3. Donkey Kong (Game Boy – 1994)
It may seem odd to say, but the Game Boy version of Donkey Kong is not only a hidden gem among the system’s library, it’s THE title that fuses all the Mario titles together, combining the past, present (circa 1994), and future of the plumber’s exploits. It begins with the original four stages of the Donkey Kong arcade game, but this is far from where it ends. An additional 97 stages follow the original four, making a total of 101. There are nine more worlds, comprising a Big City, a forest, a pirate ship, a jungle, a desert, an airplane, an iceberg, a rocky valley, and a tower. Several stages take elements from Donkey Kong Jr, including climbing ropes/vines, as well as several of the enemies.
Although this is a Mario game, it’s not a Super Mario game – and by that, I mean that there are no power ups. No mushrooms, no fire flowers, no stars. Super hammers are available, but they’re few and far between. Also, you can’t run by holding the B button. Even with that design choice, Mario has a wider variety of moves than he does in the main series. You can perform a backflip, a handstand, and a triple jump (a la Super Mario 64, which would be released 2 years later). In fact, the only real cue this game takes from the original Super Mario Bros is the ability to swim, and the only cue to Super Mario Bros 3 are platforms that fall when you stand on them too long.
It instead looks more to Super Mario Bros 2 for inspiration. Each of the normal stages is a puzzle platformer, the goal for each is to find a key and take it to a locked door. It’s almost like every stage is an elaborate Phanto chase, only with a time limit replacing the masked aggressor. Many enemies and items can be stood upon, picked up, and thrown, becoming the basis for many of the obstacles and boss stages. Conveyor belts, spikes, and icy floors all made their debut in SMB2 and also appear here. Many of the stages also incorporate vertical elements, owing both to the influence of SMB2 and using the Game Boy’s screen limitations to the developer’s advantage. Donkey Kong also takes a cue from the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros 2 by using Poison Mushrooms. While they don’t kill you in this game, they shrink you, limiting your jumping and lifting abilities. Was this an inspiration for the Micro Mushroom in New Super Mario Bros on the DS? To summarize, Donkey Kong is not only a revitalized version of the arcade original, it’s an expanded experience that may give you a different perspective on the evolution of the Mario series.
PS: at the time of this writing, Donkey Kong for Game Boy is $3.99 on the 3DS eShop, and the NES version is $4.99. The NES version is missing one of the four arcade stages.
2. New Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo DS – 2006)
Hindsight is a funny thing. With the popularity of the New Super Mario Bros. series, it seems odd that Nintendo didn’t make a 2D Super Mario Bros platformer since the release of Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins in 1992, although that claim is debatable, considering the Super Mario Land series transitioned into the Wario Land series with 4 main entries from 1994 to 2001. There was the aforementioned Game Boy Donkey Kong in 1994, which spun off into the six entries in the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series from 2004 to present, which incorporated more puzzle oriented gameplay, but remains a platformer starring Mario nonetheless. There were also 4 main entries in the the Yoshi’s Island games, beginning with Super Mario World 2 in 1995. It really all comes down to how you specifically categorize them. I know people who categorize the Donkey Kong Country series as Mario games due to their shared history and similar gameplay…so yeah, take all that with a grain of salt.
New Super Mario Bros. worked so well because it was produced with honest intentions. Nintendo wanted to do a simple reboot of what made the classic Super Mario games so great, tweaked and updated for today’s audience. They also got the opportunity to include a few design elements from earlier games that were never implemented due to hardware limitations, like the Mega Mushroom which grows Mario to the height of the entire screen.
The later entries in the New SMB series are very good as well, but they lack the freshness, simplicity, and charm of the original. New SMB 2 on the 3DS is basically a coin collect-a-thon. New SMB Wii uses waggle controls for spin jumping, which marrs the overall experience as it’s a very inaccurate form of movement for a series known for its perfectly smooth control. Newer power ups like the propeller hat are fun, and the multiplayer aspect leads to some frantic situations, but playing through it felt like Nintendo said “the first one sold so well, let’s just follow that formula and add more elements from Super Mario Bros 3”. Where New SMB felt like a loving nod to the map screens of SMB3 and Super Mario World, the later entries only feel like a rehash of that concept. Don’t get me wrong, it is a minor complaint, but World 2 of every game doesn’t need to be a desert simply because it was in SMB3. World 3 doesn’t need to be the water world, but they’ve basically pigeon holed themeselves by repeating the formula, to the point where it’s also the formula for Super Mario 3D World. You know you’re going to go through the ice world, the jungle, the mountains, a sky/pipe world, and Bowser’s world (which usually doesn’t show the entire map, leading to a false ending which brings extra stages/more worlds).
There are other places from the Mario universe to base a game on, like Dinosaur Land in SMW or Beanbean Kingdom in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. With all that being said, I’d recommend playing all of the New SMB series to find your favorite, they’re all great games and it’s neat to see how they incorporate older items and enemies into newer games. But you can also find the DS game easily and inexpensively, as New SMB is available digitally on the Wii U Virtual Console.
If you didn’t know me at all, you probably assumed this would have come down to the “holy trinity” of Mario games – Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and Super Mario 64. As you can see, that was definitely not the case. SMB3 ranks somewhere around 7 or 8, and Mario 64 ranks waaaay lower than that.
Let’s get this out of the way – SMB3 is great. It fleshed out the Mario universe we know today more than any other entry in the series, and its influence can’t be denied. I just don’t really like the slippery controls. Normal ground in SMB3 feels almost like ice in most other games, and I’m not a huge fan of the ice levels to begin with. But Mario 3 is fantastic, it’s just not one of my favorites (I like SMB2 the best out of the original trilogy).
Mario 64 also had a huge impact, not just on Mario’s universe, but on the transition of gaming as a whole from 2D to 3D. I hated it at the time, and only gained respect and found enjoyment from it through the DS remake.
It’s such an ugly, blocky, muddy looking game. I realize that video games were treading new ground at the time, but they completely abandoned an art style on the cusp of mastering it. I was an arcade kid in the 80s and 90s, and saw bigger and better things than home consoles could provide at the time…unless you owned a Neo-Geo, and honestly, no one did.
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island was released in mid 1995, and features a gorgeous cartoony, hand drawn art style.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was released in early 1996, and shows a somewhat dated but still artistically beautiful computer generated style. So I was pretty excited thinking about what a Mario game might look like on a more powerful console, and did I ever get the opposite of my expectations.
Super Mario 64, released three months after SMRPG, looked like a hot mess of blocky polygons when it was released, and only gets worse as time goes on.
Secondly, a lot of people give Super Mario Bros. 2 a lot of crap these days for not being a “Mario” game…but what makes SM64 a Mario game? Other than the fact that you’re playing as Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom on a quest to save Princess Peach from Bowser, nothing about it is remotely close to anything you’ve ever known from one. If you love it, great. I like it more than Super Mario Sunshine, but less than the two Galaxy games. But to me, the 4 3D Mario games are too different to be considered Mario games, moreso than SMB2, SMW2, or Donkey Kong ever was.
1. Super Mario World (SNES – 1991)
With the video game industry’s collective decision to only produce 3D games as they were the wave of the future, I took a step to the side. If companies weren’t going to make the games I enjoyed any more, I just had to stick with the collection of great games I already had. And to me, there is no greater game for the SNES than Super Mario World. I played it every week for nearly a decade. Now 24 years later, the graphics still look very crisp and clean.
The music is very fitting, and is an interesting study for composers as almost every song has the same melody, just in different arrangements. The controls in SMW are one of the few games I’d truly describe as flawless. I can still speed run the game in 13 minutes, and recently did a 100% playthrough in preparation for Super Mario Maker.
At the time, video games didn’t really have “trophies” or “achievements” for doing ridiculous things, so I made my own. I’m sure a lot of people did things like that though. For example, I know I’m not the only person who played through Mega Man X using only the Mega Buster, or played through A Link to the Past with the lowest level Master Sword. Now that I think about it, does anyone else remember those trading cards in the back of Nintendo Power that had challenges like that?
If Super Mario World got too easy, you could increase the challenge by not getting one or more of the four colored Switch Palaces. It basically allows you to set your own difficulty level out of a potential 16 combinations, and makes things a lot tougher when some of the power ups and platforms aren’t available. That, combined with the other factors mentioned previously, as well as the introduction of Yoshi, makes it a game with virtually infinite replay value, and makes it my favorite Mario platformer of all time.