It’s been 36 years since Mario – first called “Jumpman” in those simpler days – first leapt into our hearts in the original Donkey Kong, and we’ve savoured nearly every moment since with the loveable action-plumber.
He’s appeared in hundreds of games now, spanning all manner of genres, platforms, and styles, but Nintendo’s leading man has an incredible legacy for quality: his core games, in particular, have consistently defined and redefined genres, not to mention singlehandedly made pricey gaming hardware essential purchases.
Recently-released Super Mario Odyssey for Nintendo Switch only continues his impressive legacy, delivering dazzling new worlds to explore with the fresh ability to possess enemies and creatures along the way.
Here’s a look back on the best games he’s been a part of – many of them formative building blocks in our own gaming histories.
15. SUPER MARIO MAKER (2015, WII U)
True, this isn’t a typical Mario game in the sense that creation is the defining element, but Nintendo has done a fantastic job of making the process fun, accessible, and totally perfect for the Wii U GamePad.
And believe it or not, this is some of the most fun we’ve had playing classic-flavoured Mario stages in some time. The wealth of player-created challenges can keep you going for some time, and Nintendo’s own quick-hit creations are loose, silly, and completely fab.
14. SUPER MARIO SUNSHINE (2002, GAMECUBE)
As the first 3D entry to follow the utterly brilliant Super Mario 64, the GameCube’s Super Mario Sunshine couldn’t help but be let down by expectations – not to mention the seeming reliance on a weird new gimmick.
Yet Nintendo’s creativity overcame any concerns, naturally, as the FLUDD water-sprayer – used to clean up gunk around the sunny island – unlocked great new platform gameplay elements.
13. SUPER SMASH BROS. FOR WII U (2014, WII U)
Each Super Smash Bros. game was excellent for its time, but this is a series that keeps getting better and better – not only due to the expanding roster, but also to the bulging array of Nintendo fan service bundled in.
While die-hard fans stick by Melee, we’d say the Wii U game is the best yet, delivering frantic eight-player fighting action, both local and online play, and a fantastic array of fun found within. And thanks to downloadable content, it got even wilder.
12. NEW SUPER MARIO BROS. (2006, NINTENDO DS)
What’s old was made new again (obviously) with New Super Mario Bros, which put a modern twist on the classics for the Nintendo DS.
By and large, the game stuck to the old playbook: side-scrolling challenges in themed stages, albeit with 3D graphics instead of the old sprites. But newer elements, like the ground pound and super-sized Mario power-up, helped give it a fresh, exciting feel.
Follow-ups have worn the premise a little thinner; the first is still our favorite of these.
11. MARIO KART 8 (2014, WII U)
As the eighth entry in a series that laid down its fundamentals more than two decades before, Mario Kart 8 might not be the most important entry – but it’s definitely the best to date.
Mario Kart 8‘s weird magnetic hybrid cars allow for looping, twisting tracks that veer off in odd directions, and it looked dramatically prettier than any previous entry. But what really made it so great was the sheer variety of tracks and locales, especially with the DLC bringing in Legend of Zelda, Animal Crossing, and other favourites.
The later Switch version, Mario Kart 8: Deluxe, is the must-play edition. It bundles in all the DLC, brings in family-friendly accessibility options, and gives us a proper Battle mode after the slight misfire of the original Wii U release.
10. Super Mario 3D Land (2011, Nintendo 3DS)
It was Nintendo’s task to make the visual depth capabilities of the 3DS handheld seem like more than a mere gimmick, and the company nailed it brilliantly with Super Mario 3D Land.
Essentially a blend of the 2D and 3D branches of the franchise, the game nimbly bounces between free-roaming and fixed-camera segments while being a total blast throughout. And the 3D effect not only made the game look amazing, but also informed the gameplay too.
9. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995, Super Nintendo)
To some, Super Mario World 2 will always be the “whining baby” game – it’s the one in which Mario is a little infant being shepherded around by Yoshi, and if he pops off your back, the sobbing and waterworks kick in immediately.
Yet there’s a totally awesome platformer built around it: a smart, strategic spin on the classic 2D design that feels very different, yet is just as satisfying. And the hand-drawn look is still marvellous.
8. Super Mario 3D World (2013, Wii U)
True, 3D Land might have established the 2D-meets-3D Mario design, but Super Mario 3D World amplified the premise and delivered one of the Wii U’s best games by far.
Now with four-player co-op support, 3D World‘s stages are varied and brilliantly layered, plus the game shows that even an old series can be expanded and tweaked after all this time. It’s also absolutely gorgeous – easily the best-looking core game in the series before Odyssey came along.
7) Super Mario Odyssey (2017, Switch)
Given all the hype around Super Mario Odyssey, its 7th place finish here might seem disappointing. But just look at the legendary games that land before it – not to mention the brilliant ones it just topped!
Indeed, Super Mario Odyssey is another truly excellent 3D entry in the series, acting as a long-overdue successor of sorts to Super Mario 64 while bundling in an absolute wealth of new ideas. By and large, it sticks to Nintendo’s 3D Mario template, but thanks to Mario’s new companion Cappy, you can inhabit loads of different creatures in the world.
That makes it perhaps the most diverse 3D platformer in the franchise, and every intensely weird bit of it is pretty wonderful.
6. Super Mario Kart (1992, SNES)
We all have a favourite Mario Kart, whether it’s Mario Kart 64 or Double Dash – but you can’t argue with the sheer brilliance and incredible influence of the SNES original.
Super Mario Kart singlehandedly created the kart-racer genre, bringing together colourful, accessible racing action with fun weapons and a head-to-head battle mode. Nowadays, the original certainly lacks the polish and variety of the later entries, which gradually smoothed out all of the rough edges, but this is an absolute legend.
5. Super Mario Bros. (1987, NES)
Super Mario Bros. essentially defined the platformer template for countless games to follow, with each side-scrolling sprint delivering the right blend of challenge and fun. Later games took the design to new heights, but the original remains utterly essential.
4. Super Mario World (1992, SNES)
It took advantage of the new hardware for improved graphics and a superb soundtrack, but also expanded the game design with fresh power-ups, level themes, and everyone’s favorite rideable dinosaur, Yoshi. Best of all, it was huge, delivering an engrossing adventure to get lost in with your shiny new console.
3. Super Mario Galaxy (2007, Wii)
If you needed proof that the Mario platform design can be twisted into pretty much any wild, winning concept by Nintendo’s geniuses, then Super Mario Galaxy is it.
The outer space theme and globe-like, camera-twisting stages showed that Shigeru Miyamoto and crew could still reinvent the game, and it truly is one of the most joyful, boundlessly creative games we’ve ever played. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is equally amazing, but these two tend to occupy the same space in our minds, so consider this pick a two-fer.
2. Super Mario Bros. 3 (1991, NES)
Can you believe that Super Mario Bros. 3 came out on the same system as the original game (and the weird mess that is Super Mario Bros. 2)? It’s such a huge advancement in terms of gameplay design and aesthetic, and the impact was incredible.
Some 25 years later, it holds up as a paragon of platform game design, with some of the most memorable stages you’ll ever play and creative power-ups aplenty. Plus, it set much of the thematic tone still used in the series today.
1. Super Mario 64 (1997, Nintendo 64)
It not only brought the most important series in gaming into the third dimension, but once again set the template for the entire genre. And best of all, Super Mario 64 did it with so much infectious and imaginative charm that it still holds up strong today.
It’s a legendary game in a series absolutely stocked with them. Roll on Super Mario Holographic 8 on the Nintendo 5D MegaBrain VR…