Who Makes the Best Mario Games?

The Mario series is the work of more than just one team. But whose version is best?

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

Yes, yes, Shigeru Miyamoto is Mario's papa. We all know that. But Mario's been in 100-odd video games, which is far more than one man can take credit for... especially when he's also responsible for managing a big chunk of one of the most successful video game companies in the world.

No, Mario's legacy is the work of many people. Entire teams, in fact. And each group's take on Mario has its own idiosyncratic style, even if Miyamoto hovers above it all as the character's benign (albeit occasionally table-flipping) overlord. The upcoming Super Mario 3D World demonstrates this tidily beyond the benefit of a doubt; gamers who initially regarded the game with skepticism have come around to salivating at the prospect of playing it as the indelible fingerprints of Nintendo's EAD Tokyo team have become obvious through the steady onslaught of game trailers.

But of all these different designers and studios, whose take on Mario is best? We present to you the evidence; you make the judgment.

Nintendo SPD

The team: Formerly known as R&D1, SPD is the elder statesman of Nintendo's internal studios. In the beginning, the division was simply known as "Nintendo R&D" before other studios began to peel off from it. You can trace SPD's legacy in a line all the way back to the very first Mario game, Donkey Kong. With the success of the Donkey Kong arcade games, Miyamoto split off to form his own group (Nintendo R&D4), but even then R&D1 continued working on Mario games, most notably the oddball spinoffs and the Game Boy titles (which eventually became Wario Land).

Mario titles created: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Mario Bros., Dr. Mario, the Mario Land series, the Wario Land series, the WarioWare series, Mario Paint.

The case for: This is where Mario started, and the group's latter-day games uphold the franchise's tradition of innovation and creativity perhaps better than any other. Even if they barely have any relationship to Mario, the WarioWare games offer manic fun, and the series they evolved out of -- the Mario Land titles -- paid very little heed to tradition and did their own unique thing.

The case against: SPD hasn't dealt with Mario proper in nearly 20 years. You could argue that they ended up turning Mario Land into the Wario games because their Mario games weren't sufficiently Mario-like.

Nintendo EAD1

The team: Formerly known as Nintendo R&D4, Nintendo EAD1 is the group that Miyamoto calls home. In its various incarnations, EAD1 has worked on most of the core Mario games for NES, Super NES, N64, and GameCube, and they also created the Mario Kart series as well.

Mario titles created: Super Mario Bros. 1-3, The Lost Levels, Super Mario World, Yoshi's Island, Yoshi's Story, Super Mario Kart series, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine.

The case for: The games you think of as the fundamental versions of Mario hail from EAD1, from Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario 64. Everything that defines the character and his world is an invention of EAD1.

The case against: The last Mario game to come from EAD1 was Super Mario Sunshine -- and not only did that happen more than a decade ago, it's also the worst-received core entry in the franchise since Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. Perhaps this studio's glory days with Mario exist in the past.

Nintendo EAD4

The team: Formerly known as Nintendo R&D2, the EAD4 group first became involved with the Mario series when it began reworking the NES Mario games for Game Boy Advance. After running out of old games to port, the team began developing original titles in the form of the New Super Mario Bros. series.

Mario titles created: Super Mario Advance series, New Super Mario Bros. series.

The case for: These guys are the breadwinners. Fans may gush more about Super Mario Galaxy, but the New Super Mario titles are the ones that line Nintendo's coffers. They're solid, back-to-basics crowdpleasers.

The case against: New Super Mario tends to be hit-or-miss. While never bad, the portable ones feel safe and uninspired, and the creative level design of the console versions can often be lost amidst the ugly art and boring music they're saddled with. EAD4's Mario is die-cut, factory-made Mario.

Intelligent Systems

The team: One of the rare internal Nintendo divisions that's never undergone a significant reorganization, Intelligent Systems has traditionally been known as the one Nintendo section that dabbles in role-playing games; they oversee both the Fire Emblem and Advance Wars franchises. Not surprisingly, they're also responsible for the Mario RPG series Paper Mario. However, they've dabbled occasionally in other Mario-related ventures, including collaborating on WarioWare games and taking the lead on Mario Kart: Super Circuit for Game Boy Advance.

Mario titles created: Mario Kart: Super Circuit, Paper Mario series, WarioWare.

The case for: By placing Mario into story-heavy role-playing adventures, Intelligent System's games have done more to actually define the world and characters around the silent hero than any other.

The case against: The past two Paper Mario titles haven't been received with universal adoration. And while the writing can be fun, Paper Mario tends to drag, and its platforming stinks.

Alpha Dream

The team: Technically a third party, Alpha Dream has since its inception worked exclusively on Nintendo franchises for Nintendo platforms. Specifically, it's taken the lead on Mario's other RPG series, Mario & Luigi -- perhaps not surprising, given the presence of former Squaresoft developers worked on the original Super Mario RPG.

Mario titles created: Mario & Luigi series.

The case for: Its lighter, less snarky take on the Mario RPG concept makes Mario & Luigi feel more upbeat and, well, Mario-esque than Paper Mario.

The case against: Mario & Luigi games tend to feel much more childlike than just about any other titles in the Mario franchise. And Alpha Dream hasn't done any work with Mario outside of those four adventures.

Nintendo EAD Tokyo

The team: A recent addition to Nintendo's roster of studios, EAD Tokyo was created to attract talented Tokyo-based developers who didn't want to relocate to work in Nintendo's Kyoto offices. Key personnel includes Yoshiaki Koizumi, who played a key role in Yoshi's Island and Super Mario 64. After proving its mettle with Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, EAD Tokyo then moved on to the Mario Galaxy games and the more recent 3D Land and 3D World.

Mario titles created: Super Mario Galaxy series, Super Mario 3D Land, Super Mario 3D World.

The case for: The soul of modern Mario creativity lives on in EAD Tokyo's games. Super Mario Galaxy revitalized the series and gave many doubters faith in the Nintendo Wii, and Super Mario 3D World looks to do likewise for the Wii U.

The case against: Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Mario 3D Land were both great, but neither hit the stratospheric heights achieved by the original Galaxy. 3D World will be EAD Tokyo's test: Do they deserve to be Mario's stewards, or did they use up their best ideas in their first outing?

Nintendo Software Technology

The team: A rare example of Americans being allowed to work on core Nintendo franchises, the folks at NST have close ties to the Digipen Institute. To date, their Mario involvement has consisted of the Mario Vs. Donkey games.

Mario titles created: Mario Vs. Donkey Kong series.

The case for: The Mario Vs. Donkey Kong games are, in a way, the true successors of the original Donkey Kong. They evolved out of Donkey Kong '94, a brilliant reinvention of the old arcade game, and they keep the methodical, single-screen challenge of the franchise's origins alive.

The case against: NST has only ever worked on Mario Vs. Donkey Kong, a series derived from EAD's earlier work.

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Comments 31

  • Avatar for Shadowfire #1 Shadowfire 4 years ago
    "the worst-received core entry in the franchise"

    YOU TAKE THAT BACK! I love Sunshine. :(
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #2 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @Shadowfire I didn't say I don't like it. I said it wasn't received well. Which is true!
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  • Avatar for Lightning-Paw #3 Lightning-Paw 4 years ago
    Nintendo EAD1 created what will always be my favourite video games. I grew up with their work, and still go back and beat many of their games once or twice a year.

    Nintendo EAD Tokyo seems to be really carrying the torch these days. As much as I prefer 2D Mario titles, the New Super Mario Bros. games just feel like rehashes (albeit, totally enjoyable ones). EAD Tokyo has inspiration and charm in spades. Super Mario 3D Land was the first Mario game I've played in a lot of years to truly feel fresh. They're keeping Mario relevant.
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  • Avatar for legeek #4 legeek 4 years ago
    I pick Nintendo EAD Tokyo. Super Mario Galaxy is my favorite Mario, and I have high hopes for 3D World!
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  • Avatar for transmet2033 #5 transmet2033 4 years ago
    I am torn between my love of both Super Mario World and Super Mario Galaxy. I would probably have to say EAD1.
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  • Avatar for Blitzmann #6 Blitzmann 4 years ago
    Mr. Parish, thank you for this historical summary! Reading this article brought up some wonderful memories.

    I hope to see the Cape power-up return someday.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #7 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    EAD1 without question
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  • Avatar for cscaskie #8 cscaskie 4 years ago
    The flat, bold 2D aesthetic that Nintendo SPD has mastered in their mini game collections makes me swoon. I wish that I was better at Rhythm Tengoku so that I could see more of it. SPD is sort of the crazy uncle of first party Nintendo development. Their work is always worth exploring.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #9 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    Wow, I had no idea that there were multiple EAD teams. It not always clear just based on the game credits and most sites don't bring it up.
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  • Avatar for jeremycarrier12 #10 jeremycarrier12 4 years ago
    Well, Galaxy 2 is the best Mario game, so I guess EAD Tokyo would get my vote. I'm kinda stuck on who's second. EAD1 obviously made the template, but SMW is a boring keyhunt through large non-threatening levels with broken mechanics, and Yoshi's Island is a piss easy collect-a-thon with copy pasta cavern levels and cute visuals, so I do tend to think they're a bit overrated. The NSMB games don't look particularly exciting, and the music is TERRIBLE, but they have the best 2D level design the series has ever seen. Like the SMB trilogy, the levels are built around a few satisfying mechanics, and the designers ask you to learn them throughout the game(compared to SMW, with the Cape and the Spin they never ask you to learn, and it completely breaks the game when you do)
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  • Avatar for IPA #11 IPA 4 years ago
    EAD1 and it really isn't even close. We can pretend this is just an opinion and not an iron-clad fact if you'd like.
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  • Avatar for IPA #12 IPA 4 years ago
    @jeremycarrier12 One of the most wrong-headed and misinformed takes on a golden age in game design I've yet read on the internet. Kudos, sir! You've given us all a good laugh.
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  • Avatar for jeremycarrier12 #13 jeremycarrier12 4 years ago
    @IPA Feel free to argue against any of my criticisms of SMW's deficiencies in game design and poorly-implemented game mechanics. SMW has become a sacred cow that's apparently untouchable, but compared to the NES series its quite flawed and unbalanced in several key areas.
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  • Avatar for KrissB #14 KrissB 4 years ago
    Nice article.

    There have been plenty of other developers who have worked on Mario games (if you count the 'spin-off' titles), such as Hudson (most Mario Party games), Nd Cube (Mario Party 9), Camelot (Mario Golf & Tennis) & Next-Level Games (Luigi's Mansion 2). Let's not forget the DK, DK Jr. & Mario Bros ports on Intellivision, ColecoVision, Atari 2600, TRS-80 CoCo, Atari 8-bit Computer, TI-99/4a, IBM PC Booter, Commodore 64, Commodore VIC-20, MSX, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC & Atari 7800 (thanks Wikipedia!).

    There are a ton more:

    I always struggle to decide what my favourite Mario game is, but it usually boils down to Mario 64, Mario Galaxy, and Mario Galaxy 2.
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  • Avatar for .jan #15 .jan 4 years ago
    Excellent article!
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #16 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    One of the best articles on any gaming website in awhile!

    My vote is for EAD1, you can't argue with that resume. But the guys behind Mario Galaxy are certainly looking pretty great right now. I loved Mario 3D Land!
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  • Avatar for froyton #17 froyton 4 years ago
    "The case against: The last Mario game to come from EAD1 was Super Mario Sunshine"

    I'd actually count Sunshine as a case FOR. The game is beautiful, the water pack actually complemented the level design and made for some really fun platforming, and it was the last Mario game to place heavy emphasis on exploration, both in the levels and in the overworld.

    I'd like to think that people would have warmed up to it like we've seen with Wind Waker... :(
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  • Avatar for Pacario #18 Pacario 3 years ago
    I think it's safe to say that EAD Tokyo is the true successor to Mario's crown, although I wouldn't mind Nintendo SPD taking over the reigns for EAD 4, which makes the New Super Mario Bros. games. SPD has proven it can take existing franchises in fresh directions, and I would love to see its take on a modern 2-D Mario game.
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  • Avatar for airbagfin51 #19 airbagfin51 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish@Shadowfire I think Mr. Parish has a point here. I'm part of the strange demographic that somehow, has never (collectively) played Super Mario Sunshine. I've played the Galaxies. I've seen what they can do with 3D World. But strangely, I have never seen no Sunshine.

    What is Sunshine? This article seems to try to explain it, in part.Edited July 2014 by airbagfin51
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  • Avatar for Warlock82 #20 Warlock82 3 years ago
    Great article. I'm giving the prize to Nintendo EAD Tokyo though. As someone who didn't particularly care for Mario 64 or Sunshine (and not to knock 64 here as they did pioneer a ton of stuff, but it had problems too), I felt like Galaxy was the first 3D Mario game where I could finally say "Ok, this feels like the Mario I remember from the NES/SNES."

    A big part of that (for me anyways) being the return of real power-ups. Mario 64 and Sunshine only had 3 each, and among those 3, two were useless 99.9% of the time except to solve arbitrary one-off puzzles (Metal Cap, especially the Invisible Cap, and the two non-Hover nozzles were pointless except to collect very specific stars/shines in only a couple levels). Galaxy was the first one that not only brought back the Super Mushroom, Fire Flower, and Starman (although 64 had the weird turtle shell riding equivalent of that), but a ton of new power-ups and suits that weren't just used to solve specific puzzles, but also to navigate the levels, fight enemies, and find secrets.

    I do agree with the points against though too. By all accounts, Galaxy 2 was an excellent game, but I don't know, for some reason it didn't grab me like Galaxy 1 did. Maybe because it was too similar? And I flat out didn't like 3D Land very much. I blame bad camera angles and somewhat sloppy controls (same problems that plagued Sunshine IMO). 3D World was absolutely excellent though!

    I'm also quite fond of the New Super Mario games, but I agree the portable ones were not great. Especially NSMB DS, which I outright disliked (it was trying waaaaaaay too hard to be a remake of SMB1 rather than it's own thing). My favorite is still probably NSMB Wii though ;)
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  • Avatar for Pacario #21 Pacario 3 years ago
    @Warlock82 EAD Tokyo is definitely the King of Mario for now. But I agree with the criticisms, too. Mario Galaxy 2 so blatantly ripped off the assets from the first game, it really felt more like an extended expansion pack, and while 3-D Land and World are fine, they're in many ways just the 2-D games redesigned with a 3-D perspective in mind (especially in Land's case).

    But if anything, it's the New Super Mario Bros. games that have hurt the franchise. As Mr. Parish stated, they're perfectly fun and polished, but also seem very safe and by-the-numbers. Even the graphics and music are simply transplanted from game to game, giving the entire series a sort of generic feel.

    Anyway, here's hoping for a Mario Universe in a couple of years.
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  • Avatar for Neifirst #22 Neifirst 3 years ago
    Nice article, but why is it dated July 6, 2014, when it was clearly written last year? I didn't notice any additions...
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  • Avatar for metalangel #23 metalangel 3 years ago
    @Neifirst I've noticed the same thing too this weekend. The articles are still nice n'all...
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #24 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @metalangel A lot more people read the site than when these articles were first posted. So why not repromote good stuff that newer readers missed the first time around while we're all taking a few days off for the holiday?
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  • Avatar for jeffcorry #25 jeffcorry 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I've actually been glad to see some of these articles again. Time since the articles were written gives new perspective.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #26 cldmstrsn 3 years ago
    @Shadowfire Ya I loved Sunshine as well. I don't know what everyones deal was with it. I loved the tropical setting and the graphics still hold up today.
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  • Avatar for davidbabb52 #27 davidbabb52 3 years ago
    Though it was just an off-shoot for Squaresoft (now known as Square Enix,) what are your thoughts on Super Mario RPG?
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  • Avatar for starsintodreams #28 starsintodreams 3 years ago
    @davidbabb52 I was just going to ask the same thing. Although Squaresoft developed Super Mario RPG: Lot7S's, was there an Nintendo studio that assisted?
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  • Avatar for docexe #29 docexe 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I understand your point, and I’m glad to see these articles again as they are still a nice read. I just think you should add some differentiator to indicate they are not new or updated content but a reposting of an older article, like, I don’t know, “From USGamer vault” or “From our archives” or something along those lines.
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  • Avatar for jeremycarrier12 #30 jeremycarrier12 3 years ago
    8 months later, and Super Mario World still isn't very good.
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  • Avatar for Warlock82 #31 Warlock82 3 years ago
    @jeremycarrier12 Lies and slander! :P

    Super Mario World may still be my favorite overall. It's very close between that and SMB3, but I think I give a slight edge to World because of all the great secrets that SMB3 didn't have (not counting the smaller secrets like warp whistles and p-wings and such... but that doesn't compare to two entire secret worlds full of new and super challenging levels :P)

    I am probably biased though - I didn't have an SNES right away, so SMW was kind of this mysterious, amazing thing I couldn't play most of the time (until I finally got an SNES of course :P). Whereas I think I had SMB3 very near launch (or what constituted a launch window for the NES era).
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