Looking back at the mainline Super Mario releases by console generation

Just a bit over a week away from this generation’s first mainline Super Mario game, I’ve taken some time to reflect back on past Super Mario games and think about what they meant at the time. Each one has its own place in gaming history, and it’s amazing at how well they’ve held up over the years. Whether playing conservative or swinging for the fences, Nintendo typically ends up putting out something special with each mainline Mario game. Taking nothing away from handhelds (we’ll look at those in a different article), let’s look back at Super Mario across the console generations.

NES Era

Super Mario Bros., when it released on the NES, was an industry revitalizing revelation that ushered in a whole new era in home video gaming. With fantastic graphics, sound, and tack-sharp controls, Super Mario Bros. was the must-have game of the 8-bit generation and it made Nintendo a household name. Kids begged for an upgrade from their Atari 2600 and parents acquiesced. Super Mario Bros. was the biggest hit in home video games of all-time. For children of the ’80s, Mario and Luigi became icons.

Before the NES era came to a close, Nintendo would release two more mainline Super Mario Bros. games. Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3 were hugely successful, with Super Mario Bros. 3 still showing up in just about every “best game ever” list you can find online today. The leap forward from Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario Bros. 3 is so large that it’s amazing that it took place within a single console generation. Everything from improvements in sound, graphics, level design, and overall complexity made Super Mario Bros. 3 the unquestioned king of the platform genre.

As a kid, I had Super Mario Bros. and made a pretty sly trade to get Super Mario Bros. 2. But I was never able to get a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3. Instead, I’d take my Nintendo Power guide over to a friend’s house and we would extensively explore every inch of those worlds. I remember one Saturday we planned on meeting up in the morning and playing for as much as our parents would allow for, only he wasn’t there when I showed up at 8:00am. I sat there, on his porch, reading the Nintendo Power and looking at pictures over and over until he got home, almost at dinnertime. He had forgot that they were going fishing that morning. The wait was worth it, his family invited me to dinner and we played until late at night. Few games could get me to sacrifice a perfectly good Saturday as a kid, but SMB3 always held a spell over me.

SNES Era

Super Mario World was one of those games that gave me console upgrade envy. As a 10-year old kid when the SNES was released, I didn’t have the money nor the means to get one for a while. I stuck with my NES, and kept playing it while eyeing Christmas for a SNES (didn’t happen). Then my birthday came, still no SNES. Losing heart, I was squirreling away every possible penny. I even turned down the opportunity to rent a SNES with Super Mario World, hoping that I could instead save the money to put towards a purchase. Finally, on a summer day in 1992, with the temperature over 100 outside, my parents surprised me with a SNES. I couldn’t believe it. I had a SNES and Super Mario World (which I hadn’t yet played, only drooled over in Nintendo Power).

From the moment I first set the SNES up and put Super Mario World in, I was blown away. To this day that game still impresses me, but I’ll never forget the outright joy I felt playing through that game the first time and getting to 100% completion over the coming days, weeks, and months. Super Mario World, to that point, was the most amazing thing I had ever played and it would be a while before anything would measure up well against that first impression.

While Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island was a great game, it just didn’t light me up in the same manner. I enjoyed it, but never owned it as a kid. I learned to appreciate it more as I got older and would pull my SNES out from time to time. I remember scoring SMW2 in college at a yard sale for $2, along with The Combatribes (not a good game), which was oddly priced higher at $3. $5 for both, I shelved The Combatribes quickly, but SMW2 sucked me in and took a few nights of my time from me. I revisit it from time to time, but not nearly as often as other Super Mario games.

N64 Era

If any game is responsible for me being a gamer today, it’s Super Mario 64. At a time when I was playing games less and less, the Nintendo 64 released and I was thinking that I wasn’t going to be buying one. I still played the SNES, Genesis, and PC from time to time, but my focus was shifting to playing competitive sports and dating. The N64 had been out for a little while, and I still hadn’t shown any real interest until one day I was at Super Target with my mom. The checkout lines were obnoxiously long, so I wandered over to the electronics section to browse. Right on the endcap a Nintendo 64 demo unit sat there running Super Mario 64. Nobody was on it, and I picked up the controller and gave it a go. Well, dang. I was blown away. I hadn’t been a big fan of 3D games aside from mouselook FPS up until that point, always finding them clumsy or difficult to control. But SM64 was different. It played like a dream, and it was full of everything you could want in a video game.

After a quick check of my bank account balance by phone (yeah, no app to check back then), I pulled out my debit card and walked to the electronics counter. The kid working the register was about my age, and I told him I wanted an N64. He said I was lucky as they were sold out in the morning, but someone had returned one unopened a few minutes ago. Awesome.

I headed home with the N64, Super Mario 64, Wave Race 64, and Killer Instinct Gold. Due to the addictive nature of Super Mario 64, I didn’t even touch the other two games for days, and I only just checked them out briefly. It would be a couple of weeks before I could tear myself away from Mario long enough to appreciate my other buys. Super Mario 64 changed everything. I realized that 3D gaming could offer amazing experiences and the controls and camera didn’t have to suck. Beyond that, Super Mario 64 was just downright amazing. The game was packed full of secrets and fun places to explore. It sucked me back into daily gaming, and I really never have lost touch with gaming since that point.

Super Mario 64 would be the only real mainline Mario game for the N64, but it was more than enough to make the console a must-have gaming machine.

GameCube Era

Ah, the GameCube. Perhaps the most underrated console Nintendo has ever put out. With a library of must-haves and some pretty cool exclusives, Super Mario Sunshine was somewhat divisive. I picked up Sunshine on release day and immediately fell in love with the game. I thought that the level design and the water pack mechanic were nothing short of genius. The game was also beautiful and the graphics hold up well to this day. It wasn’t until well after I’d fully completed the game that I realized there were grumbles about the game. Most of the ire was centered around the camera, but there were really only a couple of spots where I could remember having to surrender control and struggling, but they were short sections.

It was around this time when the amount of online forum talk was really spiking and every flaw was hugely magnified. That still happens today, but it was a bit more new back then. Super Mario Sunshine fell victim to a narrative that it wasn’t very good, despite critical acclaim and strong fan reception. It’s never fully shaken the stigma of being a weak Mario game, but I would actually rank it quite highly. That said, Super Mario Sunshine never set the world on fire, and it failed to move many GameCube units.

The Wii Era

We all know how wildly successful the Wii ended up being. With true mainstream success, the Wii sold at an insane rate. By the time Super Mario Galaxy hit, fans were eager for a new mainline Mario. The wait was worth it, and Super Mario Galaxy proved to be one of the best platforming games of all time. With incredible imagination, Nintendo put out a game that was unique, but immediately approachable and familiar. Super Mario Galaxy is nothing short of a master class in game design, and its follow-up, Super Mario Galaxy 2 only raised the bar. These pair of games floored me, and I love to revisit them often. These were a couple of the first games I played with my kids as they were getting old enough to want to play long.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii was a return to 2D platforming on consoles for Super Mario. It’s here that Super Mario entered a weird phase. While objectively good, they did nothing to push the series forward, which is something we’re used to seeing from a mainline Mario. It’s also the beginning of the “wah-wah” Mario music, which is easily the worst in the history of the series. A misstep for some, the NSMB line has always been met with cautious optimism. Personally, I like the NSMB games, but I don’t revisit them often. There’s no hooks that keep me coming back, despite some truly insane speedrunning videos out there, especially on the multiplayer front.

The Wii U Era

The Wii U saw a continuance of the New Super Mario Bros. line with New Super Mario Bros. U. While not bad, it felt like things were going a bit stale on the NSMB front, even with the expanded Luigi release that we got during Nintendo’s “Year of Luigi.” Like the Wii release, I enjoyed NSMBU, but I actually found myself preferring Rayman Legends from Ubisoft for my 2D platforming fix.

Super Mario 3D World gave us our 3D fix, and despite feeling like a big brother to the 3DS’ Super Mario 3D Land, 3D World was a return to form. Lots of clever platforming, character choices, and tons of hidden content made Mario feel fresh and engaging again. Still not up to the insane highs that we saw with Galaxy 1 and 2, I still got a lot of fun out of 3D World and I have gone back to play through the game again.

Ranking Them

Ranking the mainline Super Mario games can feel like picking favorites among children. It just doesn’t feel right to do, but I’m going to take a stab at it. While there are objective measures, I’m going purely on subjective measurement here, and I’m going to try and frame it within the context of how the games meant to me at the times in which I first played them. It might not be my favorite franchise in gaming, but it’s the most meaningful to me. I’ll give a short explanation why for the top 3. Send your hate mail in now.

1. Super Mario World

I played this game over and over and over. The only Mario game that compares with SMW for time investment is possibly Super Mario 64, but I have a hard time thinking it surpassed the staggering number of hours I put into Super Mario World. With fantastic music, tack-sharp controls, the finest 2D level design for a platformer I’ve ever seen, and infinitely replayable gameplay, I just can’t put anything above Super Mario World for my personal list.

2. Super Mario 64

This game was everything for a while. I’d wake early before school to get a level or two in, and I’d stay up quietly late to play before bed. I scoured the many levels in the game with friends, passing the controller back and forth between deaths. I raced that penguin a million times. There’s magic in Super Mario 64, and it might just be the most important video game of the 3D era. Pulling me back in when I was losing a desire to game, Super Mario 64 is full of righteous blame.

3. Super Mario Bros. 3

Of the NES games, I played this the least, simply because I didn’t own it as a kid. That said, it always impressed me the most. Possibly the greatest video game ever created, SMB3 would belong in any Gaming 101 course. Excellent for speedrunning or a marathon approach through its many levels, Super Mario Bros. 3 is full of everything you’d want in a platformer and it stands miles above its contemporaries.

  1. Super Mario Bros.
  2. Super Mario Galaxy 2
  3. Super Mario Galaxy
  4. Super Mario Sunshine
  5. Super Mario Bros. 2
  6. Super Mario 3D World
  7. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
  8. New Super Mario Bros. U/New Super Luigi U
  9. New Super Mario Bros. Wii

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