Super Mario 3D World

5: Super Mario 3D World (Wii U, 2013)

You could write an entire dissertation on the role of the camera in Mario games, and Super Mario 3D World embodies the subtle yet holistic impact the placement of the point of view has on the outcome of Mario's adventures. In this case, the player's perspective falls on the spectrum between the fixed overhead viewpoint of Super Mario 3D Land and the more free-form controls of certain portions of Super Mario Galaxy. In this case, the constraints on the game camera serve an important purpose: They exist to facilitate cooperative play in a 3D space. And, as with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the introduction of four-person multiplayer to an existing concept goes a long way toward justifying the leap from handheld to console.

Interestingly, although the title would seem to tie Super Mario 3D World to 3D Land and Super Mario World, in many ways it feels most like Super Mario Bros. 2 (the American one, that is). One of the generic Toads from NSMB Wii tags out here to allow Princess Peach to join the action once again. The combination of four distinct playable characters, linear spaces that beg for meandering exploration and some quirky stage themes (like the train and casino levels) give this a throwback vibe to a Mario classic that hadn't properly been revisited in 25 years. But it's not the nostalgia alone that makes Super Mario 3D Land so appealing; this is a spectacular game in its own right.

Super Mario Galaxy 2

4: Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii, 2010)

Yoshi's presence counts for a lot in a Mario game, as seen in the second Super Mario Galaxy; he’s a big part of why Galaxy 2 ranks above its predecessor. The inclusion of a hovering, monster-munching, projectile-spitting dinosaur for Mario to ride understandably increases the complexity of a Mario game and requires careful consideration by the designers. That probably accounts for why most Mario sub-series don't introduce Yoshi until the second entry; even here he only appears in a handful of levels. Yet his cameo role simply speaks to how extraordinarily varied Galaxy 2 is. The first Galaxy had the "wow" factor of vertiginous 3D stages; what the sequel lacks in surprise it more than makes up for with sheer variety.

This game can barely contain all the wild ideas its creators attempted to cram into it, from vast galactic landscapes to retro-2D throwbacks. Galaxy 2 drops the superfluous elements of its predecessor, such as Rosalina's observatory, in favor of cramming in twice as many stages across a far wider range of settings. (And Yoshi, too.) While the first Galaxy might have been more jaw-dropping a decade ago thanks to its novelty, in hindsight, this is the better game by far.

Super Mario Odyssey

3: Super Mario Odyssey (Switch, 2017)

It may be too early to make any definitive proclamations for a game that's less than two weeks old, but Super Mario Odyssey certainly deserves to be considered in the upper tiers of the Mario franchise. It manages to distill all the ideas and design endeavors Nintendo hoped to accomplish with the earlier "sandbox" games (64 and Sunshine) into something that falls comfortably into current expectations for 3D gaming. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Odyssey is how easily the objective structure of its predecessors evolves into the modern-day open-world treasure hunt; Stars and Shines become Power Moons, and acquiring them no longer resets a stage.

Instead, it all becomes one seamless adventure packed with hundreds of objectives ... and a working economy ... and the ability to take control of minions, machines and assorted monsters throughout the world in order to solve environmental puzzles (or simply goof around). All of this married to fluid controls, colorful visuals, a comfortable camera interface for once and level designs that pack structured obstacles and unexpected secrets into environments Mario can traverse at will. It's taken more than 20 years, but Nintendo has finally realized the brilliant potential of Super Mario 64.

Super Mario Bros. 3

2: Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES, 1990)

If any single Mario game could be said to define the franchise, Super Mario Bros. 3 would surely hold that claim. Even more so than the original Super Mario Bros. or Super Mario 64, this NES classic feels like the moment where all of Nintendo's big ideas and design ambitions finally came together, wedded to both the creative maturity and the technological power to make them work. An enormous game containing dozens upon dozens of compact stages, Super Mario Bros. 3 rarely repeats an idea across levels. From mazes of pipes to kicking blocks at hungry fish to hijacking a Goomba's indestructible robot boot to go stomping around, Super Mario Bros. 3 contained more ideas on a single 8-bit cartridge than a dozen 16-bit Mario wannabes in their entirety.

It was a creative feat that's rarely been equalled ... even by Nintendo. There's a reason Super Mario Bros. 3 continues to be held up as one of the greatest games of all time by countless fans: It truly is.

New Super Mario Bros. U

1: New Super Mario Bros. U (Wii U, 2012)

As great as Super Mario Bros. 3 was, wouldn't it be a little tragic if Nintendo hadn't produced anything better since 1988? Revelatory and inventive as that NES game was three decades ago, has Nintendo truly created nothing better since then? Au contraire; Super Mario Bros. 3 deserves a place near the top because it's the giant upon whose shoulders its sequels stand ... but the best Mario game ever? No, Nintendo has definitely done better. And of all its myriad sequels, New Super Mario Bros. U does the best job of wrapping everything great about Mario (both new and old) into a single package.

NSMBU ended up being unfairly overlooked by many fans due to the double-whammy of its appearing on the company's least successful console ever and arriving just a few months after the poorly received New Super Mario Bros. 2. It's truly a case of terrible timing if there was one; NSMBU is as broad-ranging as NSMB2 was monomaniacal in its fixation on cash. Mario's first Wii U outing does a little of everything, and it does it brilliantly. The four-player co-op of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the creative level ideas and settings of Super Mario Bros. 3, the secret-packed level designs of Super Mario World, the Game Pad-enabled novice-friendly asymmetric multiplayer of Super Mario Galaxy ... NSMBU had it all. And it introduced new stage themes along with other interesting new elements, like online social sharing through Miiverse (R.I.P.) — a feature that paved the way for Super Mario Maker. And to top it off, these days Nintendo sells the game bundled with its New Super Luigi U expansion, an ultra-challenging play mode that gives you 100 seconds to complete each stage.

Just as Mario himself is rarely the most exciting character in spin-offs like Super Mario Kart, NSMBU isn't the flashiest game in the franchise. Instead, it's a reliable all ’rounder, tirelessly doing everything well. About the only creative thread of Mario history it doesn't pick up and build on is the 3D sandbox concept, which makes it a perfect complement to Odyssey: Two games that explore their respective corners of the Mario universe better than any other.

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