The first TV console I owned was a Playstation, which my brothers and I got for Christmas sometime around the year 2000. A few years later, I saved up some lawn-mowing money to buy an SNES on eBay. Great decision.
Since I splurged for Super Mario All Stars (remakes of all 4 NES Mario games) and Super Mario World (the only “real” SNES Mario game) as part of my SNES purchase, I’ve been a huge fan of those games. They’re almost all available to play online if you just Google it, so it’s easy to scratch that nostalgia itch.
Here is a list of the 2D Mario games I have beat (working with my best bud Jimmy), plus some thoughts on all of them. All of these games I have 100% completed, also — no small feat. In other words…
Super Mario Bros. – NES (played on SNES) – 1985 (1993)
The granddaddy. It’s a lot of fun, and impressive how it never feels like a rough draft — play any other game from the era and 99% of the time the best case is you’ll walk away thinking “not quite there.” Not so with SMB. The design is pretty much a miracle when you consider how much new ground they were breaking — there’s a good difficulty curve, good variety in the platforming challenges, and no major design mistakes. The control of Mario feels off if you’re used to the later games that give you more precise control of the character’s momentum in the air, but you get used to it after a few levels.
Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels – NES (played on SNES) – 1986 (1993)
The same engine as Super Mario Bros, but with design philosophy of “how can we punish players?” turned up to eleven. This one is HARD. There are more levels than the original, they’re longer levels, and the variety in the challenge is higher. I have to come clean, when Jimmy and I beat this one, he did the heavy lifting of beating the absurd later levels. My fingers are not that nimble, my reflexes aren’t that quick. Depending on your attitude, the intensity of the “letter levels” (worlds A through D) is either masochistic bullshit — on top of the sheer precision and timing required, there’s a lame guess-and-check dynamic thrown in — or hardcore gaming nirvana. My take is in the middle… leaning towards the nirvana.
Super Mario Bros. 2 – NES (played on SNES) – 1988 (1993)
Most people with a rudimentary knowledge of gaming history knows that SMB2 released in the US is a lark. It’s a port of another game, Doki Doki Panic, with Mario pasted in as the main character. Nintendo was (understandably) concerned about the difficulty of what was released as SMB2 in Japan (The Lost Levels). This is doubly strange because SMB2 is only a bit behind The Lost Levels in difficulty. The game accumulated plenty of oddities in translation: Princess Peach is a playable character, and the goal is to save a dreamland named Subcon from a frog king named Wart….. the fuck? The game is still pretty fun, but the quick, bouncing pace of the hallmark Mario games is obviously missing — enemies can only be killed by throwing vegetables plucked from the ground. It’s a grind of a game and a definite step behind the other 2D entries, if you even count it in their league.
Super Mario Bros. 3 – NES (played on SNES) – 1990 (1993)
This is when you can start using words like “masterpiece.” SMB3 is full of imagination and improvements on the Mario formula. The most striking is the branching overworld to choose your levels — it simultaneously makes the game feel more vast and immersive. The additional power-ups give the gameplay more variety and strategy. There are tons of levels, and the design is always creative and superior, with one caveat: The levels are too short! You’re having so much fun, it’s almost disappointing when the you cross the curtain each stage. Regardless, this is one of the best — if not the best — classic platformer. Right up there with the next entry.
Super Mario World – SNES – 1991
This is my pick for best Mario game — certainly my favorite and the one I’ve played the most. It takes everything that worked in Super Mario Bros. 3, refines it, adds in a couple of twists, and packages it with great visual presentation. The graphics still hold up, as the cartoonish look never feels blocky or dated like they do in the 8-bit games.
But it’s the big, fun levels, the first-rate platforming design, and the loads of secrets and hidden areas that really suck you in.
The biggest issue with the game — one that the series has never shaken since — is that the game is too easy! The addition of Yoshi is fun, but makes you essentially invincible. The new spin jump is a little bit overpowered, giving you a huge advantage when you’re “big.”
The biggest thing lowering the difficulty is the flying feather — once you master the flying technique, you can fly over pretty much any level. Throw in the unlockable free-powerups-unlimited-lives level, and anyone even moderately good at platformers should breeze through the main path of this game. (Jimmy and I have beaten Bowser in about fifteen minutes, which would put us about five off the tool-assisted world record.)
But the game makes up for it with an expansive world of levels that seemed mind-boggling at the time, and is still impressive — there are almost 75 levels and 100 “exits.” It’s been a long time since I cleared it 100%, but I remember that it’s a doozy of a task to find every single one.
Ultimately, the game is so damn fun, full of rock-solid platforming, surprises, and clever that I can’t help but come back to it again and again. Most of you reading this probably have played SMW at least once before, but whether or not you have, it’s probably due time you blow the dust off of the cartridge and play it again (or, more likely, play it online here.)
Super Mario All Stars – SNES -1993
This is where I played the original NES Mario games. It’s a port of the four Mario games, but with improved graphics and more generous saving. Otherwise, as far as I know, the games are a pixel-for-pixel remake of the originals. Some of you might say that rocking “All Stars” instead of the NES originals makes me a Mario poseur, but I’m okay with that.
New Super Mario Bros. – DS – 2006
The only modern 2D Mario I’ve played to the end is New Super Mario Bros. It’s definitely a winner. Though it feels a little bit gentler than the old games, it’s a respectable challenge if you try to 100% the game.
While most games give you little reason to be a completionist, NSMB is bursting at the seams with hidden content: there are secret exits and hidden levels galore, even before the two hidden worlds.
There are a few 2D Mario games that I hope to complete, but still haven’t. The list includes some of the nontraditional old games — Yoshi’s Island (aka Super Mario World 2), the Game Boy “Land” games — as well as newer entries — NSMB 2, NSMB Wii, NSMB U.
I also haven’t brought up the 3D Mario entries (64, Sunshine, Galaxy, Galaxy 2, Land 3D, World 3D) which I’ve never gotten into the same way I have the 2D games, but are still undeniably great.
Regardless, I’ve played enough Mario to know that they are some of the most fun you can have staring at a screen. Consistent quality, sublime level design, rock solid challenges, and clever twists on a reliable formula are the hallmark of this classic series.