Why every Mario game is the best AND worst in the series

Few series (if any) in gaming have maintained the same consistent level of excellence for as long as the Super Mario series has. Though Mario has appeared in dozens of spin-offs worth remembering, it's his core series that made him famous 26 years ago and that continues to refine the medium of gaming. Multiple titles from the series appear on "greatest games of all time" lists among other honors, so with a series so full of standout releases it begs the questions: Which one is the best? And which game is the worst?

We've done a couple of these before, analyzing the diverse Final Fantasy series and the superlative Legend of Zelda games, and this follows the same rules. We'll look at both sides of the argument, listing pros and cons for every mainline, non-remake, core Mario game in the series history. Then we'll lay out our ultimate opinion on each and every game in the franchise from NES all the way up to this year's 3DS title. Agree or disagree with our rulings? We'd love to know your feelings in the comments. Though we feel pretty secure in our choices here, we'd love this to start a conversation rolling.

Why it’s the best Mario ever: It started it all and is the primordeal incarnation of the plumber's adventure. After having addictive, arcadey, single screen fun in Donkey Kong and Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros took the medium to new heights as an entire rich world was just scrolling right in front of you. The physics and controls set the standard for decades and it’s not hyperbole to say that this title influenced every game that game after it in some way. Everything about this game is burned into the minds of a generation and for millions this one release still defines gaming.

Why it’s the worst Mario ever: It’s so primitive. The physics may be superb, but why can the screen only move forward? And why is the world so brown? Going back to this game after playing Marios from even 1995 feels like you have one hand tied behind your back. Also, this is such a clichéd choice for best game ever, we’ve ever so slightly turned on the title just so we can move the conversation of gaming forward.

Personal take: For people of a certain age group, this game is so monolithic that its basically above judgment. It's the core at the center of what gaming is to so many and accordingly can’t be fairly critiqued. Every Mario after this one builds on SMB’s primitive foundation, which makes every game that follows both indebted to SMB and better than it by definition.

Why it’s the best Mario ever: Most Mario games are too inviting. Games shouldn’t always be for everyone, they should be made to test you, to punish you if need be to make you a better gamer. After people had played Super Mario Bros to death, they needed a new game to test their recently acquired skills. And Lost Levels/SMB2 in Japan is the Mario game that will test your skill. Lost Levels remains the most hardcore of Mario games, and if you don’t like it, that’s because you suck.

Why it’s the worst Mario ever: Not only is it just pointlessly cruel and will be one of the most frustrating experiences of your life, it’s simply not worth your time. In a very non-Nintendo decision, Lost Levels is almost entirely made from reused assets from the first Super Mario. The levels may be new (as well as insanely mean), but that doesn’t mean they feel original. This was a retread and once you set aside the difficulty, kind of boring.

Personal take: Screw this game. Finishing it’s a badge of honor and Mario super fans will play it for the sake of completeness, but this is hardly worthy of being called a sequel. Its derivativeness also makes it one of the lamest entries in the Mario pantheon. We’re normally against Japanese games being skipped over for release in America, but Nintendo’s US branch made the right choice by ignoring it on the NES.

Why it’s the best Mario ever: Now this is how you do a sequel! Throw out all the rules, make up totally new ones, just be creative! Compared to the empty difficulty of Lost Levels, the USA’s Mario 2 has so many new ideas it hardly feels like Mario at all. But even with it being so different from the first game, it still had Nintendo’s trademark level of quality, with fun levels, dangerous new enemies, and colorful graphics that kept us coming back.

Why it’s the worst Mario ever: Super Mario 2 it isn’t even a real Mario game. After cancelling Japan’s Mario 2, Nintendo just reskinned a very non-Mario platformer for America. As fun as it may be, it breaks many core rules of Mario, like how if you jump on someone you stand on their head instead of smashing them to death. Perhaps it’s based on a technicality, but this title almost doesn’t deserve to be in this feature.

Personal take: Sorry nerds, we're not workimg in technicalities here. This is the real Super Mario 2 in our minds, and even if it was incredibly different at the time, more than a few of the ideas it introduced became part of Mario’s style. Plus, it was made by Miyamoto’s Mario team in Japan, so we still count it as a Mario title and a pretty great one at that.

Why it’s the best Mario ever: After side games and half steps, this was the true sequel to Super Mario Bros. It improved every single aspect of the series and made everything feel fresh while keeping the core of what defines Mario. All the suit-based power-ups are unforgettable, while the introduction of the overworld, auto-scrolling stages, and the ability to fly can’t be denied as major steps forward in gaming history. SMB might have started it all, but this is the game that has defined Mario more than any other in the years since.

Why it’s the worst Mario ever: Um, let’s see… the levels are pretty short and not as packed with secrets as the SNES launch game that followed. Hmm… some of the final levels are too hard, and there’s no save system, which is frustrating with a game as long as SMB3 (unless you use warp whistles). Also… can we get back to you on this?

Personal take: Like more than a few on this list, there’s a very strong argument to be made that this is the best in the series. At the very least it’s the best 8-bit Mario. It may lack some of the bells and whistles the dev team used in the next hardware generation, but this game represents the best the NES could produce.

Henry Gilbert

Henry Gilbert is a former GamesRadar+ Editor, having spent seven years at the site helping to navigate our readers through the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation. Henry is now following another passion of his besides video games, working as the producer and podcast cohost of the popular Talking Simpsons and What a Cartoon podcasts.