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The best Mario games ever made

Enlarge / Mario loves us. We love Mario.
BEHROUZ MEHRI / Getty Images

Ars Technica Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher has a rule: If you have a dumb, fun conversation in the Ars Slack that lasts for more than 10 minutes, it’s probably worth turning that conversation into some kind of article. And that’s how a weekday water-cooler-style discussion about Platonic idealism and Mario became what you’re reading now!

For people of a certain age—which, dear readers, most of us are—”video games” and “Nintendo” meant practically the same thing. (There are even a few of us who are older than a certain age, who came from the Great Long Long Ago time when “video games” meant “Atari,” and even those few acknowledge Nintendo’s culture-changing dominance in the mid-to-late 1980s.) So all of us have played at least a few different games featuring the world’s most famous plumber, Mario Mario. (Yeah, his last name is also Mario. Which means his brother’s name is Luigi Mario. Which means that calling Luigi “Green Mario” is actually correct! Vindication!)

A few Ars staffers volunteered to brave the inevitable slings and arrows of the comments section to put down their thoughts on a simple question: out of every video game in which Mario made an appearance, which one is your absolute top-shelf favorite, and why?

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Nate Anderson: Super Mario Bros.

Only one Mario game has jumped onto—or occasionally over—the flagpole of my heart. That game, of course, is Super Mario Bros. for NES. Minus worlds, water worlds, warp zones, magic mushrooms, bullets with eyes, bonus rooms, that hidden 1-UP in World 1-1, glorious 8-bit music, the egg-throwing sky-turtle (!) Lakitu, mysterious green pipes—SMB has it all.

Enlarge / It’s a-me! ’80s Mario!

Yes, it helped that this was the first great game of my NES-era childhood, and that to get it, I had to cajole my parents into renting the cartridge from the local video store for the weekend. But SMB is no mere nostalgia play. Unlike many games of its era, it’s still great fun today, and its iconic levels should absolutely be a part of today’s Common Core school standards. —Nate Anderson, Deputy Editor

Play it on: Switch Online (NES) | Wii U Virtual Console | 3DS Virtual Console | Game & Watch

Eric Bangeman: Super Mario Odyssey

When Nintendo puts Mario in a sandbox, the results can be… uneven. Super Mario 64, for instance, is sheer genius, while Super Mario Sunshine lacks polish and revolves around an irritating gaming mechanic.

Luckily, Super Mario Odyssey, the flagship title for the Nintendo Switch, falls into the genius category.

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Odyssey can be anything you want it to be. If you want to collect just enough Power Moons to beat the game, do so. I’m not a completionist, but I loved roaming around Odyssey, collecting as many Power Moons as I could find, and discovering the odd portal between worlds.

Enlarge / Don’t worry, Mario, you’ll get the hang of it.

Odyssey is also easy on the eyes. The Switch may lack the pure computing horsepower of Sony’s and Microsoft’s consoles, but Nintendo developers are capable of maximizing what they have to work with. I love the lushly detailed worlds throughout Odyssey, each of which has its own gameplay quirks.

If I had to boil Odyssey down to a single adjective, it would be “clever.” In the hands of a lesser development studio, Mario’s sentient hat partner Cappy could have been a cheap gimmick. Instead, it’s an integral (and fun) part of gameplay. I was able to get through the game without mastering the ability to toss Cappy and then use the airborne Bonneter to cross chasms, but I enjoyed watching my teenager take advantage of that mechanic. Young brains, young reflexes. Sigh.

Maybe the best part about Super Mario Odyssey is beating it—the first time. After an adrenaline-fueled run through the magma chambers under the surface of the Moon, I beat Bowser, rescued Peach, and found out that there was a multitude of new Power Moons scattered across every planet in the Odyssey cosmos. After spending many more hours hunting them down, I took a stab—actually many stabs—at the Darker Side of the Moon but could never defeat the fourth Broodal. Trying to run that gauntlet was out of the question.

Even though I stopped playing before I did All the Things, I came away satisfied. Nintendo knows what its fans want, and Odyssey delivers on every level.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to make sure my Switch is fully charged… —Eric Bangeman, Managing Editor

Play it on: Switch (Physical | Digital)

Andrew Cunningham: Super Mario Galaxy 2

Nintendo’s 2D classics are easy to play, in the sense that they are easy to find and acquire. NES and SNES games are always the first to be repackaged and redistributed on new Nintendo consoles, and emulating these systems requires so little computing power that you can fire up Super Mario Bros. 3 on nearly any device that will connect to a screen.

Preservation for Nintendo’s later 3D classics has been spottier, partly because they need more powerful hardware to run well and because it can be difficult to truly replicate things like the Wii’s motion controls, the Wii U’s tablet, or the DS and 3DS’s touchscreen or stereoscopic 3D effects. These games do sometimes get repackaged and re-released for newer consoles, but they come with new-game price tags to match.

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Look out!

All of this is to say that there’s definitely an element of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” to my insistence that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is my favorite Mario game, because I haven’t actually played it in the better part of a decade. But clearly someone needs to stick up for it—its absence from Super Mario 3D All-Stars was a travesty nearly on par with the presence of Super Mario Sunshine. (This is a joke.)

Galaxy 2 began life as a bundle of ideas that didn’t make it into the original game, and the result is a brilliant collection of rapid-fire challenges that riff on the original Galaxy‘s mechanics in more varied and adventurous ways. (It’s a clear precursor to the Power-Moon-stuffed Super Mario Odyssey favored by Eric up above.) And once Galaxy 2‘s 120 stars have been collected, the game hits you with another 120 stars that will challenge any player’s precision platforming skills.

While games like the New Super Mario Bros. series or Super Mario 3D World have more fleshed-out multiplayer modes, Galaxy 2 also deserves recognition for its excellent two-player co-op mode, where another person can point their Wii Remote at the screen to stun enemies and collect items. Nintendo also played with this idea in the original Galaxy and Odyssey, but the iteration in Galaxy 2 is great for younger gamers or non-gamers who want to get in on the fun. The Wii Remote controls are intuitive, and the second player can do a whole bunch of genuinely useful things that don’t get in the way of the first player.

Mario Galaxy 2 is a high watermark between the technical achievements of Mario 64 and the unadulterated joy of Mario Odyssey, and I would (and, sigh, probably will) pay good money to play a 1080p version on a modern console.  —Andrew Cunningham, Senior Technology Reporter

Play it on: Wii U Virtual Console

Jeff Dunn: Donkey Kong Jr.

The best Mario game is Super Mario Bros. 3, but any cultured and physically attractive person already knows that, so let’s take this opportunity to spotlight something more interesting instead: Donkey Kong Jr.

I won’t pretend the game is some secret masterpiece. It’s not. It didn’t effectively create an entire genre of gaming (or arguably modern gaming itself) like its predecessor. Its controls aren’t as precise, and its four levels aren’t as distinct. A single loop takes less than 10 minutes to complete.

Donkey Kong Jr. was one of the earliest examples of the Mario series using a sequel to reinvent itself. It even made Mario the bad guy!”>
Enlarge / Good times, man. Good times.

But Super Mario World will forever remind me of a long weekend in the early 2000s, around the time Ars Line Editor Peter Opaskar was getting married. Our whole friend group banded together our meager funds and bought Peter and his bride a brand new couch for their living room. As high-slacking members of Gen X, our furniture situations at the time were generally a mix of hand-me-downs and found-on-side-of-road kitsch, and we wanted to get him something super nice.

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Peter and his wife were out of town the day the couch was set to be delivered, so my other buddy Steve and I drove over to Peter’s place, let ourselves in with the spare key, and set up shop to wait. Peter had come into possession of a used SNES, and one of the games that he acquired with it was Super Mario World. To kill the hours until the delivery van was set to arrive—and to give Peter’s old couch one last chance to shine—we plopped ourselves down in front of his TV and fired up the game.

I’d played SMW before, of course—who hasn’t?—but it had been years since I’d had an entire Saturday afternoon spreading out before me with nothing to do except marathon a two-player game. Alternating as Mario and Green Mario Luigi, we methodically took the game apart. We ferreted out alternate exits, opened secret paths, activated Switch Palaces, braved the Star Road, and dominated the Special World. We emerged utterly victorious (with a lot of help from the Top Secret Area), fully completing the game with all 96 exits found. The only time we stopped was when the delivery guys showed up—we let them in to do their thing, then plopped ourselves down on the new couch and resumed Koopa-stomping.

All in all, it was pretty close to a perfect day, and SMW is pretty close to a perfect game. —Lee Hutchinson, Senior Technology Editor

Play it on: Switch Online (SNES) | Wii U Virtual Console | 3DS Virtual Console

Sam Machkovech: Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario World 2

Back when every video game review in the world had a sub-score dedicated to “graphics,” the impending 3D gaming revolution had people losing their minds—and dumping their “dated” systems at resale shops like Funcoland. More polygons meant better graphics, the world seemed to think. But not me; I was still giddily clutching my SNES, thanks largely to Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario World 2.

This 1995 gem arrived at the end of the 16-bit era, when mainstream access to 3D-capable hardware began spiking. Nintendo’s response to these trends came in the form of Star Fox‘s bare-minimum polygons and Donkey Kong Country‘s pre-rendered trickery. Decades later, we now know that Yoshi’s Island had already been in development for years when DKC‘s 3D-rendered style emerged internally—and that this led to the Yoshi team “fighting back.” They moved even more boldly into a “hand-drawn” art approach, one that had never been done to such an extent by Nintendo. (Kirby’s Dream Land 3 would follow on SNES two years later with a similar aesthetic.)

almost hear Baby Mario screaming.”>
So many memories. Chill music from 8-bit Nintendo video game Dr. Mario by Hirokazu Tanaka, arranged for tuba or euphonium trio and performed by the arranger.

Kyle Orland: Super Mario 64

The recent release of Super Mario 3D All-Stars on the Switch has rekindled a debate about Super Mario 64’s legacy. Some see the game as a masterpiece of 3D game design that holds up to this day. Others see it as an embarrassing throwback that has aged poorly in light of advances in the genre.

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Enlarge / Remember that time SM64 won every award ever?

Put me in the masterpiece camp. Super Mario 64 wasn’t the first game to do third-person action-platforming in 3D, but I’d argue it was the first game to make the concept feel as natural and effortlessly fun as the 2D games that came before it.

A lot of that has to do with the analog stick, which Nintendo introduced to its consoles with Super Mario 64‘s release. Younger readers who have grown up with dual analog sticks as standard on pretty much every console controller won’t really understand the feeling of mastering the possibilities of this new control scheme. While digital joysticks and d-pads were okay for 2D navigation, the finer gradations of an analog stick were necessary to make the 3D worlds of Super Mario 64 a joy to explore.

Super Mario 64 was also the first game in the series to center on goals beyond simply getting to the level’s endpoint. Sure, previous Mario games had hidden exits and Easter eggs for those who wanted to explore and experiment. But Super Mario 64 made that exploration and experimentation the key to finding power stars hidden behind obscure hints. It was a trick that let designers take full advantage of the expansive space offered by the new third dimension, and its influence on the Mario series (and gaming in general) can’t be overstated.

Yes, there are some elements of Super Mario 64 that seem dated these days. There are more exploitable glitches than you’d expect from a flagship Nintendo title (likely owing to the developers’ new struggles with 3D hardware). The camera controls can be imprecise at times (though the angle the game selects automatically usually requires little fiddling). And starting a level over after getting a star is just plain annoying (especially during the ride-a-magic-carpet slog of Rainbow Ride).

But those small flaws are easy to forgive when you consider just what a leap Super Mario 64 was in gaming history. Future games may have smoothed out some of the rough edges, but like Tolkien’s Lord of the RingsSuper Mario 64 gets extra credit because it was the first to show everyone else in the space how to do important things and do them well. —Kyle Orland, Senior Gaming Editor

Play it on: Switch (Super Mario 3D All-Stars) | Switch Online + Expansion Pack (N64) | Wii U Virtual Console