Super Mario. He’s Italian, he wears overalls, he’s got an M on his hat, and he’s got one stylish mustache. Everyone knows him, from the most hardcore gamers to the casual fans who barely even play. He’s just as much an icon as he is a character and odds are he’ll remain that way.
It’s not hard to see why, as Nintendo has had a fantastic track record with the red plumber. His worst titles tend to have redeeming qualities that make them worth playing and his best have completely changed the video gaming world. He’s played tennis, he’s gone go karting, and sometimes he plays baseball, but more than anything else, he’s saved the princess and will keep doing so until Nintendo’s done making games.
Despite Mario’s impressive resume, it’s really the platforming gig that helps him pay the bills and also the one where he shows off the most consistent quality. But even that quality wavers sometimes. Never too harshly like with Sonic or Mega Man, but more in line with The Legend of Zelda, where the quality is usually so incredibly high that the lesser titles stand out all the more prominently.
Completely disregarding spin-offs, expansion packs, ports, and remakes, this is a look at every Super Mario game ranked from the worst that didn’t manage to influence the genre to the very best that revolutionized gaming.
17 New Super Mario Bros. 2
What happens when you find a premise so perfect for Wario the game practically makes itself? You get Nintendo squandering serious potential by wasting it on another New Super Mario Bros. title. The thing is, the New Super Mario Bros. subseries isn’t even bad. It’s a bit homogenized, sure, but there’s some stellar level design there. New Super Mario Bros. 2 though? That’s a different story.
It isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t quite live up to the series’ reputation. Themed around collecting as many coins as possible, Mario (not Wario for some bizarre reason) is thrust into one of the easiest games in the series to date. Even the post game, which has consistently been difficult, fails to make up for the weak balance.
Throw in some sketchy DLC practices and level design that’s neither challenging or engaging and New Super Mario Bros. 2 is fine for the occasional short burst of gameplay but not much else.
16 The Lost Levels
Super Mario sequels have always been known for their innovation and refusal to play it safe, but it didn’t start that way. Originally titled Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan, The Lost Levels was Nintendo’s followup to their massively successful Super Mario Bros. Very little is different at first glance, but The Lost Levels’ newfound difficulty rears its ugly head rather quickly.
For seasoned veterans of the series, The Lost Levels’ unforgiving design philosophy can make for a decent challenge, but that doesn’t mean the game is particularly well designed. Poison mushrooms, invisible blocks, and cruel warp pipes that send you back to previous worlds are only some of the frustrations found in The Lost Levels.
While there’s really no such thing as a bad Super Mario game, The Lost Levels does feel somewhat misguided, feeling more like an encore of the original Super Mario Bros. with the difficulty amped up than an actual sequel that tries to build on Super Mario Bros.’ game design.
15 Super Mario Bros. 2
Based off of the Japan-only, Arabian Nights inspired platformer, Doki Doki Panic, Super Mario Bros. 2 was quite the departure from Nintendo’s classic series. Where The Lost Levels played it too safe with its execution, Super Mario Bros. 2 perhaps went too far in the other direction, experimenting a bit too much with its game design.
Being able to choose from Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad is certainly a treat, but the actual level design tends to be quite dull for the most part. On top of that, the game clearly isn’t balanced with every character in mind, which can cause lead to strange spikes and dips in difficulty depending on who the playable character is.
Most importantly, however, despite introducing several enemies that would end up being staples, it would be decades before Nintendo revisited any design concept from Super Mario Bros 2. and, even then, it would only be the multiple playable characters concept instead of any actual level design.
14 Super Mario Land
Directed by the man who created the Game Boy, Gunpei Yoko’s Super Mario iteration is certainly interesting to say the least. Perhaps the strangest entry in the series barring the Doki Doki Panic version of Super Mario Bros 2, Super Mario Land completely flies in the face of Super Mario’s general design philosophy.
There are four worlds instead of eight, rescuing Daisy instead of Peach, and facing off against aliens instead of Koopas. The lack of Miyamoto’s creative touch is certainly present, but there’s plenty of good to be found in Yoko’s handheld Mario. The short length makes for great bursts of gameplay and the soundtrack is as iconic as any other game in the series.
Super Mario Land suffers from being relatively easy and being all over the place in terms of level to level quality, but as far as Game Boy platformers go? It’s a nice, if a tad unpolished attempt at bringing Mario to the little screen.
13 New Super Mario Bros.
You can criticize the 2.5D graphics as bland and the music as repetitive, but the original New Super Mario Bros. was quite the game back in 2006. The DS platformer managed to bring platformers back into the spotlight in a big way. It had been years since a 2D Super Mario had been released, let alone made the waves the rebranding did.
Nowadays, of course, the sub series is looked at with a far harsher lens, as many fans consider it a prettied up rehash of the original 2D titles without any of the flair. Even Miyamoto has regrets over the game, stating he made it far too easy.
New Super Mario Bros. really is a mixed bag, perhaps the most mixed of any Super Mario game. When it’s good, it’s fantastic and really shows off what makes Super Mario so great. When it’s not, it shows what can happen if Nintendo’s quality control went out of whack.
12 Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
It doesn’t really improve on Super Mario Land’s length or difficulty, but Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins is one impressive sequel. The weirdness is still present, but it feels a lot more cohesive this time around thanks to themed worlds that really play around with the Super Mario formula in very creative ways. Mario can travel through outer space, a giant turtle, and even a mechanical version of himself in search of 6 Golden Coins, so that he can do battle with Wario and reclaim his castle.
Also, Mario has a castle and Wario’s first appearance in Super Mario history is stealing said castle. Overall, Super Mario Land 2 does suffer from its short length and easy difficulty, but it’s so wildly creative that it’s easy to look over those flaws. Plus, any Super Mario game that features Wario in a prominent role is one worth playing.
11 Super Mario 3D Land
Take the 2D Super Mario gameplay, grab the 3D Mario assets, ignore the fact that this combination is basically New Super Mario Bros. and you get Super Mario 3D Land.
In terms of design, Super Mario 3D Land is a mix of 2D and 3D Mario, jumping between the two very distinct styles to make one very distinct game. This is both a blessing and a curse for the portable platformer. Because of its handheld nature, levels can’t be as long as in the 3D Marios and are confined to the time limits often found in 2D Super Mario titles, but the 3D design is still trapped in a realm where Nintendo still doesn’t quite know what to do with the limitations of time.
That said, Super Mario 3D Land more than makes up for that with a respectable amount of content for a handheld Mario and by being genuinely fun. It’s on the short side as most handheld Marios are, but the core level design is there and the Super Mario Bros. 3 homages are tastefully done and an absolute highlight.
10 New Super Mario Bros. Wii
What do you get when you add four player multiplayer to a single player Mario game? A whole lot of chaos. Introducing co-op to the Super Mario series and featuring Toad as a playable character for the first time since Super Mario Bros. 2, New Super Mario Bros. Wii made sure everyone and their mother knew the sequel to the DS bestseller was going to be a multiplayer romp.
Ramping up the difficulty from the previous New Super Mario Bros. and really just busting out the best of the best in terms of level design, New Super Mario Bros. Wii more than made up for its DS predecessor's shortcomings.
It’s a bit disappointing that Nintendo opted for two variations of Toad as playable characters as opposed to literally any other character in the ever growing Mario roster, but the fun levels, tough yet fair difficulty, and pure mania of multiplayer make New Super Mario Bros. Wii a very fun way to kill an afternoon.
9 Super Mario Sunshine
The tropical sequel to Super Mario 64 nobody knew they wanted, Super Mario Sunshine is, by far, the most mechanically complicated of the 3D Super Mario games. And that’s a good thing. It’s easy to pick up at first, difficult to master, and incredibly rewarding gameplay wise. So why isn’t it higher on the list?
It seems Nintendo wasn’t confident with the longevity of Super Mario Sunshine and the level design unfortunately shows that, as one of the best quality of life features from 64 has been removed for no reason other than to force players to dredge through the same level seven times. In 64, players could get multiple stars in a single run, but Sunshine opts for a more tedious approach.
Is it enough to ruin the game? Not a chance, but it does bog it down. It still has the best core gameplay in the Super Mario series and that alone is reason enough to give Super Mario Sunshine the time of day.
8 Super Mario Bros.
Video games are all about progress, so it’s only natural that the original Super Mario Bros. has been topped since its inception in 1985, but that doesn’t change just how brilliant and innovative it was back then and how incredibly well it’s managed to age in the past three decades.
There’s so much thought put into every stage, from low long they are to where enemies and powerups are placed. Nintendo really made a fantastic first impression with their Italian Plumber. Now granted, Super Mario Bros. wasn’t Mario’s first appearance, but it was the one that would solidify what his series would ultimately be.
Better games have come out since then and it’ll continue to be topped, but Super Mario Bros.’ influence and quality is undeniable. It spawned a franchise and defined a genre, all the while managing to hit the right notes necessary to help it stand the test of time.
7 New Super Mario Bros. U
It’s really unfortunate how much of a blunder the Wii U’s marketing was, because it left a lot of fantastic games out in the cold. Even late adopters of the Wii U managed to somehow miss not only the best of the New Super Mario Bros. titles, but one of the better Super Mario games period.
It still has that homogenized feeling, but why even dwell on that when the level design is just so good? Single player is a genuinely challenging adventure that challenges players’ platforming skills like few Super Mario games have before it and multiplayer is actually designed with four players in mind this time, meaning that there’s a more organized chaos to satiate friend groups.
More importantly, however, New Super Mario Bros. U learns from its predecessors mistakes and forgoes the hand holding and simplicity for a game that really tries to innovate with 2D level design. It may not look the part, but New Super Mario Bros U. is one of the smartest designed platformers on the market and is in desperate need of more love.
6 Super Mario Galaxy
Mario in space. It’s a premise that practically writes itself. In fact, it’s been done before in Super Mario Land, but Galaxy takes it one step further by having Mario go planet to planet in search of stars. It also goes in the complete opposite direction of Super Mario Sunshine by having the simplest control scheme of the 3D Marios, as Galaxy shows just how important a balance between gameplay and level design is.
Stages may be linear in a departure from 64 and Sunshine’s nonlinearity, but they’re thoughtfully designed and take full advantage of Mario’s 3D space. He can move to the underside of planets to be upside down, have to vertically scale a wall with a camera to match, and just have to deal with geometry in a way he’s never done before.
It also features a surprisingly touching narrative, a novelty for Mario in general. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s one of the most memorable outings Mario has had and one of Nintendo’s more ambitious endeavors.
5 Super Mario Galaxy 2
If you take everything that made Super Mario Galaxy great and perfected it, you would get Super Mario Galaxy 2. Originally envisioned as an expansion pack for Galaxy, Miyamoto was so impressed with the work done here that he felt it was more worthy to expand on development and release the title as a full blown sequel.
In many ways, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a fully realized version of The Lost Levels. Instead of just ramping up the difficulty, Galaxy 2 experiments with the ideas presented in the first Galaxy while bringing some new concepts to the table.
Yoshi returns and is in much better shape than he was in Sunshine, thanks to the linear level design agreeing with his gameplay more. In many ways, Galaxy 2 is more akin to what Super Mario Bros. 3 was to Super Mario Bros. than The Lost Levels. It doesn’t fix what’s not broken, it simply perfects it.
4 Super Mario 3D World
Now this is the game Nintendo was clearly trying to make with Super Mario 3D Land, but amped up to 11. It mends 2D Mario concepts with 3D level design in a wonderful marriage that shows off just how brilliant Nintendo can be.
The jazzy soundtrack and beautiful, neon aesthetic are only the icing on the cake as Nintendo has cleverly brought over the multiplayer aspect of the console New Super Mario Bros. games into 3D World. In a sense, Super Mario 3D World is like a love letter to Mario’s entire history, even paying homage to his sports outings like Mario Kart.
What makes Super Mario 3D World so genius, though, is how it balances its difficulty. The game doesn’t really get too difficult until the post game, but optional stars and stamps in each level act as puzzles and platforming challenges that otherwise wouldn’t be there. It’s a wonderful balance of everything that makes Super Mario work.
3 Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario Bros. 3 is classic in every regard. It is a classic Super Mario game, a classic NES game, and a classic platformer. Everything it does, it does with a polish so refined it’s almost unbelievable how big the jump in quality was from Super Mario Bros., an already excellent game, mind you.
Introducing the series’ most creative powerups, the world map system, and several themed worlds that would not only be series staples but also genre staples, it’s hard to believe how much Super Mario Bros. 3 actually brought to the table while also managing to one up its predecessors in pretty much every way possible.
It also managed to do what The Lost Levels did in terms of difficulty, by creating a natural progression where the game slowly but surely gets harder. Super Mario Bros. 3 is considered a favorite by countless fans and for good reason. It’s a classic.
2 Super Mario 64
What do you call the game that changed 3D gaming forever and perhaps gaming in general? Super Mario 64. The race to 3D was a difficult one. Many series died in the transition, many didn’t even bother by sticking to a 2D hybrid, but Nintendo wasn’t going to fall behind. They were going to move on and no better game exemplifies their effort than Super Mario 64.
Miyamoto reportedly spent hours simply playing in the castle garden catching a rabbit to make sure Mario moved as smoothly as possible. Nintendo was not going to make the same mistakes as its competitors. If Super Mario 64 was going to come out, it was going to come out perfect; and perfect it did.
Fans can argue for hours on which 3D Mario is best, but none will ever be as innovative and thoughtful as Super Mario 64. Every detail in its design is deliberate, all leading to one of the most defining games in video game history.
1 Super Mario World
As amazing as Super Mario 64 is, let’s not forget about the game that managed to perfect the 2D platformer genre and reign supreme as one of the greatest video games of all time. It may not have the impressive historical context that 64 does, but it has the most fun packed into a single game the Super Mario series has ever had.
The sprite work is fantastic, the musical incredibly catchy, the controls beautifully fluid, and the level design mastered to the pixel. Super Mario World is what happens when Nintendo decides to make a masterpiece. It doesn’t bring much new to the table, but rather improves on everything the Super Mario franchise has done up to that point.
Few platformers have managed to have the same level of case and creativity Super Mario World has and it’s unlikely it’ll ever be topped, but just the fact a game so great exists is a testament to the sheer talent living in Nintendo’s walls. Nintendo may not be forever and Mario may one day retire, but one thing is certain, Super Mario World will always be a work of art.