Pac-man and Donkey Kong aside, there's possibly no name in gaming that's more iconic and renowned than Mario. This portly Italian plumber brought us into a world brimming with color, imagination, and wonder. From the Mushroom Kingdom to Dinosaur World, and even the far reaches of space, this guy has been everywhere - and has also seemingly done everything. Not only has the Mario name mushroomed (no pun intended) into a massive franchise of both memorable 2D and 3D platformers, but his games have also included everything from racing to tennis; from taking on the role of a doctor, to a math teacher. He's practically become a household brand name.
Just what is it about our favorite pasta-eating, overall-adorning hero and his pals that gamers admire so much?
Perhaps it's the countless ventures into majestic fantasy worlds that entices us, or the inviting gameplay that's both entertaining and captivating; which just about anyone can get into. Something about smashing that question block and nabbing a star, hopping on that turtle, or going down a pipe and exploring the next unknown area - it's all satisfying and makes for an enjoyable experience.
For these reasons, the Mario franchise has taken on Mickey Mouse proportions in terms of popularity, and a massive slew of excellent games, platforming and otherwise, have naturally hit the scene. Many of these titles have taken their spot, not only as some of the best Mario titles, but some of the best games ever. Many have adhered to a level of quality that fans simply expect when they pick up the latest Mario title, especially when it's a mainline platformer.
Still, with such a huge palette of games being churned out at a pretty fast rate, there are bound to be some duds. Some may have failed to raise the bar to the next level in terms of ingenuity or gameplay, while others proved too easy, too bland, or occasionally just... odd...
With that said, let's take a look through the long and rich history of Mario and examine some of the best efforts starring our favorite plumber, as well as some of the lowest points in the series.
30 Greatest: Super Mario Bros. 3
Almost 3 decades later, Super Mario Bros. 3 still is renowned in many circles as being the coup de gras of not only Mario games but even platformers in general. And for such a crowded and robust lineup full of outstanding games, that's saying a lot.
This game took the endlessly appealing formula of trekking across the colorful and enemy-laden environments of the Mushroom Kingdom and brought them to the next level. From the satisfying power-ups, to the vast array of unique baddies, to the epic, creative new worlds, there was much to love about this platforming gem.
29 Greatest: Super Mario RPG
When Nintendo fans heard of a Mario collaboration with Square, the first reaction for many was "huh?" While both developers had a solid track record of churning out quality content, their styles of games were vastly different. But with these two unique juggernauts at the helm, this only made for a more epic and well-rounded RPG experience for the SNES.
You had Square's expertise in crafting a memorable narrative with charming characters, complex RPG mechanics, along with a rich atmosphere. And of course, you had Nintendo's own iconic characters, along with their quality, enjoyable gameplay which appealed to a mass audience.
28 Worst: New Super Mario Bros. 2
The original New Super Mario Bros. game was a smash success for Nintendo, and it's not surprising, considering the fun, multiplayer retro-style platforming. It was all quite easy to get into and provided plenty of feel-good nostalgia for old school Nintendo fans who grew up on the original Mario games.
It didn't have the novelty factor to hinge on, and what we were left with was a pretty bland 2D platformer. It also didn't help that this uninspired follow-up ran on a pointless gimmick of showering you with endless coins. This ongoing stream of extra lives made the already simple platforming stages even easier.
27 Greatest: Super Mario Odyssey
Super Mario Odyssey just feels like a massive culmination of everything that gamers are drawn to when it comes to Mario. It's a massive series of diverse and memorable open-world environments brimming with fun areas to explore, satisfying power-ups, amusing baddies, and tons of goodies to keep you coming back.
This game returned to the 3D semi-open world formula Mario 64 laid the groundwork for and ran with it full throttle. It even throws a bone to the old guard of Mario fans like myself, by sprinkling in some charming NES 2D platforming bits.
26 Greatest: Mario Tennis
Nowadays it's all about the latest iteration of Mario Tennis on the Switch, titled Aces, which is chock full of game modes, customizations, and other in-game nuances. But back in the N64 days, the original hit was more-or-less distilled to its essence; Mario characters facing off in basic tennis matches.
And for most of us, this was enough, thanks to the tight mechanics and charmingly fun multiplayer gameplay.
With the game containing little in the way of power-ups or other gimmicks, Mario Tennis usually hinged on a player's raw skill and finesse above all else.
25 Worst: Super Mario Sunshine
This might be something of a controversial pick, though many seem to point to this game as a rare dud in the mainline Mario series. It's a decent - and actually interestingly unique - 3D platformer on its own merit. Yet, it pales in comparison to most of its 3D and 2D platforming counterparts.
The gimmick of washing away countless pools of paint smeared across the otherwise nice tropical environments is neat at first but grows tiresome.
It all just starts to get in the way and begins to weigh down the entire experience to the point where it feels like a chore.
24 Greatest: Super Mario Galaxy
These days there isn't much talk about the Wii iterations of the mainline Mario series, mostly on account of it being eclipsed by its massive Switch successor. Though Super Mario Galaxy really was - and is - a stellar 3D platformer in its own right. While Odyssey fully embraced large open-world environments, Galaxy takes the "variety is the spice of life" approach by tossing you onto a ton of small varied planets.
This game was like an even more colorful and imaginative Super Mario 64 - in space!
Using the neat themes of outer space, the game utilizes a fun and innovative approach of gravity and flying.
23 Greatest: Super Mario World
Following the release of the massively iconic Super Mario Bros. 3, one couldn't help but wonder how a Mario platformer could be topped - at least in the realm of 2D. Well, Nintendo proved such a feat was possible with their follow-up, Super Mario World. The game looks colorful and charming and controls even smoother and tighter than its predecessor on NES.
It also ditched the played-out Mushroom Kingdom in favor of the wonders of Dinosaur World, which came with delectable food-themed biomes, along with our new trusty dino pal, Yoshi.
22 Worst: Mario Party 9
It's odd that a series known for providing countless hours of fun party gameplay could produce such a dud, especially on a console which fit it like a glove, the Wii. Mario Party 9 was when many of us MP fans had felt the series had jumped the shark.
Featuring aesthetics that didn't exactly wow us, along with some bland new mini-games, many felt underwhelmed by this sequel. It didn't help that the game featured odd new gimmicks like board games which forced all players to adhere to a single vehicle, and pointless "mini-stars" replacing traditional stars.
21 Greatest: Super Mario Galaxy 2
This game received a bit of flack for feeling a little like "Super Mario Galaxy 1.5," though it's tough to deny that it wasn't still an excellent platformer. It tweaked, refined, and amplified the formula of the first Galaxy, and took it to another level of epicness.
The worlds were bigger and more innovative, and the power-ups (ie. Rock Mario), along with the boss, were cooler. The somewhat cumbersome overworld hub was also replaced with a more convenient overhead map selection screen. Put simply, there's a reason Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of the highest rated games of all time.
20 Greatest: Super Mario Bros. (NES)
This game looks a little archaic by today's standards, but in a sense, it's like the gaming version of the Beatles - it's the one that started it all. It's the simple seed from which a plethora of lush and colorful Mario titles (and platformers in general) blossomed and flourished.
The game had many firsts - it was a sort of platforming prototype, one of the first to offer a two-player mode, and even one of the first to use a background color of something other than black. The game stood on a powerful foundation of solid mechanics, tight controls, and addictive fast-paced gameplay that just about anyone could get into.
19 Worst: Hotel Mario
When your game is more known for its memes and funny Youtube mash-ups than its gameplay, you probably messed up.
Mama mia, this game is a stinker!
This strange iteration of our favorite plumber, Hotel Mario, was meant to showcase the CD-i with its emphasis on cartoon cut-scenes that the SNES couldn't quite pull off. The problem is, those few cutscenes in Hotel Mario are about as cheesy, ugly, and poorly-acted as you can imagine. It also didn't help that the gameplay, which simply involved Mario going up and down elevators evading caterpillars, was bland, repetitive, and uninspired.
18 Greatest: Mario Kart 64
Perhaps I'm a little biased from nostalgia, but sentimentality aside - Mario Kart 64 really was a solid arcade racer that still holds up today in many ways. It presents a retro charm while still containing 3D graphics that look passable even today.
It also contains some tight and subtly complex controls that seasoned vets could exploit to their advantage, while newcomers could still get into with relative ease. The stages are perhaps the best in the series - from the majestic roller coaster-esque Rainbow Road to the iconic Wario Stadium and its infamous wall-hopping short cut.
17 Greatest: New Super Mario Bros. (Wii)
Just like any piece of art or entertainment, context can often go a long way in making for a memorable game. This is very much the case with the smash-hit New Super Mario Bros. on the Wii. At the end of the 2000s, gamers were aching for a traditional Mario platforming fix, which the 3D games were only partially able to satiate.
It wasn't long before Nintendo realized just how much demand there was for a simple, appealing 2D Mario game that returned to the series' roots. It was justified too, with some solid mechanics, memorable new environments, and for the first time, a simultaneous 4 player co-op experience that was a blast to play with friends.
16 Worst: Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash
Every series has a low point that many would rather skip right over, even one as good as the Mario Tennis series. It's perhaps not too surprising then, that this franchises' ultimate low point has its home on Nintendo's low point in terms of consoles, the Wii U.
The game fails to utilize the gamepad, or motion controls in any interesting way and has a lackluster online mode. At the same time, what risks it does try to take mostly fall flat on their face - namely the overbearing, unfair Mega Mushrooms, making the players gigantic. Ultra Smash basically sacrifices rich content for goofy gimmicks.
15 Greatest: Mario Party 2
If Mario Party 9 was the low point in the MP series, then this second iteration on the N64 is almost undoubtedly the peak of the franchise. While dedicated retro fans of the original or Switch fans online-supported Super Mario Party might cry foul, this game has it where it counts.
This game built on the winning formula of Mario Party 1 - and ditched those annoyingly painful joystick rotating games!
It features some of the most memorable mini games, some of which built on the foundation of the already fun games in MP1 like Bumper Balls. It also had no shortage of interesting and enjoyable board game scenarios.
14 Greatest: Mario Kart 8: Deluxe
Mario Kart 64 may have that old-school charm, but Mario Kart 8: Deluxe is the culmination of just about everything that's great about this exhilarating arcade racing series. It has the prettiest aesthetics, the biggest compilation of the best courses, the biggest lineup of drivers, and some of the smoothest, most solid gameplay yet.
You've got a fine blend of retro and modern sensibilities, with many callbacks to classic stages, and a return of the SNES staple of collecting coins. You've also got a pretty robust online mode, and the inclusion of the Wii U DLC, along with a true battle mode.
13 Worst: Mario Sports Mix
There's a weird feeling of finality emanating from this quirky multiplayer game. It's almost as if Nintendo is saying to us "we're about done with Mario sports games - let's just create a package that has him playing a handful of different sports and call it a day."
You've got a weird hodgepodge of basic hockey, baseball, volleyball, and dodge ball; most of which feel a bit cheap, especially with the basic waggle controls. The game also throws in a lot of wacky items and other party elements that makes this feel more like a series of zany mini-games than sporting experiences.
12 Greatest: Super Mario 64
This may look a tad dated by today's standards - but in the mid 90's, Super Mario 64 felt like a truly epic, realistic journey into the Mushroom Kingdom, unmatched by the limiting 2D entries of yorn. The game was in many ways the prototype for 3D platformers, in much the same way that Super Mario Bros. on the NES was for the 2D variety.
The excitement of wondering what majestic land awaited when leaping into a painting in Peach's castle brought out our inner child. The 3D elements were cleverly incorporated too, exemplified in the satisfying act of whipping Bowser around in 360 degrees, or the exhilaration of rocketing from a Bob-omb cannon.
11 Greatest: Super Mario Maker
Believe it or not, the Wii U did have a few redeeming qualities, and one of these few comes in the form of this enjoyable sim/builder/platformer dubbed Super Mario Maker. Sure, it took some time to assemble your own stages, and they usually ended up too difficult and/or cluttered. But it was still a fun, unique, and super rewarding process, especially when showing them off to friends to suffer through or throwing them online for others to play.
You had a seemingly endless arsenal of tools and objects at your disposal that covered the vast and rich history of the Mario archives. You could also draw from an endless list of player-created stages online, providing a constant stream of gameplay.
10 Worst: Paper Mario: Sticker Star
The Paper Mario series has been known as a charming, unique take on the Mario universe that offers a semi-complex RPG formula with a more kid-friendly simplicity. Though this 3DS iteration of the series may have taken things a bit too far with its ease of play, to the point where it feels bland and watered down.
As you'd imagine, there's plenty of mundane dialogue exchanges here, but here it's even more boring than usual.
The game uses an odd system of gathering various stickers which you whip out in battle as your means of attack.
9 Greatest: Super Mario 3D Land
I wasn't much for the 3D gimmick of the 3DS, but Super Mario 3D Land managed to incorporate it quite well, adding some depth to the navigation and gameplay. The game incorporates a nice blend of more basic 2D Mario platforming with splotches of more grandiose 3D platforming sensibilities.
This game bridged the gap between New Super Mario Bros. And Super Mario Galaxy.
This was also far and away the most epic Mario experience on a Nintendo handheld, at least until the massive Super Mario Odyssey surpassed it several years later.
8 Greatest: Mario Strikers Charged
Super Mario Strikers on the GameCube proved to be a surprisingly fun and robust sports game, right up there with Mario Tennis. This Wii sequel was even better, thanks in no small part to a surprisingly decent online mode. In fact, it was possibly the first truly solid online experience for a Nintendo console.
The fast-paced soccer gameplay was endlessly addictive, exciting, and managed to be simple enough for the novice while allowing skilled players to show off too. Strikers Charged is one of the more underrated Mario titles out there - if there was such a thing.
7 Worst: Mario Is Missing
Don't let the charming Super Mario World aesthetics fool you - this educational "mystery solving" game is far from it. This game lacks just about any action or excitement that the classic had, running with endless boring lines of text you'll need to read to decipher clues; not to mention tedious, tricky navigation.
Poor Luigi - he deserved better for his first solo game. At least Luigi's Mansion was a little better...
Dressing up an educational game that quizzes you and spits out random factoids isn't interesting just because it comes with an overlay of recycled Super Mario World assets. Many kids found this out the hard way.
6 Greatest: Super Mario Bros. 2
Many Mario fans will point to this sequel to the NES original as something of a weak entry compared to its counterparts. After all, it's not even a true Mario title at its core - as it uses an obscure Japanese game called Doki Doki Panic as its foundation. Still, though, it's a Mario platformer, and a pretty fun, innovative one at that. For these reasons alone, it deserves a slot in the category of "best Mario games".
While the gameplay strays from the typical Mario staples, many appreciate this unique style. This assortment of quirky new baddies like Birdo, as well as the new emphasis on multiple unique players, and plenty of digging, was a breath of fresh air.
5 Greatest: New Super Mario Bros. U
Wii U's success stories are few and far between, but this follow-up to the classic Wii platformer, New Super Mario Bros. U managed to sell close to 6 million units on a console that barely managed to sell twice that amount. There's a good reason for that - as this sequel proved even better than the enjoyable Wii platformer.
That flying squirrel suit is also pretty amusing to drift around with.
This game mixed in some better, more creative worlds like a poisonous purple swamp biome, along with the ability to incorporate a 5th player - via dropping platforms on the gamepad touch screen.
4 Worst: Mario Kart: Super Circuit
This isn't a horrible game in its own right, though many of its faults lie more with the handheld console that plays it, the Game Boy Advance. This device came with some pretty meager horsepower, and also lacked a joystick. This meant you were stuck playing a racing game with a clunky framerate and psueo-3D visuals, along with a limiting D-pad to drive and steer; not an ideal way to experience Mario Kart. There also wasn't much content, and most of the few stages that existed were quite flat and not particularly inspiring.
3 Greatest: Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
One of the most underrated entries in our list, Super Mario Land 2 marks the breakout debut of a character who would become another Nintendo icon; Wario. Taking the place of Bowser as the villain, Mario must scramble to collect a handful of golden coins scattered throughout the Mushroom Kingdom to open the door to his massive castle.
While the game itself is confined to the small black and white screen of the Game Boy, Super Mario Land 2 is certainly majestic, colorful, and all around epic with its themes and environments. It contains some truly imaginative worlds for Mario to navigate like Space Zone, and even a giant mechanical version of our favorite plumber himself.
2 Greatest: Super Mario 3D World
Super Mario 3D Land laid the groundwork for a new type of Mario platforming, taking on a sort of 2.5D style. This Wii U successor, however, took this formula and fleshed it out to the nth degree, creating a more epic game in both scope and gameplay quality.
And it presented it all in glorious HD on the Wii U.
Many gamers scratched their heads at the game's emphasis of the odd new Cat Suit that Mario and pals could adorn - but it actually turned out to be a fun new power-up. Climbing and clawing your way around was an amusing endeavor to say the least. Super Mario 3D World also provided the first truly simultaneous (semi) 3D multiplayer Mario experience.
1 Worst: Mario's Time Machine
Props to Nintendo for trying to incorporate Mario into educational software as a crafty way to get kids to learn, but it just didn't quite work here. In fact, Mario's Time Machine was one of a number of Mario educational games that were released in the early 90s; all of them pretty much equally dull. The gameplay is reminiscent of a basic point-and-click experience you might find on a 90's PC.
Despite trying to entice people with the Mario branding, this ultimately feels like a poorer version of Carmen Sandiego.
The game is riddled with cryptic historically significant messages and lame dialogue that is supposed to teach kids about historical events and locations.