The All-Time Greats
This is it: The greatest Mario games of all time. Transitively, that makes these some of the greatest games of all time, period. How many have you played?
[Nintendo 3DS, 2012]
The Super Mario Galaxy games remain intensely popular among more avid game enthusiasts — they both appear in the top 10 here — but haven't really managed to make much headway beyond the Mario fan illuminati. Meanwhile, the New Super Mario games (which are easier and less expensive to develop) rock the charts. So Nintendo, as Shigeru Miyamoto recently told Eurogamer, has a tough time making a case for developing further Galaxy titles (as much as they'd like to, and we'd like for them to). Super Mario 3D Land, then, represents the best possible compromise: The inventive spirit of Nintendo EAD Tokyo, and the freedom to break from strict 2D side-scrolling, but contextualized within a more fixed isometric perspective that incorporates 3D platforming mechanics without the intimidating free camera movement that frightens casual players away. To top it all off, 3D Land drew heavily on the style and spirit of Super Mario Bros. 3, with tons of compact, highly varied stages to master and an entire "second quest" to deal with once the credits rolled.
As if to prove the notion that the Galaxy games don't get their due, here's Super Mario Galaxy way down at #9. Anyone who's played Galaxy 2 to completion agrees that this is one of the absolute best Mario games ever... the problem, alas, is that not all that many people actually played it. Arriving on the wrong side of the Wii's slide from dominance, few people cared to slum it long enough to discover the fact that the second 3D Mario for Wii managed to be even more imaginative than its predecessor, incorporating more creative power-ups, more diverse level concepts, and an even more devastating difficulty level.
10. Super Mario Bros.
In terms of importance, the original Super Mario Bros. deserves to be at the top of this or any list. In terms of depth... well, it's a 30-year-old game that fit into 32K of memory. It's small and limited in comparison to everything it inspired, with a great deal of repetition in the later stages. But, you know, look at all it inspired: Everything else on this list, plus countless thousands of other games. And despite its vintage, it remains eminently playable, with brilliant level designs that perfectly take advantage of Mario's sophisticated movement, fluid jump physics, and limited but well-tuned power-up schemes. There wasn't a single wasted element in this cartridge, as the fact that every creature and skill and object to appear in this 1985 classic has appeared in countless sequels. One of the few times in medium's history where a team of creators put together a game in which every element sang in harmony (literally, in the case of the sound design), Super Mario Bros. remains a timeless classic. Be sure to check out the DX remake for Game Boy Color, which adds small, modern niceties (like a save feature) and throws in The Lost Levels as an unlockable bonus!
[Wii U, 2013]
More than a mere sequel to Super Mario 3D Land, 3D World represents the exact sort of upgrade implied by the naming scheme: If Land was a country, World is a planet. Its stages are even bigger, its level concepts even more imaginative. Its star power-ups, the excellent Cat Mario ability, changes the nature of how you play to a greater degree than any series power-up since Super Mario World's cape — and much like the cape, mastering the cat suit allows you to take an entirely different approach to the challenges that lay before Mario. Or rather, Mario and friends: For the first time in 25 years, 3D World brings together the crew of Super Mario Bros. 2 (including Princess Peach, finally a heroine again rather than a victim), then goes a step beyond by allowing four players to control them simultaneously. While the New Super Mario console titles had already explored the concept of four-player mayhem, it works brilliantly in a 3D play space. EAD Tokyo may not be working on Super Mario Galaxy 3 any time soon, but games like this will do nicely in the meantime.
8. Super Mario 64
[Nintendo 64, 1996]
Second in importance only to Super Mario Bros., the series' first outing in three-dimensional space helped codify action games of the polygonal era as SMB did for 8-bit gaming. Where so many other developers tried and failed to transform their beloved 2D franchises into 3D, Nintendo did it right by turning the Mushroom Kingdom into a sort of sandbox playground in which players could grow comfortable before moving onto the serious challenges of the second half of the game. Its hub-based world design helped inspire a great many games of the 32/64-era and beyond, and Miyamoto and co. weren't afraid to change Mario's skills and techniques where appropriate, e.g. deprecating jump-based attacks while giving Mario new hand-to-hand combat skills. While the surprise of the Mario 64 experience has long since faded with the commoditization of 3D game spaces, the loving detail and subtlety of design invested into this groundbreaking work have allowed it to stand the test of time.
7. Super Mario Bros. 2: Mario Madness (USA)
The fact that this massive NES hit for Mario didn't begin as a Mario game is probably the most common (and tired) piece of video game trivia ever. But really, who cares? Whatever its original provenance, Super Mario Bros. 2 worked perfectly as a follow-up to the first game; its character physics translated neatly to Mario with very little cosmetic surgery required to create a convincing illusion. More importantly, it expanded on the Japanese SMB2's unique mechanics for Luigi by also incorporating Toad and Princess Peach as playable characters, instantly turning the royal retinue into key players in the franchise rather than simply a bit of scenery to be forgotten in sequels. The ability to grab and throw objects and enemies became a key element of Mario 3 and World, and the surreal inhabitants of Subcon have long since established themselves as mainstays of spinoff titles like Yoshi's Island. But ultimately, it simply boils down to the fact that Super Mario Bros. 2 was ridiculously fun to play, with huge levels to explore and all the secrets and shortcuts you'd expect from a Mario game. Whatever its name, the spirit of Mario was strong with this one.
6. Super Mario Maker (+ Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS)
[2015, Wii U / Nintendo 3DS]
When it launched, Nintendo fans gave Super Mario Maker a suitable joke name: "Make It Yourself if You're So Damn Smart." Of course, there's nothing snarky or sarcastic about Super Mario Maker. The game is very much Nintendo's way of saying to you, "Hey! Mario games are fun, right? Let's have fun together."
And Super Mario Maker is fun. It's also what every Mario fan has wanted since they started designing their own video game levels on graph paper. Mario Maker's touch-based builder is extremely intuitive; anyone, no matter how old they are, can potentially build a wonderful Mario level. The key word here is "potentially," as good level design is far harder than people realize. Thankfully, Mario Maker's level-sharing feature makes it easy to find the diamonds in the rough.
I get the feeling Nintendo wanted people to walk away from Mario Maker with a little more respect for game developers. Mission accomplished, I hope.
Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS has some additional features ideal for a single-player experience (100 new courses built by actual Nintendo designers, for example), but the inability to upload levels puts a major damper on the portable Mario Maker experience, which is a shame. Hopefully we'll soon be blessed with a fully-realized iteration of the game-builder on the Nintendo Switch.
In some ways, Super Mario Galaxy presents a more modest and toned-down take on 3D Mario... but that's no bad thing. After Mario Sunshine nearly went off the rails with its collectathon elements and sometimes aimless sandbox-style level design, Super Mario Galaxy pared the 3D Mario concept down to its core elements, guiding players expertly through challenges and scenarios that rapidly change scale to create the illusion of bigger, more grandiose adventures than technically existed here. Presentation counts for a lot, and Galaxy gave us by far the most glorious and impressive window we've ever seen into the Mario universe. It also played with the concept of 3D platforming by throwing tiny spheroid stages into the mix, adding a new kind of action (and some fantastic boss battles) to the platforming challenges we'd grown to expect from the series. Really, just a smartly designed game from top to bottom, neatly rectifying its predecessor's shortcomings while demonstrating the foresight to bluff its way past its own potential failings.
[Nintendo Switch, 2017]
For a long time, Super Mario Sunshine was regarded as the direct successor to Super Mario 64. I think you only need to play Super Mario Odyssey for a few hours before you start to understand Odyssey is the real successor to Mario 64. Think of it as a prodigal prince coming home to take the throne from his well-meaning but under-qualified younger brother.
Though Super Mario Odyssey lacks a hub world, it apes Mario 64's attempt to throw everything at the wall. Thankfully, almost everything sticks. Each Kingdom you visit is a large open area that's teeming with secrets to find and items to root out. No two kingdom is quite alike in Super Mario Odyssey: You might find yourself trudging through blizzards in the Snow Kingdom, then frolicking through (and under) the surf in the Ocean Kingdom minutes later. Mario's new trick, capturing and controlling enemies, lets you look at each Kingdom with a fresh set of eyes. A Power Moon that's not easily grabbed by human-Mario might be an easy task for a stack of Goombas, and vice-versa.
Interestingly, Mario Odyssey's loose, varied gameplay is what causes it to come in just under Super Mario Galaxy in some people's hearts. The latter is admittedly more structured and has a clearer vision about Mario's mission, but as for which gameplay style is better? That's a matter of opinion. Just be assured Super Mario Odyssey is 3D platforming excellence.
3. Super Mario Bros. 3
The great Mario tradition: Endless arguments over which was better, Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World. USgamer's staff vote gave World the edge, but only barely — it's not as though anyone said, "Boy, that Mario 3, what a load of garbage." If Super Mario Bros. was meant to be the ultimate cartridge-based game before the move to the Famicom Disk System expansion, this sequel was meant as the ultimate 8-bit adventure. And it delivered on that mandate nicely, introducing Mario's greatest-ever suite of power-ups and dozens of stages, each of which revolved around a different theme. The appeal of Super Mario Bros. 3 came largely from the fact that it rarely repeats a concept enough for it to grow stale; aside from the militant mechanism of World 8 and the various airship stages throughout the world, SMB3's stages delighted in throwing weird new ideas at players, then dashing to the next idea before the gimmick wore out its welcome. And the idea worked: Consider how beloved the ultra-rare Hammer Suit is. Or the legend that's grown up around Kuribo's Shoe, which appears only twice in a single level. Or the panic that sets in when you see that angry sun who dive-bombs Mario in exactly two stage of the game. Mario 3 felt like the work of people who had so many great ideas they could barely squeeze them all in to a single cart — but there was more than mere novelty to this adventure, which also gave Mario new skills and established permanent new rules for the franchise. We didn't need some stupid movie to get us excited about Super Mario Bros. 3; the game itself did the job nicely.
2. Yoshi's Island
[Super NES, 1995]
The dark horse surprise of our list, Yoshi's Island barely edged out Super Mario Bros. 3 to take the second slot. And why not? It, too, represents the culmination of a generation's game design as well. Yoshi's Island marched to a different beat, beautifully embodying Nintendo's ethos of finding unexpected applications for technology in service of making even better games. Here, Yoshi's Island employed a special add-on chip normally used for simple 3D applications in order to create the most dynamic, visually surprising 2D platformer ever. Between its brash, hand-drawn art style — the antithesis of the cold, CG-rendered look ushered in by Donkey Kong Country and next-gen systems like Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation — and wild, unexpected visual tricks that included foes who could spin-jump, subtle 3D effects, rubbery and distorted creatures, and even a pre-Galaxy battle spanning the circumference of a tiny planetoid, Yoshi's Island wasn't afraid to mix things up. But nowhere did it shake up Mario tradition as it did in its play mechanics, which transformed Yoshi from a cute ride to a proper protagonist, complete with transformative new skills: A floating double-jump, a mighty butt stomp, and the ability to fling eggs and enemies within a 180-degree arc. Along with these changes came a radically new philosophy of level design, presenting players with denser, more exploratory playgrounds to poke around in and a slate of collectibles to hunt down — not too many, though, and all in service of unlocking the insanely complex bonus stages. Really, if it weren't for Baby Mario's caterwauling, it would be hard to find a fault in this brilliant 16-bit send-off. At the time, it looked like this might be Mario's final outing in two dimensions... and what an outing it was.
1. Super Mario World
[Super NES, 1991]
Mario's 16-bit debut also doubled as the pack-in game for Nintendo's Super NES system, and it had a lot riding on its shoulders. It needed to show off the machine's new graphical capabilities, advance the Mario concept as a whole, and create a compelling case for fans to upgrade to a new generation while not straying toward a rival 16-bit platform in the process. It did all of these things (and more!) with panache.
Super Mario World felt like a huge upgrade over Super Mario Bros. 3 in almost every way. About the only area in which it took a more modest approach than its predecessor was with its power-up system — it pared Mario's abilities back down to two, the Fire Flower and the cape, abandoning advanced skills like the frog suit and tanuki suit altogether. But since those powers had been fairly obscure to begin with, the loss proved less critical than it first appeared; meanwhile, the limited scope of Mario's powers allowed Mario World's creators to really focus on making the cape something special and turning it into a sophisticated tool with secondary abilities that opened up exciting new gameplay opportunities for advanced players while providing basic new skills for everyone.
The game harnessed the Super NES's built-in capabilities to great effect. While some features seemed more fully realized than others — no one was quite sure what to use control pad shoulder triggers for in 1991, and Mario World's limp camera pan feature felt like the textbook definition of "there just because" — many of them changed the way you played and approached levels. Portions of stages would rise, sink, tilt, and bob; Mario could flip to the "reverse" side of certain levels, adding a third dimension to the action; ghosts would phase into and out of Mario's material plane; and gigantic monsters were no longer quarantined on a single island but rather appeared throughout the world as a matter of course. And Mario's new dinosaur pal Yoshi allowed the game's creators to finally realize their desire to have the hero ride around on the back of a mount, something they'd been longing to achieve since the early days but couldn't for technical reasons.
Unlike so many other early Super NES games, though, Super Mario's technical shenanigans never felt like Nintendo just showing off for the heck of it. At the very beginning of the game, you're allowed to visit two different stages right away — one that features classic Mario mechanics, and one that shows off the wacky new elements of this adventure, such as stubby dinosaurs, diagonal pipes, and huge version of Bullet Bill. Every programming innovation in Super Mario World was accompanied by clever game design advances. Whether it was something as simple as the added patter of bongo drums as you rode Yoshi or as literally game-changing as the persistent, global modifications caused by visiting a Switch Palace, Super Mario World upped the stakes for game design at every turn. Its worlds took a more convoluted turn than the mini-stages of Super Mario 3, encouraging players to use advanced techniques to unearth hidden secrets — doors to new stages, or helpful shortcuts to the end of the game. And once you'd mastered the main game, Super Mario World featured an entire hidden extra world, the Special World, a full suite of expert-level platforming tests for the truly determined. A true high point in video game history.