This edition of ranking the Mario games is going to be slightly different than the two previous ones. In trying to summarize each game in my previous posts I tried to keep it to one paragraph, which lead to some really long paragraphs. One paragraph is fine for the lesser Mario outings, but now as I enter the top 5 one paragraph seems like too few, so this post will capture the titles I ranked from position five to three, with one more post to follow for the top two. This way I can elaborate more on each individual title and attempt to give each game the time it deserves. These games are some of the best of the best, and while I feel very strongly about their position in the top five, it’s debatable how each should be ranked amongst each other, but that’s what makes these things so fun.
5. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010, Nintendo Wii)
Super Mario Galaxy 2 might be the favorite Mario game for some people, or a lot of people, and with good reason. It falls to position five on my list not for quality but more for redundancy. Super Mario Galaxy felt like a revelation while Galaxy 2 felt like a continuation of that game. In a way, it’s Super Mario Galaxy’s Lost Levels. That’s not to say it was entirely the same, as there are some obvious additions to the formula, just not necessarily worthwhile.
The premise of the Galaxy series of games takes Mario into space aboard a ship that serves as a hub world. From there, Mario enters various levels that play out over a map similar to Super Mario Bros. 3, or more recently, New Super Mario Bros. The levels themselves range in size, and the setup is similar to Super Mario 64 in that the game asks the player to re-play each level to collect stars by beating it in a specific manner. Sometimes replaying the levels opens up larger parts while other times it just tasks Mario with a new objective in the same setting.
As with any new Mario game, new power-ups have been added to differentiate from prior games. For Super Mario Galaxy 2, we have Cloud Mario, Rock Mario, and the Spin Drill. Cloud Mario allows Mario to create cloud platforms to utilize to reach higher areas or cover wider gaps. Rock Mario is basically a wrecking ball that powers through areas and certain pieces of the environment. The Spin Drill isn’t a suit, but an object Mario can grab and use to drill through an entire level, emerging on the other side. All three are kind of neat, but none are exceptional when compared with some of Mario’s other abilities. The ice flower from the first game does not return, nor does the flying star, but Bee Mario is still around as are the other power-ups from Super Mario Galaxy.
The other major addition, and the one promoted right on the box, is the return of Yoshi. Yoshi is more advanced than ever in Super Mario Galaxy 2 as he’s more than just a second power-up. His tongue, controlled using the Wii remote’s pointer, can not only consume enemies from afar, but also trigger switches or be used to swing across gaps. He can still flutter jump and give Mario a boast to his jumps, but he also has power-ups of his own that bestow special abilities for a limited time. There are three fruits that do this: a dash fruit, bulb fruit, and blimp fruit. The dash one (actually dash pepper, making it a vegetable, I suppose) lets Yoshi dash at a high speed. While dashing he can run up certain walls and across water. The bulb fruit makes Yoshi glow and shows up primarily in Ghost Houses to illuminate pathways. The blimp fruit is like the P Balloon from Super Mario World, only with the helium effects taking place on Yoshi this time allowing him to float through the air while Mario hangs on for dear life. Of the three, the bulb fruit is the most conventional in that it doesn’t affect how Yoshi handles. The dash pepper makes Yoshi dash almost uncontrollably and it can be a challenge to negotiate the various obstacles in the way. That’s likely the whole point of the thing, but I never found it enjoyable. I also loathed the P Balloon in Super Mario World, mostly thanks to the infamous Tubular special world, so blimp Yoshi does little for me. Controlling Yoshi without the power-ups is infinitely more enjoyable, but few Yoshi levels don’t include a power-up of some sort. And as you can probably guess, Yoshi is only usable in certain levels.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 does score points over its predecessor by being the more challenging of the two. Getting to the final battle with Bowser is a moderate challenge, but the extra levels and special stars can be exceptionally difficult. It tends to be challenging without being overly frustrating, though the hardest level in the game may drive you to break a controller or two. Super Mario Galaxy 2, disappointing power-ups aside, is a marvel of game design that basically gave gamers more of what they wanted. I personally found the original title more enjoyable as it was more new and I found some of the challenges less annoying (though both games contain balance ball levels, the shoe-horned Wii remote feature that most could do without. And Spring Mario). Every fan of the 3D Mario games should have this one in their library though, as should anyone who thinks modern Mario titles are too easy.
4. Super Mario 64 (1996, Nintendo 64)
If you’re someone who grew up with a Gamecube or Playstation 2 as your first console, then you cannot possibly understand what it was like to play Super Mario 64 for the first time in 1996. It only took a moment for Super Mario 64 to blow you away and convince you that you were playing something special. It arrived at a really interesting time with Nintendo taking a backseat to Sega and Sony in getting its new hardware to market. Sega’s Saturn never set the world on fire due to its hefty price tag and lacking software, but Sony’s Playstation was winning gamers over worldwide with new franchises and old, proving once and for all that a CD-ROM based console could work and work well. Sony had even won Nintendo staples like Final Fantasy, and up till now it seemed like Nintendo was just going to stand and take it. Then the public got a glimpse of the Nintendo 64. Sure it was kind of plain looking and still boasted a cartridge medium, but with promises of 3D Mario and Zelda people were convinced it would succeed and the pre-orders came pouring in.
At this point in my life I felt I had “outgrown” Nintendo and the prospects of playing a new Mario game didn’t excite me in the least bit. My first experience with the console should have been totally unremarkable as it occurred at a Toys “R” Us prior to the system’s launch at a demo kiosk. It couldn’t have lasted more than ten minutes, and was maybe closer to five, but I remember it so well because of how incredible it felt to control Mario in 3D for the first time. There was nothing like that currently available anywhere, and seeing Mario run around such an immersive world was shear joy. The game was inherently fun, and I felt like I could have just run around in that first stage for hours. I remember after playing it I went to the Saturn kiosk and tried the upcoming NiGHTS and frowned at the pixilated visuals. Sony was demoing its Mario adversary, Crash Bandicoot, who’s commercials ended up being more fun than his games. I probably tried to convince myself that Crash was superior, and that Mario was too kiddie, but deep down I knew I had just experienced the future. The game was such an experience that I feel kind of stupid for not ranking it number one, though I know as I write about the games to follow I’ll feel better about my decision.
Years removed and numerous star challenges completed, I can still say that Super Mario 64 is an exceptional game, even if it’s imperfect. Super Mario 64 was the first true attempt at a 3D platformer and it’s still the core of what all the games in the genre still follow, especially future Mario titles. For the first time, Mario could jump, double jump, and triple jump his way to Bowser and free the princess. Familiar foes returned like the goomba and koopa troopa, while new power-ups and locations were unveiled. Super Mario 64 felt unique not just because of the new interface, but by creating its own world. Traditional power-ups like the super mushroom and fire flower were absent from the game with Mario now having a life meter for the first time. Mario could no longer breathe underwater or ride Yoshi or even partner with his brother Luigi. There was more emphasis on exploration and uncovering hidden challenges and levels. Beating a stage once awarded Mario with a star and opened up additional challenges in the level. To proceed further in the game Mario needed to collect a set amount of stars to face Bowser for a final time. And for the first time, Bowser truly towered over Mario. Looking more like a turtle than ever, it was intimidating encountering Bowser and also fairly challenging as the player needed to position Mario behind him in order to grab his tail.
The game was so flashy and new that many seemed to ignore the few areas it fell short, while time has made them more apparent. As was the case with seemingly every 3D title from this era, the camera can be problematic and there will be times where the player is forced into making a leap of faith hoping there’s a platform out of sight. And while controlling Mario in wide open spaces is a breeze, negotiating platforms and narrow ledges is less so, and there’s a reason why Mario hasn’t been able to punch and kick enemies following this game. And other than the wing cap, the power-ups were decidedly un-fun, and no Luigi seems like borderline blasphemy. In short, the Mario titles to follow were clear improvements on the interface enough to overcome nostalgia. Or rather, I should say one title in the 3D Mario universe is clearly superior, though if someone held a gun to my head I might opt for Galaxy 2 over Super Mario 64, but that’s all right. Here, nostalgia counts for something which puts Super Mario 64 at a strong number four on my list.
3. Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990, Nintendo Entertainment System)
It took me a long time to admit to myself that Super Mario Bros. 3 was no longer my preferred Mario game (and no, it’s not number 3 on my list because that number appears in it’s title), which is a testament to just how great it is. I still consider it amongst the most highly anticipated video games of my lifetime. Following the rather odd Super Mario Bros. 2, I think most people were excited about returning to what felt like the more traditional style of Mario games. And knowing Mario was going to be able to fly was the kicker. The game came out in 1988 for the Famicom in Japan, so US gamers had to endure nearly two years of screenshots in Nintendo Power (and a cameo in The Wizard) before getting to play the game, but it was worth the wait.
Super Mario Bros. 3 was the true sequel to Super Mario Bros. and the clearly superior one at that. It was everything the original game was times 100. It looked better, Mario and Luigi felt better (they could now slide down slopes and carry koppa shells), and the worlds of the game were so much more immersive and fun when compared to the original. It felt huge having eight worlds with each map seemingly larger than the one before it. It starts innocently enough with World 1 and its clear path to the castle. Then World 2 stretches to a second screen, while World 3 has Mario sail across the map. World 5 is basically two maps with one hidden from view at the start. The game was always throwing new things at the player, especially when it came to the power-ups.
Super Mario Bros. 3 can be credited as the game that really took the various power-ups to a new level. It’s still the game I use as a measuring stick when evaluating all of the new and old abilities Mario acquires in his latest games. The super leaf was the major and much hyped new ability which gave Mario a raccoon tail and ears and let him fly. We excused the ridiculousness of the whole thing because, after all, MARIO COULD FUCKING FLY! It blew my little mind that Mario could soar through the air like Superman. It might seem like such a small thing younger gamers today, but it really was unheard of at the time. The first time I laid eyes on Super Mario Bros. 3 it was all I wanted to see, just show me Mario flying so my head could finally wrap itself around the idea. It didn’t just end there, of course. World 3 introduced the frog suit which made swimming fun for the first time. The water levels are kind of that thing we all overlook (except when it comes to the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game), but we all kind of secretly hate them. The frog suit was a needed addition, even if trying to hang onto one through the land-based levels was a chore as Mario could only run in the suit if he was carrying a koopa shell. The tanooki suit in World 5 was a cuter take on the super leaf, but it did allow Mario to turn into a statue and avoid damage, a deceptively useful tool. World 5 was also the world that held the one stage (5-3) everyone remembers for the Kuribo’s Boot, a green boot Mario could steal from the goomba’s in the level and pound his way to victory. The hammer bros. suit was the most sought after though. Found in World 7, it was a more powerful take on the fire flower and most players would hang onto it until the final showdown with Bowser.
Super Mario Bros. 3 also introduced a lot of enemies that became staples of future titles. The koopa kids made their first appearance as did the boo ghost and variations of the hammer bros. like the boomerang bros. and fire bros. The airships were introduced for the first time and various mini games dotted the maps along with Toad Houses where power-ups could be found. Mario and Luigi could also store power-ups for later use that could be activated from the world map. Fortresses appeared and toppling them were necessary to reach the final fortress in each level. The magic whistles replaced the secret warp zones and acquiring all three was the quickest way to reach the final stage. With no game save feature, they were almost necessary for beating the game as the game was almost too big for on session forcing many gamers to leave their NES on all day to save their spot.
For the most part, Super Mario Bros. 3 is just a really fun game that keeps throwing new things at the player the further into the game they go. It’s scope felt epic back in 1990, and it truly is the ultimate 8-bit Mario title. Really, the only thing the top two games on my list succeed over it is with level design, but even they owe a lot to Super Mario Bros. 3 which really paved the way for all of the Mario games to follow. It’s, simply put, among the greatest games ever made.