There’s a good reason Mario is known as the king of platformers. And that reason is the brilliant level designers at Nintendo. Fans don’t come to Mario games for a fulfilling story as most of them feature only a slight twist on what was first told all the way back in 1985. The villainous turtle Bowser steals Princess Peach, causing the heroic Mario to brave treacherous lands in order to save her. And it’s here where things get interesting.
Nintendo has given the world some of the most joyous gaming experiences through Mario’s levels, blending smooth gameplay with exciting power-ups and expertly crafted levels. In fact, one could argue that the most important, and most impressive, aspect of Mario’s adventures is how well each level is designed. But that doesn’t mean they’re all winners.
While it’s true that the majority of Mario’s levels have built the plumber into the hero he is today, there are some that stick out as strange and somewhat unimpressive inclusions. As far back as his earliest adventures, there are a few key instances where Nintendo stumbled. Whether it be to unremarkable design or a tendency to overwhelm players to the point of frustration, the following levels prove that even the king isn’t perfect.
But close is good enough. Here are the 20 worst levels of the original Super Mario Bros. games and the 10 best, officially ranked.
30 Worst: World 7-7 From Super Mario Bros. 3
Most levels from the original Super Mario games, and Mario games in general, are so beloved because they balance gameplay mechanics with clever level design. And, as one could obviously assume, the further you progress in the game, the more elaborate the level designs become.
But this late game level from Super Mario Bros. 3 actually isn’t clever or challenging at all. Mario starts next to a block with a Star power-up inside. The entire level consists of running across Munchers, which would normally hurt you, and grabbing more Stars along the way. All in all, pretty bland.
29 Worst: World 6-3 From Super Mario Bros.
Speaking of late game levels that are entirely too easy, World 6-3 from the original Super Mario Bros. is a cake walk as long as you can time your jumps correctly. And since you’ve made it all the way to the 6th world, it’s safe to assume that you can.
Missing your jumps means certain doom as there’s no ground, but there are plenty of platforms to land on. And some of them even move closer together to make it easier. Also, there are no enemies save for a couple of easily dodged Bullet Bills.
28 Best: World 1-3 From Super Mario Bros. 2
It’s well-known now that the version of Super Mario Bros. 2 released in the States was just a re-skinned version of Doki Doki Panic. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are still some pretty well-designed levels. The final level of the first world expands on every detail from the others.
It was much more extensive with more enemies, more platforming goodness, and a spacious inside section where you could climb up and down. And while that doesn’t sound like a big deal now, it was nice to have a less-linear approach than the standard move-from-left-to-right design.
27 Worst: World 4-2 From Super Mario Bros. 2
When discussing the level of difficulty in Super Mario Bros. 2, it can range drastically depending on which character you’re playing as. Most levels will be significantly less annoying while playing as Peach as she can float through the most treacherous areas.
Take World 4-2 for example. The first half has players sliding along ice as a barrage of flying enemies rushes their way, tasking them with jumping or ducking at just the right moments. It’s enough to make you scream in frustration, but Peach’s ability does make it a bit easier.
26 Worst: World 6-2 From Super Mario Bros. 2
World 6-2 from Super Mario Bros. 2 takes the stress that comes from the flying enemies in World 4-2 and turns it up a notch by hardly giving you any ground at all. Essentially, you must ride on one bird until you reach another patch of land while either ducking oncoming enemies or jumping onto their backs instead.
The level itself is fairly minimalist as there isn’t much of an environment. But what has earned it the spot on this list is that if you don’t time your jumps perfectly, you will certainly fall to your doom.
25 Best: World 2-3 From Super Mario Bros.
While sometimes simplicity can lead to a level feeling unremarkable, it can also sometimes lead to brilliance. World 2-3 from the original Super Mario Bros. consists of a bridge with a few broken spots. What’s fun about the level is the massive amount of Cheep Cheep that start leaping up at Mario from below.
Beginners can take their time and move through them slowly, easily beating the level. But more playthroughs will build your confidence as you skillfully dip and dive through their attacks. Basically, it’s a stage built for learning how to speedrun before speedrunning was a thing.
24 Worst: World 2-Quicksand From Super Mario Bros. 3
This frustrating level comes midway through the second world in Super Mario Bros. 3 and is accurately represented by a block of quicksand on the map. And while the quicksand, which is also teeming with fire-spouting Piranha Plants, is indeed annoying, it’s nothing compared to the main enemy.
I’m talking, of course, about the terrifyingly angry Sun. Halfway through the level, it begins swooping down on Mario relentlessly with no way to defeat it. It forces players to rush through the level either by running for their lives or using the recently acquired P-Wing. And that just isn’t fun.
23 Worst: World 3 Fortress #1 From Super Mario Bros. 3
Backtracking can sometimes enhance the experience of a game if it means finding hidden secrets or extra items. But since those features weren’t included in Super Mario Bros. 3, backtracking is incredibly irritating. The first fortress of the third world is a prime example of this.
The main section is an enemy-infested corridor with multiple doors, only one of which will lead you to the exit. The others will drop Mario into water, forcing him to swim back and try a different door. And then have to deal with the enemies again. Before the clock runs down. Sigh.
22 Best: World 2-1 From Super Mario Bros. 2
The quicksand level from Super Mario Bros. 3 could learn a thing or two from the second entry. While the ground in World 2-1 will still cause you to sink unless you’re running or jumping, there are a plethora of platforms in the form of cacti, pyramids, and giant skeletons.
The portions where you do have to touch the ground are thrilling as you run around and dodge enemies, who aren’t overwhelming enough to stress the player out. The second section also has you digging through sand while enemies try to attack you. It’s a challenging but balanced stage.
21 Worst: World 7-4 From Super Mario Bros.
What’s worse than backtracking? Being forced to backtrack without knowing why. Since this level comes late in Super Mario Bros., you would expect it to be more difficult than most. But what makes World 7-4 difficult isn’t clever level design or tough enemies. No, it’s much cheaper than that.
This castle level features six sections, each broken into different paths. But if you choose the wrong path, the entire stage starts over and you have to choose again. If you can’t remember which path you took when, then you’re just out of luck and out of time.
20 Worst: World 6-4 From Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
The version of Super Mario Bros. 2 that was released in Japan didn’t change too much from the original game in terms of mechanics. It just made everything harder. So hard, in fact, that Nintendo decided Western players couldn’t handle it until it was released in the Super Mario All-Stars compilation for the SNES.
World 6-4 is essentially just a harder version of World 7-4 from the first game. The higher enemy count and the more complicated pattern of which path to take just makes it a bit worse.
19 Best: World 5-3 From Super Mario Bros. 3
In a note left by Peach for Mario after he beats the second world in Super Mario Bros. 3, she states you can stomp on your enemies using Kuribo’s Shoe. And players wouldn’t find out what exactly that was until World 5-3. This is the only level this power-up can be found in and it’s immediately obvious why.
It lets Mario hop around on the heads of his enemies. This includes those he normally can’t like Spinys, Munchers, and Piranha Plants. Given how much grief they all cause, it’s nice to have a level devoted entirely to enacting your revenge.
18 Worst: World 6-5 From Super Mario Bros. 3
The majority of Super Mario Bros. 3 teaches you that the exit to each level can be found by reaching the end of the screen. And that’s exactly why World 6-5 is a bad level.
It takes place in an icy cave, meaning you’ll be sliding around a lot. But the exit won’t be found at the end of the screen. What you’re supposed to do is fly up using a Tanooki Leaf and toss a green shell at the blocks in front of a pipe that leads to the end. But there’s no way to know that.
17 Worst: World 8-2 From Super Mario Bros.
While it’s understandable that the final levels in Super Mario Bros. should test your skills, that doesn’t mean they should be unbalanced. And world 8-2 is definitely unbalanced.
There are hazards coming at you from all angles such as Bullet Bills, Koopa Troopas, Buzzy Beetles, and Spiny-hurling Lakitus. Not only that, but the ground is littered with holes that you can easily fall into while you’re too busy trying to dodge the bombardment of minions. And if you don’t have a Fire Flower (chances are, at this point, you don’t), you’ll be enraged just hoping your luck doesn't run out.
16 Best: World 4-4 From Super Mario Bros.
These days, it is almost essential for first party developers to include non-linearity in their games to keep players interested. But in 1985, this wasn’t a thing. So the fact that World 4-4 from Super Mario Bros. does try to give players different options, albeit very minutely, is cause for a bit of praise.
It’s a castle level with branching paths. But it doesn’t force the player to choose a right one and start over if they choose wrong. Some paths are just more difficult than others with strategically placed obstacles.
15 Worst: World 7-2 From Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
Unlike the castle levels that make you choose a correct path, World 7-2 from The Lost Levels only starts over if you don’t do one thing. Unfortunately, that one thing is a pretty difficult jump from a moving platform onto a Paratroopa to reach a high up pipe.
The pipe leads to the next section and it isn’t as if that is any easier. Filled with several Lakitus, fire chains, and platforms that fall when you touch them, your timing needs to be just right if you wish to reach the end. But first time through, it probably won’t be.
14 Worst: World 3-8 From Super Mario Bros. 3
And you thought the Sun enemy was annoying. The third world in Super Mario Bros. 3 is made up almost entirely of water levels, but none more irritating than the one that sees Mario chased by a giant, bloodthirsty fish known as Boss Bass.
The platforms keeping you out of his reach are constantly lowering into and rising from the water, making the window of safety very slim. He can eat Mario in one fell swoop even if you do have a power-up. And if that power-up could be used to dispatch him, he’ll just respawn a few moments later.
13 Best: World 7 Fortress #2 From Super Mario Bros. 3
World 7’s 2nd Fortress in Super Mario Bros. 3 is exactly what a late game Mario level should be: tough, but balanced, and ultimately satisfying. The floor is entirely lava and the only platforms you can stand on are pipes. The challenge doesn’t come from making difficult jumps, but rather that every single pipe has a Piranha Plant inside.
It does offer you power-ups in the form of Tanooki leaves, making it easier to make the jumps. But even that ease is balanced out by the Piranha Plants trying to shoot you down with fireballs.
12 Worst: World C-4 From Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
Castle levels, by design, should be some of the most difficult levels in a Mario game. However, The Lost Levels takes it a bit too far in several instances. World C-4 is one of those instances.
It’s not because the level is remarkably tough, forcing players to make precise jumps through hordes of enemies. Rather, it is difficult because it is poorly designed. Most of the corridors Mario must travel through have sharp turns and tight spaces, making it almost impossible to avoid enemies and traps like the various fire chains. Tough isn’t fun if it isn’t doable.
11 Worst: World C-3 From Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
Later worlds in The Lost Levels introduce a mechanic that is thankfully nonexistent in other classic Mario games: gusts of wind that impact your jumps. Most of the platforms, of which there are actually few, have springboards that Mario must use to hop to the next.
This is where the level, and the wind, gets obnoxious. The wind carries Mario above the top of the screen, making it so players must move forward without being able to tell when Mario will come down. Not being able to see him means Mario will be falling to the depths a lot.
10 Best: World 4-1 From Super Mario Bros. 3
For three worlds, Mario had stomped and defeated a multitude of Goombas, Koopa Troopas, and Hammer Bros. The fourth world in Super Mario Bros. 3 saw them, and the world itself, in incredible giant form.
This is the most defining trait of World 4-1. Your enemies are much more intimidating, but it also means they’re bigger targets. And with the blocks and pipes increasing in size too, it reteaches you how to navigate a standard level. While other World 4 levels feature this same characteristic and are tougher, there’s something special about seeing the over-sized enemies for the first time.
9 Worst: World 8 Tank Level From Super Mario Bros. 3
While the World 8 Tank Level in Super Mario Bros. 3 features similar obstacles to the Airships, I would argue that it is nowhere near as good. And there are a few reasons why.
For one, it has A LOT going on. Between bob-ombs, cannon balls, flame bursts, and those little wrench-throwing moles, you’re probably not going to make it through without losing a few lives. What makes it worse though is that projectiles can come from off screen when you’re least expecting them. And even worse than that is the black background that the projectiles blend in with.
8 Worst: World 8-3 From Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
The Lost Levels does not mess around. And like I’ve already said, the game doesn’t do anything that innovative like Super Mario Bros. 3 did. It just takes the same aspects from the first game and cranks up the difficulty.
World 8-3 just throws a bunch of enemies at you while you struggle to stay on the small clouds that make up your platforms. Hammer Bros. and Lakitus mean you’ll be getting a lot of things hurled your way. But there are also a few difficult jumps from springboards onto Paratroopas to make it to the next spot.
7 Best: World 1-1 From Super Mario Bros.
The level that began Mario’s life as a platforming star deserves to be held in high regard, but not simply because it is the first level. It is one of the most significant first levels in video game history. With the video game industry still hurting from the crash of 1983, Nintendo needed this level to hook players.
And it did so fantastically. This one level taught players how the entire game would operate without the need of a tutorial. More than that, it is the foundation for which every side-scrolling Mario adventure is built upon.
6 Worst: World 8-3 From Super Mario Bros.
If you’re lucky enough to have, somehow, kept a Fire Flower up to this level, then it won’t be too much of a challenge. But if you’re like the majority of us, you’ll be shaking from the stress this level can cause.
There are Bullet Bills and Koopa Troopas aplenty. But the main pain to players comes from the army of Hammer Bros. that appear two at a time. The barrage of hammers is extremely hard to get through as normal Mario, but otherwise the level isn’t that remarkable in appearance as there are hardly any jumps at all.
5 Worst: World 7-2 From Super Mario Bros. 2
Unbalanced is the key reason many levels have taken their spots on this list. And World 7-2 from Super Mario Bros. 2 is no different. The final level should be a culmination of every skill you’ve learned along the way, but this one just wants to trap you. Literally.
There are traps around every corner whether they be spikes, enemies, balls of electricity that travel along the walls at top speeds, or conveyor belts that will just throw you into one of them. A lot of it is frustratingly hard to avoid and ends the game on a sour note.
4 Best: World 8-4 From Super Mario Bros.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from World 7-2 in the second game is the final level found in Super Mario Bros. This really does bring together everything the player has experienced thus far, including every enemy and level type.
While one section is through a dangerous castle corridor, another has Mario avoiding Bloopers and fire chains underwater. It’s obviously a gauntlet to get through, but it doesn’t unfairly try to set you up for failure. It set the standard for final levels in Mario games to test players on their mettle.
3 Worst: World D-4 From Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
The finale of The Lost Levels, on the other hand, does seem like it wants you to fail. It features some of the most difficult platforming of any Mario game, such as a long jump to a pipe that requires not only precision, but perfect timing so that you aren’t hurt by the Piranha Plant inside.
But the difficult jumps aren’t why this level is bad. What makes this level so maddening is the return of that cursed wind. Here, it blows you forward, making you run towards enemies faster and jump farther than you might intend.
2 Worst: World D-3 From Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
In typical fashion for The Lost Levels, World D-3 takes something from the original game and increases the difficulty significantly. In this case, one of the worst levels already mentioned on this list: World 8-3.
While this level does include Hammer Bros., what makes it so much worse is the insurmountable number of Bullet Bills hurling towards Mario from both directions. The most frustrating moment comes from a row of five invisible blocks in front of one cannon that will cause you to fall back into the Bullet Bill you’re trying to jump over.
1 Best: World 8 Airships From Super Mario Bros. 3
The Airships from Super Mario Bros. 3 serve as challenging alternatives to castles from the original game. And this level from the 8th world, which is made up of an armada rather than one big ship, is hands down the best.
Unlike the Tank Level previously mentioned, the Airships feature a blend of platforming and avoiding oncoming projectiles. This means less cheap deaths at the hands of unseen traps or cannon balls. It’s this quality paired with the intense and fulfilling platforming that make it one of the best levels of any Mario game, let alone the classics.