With everything going on over the whole world right now, it’s easy to forget that this year marks the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. and the gaming revolution it left in its wake. Most Smashboards readers likely weren’t even alive when that happened, but probably all grew up with Shigeru Miyamoto’s greatest creation. I say this because Mario is unique in his ability to stay at the forefront of gaming culture no matter how much time has passed by releasing the medium’s best titles at a consistent rate without fail while setting a few industry benchmarks along the way.
Mario has never gone through a dry spell like his competitors, which has allowed generations of players to share him as an icon of our favorite pastime. So let’s celebrate how far the series has come by ranking the top 10 Mario games I’ve enjoyed the most.
10. Super Mario 3D Land
2D and 3D Mario games have generally followed fairly different design philosophies. But this Nintendo 3DS masterpiece was able to satisfy fans of both styles by taking the tight bite-sized linear levels of the 2D games into the third dimension with some of the exploration elements and different jumping abilities seen in the 3D games.
Thanks to inventive level-design and controls that work like a dream on the 3DS circle-pad combining forces for a fun—if not especially challenging—game that packs a ton of content into its tiny cartridge, the result is the best of both worlds.
9. New Super Mario Bros.
We’ve all poked fun at the New Super Mario Bros. sub-series for how iterative it became far past the point of being new. So younger readers may be surprised to know how refreshing its first release on the DS was. Aside from remakes and re-releases, we hadn’t had a new 2D Mario game in 14 years. Fans hungered for the fast, precise gameplay that had given way to the different (although equally fun) 3D sandboxes of the newer games.
But New Super Mario Bros. was more than a step back. It made great use of the DS’ defining features with wireless single card multiplayer, clever use of the system’s two screens, bringing most of the aforementioned 3D moves into 2D for the first time. And let’s not forget the immensely satisfying Mega Mushroom power-up, allowing players to channel their inner-kaiju.
8. Super Mario Sunshine
The somewhat forgettable F.L.U.D.D. gimmick, tedious completion requirements, and the worst final level in mainline Mario history have all made Sunshine a divisive game among players. Those willing to look past those flaws will be greeted with some of the series’ most engaging boss fights, a setting that’s instantly appealing and levels to match. Isle Delfino and its many locales overflow with personality while boasting arguably the most challenging levels seen in any 3D Mario game.
Plus, Super Mario Sunshine also gave us a bop of a soundtrack and the debut of Bowser Jr. The franchise has been better for it ever since.
7. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
The first Super Mario Land wasn’t notable for much besides being the character’s first adventure on the Gameboy. But, its sequel showed that portable Mario can be just as much fun as console Mario with controls and graphics that closely mirrored those of Super Mario World.
Special mention also has to go to the stages, which are divided into some of the most imaginative worlds the series has ever seen. These include a giant Mario automaton, a common house in which Mario is shrunken to the size of an ant and a series of levels inside the stomach of a giant turtle. This turtle’s stomach also somehow has an even larger whale inside it, who acts as the boss. Speaking of bosses, 6 Golden Coins introduced Wario, the best non-Bowser baddy of the entire series both in terms of personality and combat. He proved so popular that he hijacked the third Super Mario Land game to start his own series, but that’s a topic for a different list.
6. Super Mario Bros.
The first entry of any series that spans 35 years, will inevitably have to be surpassed, but it's amazing how well the original Super Mario Bros. has held up after so long. Sure, it doesn’t have the graphics or the power-ups of later entries, but its physics are almost exactly as tight as those of today’s Mario games. 35 years later, the game that started it all shows us that the NES title still has the complete foundation of what makes each entry so good.
Plus, the level design builds on that foundation brilliantly. Not only by making all-time classic levels that perfectly balance challenge and accessibility but by using the construction of each stage as a teaching tool to introduce players to the then-new style of gameplay. This ensured that beginners knew exactly what they need to do to win while the especially astute crowd could pick up subtle hints at how to get ahead the easy way. 35 years later, the feeling of landing in a warp-zone is still just as welcoming.
5. Super Mario Odyssey
Odyssey relieved us from the drought of open 3D Mario games started by the Wii U, legitimizing the Nintendo Switch in the eyes of many. What it admittedly lacked in expanse, it made up for in its sheer volume of new challenges. The best of these utilized Mario’s new friend, Cappy, who allowed the mustachioed maestro to possess his enemies and commandeer their unique abilities.
That may sound like a simple gimmick in theory, but in practice, it’s one of the most enjoyable extensions of Mario’s already excellent maneuverability we’ve seen in ages. Looking back, it’s almost surprising this feature wasn’t introduced sooner.
4. Super Mario World
True to its name, this SNES launch title felt like it brought those who played it to a whole new world. Thanks to immersive 16-bit graphics and a greatly expanded world map, levels felt truly alive for the first time in the Mario series. The timeless feel of a classic Mario game was still there, but it was elevated thanks to cleverly hidden secrets, branching paths, and Mario’s new dinosaur buddy, Yoshi.
The best thing about Super Mario World is it’s overflowing with content, none of which feels like padding. The main campaign is already plenty long without seeking out its many hidden stages, but once that’s all taken care of, players will still have the Star World and Special Zone to complete. They hide the game’s most difficult yet rewarding stages. Add some hidden Yoshis with their own special powers and you’re left with one of the most replayable Mario games in existence.
3. Super Mario Galaxy
“Mario in space” doesn’t sound like such a grand concept on paper, but Nintendo and director Yoshiaki Koizumi were able to realize it into one of the greatest platform games of all time. Soaring through space at high speeds and discovering new worlds with diverse civilizations is already appealing, so it makes sense that building a Mario game around that would be cool, but Galaxy’s true brilliance lies in its unique use of gravity. You could find yourself on a typical platforming setup with jumps and pitfalls you can fall down in, but hop over to another nearby planet and you’ll suddenly be on a sphere whose gravity pulls you back towards it rather than letting you fall.
If that sounds shallow, I can promise you it's just as deep as the space it’s set in. Each part of this over 20+ hour game introduces a new riff on this gravitational gimmick, ensuring that the stages always have something fresh to offer right until the final moments of the game.
2. Super Mario 64
Super Mario 64 launched after 5 years of hard work from series creator Shigeru Miyamoto and his team, and at a time when the gaming industry’s most illustrious franchises seemed to fall one after another as they all failed to transition into 3D gameplay. So it’s amazing that the resulting game feels so effortless. Mario effectively did with 3D platforming what he had already done in 2D, introduce a control scheme that would immediately become standard, showcase the capabilities of a brand-new console, and make a game that ages like fine wine while doing it.
But Super Mario 64 did so much more, and that’s clear from the very first moments when entering the master stroke of hubworld design that is Peach’s Castle. After years of running from left to right, players were given an open world that—while signposting a clear intended route—let them progress however they wanted, and the new types of jumps in Mario’s arsenal were the perfect tools for them to do so. Even better, that stayed true in each of the game’s levels. Mario has never given players so much freedom since, so it’s no wonder why this game is still being played, replayed, and speedrun to this day.
1. Super Mario Bros. 3
Despite all the technological advancements and breakthroughs in video game creation over the last three decades, the third time is still the charm. Super Mario Bros. 3 redefined the ideas behind the series and executed them so well that its standard is still the one being followed all these years later. It dropped players into multiple worlds traversed mainly via bite-sized but bountiful stages, each of which used the game’s mechanics creatively to present a new type of challenge. It also threw in the occasional castle or airship to mix things up with longer, more dangerous levels complete with their own boss fights.
Mario 3 also expanded on the classic super mushroom, fire flower and starman trio with new items, each allowing new gameplay approaches that can overcome even the game’s most challenging obstacles if used in the right place, creating the best overall set of power-ups seen in any Mario game to this day. Super Mario Bros. 3 represents the classic Mario gameplay we’ve come to expect at its most undiluted state, but also at its highest quality. While the many twists we’ve seen subsequent games add to the status-quo set by the NES classic all deserve love, Super Mario Bros. 3 is still the yardstick by which the rest are measured. And 32 years later it’s still the best choice for anyone looking for the type of fun that can only be found in the Mushroom Kingdom.
But of course, the Mario franchise is still just as red hot as a burning fire flower and isn’t showing the slightest sign of being extinguished anytime soon, so hopefully we’ll soon see some new games shake this list up. But for now, here’s to 35 years of amazing Mario games and to looking forward to 35 more.
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