And with that many Mario games around, it inevitably leads to endless debates over which one is best. So, we at USgamer decided to take a democratic approach and put it to a vote. Seven different USgamer contributors have weighed in to decide once and for all which Mario games are best, and which are worst, by putting the entire series to a vote.
And how did we go about making these decisions? We used a weighted voting system, where all 35 games were assigned a score based on each person’s ranking. Each game’s overall score was then tallied and ranked. As for which games were eligible, we included only Super Mario games and spinoffs — platformers beginning with Super Mario Bros. No sports games, no puzzlers, no RPGs, no racing games… and no pre-Super Mario games, e.g. Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong or Donkey Kong sequels, either (including DK94, Donkey Kong Country, and all those Mini games). And finally, ports and remakes were counted as the original game… so while we didn’t include Super Mario Bros. DX on the list, it definitely factored into our opinions about Super Mario Bros. There have been so many Mario games we had to draw the line somewhere or else we’d never be done with this feature.
So how did the games stack up? Some of the results may surprise you! [Update Monday 9/7: Part two, with games 22-11, is up!]
The Bottom Tier
The lowest of the low… just kidding. With just a few exceptions, a poor Mario game is still a pretty great game. These unloved games range from genuinely terrible to genuinely good… and the Game Boy Color Wario Land games almost certainly only showed up in this portion because so few people have played them and couldn’t vote on them. Don’t worry, though — we’ll be bringing back USgamer Club soon with a mandatory Wario Land II & III session in order to right this wrong!
39. Super Mario Bros. Special
[Sharp X1/NEC PC-8801, 1986]
Not to be chauvinistic, but it’s probably telling that the lowest-ranking entry on our list is the one Super Mario game never to appear on a Nintendo platform. Hudson adapted Super Mario Bros. (under license!) for Japanese home computers, and the results are… kind of terrible, but in a fascinating way. Between the weird level remixes, the inclusion of enemies from the original Mario Bros., and the awkward flipscreen scrolling, this is one of those games you have to experience to believe it.
38. Yoshi Topsy Turvy
[Game Boy Advance, 2005]
As we’ll see in the course of this list, great Yoshi’s Island sequels have been few and far between over the years (we hear good things about Woolly World, though!). The worst follow-up by far was this Artoon-developed project that centered entirely around a special accelerometer feature. Points for innovation, but given that WarioWare Twisted! came along at around the same time and showed how truly great accelerometer-based play could be, this ugly, clumsy effort fell far short.
37. Wario: Master of Disguise
[Nintendo DS, 2007]
This absolute abomination of a game lacked refinement and completely failed to take advantage of its costume-centric premise. As a follow-up to the Wario Land games, it completely failed. Frankly, we’d rather watch the Dana Carvey movie “Master of Disguise,” and that has a 1% “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
36. Wario World
The Wario games have always been a little off, but this one is the most bizarre of them all. A 3D platformer/brawler centered around acquiring wealth, Wario World unfortunately was put together by legendary developer Treasure during their awkward transition into 3D game design and as such feels half-baked — incomplete, even. A good idea that needed more time in the proverbial oven.
35. Yoshi Touch ‘N Go
[Nintendo DS, 2005]
A charming and fun action game, Yoshi Touch ‘N Go’s failing comes not from poor design but rather from the fact that it feels more like a minigame concept that Nintendo decided to sell for full price. As a demonstration of the potential of touch screen-based play on the shiny new Nintendo DS, it was pretty cool; as a value proposition in a world where full-sized ports of Super Mario 64 and Ape Escape featured on portable systems, it failed to make a case for itself.
34. Wario Land: Shake It!
Drop-dead gorgeous graphics alone couldn’t atone for the fact that this platformer felt completely recycled. It looked stunning, yes, but in action it proved to be a muted, less anarchic take on the superior Wario Land 4. 3
33. Wario Land
[Virtual Boy, 1995]
This platformer may well have been the single best game ever produced for the Virtual Boy system. But, unfortunately, that means you have to play it on Virtual Boy. Even if you can find a working system, you still have to deal with the literal headaches that come hand-in-hand with Nintendo’s most disastrous console ever. If there were any justice in the world, Nintendo would remake this for 3DS and liberate it from the tyranny of an aging, uncomfortable machine.
32. Yoshi’s Story
This gentle platformer offers an unique premise; it’s hilariously simple and almost completely lacking in challenge, but your real goal is to approach each stage as if it were a puzzle of sorts, finding the optimal route to consume each Yoshi’s favorite fruits. It’s like a felt-board take on Mighty Bomb Jack, if that makes any sense. Unfortunately, coming directly on the heels of the superlative Yoshi’s Island, most fans wanted something more than that.
31. Wario Land 3
[Game Boy Color, 2000]
What’s this game doing down here so low in the rankings? Ah, right… no one’s played it. Well, that too is a statement on the game itself — but those who have taken the time to explore the third Wario Land have found a sprawling, non-linear adventure that uses Wario’s indestructibility to create elaborate puzzles and challenges unlike any other Mario-style game. Well, except the rest of the Wario Land series. 1
30. Super Mario Run
Super Mario Run marks Mario’s first mobile game. There you go, investors. Nintendo finally put Mario on mobile. Are you happy?
Probably not. Super Mario Run failed to get people very excited, primarily because it opts for a “free to download” monetization system in lieu of the free to play system most mobile games use. Nintendo asks for $9.99 after you’ve tucked away a few levels, and players’ answer to that request has been a resounding “Nope.”
It’s a shame, because Super Mario Run is a well-built mobile game. Its levels are cleverly built and fine-tuned to suit Mario’s auto-run. The 3.0 update indicates Nintendo still plans to add content to the game; I suppose there’s a chance they’ll just overhaul its monetization system, and / or drop the price of entry. People clearly still love Mario. Just not enough to pay $9.99 in a market where “Free” is the norm.
29. Super Mario Bros. 2: The Lost Levels (JP)
[Famicom Disk System, 1986]
The original Super Mario Bros. 2 demonstrates the arcade mentality behind the Mario series of the era: Rather than existing as a fresh, new, inventive sequel, this is more of a remix designed for players who mastered the original Super Mario Bros. Forget the gentle learning curve of SMB’s World 1-1; this drops you right into the deep end and only gets nastier from there. Unfortunately, it often forsakes Nintendo’s own design principles, feeling less like classic Mario at times and more like the kind of troll stages you’ll be experiencing in Super Mario Maker.
28. Wario Land II
[Game Boy/Color, 1998]
Like Wario Land III, this game would be a lot further up the list if more people had played it (unlike, say, Yoshi’s Story or The Lost Levels, which everyone voted on). This was the game that truly established Wario as a unique character rather than just a chubbier, angrier Mario. By taking away his vulnerability to enemies and penalizing players with weird status effects instead of death, Wario Land II’s designers created an entirely new form of platform game design. As its place in the rankings can attest, it’s not the most popular of Mario spin-offs, but it might just be the most inventive. 2
27. Yoshi’s Island DS
[Nintendo DS, 2006]
Unlike Yoshi’s Story, Yoshi’s Island DS took aim at being a true Yoshi sequel, with the same visual style and egg-chucking mechanics as the Super NES classic. But at least Yoshi’s Story distinguished itself with entirely new gameplay concepts; Yoshi’s Island DS just feels like a retread. The addition of different babies to tote around besides Mario bogged down the action with needless complexity, and the weird gap between the two DS screens could hide hazards at crucial moments. So it was basically the Super NES game, but less good. 1
26. Super Princess Peach
[Nintendo DS, 2006]
Almost a mighty blow for girl power… if not for the fact that it was built around the worst sexist stereotypes about women. Peach has got it! If by “it” you mean wild emotional swings. Still, despite its decidedly un-progressive nature, Super Princess Peach deserves credit for finally letting the damsel in distress take the leading role, and for featuring a wide array of imaginative puzzles in the Wario Land vein around the heroine’s emotional distress.
25. Wario Land 4
[Game Boy Advance, 2001]
Although Wario Land 4 dialed back the most unique mechanics of Wario Land II and III by making its antihero vulnerable to enemies again, it made up for the change with an unusual level structure that saw Wario venturing into each stage to activate a bomb, then escaping as quickly as possible before it detonated — sometimes by finding a totally separate path than he had taken on the way in. With its trippy visuals and audio, Wario Land 4 was a real showcase for the capabilities of the GBA… and proof positive that the Wario series could be super strange no matter what mechanics it adopted.
24. Yoshi’s Woolly World (+ Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World)
[2015, Wii U / Nintendo 3DS]
Yoshi’s Woolly World doesn’t touch the excellence of the original Yoshi’s Island, but it comes much closer than every other Yoshi-centric platformer from Nintendo. The game doesn’t just ride on its sweater-soft graphics, either (though Woolly World is certainly one of the most visually-charming games Nintendo’s ever made); I had a genuinely good time going through each level, uncovering secrets, and observing each clever visual gag.
Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World takes Yoshi’s yarny adventure to the 3DS (with a few extras), and it’s a very decent transition. Unsurprisingly, the game’s unique, vivid graphics are best experienced on a New Nintendo 2DS or 3DS.
23. New Super Mario Bros.
[Nintendo DS, 2006]
A return to the series’ roots, New Super Mario Bros. saw Nintendo creating a brand new 2D adventure for Mario for the first time in 15 years… and you could tell they were a bit rusty. New Super Mario Bros. played it safe, with fairly straightforward levels and fewer power-ups than any game since Super Mario Bros. 2. Yet while it may have seemed rote for hardcore Mario devotees, but for the rest of the world it was either a reminder to how great the old ideas could be, or an introduction to a classic genre. It certainly paved the way for bigger and better sequels along with the revival of old-school 2D games as a mainstream concept, and that makes it pretty OK in our book. 1
22. New Super Luigi Bros. U
[Wii U, 2013]
The idea of Luigi as something more than just a palette swap of Mario goes all the way back to 1986’s Super Mario Bros. 2, where he acquired a wobbly high-jump that opened some new play paths while creating entirely new challenges. That spirit definitely informed New Super Luigi Bros. U, which saw the green dude revisiting Mario’s debut Wii U title via remixed levels, altered physics, and a strict 100-second time limit for every stage. Though barely qualified to be its own game, New Super Luigi Bros. U offered a fresh and exciting take on the previous year’s hit.
21. New Yoshi’s Island
New Yoshi’s Island took quite a drubbing in the press for being a warmed-over take on the Super NES classic, but that was kind of the point: As a portable game with a simple visual style, it was meant less as a sequel than as a introduction to the Yoshi’s Island concept for kids who hadn’t even been born when the original debuted. Taken in that light, it’s a smartly designed game full of thoughtful secrets and a pleasant difficulty level.
20. Super Mario Land
[Game Boy, 1989]
Mario’s first-ever outing on a portable console looks pretty primitive now, it’s true, but at the time this was state of the art. There had never been a true Super Mario-calibre portable action game back in 1989, yet here was an attempt to create precisely that. And Super Mario Land’s creators weren’t content to simply recycle concepts from the NES; they took the hero to an all-new kingdom filled with never-before-seen enemies. There were even a few shoot-em-up stages just to mix things up. A real landmark for portable gaming.
19. Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3
[Game Boy, 1994]
It says “Mario” on the box, but it’s all a lie! This game stars the villain of Super Mario Land 2 in his own standalone adventure. This is by far the most traditional of Wario’s games, carrying over the hat-based power-up system of the previous game, but the new anti-hero’s brute force approach and ability to lift and toss stunned enemies (similar to America’s Super Mario Bros. 2!) still made for a decidedly different experience than the earlier Mario Land games — the inflection point from which Wario’s weird star vehicles emerged. 2
18. New Super Mario Bros. 2
While somewhat underwhelming compared to its console-based counterparts, the second numbered New Super Mario Bros. game added an interesting meta-game over top of its classic portable action. Now the goal wasn’t simply to beat the game, but to make Mario extraordinarily rich. While that may seem more a Wario-centric play concept, it also encouraged players to approach the game differently, taking more risks for coins and exploring all the challenge stages that most people would probably ignore.
17. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker
[Wii U, 2014]
Sure, it’s only barely a platformer, but Treasure Tracker emerged from the bonus stages in Super Mario 3D World — and while Captain Toad jumps like white men (i.e., he can’t), he still has to contend with differences in height. The result is an absolutely charming little game filled with clever puzzles and surprises galore — a Mario odyssey for all ages and interests.
16. Super Mario Sunshine
Mario’s most benighted 3D adventure had its share of problems, sure; the action revolved a little too heavily around a decidedly un-Mario-like water-blasting backpack, and the coin-gathering missions took all the wrong lessons from N64-era collectahons. Nevertheless! Super Mario Sunshine was the last “sandbox” 3D entry in the series, an open, leisurely journey along sun-soaked beaches, and it remains perhaps Mario’s most unconventional outing. 2
15. Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins
[Game Boy, 1992]
After the tiny, conservative Super Mario Land, Nintendo R&D1 decided to take a more dramatic approach with the sequel. They scaled up the size of Mario and his foes, introduced a new power-up system, and created a new foil (Wario) to justify a wild journey through the weirdest set of stage themes ever to grace a Mario platformer.
14. New Super Mario Bros. Wii
This game’s title led many to assume it was just a port of New Super Mario Bros. for DS, but nothing could be further from the truth. (Sadly, Nintendo didn’t learn their lesson when it came time to name the 3DS and Wii U.) An entirely new set of challenges, this Wii platformer benefitted both from the larger canvas afforded by a proper console and from the inclusion of chaotic four-person multiplayer.
13. New Super Mario Bros. U
[Wii U, 2012]
Similar to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, many people took the title of this game as a sign that Nintendo had simply converting an existing game to a different console. Nothing could be further from the truth. Featuring the best visuals and most creative designs and challenges of the New Super Mario line, Mario’s HD debut stands as the high point of his modern 2D adventures — less ambitious than the Galaxy games and less groundbreaking than his 8- and 16-bit adventures, perhaps, but a top-tier platformer by any definition of the word.
12. Super Mario 3D Land
[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.
11. Super Mario Galaxy 2
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!
9. Super Mario 3D World
[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. 1
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.
5. Super Mario Galaxy
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.
4. Super Mario Odyssey
[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 Island1
[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.