Top 16 (All) Mainline Mario Games
Mario is celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of his series (oh and Luigi too I guess). As my own personal celebration, I’ve been replaying the plumbers best games, and I’ve even ranked them for your reading pleasure. Without further adieu, here are the top 16 mainline Mario games.
Actually, there is a little adieu. For this list, I counted Mario’s platforming adventures. I only counted games released in the US on a Nintendo platform. I did include Mario’s two Gameboy adventures as they are very similar in gameplay to their NES big brothers. I also included Super Mario Bros 2 USA which, although different in gameplay, has been influential to the series as a whole. I did not include Yoshi’s Island, which belongs in its own series. Also, no remakes were included. Now, on to the list.
16. Super Mario Bros The Lost Levels
When the sequel to Super Mario Bros 2. was shown to Nintendo of America, the company declined to publish it in the US. In doing so, the company saved many Christmases. The Lost Levels is the only game in this list I’d actually consider bad.
There are hard games that are still enjoyable, like Ninja Gaiden or Mega Man, and there are games that are just unfair. The Lost Levels is the latter. In games like Mega Man, there was a certain flow. Challenging parts were followed by more mellow sections that allowed a gamer to cool down and regroup. The Lost Levels is just one difficult jump after another. It’s exhausting. Worst of all, there were elements of the game that were simply unfair, such as backwards warp zones which punished you for exploring.
The Lost Levels still has value as a niche game for hardcore fans, but for most people, the game simply isn’t very much fun. Aside from its difficulty, Super Mario Bros. offered nothing new to the series in terms of music, visuals, or gameplay. Lost Levels could have made decent DLC, if it were possible back then, but it’s a poor stand alone experience.
15. Super Mario Land
Back in the old days, the mere idea of being able to play a Mario game on the go was exciting. It took a lot of compromises to shrink Mario to Gameboy size. The screen had to be zoomed out, making Mario look like a bug, the game was fairly short, and green mushrooms were now hearts. Nevertheless, it was still a good approximation of Mario, which was pretty awesome back then.
Nowadays, the game is interesting as a novelty for Mario fans. The desert theme is interesting, there’s great Gameboy era music, and some oddly out of place scrolling shooter levels. Super Mario Land is still worth playing for Mario fans, but it hasn’t aged as well as his other adventures.
14. New Super Mario Bros. 2
There is just something missing from this Mario entry. The level design is strong, and the mechanics are solid as ever, but there’s little to separate New Super Mario Bros 2. from the rest of the pack. The central conceit of the game, collecting lots and lots of coins, doesn’t really serve any purpose besides leading to a disappointing reward. Coin Rush mode is a fun arcadey twist on Mario, but even this element feels underdeveloped. New Super Mario Bros 2. is still a fun game, but it lacks the charm of Mario’s other adventures.
13. Super Mario Bros USA
You can say that Super Mario Bros 2 was not a true Mario game. As most know, it was a reworked version of Doki Doki Panic, a Japan only game. Whatever the case may be, Super Mario Bros USA was still a great game. Introducing multiple characters was a great idea that sadly was shelved until recently, and the pick up and throw mechanics were a welcome change from Mario’s typical repertoire. The game was quirky, creative, and a hell of a lot more fun than Super Mario Bros’ actual sequel.
12. Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins
Despite being on the limited Gameboy, Super Mario Land 2 is still a worthy entry to the Mario franchise. Land 2 is still the only Mario game that allows you to tackle its worlds in any order, a fact that increases its replayability. Its worlds, which take place inside a giant tree, in a whale’s stomach, and in a giant Mario, are far more interesting than your standard fire, ice, and water worlds. Super Mario Land 2 also introduces Mario’s rival Wario, who would become a star in his own right.
The bottom line is that Super Mario Land 2 isn’t just a shrunk down and compromised version of Mario’s NES adventures. It’s a game that stands on its own merits.
12. Super Mario Bros.
In a world where most games consisted of a few screens repeated on loop, Super Mario Bros. was a huge advancement. The levels were massive by the standards of the day, and the controls were perfect. Never did the player feel like he had anything less than 100% control over Mario, which was huge back then.
Super Mario Bros. moved the entire industry ahead several years. It was that far ahead of its time. So, why is the game so low on this list? Because, over the years Mario has gotten a lot better. That doesn’t mean that Super Mario Bros. isn’t still worth a playthrough to this day.
11. New Super Mario Bros
It had been 15 years since Mario’s last 2D game, and Mario returned to the second dimension in fine form. Armed with his triple jump, wall kicks, and stomps, Mario was far more agile and fun to maneuver than ever.
New Super Mario Bros. introduced Star Coins (an evolution of Dragon Coins), adding replayability and exploration to the Mario formula. Mario also got some fun new toys to play with, allowing him to spin along the ground like a koopa, run on water, and crush all obstacles like a chubby Italian Godzilla.
NSMB’s 2D gaming was perfect for the DS audience, but a lack of difficulty prevents the game from reaching the heights of other entries in the series.
10. New Super Mario Bros Wii
After the massive success of New Super Mario Bros. on the DS, Nintendo continued Mario’s 2D adventures on their home console. No longer constrained by the limited DS real estate, Nintendo was able to make larger levels, which allowed them to be far more creative than they were on the DS.
The selling point of New Super Mario Bros. Wii was its multiplayer. For the first time, you could play with up to four people at once, a feature that has ruined many friendships. Playing with multiple people tended to make the game harder, especially if your friends are jerks, but it was a fun novelty, and made for some great drinking games.
9. Super Mario Sunshine
After the amazing Mario 64, many people were expecting Nintendo to reinvent the wheel again with Mario’s first Gamecube game. That’s not quite what happened. Super Mario Sunshine took the same premise of Mario 64, and added a fancy water gun. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though. FLUDD made Mario’s motion even more fluid (no pun intended), and Mario was given some amazing worlds to hop and hover through. Sirena Beach is still one of the most interesting worlds Mario has toured, as is Pinna Park.
Sunshine has a few poor design choices (looking at you blue coins), and it’s not as revolutionary as its predecessor or successor, but it’s still one of the best 3D platformers ever made.
8. Super Mario 3D Land
Super Mario 3D Land was in many ways closer to Super Mario Bros. 3 than Mario 64. Instead of exploration and hidden stars, Mario simply had to make it to the end of levels where a flagpole awaited him. By eliminating exploration, Nintendo could focus solely on platforming. This led to the simplest and most intuitive of Mario’s 3D adventures.
The best part about Super Mario 3D Land is that it is perfectly designed for portable gaming. Its bite sized levels are just the right length to kill time on your commute.
7. Super Mario 3D World
Mario went multiplayer in New Super Mario Bros, but that game’s multiplayer experience was more of a novelty than anything. There was a certain amount of fun to be had in knocking your friends, accidentally or otherwise, into a bottomless pit, but actually beating levels was far easier as a solo mission.
On the other hand, Super Mario 3D World’s multiplayer is refreshingly functional. With more space to maneuver, four players could comfortably work through levels, teaming up when necessary, and dividing and conquering at times. None of this would mean anything if the level design wasn’t top notch, but this is a Mario game we’re talking about. 3D World is a fine single player game, but it’s also the definitive multiplayer Mario experience.
6. Super Mario World
Super Mario world was made to show off the capabilities of the new Super Nintendo, and show off it did. Super Mario World was huge in scope, with new powers, shinier graphics, and a new pal in Yoshi. What made Super Mario World so special was its world map, and in particular, all the secrets it held. Super Mario World had levels, and even entire worlds that players could miss in their first playthrough.
Luckily, this was the first console Mario where you could save your progress, so there was plenty to do, and all the time you needed to do it. Super Mario World may be most remembered for Star Road, a series of increasingly inventive and challenging levels that provided the perfect balance between joy and frustration.
5. New Super Mario Bros U/New Super Luigi U
The selling point of New Super Mario Bros U was that it was Mario’s first HD adventure, but that wasn’t really important. What was important was that Nintendo continued to offer more and more inventive 2D levels. Long past the point where the well should’ve run dry, Nintendo was still cranking out great levels. Van Goh inspired ghost worlds, levels taking place across giant wigglers, all of it capped off with an interactive Rube Goldberg machine.
What puts New Super Mario Bros U. above Super Mario World is its DLC. DLC has become a dirty word in the gaming industry, but New Super Luigi U was well worth its asking price, and may even have been better than the actual game. Combine that with the speed run inspired challenge mode, and you have one of the best 2D platformers ever made.
4. Super Mario 64
It’s hard to explain to a gamer who started out in 2000 or later just how much of a revelation Mario 64 was. Up until then, 3D gaming in the third person was a clumsy affair. Moreover, many games didn’t know what to do with the extra dimension, and offered the same old jump on enemies and reach the goal formula that older games offered. Super Mario 64 nailed the controls. Even wandering aimlessly through Peach’s courtyard was a thrilling experience.
Miyamoto realized that with a 3D world, old fashioned platforming wouldn’t cut it. A goomba was far less menacing when you could simply run around it. Accordingly, Mario 64 became about exploration and discovery. You didn’t simply need to get to the goal, you had to find the goal. You were encouraged to use Mario’s newfound mobility to probe every nook and cranny of his world. Super Mario 64 was a novel and incredible experience which would be the standard other games would be held to for years.
3. Super Mario Bros 3
The original Super Mario Bros. was a fun, but very simple game. Its sequel (the Japanese one) was simply more of the same. Super Mario Bros 3 was where the series really came into its own.
Shortening the levels allowed Nintendo to rapidly cycle through different gimmicks. One level may have you fleeing from an angry sun, another may be a labyrinth of blocks, and another may have you hopping across the backs of flying beetles. Each level gave players something new to enjoy, and then quickly moved on before players became bored. Super Mario Bros 3 had more unique ideas in one world than most modern games have in their entirety, and that’s why this game is as fun to play now as it was a quarter of a century ago.
2. Super Mario Galaxy
After Mario 64, the 3D platformer genre stagnated. Games like Banjo Kazooie and Mario Sunshine offered bigger versions of Mario 64 with more to collect, but nothing revolutionary happened. Then, there was Mario Galaxy.
The bedrock of Mario’s adventures has always been the incredible controls. It was simply a blast to run around Peach’s Courtyard or hover and slide through Isle Delfino. Super Mario Galaxy’s gravity mechanic took things to another level. Mario could now run up walls, on the underside of planetoids, and use gravity to take his jumping prowess to new heights.
Levels consisted of a series of self contained challenges that kept gamers on their toes while keeping newer players from getting lost. The amount of creativity that was shoved into Super Mario Galaxy was simply astounding.
The icing on the cake was the music. The Mario series has always had some nice tunes, but the orchestrated tracks of Mario Galaxy were pure ear candy.
There’s not much more that can be said. Super Mario Galaxy has a legitimate claim to the title of “Best Game Ever Made”, and indeed it is my favorite. Well, except for…
1. Super Mario Galaxy 2
For me, the only options for the top game on this list were the two Galaxy titles. There isn’t much to say here that wouldn’t apply to Super Mario Galaxy. Super Mario Galaxy 2 was essentially an expansion pack for the first Galaxy. That is to say, it is the closest to platforming perfection that I’ve experienced. Assuming that players were already familiar with the first Galaxy, Nintendo upped the difficulty level and experimented with more out there level designs. They took something great, and they made it greater.
I wanted to dock Galaxy 2 a couple of spots for not offering much advancement over Galaxy 1, but when all is said and done, Galaxy 2 is the title I keep coming back to. Not only is Super Mario Galaxy 2 my favorite Mario game, but in my humble opinion, it’s the best game ever made.