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Superb level design
Awesome progression system
Polygonal graphics haven’t aged well
The plumber’s jump from 2D to 3D on Nintendo 64 was a smashing success. Super Mario 64 is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential games of all time. Nintendo cleverly transplanted the tried and true overworld map onto Princess Peach’s castle. Mario jumps through paintings scattered throughout the different levels of the castle and enters themed worlds to collect stars.
Part of Super Mario 64’s prowess comes from the analog stick on the Nintendo 64 gamepad. Running, jumping, and sliding with a full range of motion elevates the platforming to new heights. Couple that with wondrous level design and a huge variety of objectives and Super Mario 64 quickly reveals itself to be one of the most brilliant platformers ever made.
If you want to play Super Mario 64 today, the best version is the Nintendo DS port, which adds 30 new stars to collect (150 total) and new playable characters like Yoshi and Luigi. You’ll want to play it on the Nintendo 3DS, as the original DS only has a directional pad. Super Mario 64 is going on 25 years old, but it’s a timeless masterpiece.
Timeless 16-bit visuals
Near perfect level design
Difficulty ramps too slowly
Let’s get this out of the way: Super Mario World narrowly missed the top spot on this list. It’s the most iconic and deftly designed classic sidescroller ever made. Even as Super Mario World approaches the age of 30, it stands tall as the pinnacle of Mario sidescrolling fun. Following the formula put in place by NES Mario games, most notably Super Mario Bros. 3, the plucky hero’s foray into 16-bit action is a constant delight.
Super Mario World is marked by engaging level design, memorable tunes, and platforming mechanics that withstand the test of time. Nintendo added the spin jump and new power-ups like the cape that let Mario glide across the sky. The new mechanics add variety and make both exploring for secrets and squaring off with baddies a more engaging experience.
With close to 100 levels across a wide selection of themed worlds, Super Mario World is brimming with platforming goodness. Endgame levels provide some of the most formidable challenges in Super Mario history. Today, Super Mario World can be played on the SNES Classic, Nintendo 3DS, or on Nintendo Switch with a Nintendo Switch Online subscription.d
Huge open levels
Obtuse at times
Easily the most ambitious and feature-rich Mario game, Super Mario Odyssey for Nintendo Switch builds off of the foundation of its 3D brethren to create the closest thing to open-world Mario in existence. The most notable new mechanic is Cappy, the sentient hat that sits atop Mario’s head. You can use Cappy to bop enemies, slingshot your way across gaps, or help you master dive jumps by making a continuous platform.
Each of the 14 main kingdoms feels like a lavish playground. From the New York-style New Donk City to the scrumptious Luncheon Kingdom, each world offers a new way to approach platforming and combat. Much more open-ended than previous 3D Mario games, the Power Moons you find are truly all over the place. With 880 unique moons to collect in all, Super Mario Odyssey has a staggering amount of replay value. You can spend hours upon hours in one world having fun, long after you’ve accumulated enough to fuel the Odyssey ship.
Super Mario Odyssey is the best 3D Mario game to play in 2019. Super Mario 64 beat it out because of legacy and innovation, but Super Mario Odyssey is a fresh, modern take that exemplifies everything that makes 3D Mario so darn compelling.
Four Mario games in one
Feels dated mechanically
Lost Levels can frustrate
Is it cheating to put Super Mario All-Stars on this list? That’s debatable, but Super Mario All-Stars is home to the best versions of the trio of Mario Bros. games that kicked off the series on NES. It's got Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, and even Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels as a lovely bonus. The Lost Levels had been exclusive to Japan on NES because Nintendo thought the challenging difficulty would turn off western players.
Though they are 1:1 remakes of the originals, the SNES versions have updated graphics and the fluid camera scrolling seen in Super Mario World, which makes all four games more enjoyable. As far as the games go, Super Mario Bros. 3 is undoubtedly the crown jewel, which sets the stage for Super Mario World by refining the platforming mechanics and introducing a number of new mechanics such as sliding and climbing vines. Super Mario Bros. 2, meanwhile, wasn’t supposed to be a Mario game to begin with, which is why its level design, mechanics, and enemies are so foreign compared to other games in the series.
Super Mario All-Stars is a wonderful compilation because it beautifully showcases Mario’s early evolution. Nintendo re-released Super Mario All-Stars on Nintendo Wii in 2011 if you have a Wii or Wii U stuffed in your closet. While Mario’s origins were soon upstaged by brighter and smoother experiences, Super Mario All-Stars shows how the plumber’s early adventures shaped his longterm story.
Awesome use of Yoshi
Wide variety of levels
Tons of endgame content
Doesn’t really innovate on the Galaxy formula
Super Mario Galaxy 2 cleverly builds off of the brilliance of its predecessor to create one of the most thoroughly engrossing and dynamic Mario games. The original introduced startling verticality and joyous zero-gravity movement system that allowed Mario to fly across some levels. The sequel refines that beautiful mechanic and allows it to be put to better use thanks to varied and inventive level design.
Whether you’re guiding Mario through the air to floating platforms or kicking it old school in the spacious sidescrolling sections, Super Mario Galaxy 2 constantly throws new ideas your way on your quest to collect 120 Power Stars. Super Mario Galaxy 2 also makes the best use of Yoshi in a Mario game. The levels that feature the green dinosaur are out of this world (literally).
Even after you collect all of the Power Stars, Super Mario Galaxy 2 isn’t done throwing wild and enthralling challenges your way. The 120 Green Star levels require you to become one with Mario’s moveset. Super Mario Galaxy 2 boasts the deepest and most challenging endgame content of a 3D Mario game.
Innovative level design
Remixed challenge levels
The Nintendo 3DS’ stereoscopic 3D was poorly utilized and gimmicky throughout the handheld’s staggeringly strong run. The exception to this is Super Mario 3D Land, a glorious platformer that stands tall as the best Mario game designed for a strictly portable device. Super Mario 3D Land artfully marries 2D and 3D Mario to deliver an experience that is both novel and familiar.
Set up like a traditional level-based sidescroller, Super Mario 3D Land’s design has depth, building a bridge between two Mario schools of thought. Unrestricted by a 2D plane, you can move up and down as well as left to right in its sidescrolling stages. Turning on the 3D effects really emphasizes the stellar level design.
Super Mario 3D Land already offers a more robust challenge than your average Mario sidescroller, but when Boswer is defeated, the real test begins. A remixed version of the campaign shakes up the already great levels, further showcasing the incredible design. 3D Land launched early in the Nintendo 3DS’ lifecycle, but it remains one of the very best games released for the handheld.
Intuitive design suite
No 3D level creation
Online multiplayer lag
A Mario game that keeps on giving, Super Mario Maker 2 is a radiant Mario sidescroller whether you craft it yourself as an amateur game designer or just enjoy it as someone who wants to run through an endless supply of levels. The sequel to one of the Wii U’s best games, Super Mario Maker 2 is a must-buy for Nintendo Switch owners.
On the design side of things, Super Mario Maker 2 includes an intuitive level creator that allows players to drag and drop blocks, enemies, platforms, and much more into a level to create their own Mario courses. Containing 8-bit, 16-bit, and modern themes, you can make Mario levels that feel anywhere from 30-plus years old to thoroughly modern. You could spend hundreds upon hundreds of hours playing user-created courses, whether just for fun or with a goal in mind in the various online multiplayer modes. However, the online multiplayer doesn’t always run smoothly, which is a bummer.
For those who just want a standard Mario experience, Super Mario Maker 2 has that, too. The story mode tasks you with rebuilding Princess Peach’s castle by completing 100 zany and delightful levels designed by Nintendo using the same design tool suite you have access to in the game.
Two great games in one
Accessible for beginners
Vibrant level design
No online multiplayer
New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is the greatest 2D Mario game not named Super Mario World. That’s high praise considering that each and every Mario sidescroller is at the very least really good. Deluxe compiles New Super Mario Bros. U and New Super Luigi U into one package. Both games were originally released on Wii U, so they are somewhat overlooked.
The Switch compilation gives these vibrant, mesmerizing platformers new life. New Super Mario Bros. U in particular has amazing level design, with a wide variety of environments, obstacles, and enemies. New Super Luigi U is unique in that you only get 100 seconds to complete each level. This significantly ups the challenge, especially when you’re trying to collect the Star Coins.
New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe sets up really well for couch co-op with up to four players, particularly for beginners and young kids who are just learning the ropes. Playing as Nabbit or Toadette reduces the challenge. The former nullifies enemy damage, while the latter has more forgiving movement and power-ups. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is both a wonderful introduction to the franchise and one of the best-designed Mario sidescrollers ever made.