Yesterday saw the 35th anniversary of the release of Super Mario Bros. Everyone’s favourite Italian plumber is 35 years young with nary a crows foot to be seen on his big, happy, hairy face. Of course, the character has been with us far longer due to his appearances in Donkey Kong and the original Mario Bros (Superless) but it was Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System that set events in motion that would transform Mario into a cultural icon.
Three and a half decades on and Mario is still going strong, churning out beloved new spins on the classic platformer and a bounty of entertaining spin-offs. He’s even been gracious enough to let former rival Sonic share some of his spotlight after Sega’s participation in the console wars ended.
With more than 200 games bearing his face, you may well wonder which are the best? I assume that is why you clicked on the link you found, otherwise you are very lost right now. For everyone who is in the right place, let’s break down the top ten greatest Mario games of all time, shall we?
First of all, some essential criteria, when considering this list the following factors were taken into account:
The reviews! We either consulted Metacritic, Nintendo Life or scrambled together enough reviews from time of release to calculate an aggregate score.
Sales! Mario hasn’t managed to stay on top of the gaming world by being a flop. Any game that failed to sell over a million copies was disqualified immediately.
Cultural value! Yes, Mario is a cultural icon comparable to Mickey Mouse, so the impact a game had on the culture around it is certainly going to earn it a few special invincibility stars.
Innovation! Mario hasn’t managed to stay on top of the gaming world by being a dud. This is a franchise that is constantly reinventing itself and the level of innovation and outside the box thinking brought to the game definitely works in their favour here.
So, with all that in mind, let’s look at The 10 Greatest Mario Games Of All Time.
10. Super Mario Sunshine (2002, GameCube)
After the GameCube released with no main Mario game as a launch title, there were a lot of heavy expectations for its eventual arrival following the Nintendo 64’s game-changing release. After all that waiting, it would need to be something special. Luckily, Super Mario Sunshine was just that. The story was wonderfully odd (and the first Mario game with actual cut scenes), it still looks fantastic, and the water pump mechanic completely changed how Mario games were played.
The GameCube was something of a letdown for Nintendo so it was never going to have the sort of long term support seen with the Nintendo DS or Wii, but considering they only got one mainline Mario to their name, it says a lot that the GameCube got one of the best.
This is a major fan favourite and many may wonder why it’s not higher? It was beaten in a few key areas: Other games reviewed better (this holds a 92 on Metacritic), other games sold better (this game sold a respectable 5.5 million copies), and other games were just more important. Super Mario Sunshine was a great game but being part of the GameCube line-up (a system constantly overshadowed by the PS2) there was only so much value it could have culturewide.
9. Paper Mario (2000, Nintendo 64)
Paper Mario may not be the best-reviewed game on this list and it is the lowest selling title by a huge margin, with only 1.4 million copies sold, which only narrowly made it eligible for the list.
What made Paper Mario stand out from the competition is pure innovation. Paper Mario took the RPG roots introduced in Super Mario RPG and expanded on those ideas, taking the party-based mechanics with unique characters having unique abilities, and applying it to puzzle-solving on top of the classic turn-based combat. But, most importantly, the aesthetic. My word, Paper Mario still looks beautiful even 20 years later; gorgeous hands-drawn style 2D graphics are so inventively implemented and stand out so vividly against the 3D rendered environments. The Paper Mario series has sequels on every system since the Nintendo 64, including the 3DS, but while they fine-tuned the graphics with every iteration, the games never got better than the original.
8. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010, Wii)
Many fans would suggest Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the best of the 3D era, perhaps even the best Mario game ever, and it’s certainly a strong argument. The game is joint second place for highest-reviewed Mario game, and we will get to the others in time, and it took all the great things Galaxy pulled off and added all-new innovative ideas.
What trips up Super Mario Galaxy 2 from ranking higher is twofold: It sold comparatively poorly to the rest of the games on the list, including its predecessor, and the simple fact is that it didn’t get there first. No matter how good Super Mario Galaxy 2 was, it was jumping along a trail another game blazed.
7. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (2017, Switch)
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, the Switch port of the Wii-U’s Mario Kart 8, may not be the best-reviewed Mario Kart game (Super Circuit on the GBA edges it out by one point) and it may not be the best selling Mario Kart game (Mario Kart Wii lapped it by a good ten million copies) but it is clearly the best combined effort.
Both critically acclaimed and currently standing as the best-selling Switch game with an impressive 26.74 million copies sold, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is very much the ultimate Mario Kart game, bringing in classic tracks from all previous games in the series and a bounty of selectable characters from the franchise’s storied history.
Mario Kart has been an enduring part of Nintendo’s catalogue since it first launched on the Super Nintendo and there is a good reason for that, while the mechanics and the handling have become more refined with time, the basic formula remains unchanged and unbeaten. Mario Kart captured that madcap unpredictability that Fall Guys successfully tapped into this year; the idea that skill will only take you so far and a healthy supply of luck will see you to victory. These are games that everyone can pick up and play and stand a chance of coming out on top, friendships may be tested from time to time (especially thanks to those bastard blue shells), but in the end everyone has a lot of fun and it is reflected in how well-received 8 Deluxe was by critics and customers alike.
6. Super Mario World (1990, SNES)
My personal pick for best Mario game, the Super Nintendo’s big launch title remains one of the best games of all time and one of the definitive games of the 16-bit era. The game sold incredibly well, although in part because it was a pack-in title with the system at first, and is one of the most favourably reviewed titles in the series. And it holds up perfectly to this day.
Everything the Super Mario series had established up to this point, Super Mario World perfected. The game feels massive compared to its predecessors, offering a vast array of unique worlds to play through while constantly throwing out fun new mechanics to keep you on your toes, something future games would take on as part of their design philosophy.
With bright and colourful new character designs including the introduction of everyone’s favourite good green boy, Yoshi, this game helped reshape Mario’s entire aesthetic and core iconography going forward. It only sits outside of the Top 5 because the following games just managed to do more for the series, Super Mario World refined everything that worked about Super Mario up to that point, but it didn’t really innovate.
5. Super Mario Galaxy (2007, Wii)
Super Mario Galaxy would probably be my pick for best 3D era Mario game, I know some would argue Galaxy 2, but the original Mario Galaxy felt like it hit the balance of design and playability just a little bit better. Other critics were not so sure, as both games scored exactly the same on Metacritic and the argument over which is better being stoked anew when the sequel was left out of the upcoming Super Mario 3D All-Stars.
Super Mario Galaxy took the 3D standard and took it to the next level with some absolutely stunning visual design, taking full advantage of the unique challenges a 3D platformer brings to the player while blowing them away the entire time with increasingly inventive levels. Super Mario Galaxy also holds the unique distinction of being the only 3D Mario game to get a direct sequel, such was the immense popularity of the game. Mario Galaxy stands as joint second best-reviewed Mario, next to its sequel and one other entrant still to come, and sold a remarkable 12.8 million copies.
4. Super Mario Bros (1983, NES)
Well, isn’t this a surprise? The game that started it all didn’t make the top spot. There is no doubt that Super Mario Bros is the most important game on this list and one of the most important games in the entire history of the business. In many tangible ways, it is entirely possible that video games would not have survived those tumultuous post-market crash years of the early 1980s without Super Mario Bros.
The game holds up beautifully today, the precision controlling shames a lot of modern platforming wannabes today, but it definitely feels like it is lacking many of the concepts that people now associate with Mario. This game set the standard but time has definitely moved on.
Surprisingly, Super Mario Bros is the worst-reviewed game on this list. Perhaps some critics at the time simply weren’t ready for this sort of game, or perhaps those missing components that future games would introduce were holding it back from its full potential. Very few people, safe for some purists, would suggest this is their favourite Mario game but no one could deny its cultural importance.
Sales figures for the title are a little unreliable as it was sold as a pack-in with the Nintendo Entertainment System and it has been ported to nearly every subsequent Nintendo system. With that in mind, the game has sold over 40 million copies in total.
3. Super Mario Odyssey (2017, Switch)
Mario’s big Switch debut was a critically-acclaimed smash hit, hitting a 97 score on Metacritic, putting it at joint second place with the two Mario Galaxy games, and selling a massive 18 million which makes it the highest-selling mainline Mario game on the list that didn’t come packaged with a system.
The game expanded on the fundamental building blocks introduced to the 3D era, including wide sandbox areas to explore, along with the best innovations of the 2D era by introducing a variety of new powers and gameplay mechanics to keep every world fresh and unique. Much in the way Super Mario World perfected the 2D gaming of the series, Super Mario Odyssey did the same for 3D.
2. Super Mario 64 (1996, Nintendo 64)
You may not be old enough to remember the late ‘90s but it cannot be overstated what a massive moment it was to see Super Mario in 3D. The guiding light of modern 2D platform gaming was suddenly venturing out into a whole third dimension and, against all the odds, did for 3D gaming what Super Mario Bros did for 2D. Greatly expanded worlds to explore, a variety of surfaces and obstacles to overcome, all new traversal mechanics, Super Mario 64 felt like a comfortingly familiar Mario experience while still being a revolutionary one.
The influence of Super Mario 64 extended beyond just the platform genre (although the likes of Crash Bandicoot and Spyro definitely owed a lot of their success to Mario’s pioneer spirit) but into all genres of the 3D era. Zelda, GTA, Tomb Raider, and the like all took design cues from this game. The face of gaming as we know it today could have been very different if Nintendo had not nailed the concept of 3D gaming, from character controls to camera movement, from the offset. Super Mario 64’s impact on gaming design has now outdone the original Super Mario Bros, with the innovations introduced by this game still being utilised over 20 years later.
Even today Super Mario 64 stands as one of the best 3D platformers and gained near-unanimous praise for its game-changing approach to the genre and gaming as a whole, and sold an impressive 11 million copies.
1. Super Mario Bros 3 (1988, NES)
If you were a kid in the late ‘80s, odds are you remember the visual of Mario with raccoon ears. Along with the old Nintendo Power covers, the image of Mario from Super Mario Bros 3 was the defining depiction of the character for that era. This was when Mario truly felt like he had ascended to a cultural icon rather than just a gaming icon.
The game itself certainly helped. The visual style was massively upgraded from the original, giving more personality to the characters and creatures that inhabit this world while introducing a host of the character’s most beloved and enduring enemies (including Bowser’s misbegotten children), and the game introduced a lot of gameplay mechanics that would become fundamental to the series. All-new power-ups such as flight, back-up powers, spin-attacks, grabbing downed Koopa shells (although Mario 2 introduced this, it was in a far cruder form), hill slides, and world maps. The likes of Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, New Super Mario Bros, every other platformer in-between, and even Mario Kart owe their success to the innovations Super Mario Bros 3 brought to the series.
The game sold a remarkable 17 million copies and is the best-reviewed game of the entire series with a 98 on Metacritic. In terms of sales, critical acclaim, gameplay innovation, and cultural importance, no other Mario game hits all the key criteria with this much success. Super Mario Bros 3 is the greatest Mario game of all time.
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