There really is no getting around the sheer level of quality that the Super Mario Bros. franchise brings to the table. More or less modern gaming’s grandfather, the original Super Mario Bros. set a precedent for good controls, good level design, and good music that is still being adhered to today.
While many may argue that the franchise’s heights belong to the 3D side of things, 2D Mario has a far more consistent output of game, effectively eclipsing 3D Mario entirely. It’s be an exercise in futility to discuss every single 2D Mario game, but there are 10 that specifically warrant mention.
10 The Lost Levels
The original Super Mario Bros. 2, The Lost Levels is something of a mixed bag for most fans. A brutally difficult reimagining of the first game, reusing several assets to churn out something that would nowadays be considered a challenge mode.
It’s by no means badly designed (for the most part,) but it is an overwhelming game. That said, it’s indicative of an era of game design where there were no hard and fast rules on how to develop a video game sequel. The Lost Levels plays things safe in terms of visuals, but shoots for the moon in terms of level design, for better and for worse.
9 New Super Mario Bros.
The first big release 2D Mario to come out after the series’ transition into 3D, the New Super Mario Bros. moniker hasn’t exactly been seen as a seal of quality. They all sound the same, they all look the same, and they all play the same. Considering how innovative 2D Mario was, it’s disappointing.
That said, the New Super Mario Bros. games tend to feature pretty great level design, something the original DS release is no stranger to. It’s a bit on the short side and aesthetically bland, but the actual moment to moment gameplay is fantastic. If only Nintendo didn’t play its style so safe.
8 Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA)
After The Lost Levels proved to be too difficult for most audiences in Japan, Nintendo saw fit to develop an alternate version of Super Mario Bros. 2 for Western audiences. Using Doki Doki Panic as its basis, Super Mario Bros. 2 emphasized verticality over horizontal planes of movement.
In many respects, Doki Doki Panic was the natural evolution of Super Mario Bros.’ style of movement so Super Mario Bros. 2’s USA release feels totally at home with the rest of the series. Most notably, Super Mario Bros. 2 introduced Toad and Peach as playable characters, several new enemies that became staples, and was Miyamoto’s favorite Mario game for quite a while.
7 Super Mario Bros.
The game that started it all, Super Mario Bros. may not be as visually or musically impressive as it was back in its day, but its level design is second to none. This is a game that’s so well designed, it could be released today as is and still garner rave reviews. Nintendo understood exactly what they were doing with the platforming genre.
It can get a bit cryptic near the end and it forgoes high points in favor of a more consistent degree of quality, but those are hardly bad things when the game as a whole is so cohesive. Later games in the series greatly improved on the Famicom original, but it remains a classic for a reason.
6 New Super Mario Bros. Wii
The second entry in the New Super Mario Bros. franchise was a massive improvement over the original. Unfortunately, it had one glaring issue: its overwhelming difficulty. For whatever reason, Nintendo really prioritized challenge with its first multiplayer 2D Mario game. This led to a level of chaos that would only be replicated with Super Mario 3D World.
Other than that, though, New Super Mario Bros. Wii features great level design, fun power ups, and amazing co-op. It’s not a game that’ll be particularly enjoyable for very casual Mario fans, but veterans of the franchise will find a lot to appreciate even while tearing their hair out in 9-3.
5 Super Mario 3D Land
Super Mario 3D Land exists in a sort of Super Mario inbetween, neither fully 2D nor fully 3D. For all intents and purposes, though, it is a 2D Mario game. It features a 3D plane, but that’s more or less its gimmick in the same way that the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2 played with verticality.
Full of replay value and creative stages, Super Mario 3D Land is one of a kind in the Mario franchise. Only 3D World comes close to matching it and that game plays to 3D Mario sensibilities. In some ways, 3D Land is the Super Mario 64 fans would have gotten had Nintendo not figured out how to properly transition the series into 3D.
4 New Super Mario Bros. U
Being the fourth New Super Mario Bros. game in a rather short amount of time, fans were not particularly thrilled with New Super Mario Bros. U’s release in spite of its glowing reviews. Fans immediately rejected it (and the Wii U,) leaving it forgotten to the wayside. Which is a shame as it’s incredibly good.
New Super Mario Bros. U legitimately features some of the best level design in the series, if not the overall best. This is a game Nintendo clearly put a considerable amount of work into, even going so far as to better balance the multiplayer. It suffers from the New Super Mario Bros. aesthetic, but it’s an impressive game that deserves more love.
3 Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
Going from Super Mario Land to Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins is genuinely shocking. The former is one of the Game Boy’s launch titles and it shows. Nintendo played it very safe with SML whereas the latter is a bonafide Mario game on the Game Boy that lifts heavily from Super Mario World without being derivative.
With stages that can be tackled in any order, there’s a level of freedom in 6 Golden Coins that other Mario games lack. This is to say nothing of the great level design (that can admittedly be blasted through thanks to the bunny ears) and the music. Super Mario Land 2 isn’t perfect, but what game is?
2 Super Mario Bros. 3
One of the greatest video games of all time and arguably the best game on the NES, Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the most “complete” Super Mario Bros. games. Well paced with great boss fights and even better level design, Super Mario Bros. 3 emphasizes sheer scope above all else.
It’s bigger and better, going so far as to feature non-linear stages and an overworld map. It’s a more controlled version of Super Mario Land 2, giving it an excellent difficulty curve that no other game in the series really has. When it comes down to it, there’s only one game that rivals it.
1 Super Mario World
The Super Nintendo game, Super Mario World blows every other 2D Mario game out of the water (and almost every 3D Mario game.) What it lacks in difficulty (outside of its Special World,) it makes up for with amazing levels, plenty of secrets to find, fun boss fights, an amazing world map, and tons of power ups to use.
At its core, Super Mario World is the ultimate Super Mario Bros. game, doing anything and everything possible in order to create the best experience possible. There’s a reason Super Mario World has maintained its amazing reputation so far removed from its original release. It really is that good.