Franchise Festival #49: Mario (2D)

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we will be warping through the pipes of Mario‘s 2D history. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Note that much of Nintendo’s background history is skipped here as it’s present in the Donkey Kong (Classic) article. Where two dates are indicated, the first is Japan and the second is North America.

This article would not be possible without a few key sources. These include the Mario Wiki, the Iwata Asks series of interviews, shmuplations‘ translations of Japanese magazine interviews, and the Gaming Historian YouTube channel. Check these resources out if you like the article and want to learn more!

Table of Contents

  1. Background
  2. Mario Bros.
  3. Super Mario Bros.
  4. Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan)
  5. Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA)
  6. Super Mario Bros. 3
  7. Super Mario Land
  8. Super Mario World
  9. Super Mario Land 2
  10. New Super Mario Bros.
  11. New Super Mario Bros. Wii
  12. New Super Mario Bros. 2
  13. New Super Mario Bros. U
  14. Spinoffs


Shigeru Miyamoto graduated from technical artist to Nintendo game designer with his work on the studio’s seminal Donkey Kong arcade machine in 1981. That video game ushered in an era of platformers and introduced the world to Jumpman, a mustachioed fellow who would famously be renamed Mario in Donkey Kong Jr. (1982). According to longstanding rumor, his new moniker was inspired by Mario Segale, the outspoken landlord of Nintendo’s North American warehouse.

Mario Bros. (1983)

Soundtrack (YouTube)

Following Donkey Kong Jr., Nintendo sought to produce another platforming property that would engage audiences across the world. Game and Watch creator Gunpei Yokoi and Shigeru Miyamoto, his partner on Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., would be assigned to collaborate on the first game focusing entirely on Mario. While the latter was more inclined to stick with the mechanics of Donkey Kong, particularly Mario’s inability to survive a long-distance fall, Yokoi successfully argued for upending much of what had been established in Nintendo’s 1981 classic.

The stage layout has evolved significantly from Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. Mario can now fall without dying and can pass from one side to the other if he or she moves off-screen. Credit: Japancommercials4U

Against initial protestations by Miyamoto, the team opted to lean into one core gameplay feature: Mario could defeat enemies by striking upwards against the platform upon which they walked. Though Miyamoto came around on the viability of this mechanic, he pushed back against the ease with which players conquered their foes. Consequently, players were obligated to first flip enemies onto their backs from below and then delivering a finishing blow by directly touching the fallen creature. This mechanic is the reason that turtles – here known as Shellcreepers but later named Koopas – were chosen as the game’s basic antagonist.

Koopa Troopas make their debut as “Shellcreepers” in an introductory sequence. Credit: Japancommercials4U

In Mario Bros., players take on the role of Mario in single player or Mario and his newly introduced brother Luigi in multiplayer. Luigi has no distinguishing features from Mario aside from an alternate color palette. Players can cooperate with one another as they progress through the game’s numerous levels or attempt to sabotage one another in pursuit of the highest score.

Are you a going to be a good Luigi or a bad Luigi? Credit: Old Classic Retro Gaming

Levels are 2D and feature rudimentary sprites for the player characters and a host of enemies. Stages do not scroll, as is typical for an early 1980s platformer, and the player instead must battle waves of foes emerging from pipes at the top of the stage and progressing down to the bottom along a handful of platforms. Once they have reached the screen’s lowest platform, enemies retreat into pipes and reappear at the top of the level. If Mario and/or Luigi takes too long, deadly fireballs begin to bounce around the stage.

Things get very hectic if you fail to slaughter those Sidesteppers and Shellcreepers quickly enough. Credit: Japancommercials4U

In spite of its simple yet engaging gameplay, Mario Bros. was not a commercial success. The Western video game industry was in the midst of an economic collapse due to an oversaturation of poor-quality releases and the arcade version of Mario Bros. had been released during the worst of this trend. It was still critically successful and highly influential on later Super Mario Bros. titles, however.

The Fighter Fly would only go on to reappear in Super Mario Land. Thank goodness. Credit: Japancommercials4U

Surprisingly, this unassuming arcade game would go on to cast a long shadow over the following thirty years. Home console ports of varying quality were produced for the the Apple II, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari 8-bit computers, Atari 7800, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum prior to Nintendo establishing its practice of publishing games exclusively on its own hardware. It would gain a reputation as the only core Mario game released for non-Nintendo platforms.

The stage layout is different, and Mario can finally throw shells, but Mario Clash is heavily influenced by Mario Bros. Credit: World of Longplay

A 1985 port to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) would be criticized for its lack of fidelity to the arcade original, though this NES version would be the foundation for re-releases and cameo appearances in other games throughout the 1990s and 2000s; noteworthy among these are a fully remade 2.5D version released in 1995 on Nintendo’s Virtual Boy platform as Mario Clash and a playable in-game arcade cabinet within the world of Animal Crossing (2001/2002). In 2018, a faithful reproduction of the arcade version was finally published by arcade emulation studio HAMSTER on the Nintendo Switch.

Super Mario Bros. (1985)

Soundtrack (YouTube)

Even as the video game crash was ravaging Western game developers from 1983 to 1985, Shigeru Miyamoto remained focused on the development of new Nintendo titles for the studio’s Family Computer (Famicom). This piece of hardware was released in Japan in 1983 and rose to prominence as Western rivals lost their hold on the home console market. Nintendo was in a unique position to establish itself as a leading producer of quality software.

The title screen broadcasts the game’s most notable feature with a scrolling demo, but also emphasizes a blue background – this was very rare in the mid-1980s. Credit: Old Classic Retro Gaming

With a sequel to Mario Bros., Miyamoto sought to integrate key features from other games he had worked on. A scrolling screen, correctly perceived as more dynamic than Mario Bros. single-screen playing field, was inspired by Excitebike (1984/1985). The ability to play as a larger Mario sprite – a Super Mario, as it were – was influenced by the large character sprites of Devil World (1984, Japan).

You can tell that Devil World is a Japan-exclusive Nintendo game because it has crosses in it. Credit: World of Longplays

The player was initially intended to begin the game as a large version of Mario that could be reduced to a smaller size, but the development team believed that the opposite progression would be more satisfying. Miyamoto and co-designer Takashi Tezuka also intended to divide levels between platforming sections and shoot-em-up sections in which Mario would pilot a rocket. The rocket would become a cloud in later concept art before the shoot-em-up sections were abandoned entirely.

A sketch of the game’s early shoot-em-up concept. Credit: Mario Wiki

The final game represents the culmination of what Nintendo had achieved over two years of programming for the Famicom. Players take on the role of Mario as he navigates side-scrolling stages and defeats a variety of colorful enemies on his quest to save Princess Peach (localized in North American supplementary materials as Princess Toadstool) from Bowser, a monstrous turtle-like creature. Stages are combined into worlds, with four stages comprising each of the game’s eight worlds. Worlds sometimes have a distinctive color palette or enemy selection, but primarily serve to structure the game into three navigation stages followed by one boss encounter.

The US instruction manual description of the game’s plot is amazing. There’s a lot of unearned ambiguity about Mario’s status as the hero. Credit: Legends of Localization

Super Mario Bros. marks the debut of so many iconic characters and items. Toads – mushroom-headed retainers for Peach – stand in for the princess after each boss encounter save the last. Peach appears for the first time at the game’s conclusion. Bowser, who would go on to become Mario’s reliable nemesis throughout subsequent series entries, lends his likeness to enemies masquerading as the Koopa King in every fourth stage prior to the final confrontation. The Super Mushroom, a mobile power-up which transforms Mario into a larger form and offers an additional hit point, appears in the game’s very first level.

Bloopers and Cheep Cheeps in an underwater stage. Credit: Old Classic Retro Gaming

Enemy debuts are too numerous to recount, but include Goombas, Bullet Bills, and Bloopers. The newly renamed Koopa Troopas return from Mario Bros., though their shells can now be kicked as projectiles. At least one obstacle – the swinging fire bar present in castle environments – was pulled directly from The Legend of Zelda (1986/1987) as the two games were in development simultaneously, though the fire bars would be stripped from The Legend of Zelda before publication. Their eventual implementation in The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past (1991/1992) would represent the first of many crossovers between Nintendo’s two flagship properties.

Super Mario Bros.‘ Stage 1-1 is a milestone in level design. Credit: Old Classic Retro Gaming

As befits a game introducing players to a major new concept, Super Mario Bros. features one of the most elegant introductory stages in a video game. While a memorable tune written by Koji Kondo cycles in the background, players learn how to advance horizontally within a relatively safe space. The challenge ramps up as the stage progresses, and by the end players have been introduced to all of the game’s central verbs: running, jumping, collecting coins, defeating enemies by leaping onto them, and even discovering secrets. A 1-Up Mushroom, which adds an additional life to the player’s limited supply of continues, is hidden within an invisible block; only by knowing where to jump, or experimenting with Mario’s jump command and getting lucky, will the player encounter this hidden bonus.

Who’d have thought you could walk above the stage? Secrets would become inextricably linked with the identity of the Mario series. Credit: Old Classic Retro Gaming

With regard to secret features, Super Mario Bros. presents its most celebrated surprise in the second stage. Players who shared experiences with friends might discover that someone they knew had accessed a hidden world selection screen at the end of Level 1-2. The method to reach this set of warp pipes – jumping above the standard exit and running along the top of the stage’s apparent brick ceiling – was so incongruous that most players were likely to reach it only by word of mouth. By building in surprises like this, Nintendo was able to enhance their new game’s cultural cache among schoolyard children eager to uncover secrets within their favorite games. It’s likely that much of Super Mario Bros.‘ success can be attributed to its developers’ willingness to hide so much content out of sight.

Bowser’s grand debut. He doesn’t throw as many hammers these days. Credit: Old Classic Retro Gaming

Super Mario Bros. was an overnight success in Japan and overseas markets, rapidly becoming the bestselling game in history (so far). It would only lose this distinction with the release of Wii Sports in 2006. Not coincidentally, both were distributed with their respective consoles in North America. After firmly establishing the side-scrolling platformer as a viable game genre, Super Mario Bros. would go on to be re-released several times over the following decades. The first of three significant re-releases premiered at arcades in 1986. Super Mario Bros. VS was a remixed version of the original game featuring more challenging stages. Elements from this version would be included in the Japan-exclusive Super Mario Brothers 2 (1986), which would later be released in North America as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels.

Lakitu is as menacing in the SNES remake as it was in the NES original. Credit: LongplayArchive

The second major re-release of Super Mario Bros. was released alongside Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2, and Super Mario Bros. 3 in Super Mario All-Stars (1993) on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. This version features updated visuals and revised platforming physics. It is intended to look and feel more similar to the latest Mario title at the time, though the overhaul largely serves to erode Super Mario Bros.‘ distinctive identity.

Worlds are a bit more evocative in the Super Mario All-Stars version. Credit: LongplayArchive

The final significant re-release was published on the Game Boy Color in 1999. Super Mario Bros. Deluxe is visually similar to the original game, though movement physics are again updated. This release’s most noteworthy feature is the inclusion of additional challenges within levels; players can seek out hidden red coins and Yoshi eggs, items which had debuted in later series entries.

The Game Boy Color version of Super Mario Bros. would introduce an overworld map, though it was entirely linear. Credit: World of Longplays

The original Super Mario Bros. remains highly playable thirty years later due to its strong art design and a commitment to tight platforming mechanics. It played a critical role in its medium, introducing the world to the side-scrolling platformer while simultaneously resolving the Western market’s video game crash. Few North American retailers were willing to take a chance on the NES when it was debuted in 1985, but those that did were rewarded with surprisingly high sales. The instantly beloved Super Mario Bros. packed in alongside early units would quickly revitalize a flagging industry and reintroduce video games to a new generation of North American players.

Super Mario Bros. 2 / Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (1986/1993)

Soundtrack (YouTube)

With work on The Legend of Zelda picking up steam following the release of Super Mario Bros., Shigeru Miyamoto would have no time to devote to Super Mario Bros. 2. That responsibility instead fell to Takashi Tezuka, who would be tapped as a game director for the first time. This may be a contributing factor in Super Mario Bros. 2’s conservative nature. Tezuka and his team aimed to give players more of what they enjoyed in the first Super Mario Bros. Little about the game’s visual design was altered, and level structure is fully recycled from the previous series entry. The primary distinguishing characteristic of Super Mario Bros. 2 is its intense difficulty.

Some stages now feature wind, which will intermittently throw off Mario’s jumps. Credit: World of Longplays

A label on the outside of the box proclaims “For Super Players” in an attempt to convey that Super Mario Bros. 2 should only be attempted by veterans of its predecessor. Those who had not already conquered the difficulty curve of Super Mario Bros. would likely find themselves flummoxed by the game’s challenges. New tricks like a poison mushroom that harms the player are similarly geared towards upending the expectations of Mario fans. Other tough obstacles include long jumps which require carefully timed leaps onto unsuspecting foes and wind that increases or reduces momentum.

The Poison Mushroom is perhaps the most explicit instance of trolling in Super Mario Bros. 2. Credit: World of Longplays

The most significant long-term addition to the series from its oft-maligned third entry is the introduction of unique mechanics for Luigi. Mario’s brother had appeared in Super Mario Bros. as an asynchronous multiplayer option for Player Two, though he remained a simple palette swap indistinguishable from Mario in terms of actual gameplay. The character would receive distinctive physics in Super Mario Bros. 2, however, including a higher jump and less precise horizontal movement than Mario.

Things get mighty weird by the end of the game. Credit: World of Longplays

Nintendo of America President Howard Phillips famously prevented the release of the game in the United States. He believed that its difficulty level would upset players and upend the identity Nintendo had been cultivating in the still-fragile Western video games market. Work would instead begin on a suitable replacement for Super Mario Bros. 2. Western players would need to wait for 1993’s Super Mario All-Stars to play a visually updated version of Super Mario Bros. 2 called Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. A lukewarm critical reception to the lost game would vindicate Phillips’ original decision not to localize it, though this would not keep it from being packaged alongside its predecessor on the Super Mario Bros. Deluxe (1999) cartridge or reappearing on Nintendo’s digital distribution networks in the 2000s and 2010s.

Super Mario Bros. USA / Super Mario Bros. 2 (1992/1988)

Soundtrack (YouTube)

Prior to the development of Japan’s Super Mario Bros. 2, new Nintendo recruit Kensuke Tanabe was assigned the directorial role on an alternative sequel. The concept originally pitched for Super Mario Bros. 2 emphasized vertically scrolling levels navigated simultaneously by two player characters who would be able to pick up and throw one another. The idea was eventually shelved in favor of an iterative improvement on the original Super Mario Bros. as it was believed to exceed the Famicom’s technical capacity.

Papa vs. Birdo in Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic. Note that the gateway to the right would be redesigned when the game was remade as the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2. Credit: Games Done Quick

The project was later revived, however, as a Japan-exclusive title called Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic (1987, Japan). This promotional tie-in with Fuji Television’s Yume Kojo ‘87 festival abandons the original concept of simultaneous multiplayer but retains the throwing mechanic. Players choose one of four characters – Mama, Papa, Mama and Papa’s son Imajin, or Imajin’s girlfriend Lina – and move through platforming gauntlets which scroll vertically and horizontally. The game must be completed with all four characters to unlock its true ending.

Hadn’t everyone been waiting for the opportunity to play as Toad? Credit: xRavenXP

Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic was a hit in Japan but Nintendo wanted to get more mileage out of the game. Since it already had a high level of polish and a soundtrack by Koji Kondo, it was redesigned by Kensuke Tanabe as a Mario game. This filled in the hole left by Nintendo of America’s rejection of the original Super Mario Bros. 2. Sprites for Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and Toad respectively replaced Papa, Mama, Lina, and Imajin. Little of the levels or soundtrack were altered. All enemies aside from a boss called Clawgrip remained unchanged during the transition, which means that iconic Mario regulars like Shyguy and Birdo originate as Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic characters.

Luigi can jump high. Credit: xRavenXP

The final game sees players choosing their avatar before each stage and attempting to navigate from their starting position to a goal. Each of the characters plays differently: Mario is altered little from his prior appearance, Luigi can jump higher and has less responsive horizontal movement, Toad can quickly lift objects, and Peach can hover for short periods of time. Unlike in Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic, stages only need to be completed once rather than once with each character.

The first navigable area of Super Mario Bros. 2 sees the player character falling for several screen, immediately signaling that players will need to move up and down throughout the adventure. Kudos to Watch Out for Fireballs for making me aware of this elegant design feature. Credit: xRavenXP

Levels now scroll vertically in additional to horizontally. Much of the setting of Subcon – a dream world being menaced by frog king Wart – bears a medieval Middle Eastern aesthetic. Mario and his friends even have the opportunity to ride a magic carpet! Enemies can’t be defeated by being stomped on, and instead must be picked up and thrown or be removed from the field of play by having another object thrown into them. Mario Bros.’ POW Block makes its first reappearance in the series, and can now be picked up and hurled to defeat all enemies on-screen.

Wart would never again reappear outside of a cameo appearance in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993). Also, those Phanto masks in the background will strike fear into the hearts of any Super Mario Bros. 2 players. Credit: xRavenXP

The second Super Mario Bros. 2 proved quite popular among North American players. Some were baffled by its lack of resemblance to Super Mario Bros., but jarring sequels were common in the late 1980s. Popular demand among Japanese fans would eventually see the game released in the series’ homeland – it was renamed Super Mario Bros. USA but otherwise unaltered for its 1992 Japanese release. A visually updated version was included in Super Mario All-Stars, and this would serve as the basis for a launch title on Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance. Super Mario Bros. Advance (2001) includes even more updated graphics, gameplay alterations to more closely align with other Mario titles, and voice acting for the first time in a 2D Mario game.

Birdo is narrating the action from on high in BS Super Mario USA. Credit: NintendoLife

Between the release of Super Mario All-Stars and Super Mario Bros. Advance, however, Nintendo would broadcast a unique version of Super Mario Bros. USA on its Super Famicom Satellaview peripheral. Presented episodically in four parts, BS Super Mario USA would be framed as a sequel to Super Mario USA despite being largely identical to the Super Mario All-Stars version of the game. Its key differences include the player being forced to play as specific characters rather than choosing between four options, characters narrating over the action as their portrait is displayed in the upper third of the screen, and the presence of Subcon’s King Osama. Though the game is still semi-accessible through the use of emulation, the timed nature of the original event prevents the preserved version from functioning as originally intended.

Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988/1990)

Soundtrack (YouTube)

After the success of Super Mario Bros. 2 / The Lost Levels in Japan, Takashi Tezuka was assigned to direct the next Mario release. Opting for a bolder approach than the slight iteration represented by his directorial debut, Tezuka wanted to introduce an isometric perspective to the series which had codified so many side-scrolling mechanics. This method proved to be unworkable, and the game was reworked into a 2D perspective, but not quickly enough to avoid an uncharacteristically long development cycle.

The forced perspective on the title screen’s checkered floor pattern is a remnant of Super Mario Bros. 3‘s isometric build. Credit: World of Longplays.

The development team ballooned to twenty or thirty from the seven or eight who had worked on Super Mario Bros. Most of these resources were leveraged to introduce increasingly complex level design and gameplay mechanics, but composer Koji Kondo would again craft the soundtrack single-handedly. Due to improvements in cartridge storage space, however, Kondo was able to utilize a much wider audio palette than he had in earlier Mario titles.

Roy Koopa is cool. You can tell because he wears sunglasses. Credit: World of Longplays.

Super Mario Bros. 3 sees Mario (and Luigi in another asynchronous multiplayer mode) attempting to save seven monarchs after they’ve been transformed by Bowser’s lieutenants. These Koopalings – Larry, Morton Koopa Jr., Wendy O., Iggy, Roy, Lemmy, and Ludwig Von Koopa – serve as the bosses of the game’s first seven worlds. The bosses’ English names were drawn from musical figures by the North American localization team, as the original Japanese game offered no unique names for the characters.

The overworld for World 1. Note the Hammer Bros. moving around the lower-third of the map. Credit: World of Longplays

Each world is depicted from an overhead perspective between stages. For the first time in the series’ history, a player can navigate around this area along a pre-defined path and choose which order he or she plays each level. The world maps lack the freedom of contemporary Mega Man platformers, but offer a greater sense of space and choice than earlier Mario games had done. Certain elements move around the world maps, too, including one-off battles against distinctive Hammer Bros. enemies.

Airships are tough. Credit: World of Longplays

Many of the the game’s environments are visually enhanced versions of settings from earlier series entries, but the boss stages feature an entirely new aesthetic. Mario must explore floating airship fleets to battle each Koopaling rather than engaging them in a castle; castles instead appear as mid-world challenges. The mobility of the airship fleets becomes a challenge, as well, if the player loses at his or her first attempt at the stage; a representation of the airship then moves around the world map, sometimes forcing the player to tackle stages that he or she skipped on the way to the world’s boss.

Toad may not be playable anymore, but at least he’s helpful. Credit: World of Longplays

Non-hazardous stages appear for the first time in a Mario game in Super Mario Bros. 3. These mushroom houses are very short and offer Mario power-ups that can then be utilized elsewhere. In addition to mushroom houses, the player can sometimes discover minigames on the world map. Minigames are not navigable environments, but rather represent distinctive card-matching mechanics.

All of the proper power-ups are fun, but the one-off appearance of Kuribo’s Shoe steals the show. Credit: World of Longplays

As with earlier Mario titles, Super Mario Bros. 3 introduces a bevy of new power-ups and enemies. The former category includes the Raccoon Suit, Frog Suit, and Hammer Bros. Suit, which alter Mario’s appearance and respectively allow him to strike enemies with a tail, swim faster, and hide in a shell or hurl hammers in an arc. The Fire Flower returns, allowing Mario to toss fireballs, and a Tanooki Suit functions similarly to the Raccoon Suit but with the added benefit of permitting Mario to transform into an invulnerable statue. New enemies which would go on to become series regulars include Chain Chomp, Boo, Spike, and mid-boss Boom Boom.

Boom Boom is tough, but can be walloped pretty handily if the player has a Fire Flower. Credit: World of Longplays

Super Mario Bros. 3 includes a handful of major new mechanics too. The aforementioned Raccoon Suit, in addition to offering a method of defeating nearby foes, lets Mario fly if he has enough room on the ground to build up a gauge by running horizontally. While stages could scroll on vertical axes in the North American version of Super Mario Bros. 2, this represents the first time that the player could explore multiple vertical screens without requiring platforms to do so. Auto-scrolling stages appear for the first time in the series’ history as well, presenting a new challenge for players to overcome. All airships scroll from left to right automatically, while bobbing up and down, obscuring certain hazards and forcing the player to make rapid decisions about his or her jump trajectories. Finally, hills make their Mario franchise debut in Super Mario Bros. 3. Slopes let Mario slide down and defeat unsuspecting enemies below while also enhancing the series’ visual cohesion.

Slopes introduce the ability to defeat enemies in an even less dignified fashion. Credit: World of Longplays

Super Mario Bros. 3 was a massive hit for Nintendo in Japan. After appearing in Todd Holland’s film The Wizard (1989), it secured a 1990 release in North America and was greeted rapturously by North American audiences. Arriving near the end of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s life cycle, the game would be regarded as one of that platform’s greatest artistic achievements.

The ghost house of Super Mario World would eventually be redesigned for a Super Mario Bros. 3 style in Super Mario Maker (2015), but this Super Mario Bros. 3 e-Reader stage is its first re-interpretation.

Later re-releases, including its presence within Super Mario All-Stars (1993) and as Super Mario Advance 4 (2003), would feature updated graphics but not significantly alter the base game aside from level design concessions based on the Game Boy Advance’s smaller screen. Super Mario Advance 4 would controversially be augmented through the use of e-Reader Cards, which offer additional stages with new mechanics drawn from other Super Mario Bros. titles. Fans unable to obtain these cards, or who became aware of the fascinating new stages only after the cards had gone out of print, were happy to find that all e-Reader stages were included when the game was re-released on the Wii U’s Virtual Console service.

The game’s most surprising port was an abandoned version developed for PCs by id Software in 1990. This unsolicited demo was notable for John Carmack’s innovative programming, which allowed smooth level scrolling on a platform where this was typically not possible. Nintendo responded negatively to id Software’s pitch, however. This decision contrasted sharply with Nintendo’s distribution of its original Mario Bros. game, but would represent the studio’s standard operating procedure for all future core entries in the Mario series.

Super Mario Land (1989)

Soundtrack Link (YouTube)

Gunpei Yokoi had spearheaded development on the world’s first major portable game console during the late 1980s. By 1989, this product was ready to be revealed. The Game Boy would eventually become a fixture of households and road trips across the globe, but would only do so by launching with a handful of surefire hits. One of these would be beloved Nintendo character Mario’s first original adventure on a portable console.

Due to the Game Boy’s color limitations, 1-Ups are now represented by hearts rather than mushrooms with a different color palette. Credit: The Gaming Historian

Game and Watch devices had featured stripped-down versions of Mario titles in the past, including Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros., but all were bare-bones affairs that bore little resemblance to the plumber’s action-heavy home console adventures. Indeed, condensing the speedy, colorful actions of Mario to a monochromatic handheld system would prove challenging to Super Mario Land’s development team. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the game’s development, though, was the absence of series creator Shigeru Miyamoto; though Takashi Tezuka had directed the last couple of Mario games, Miyamoto had consistently remained present in the role of producer. Yokoi and his Nintendo R&D1 team would be tasked with putting their own spin on the studio’s most popular character without any oversight from Miyamoto.

The Birabuto Kingdom is pulled straight from Ancient Egyptian imagery. Credit: The Gaming Historian

This likely accounts for how different Super Mario Land feels from its predecessors. The screen was smaller and lacked color, but the team largely managed to capture the fundamentals of Mario game mechanics. The titular character could run, jump on enemies, and navigate smoothly side-scrolling stages in pursuit of a captured princess. Outside of these basic fundamentals, though, much had changed in the hero’s transition to a handheld device.

A Bombshell Koopa roams to the right on this screen, which depicts the Easter Island-influenced Easton Kingdom. Credit: The Gaming Historian

Piranha plants represent the only enemy included from past games; while other enemies bear a passing resemblance to their console brethren, they are unique either in name or behavior. Goombas are known here as Goombos and lack facial features due to their tiny stature. Bombshell Koopas putter along in a manner similar to Koopa Troopas, but their shells explode after they are stomped rather than becoming a projectile usable by Mario.

Tatanga is very challenging, not least because the gameplay has more in common with Gradius than any earlier Mario title. Credit: The Gaming Historian

Bowser does not appear in the game, and is replaced as antagonist by an alien named Tatanga. Mario must make his way through a handful of kingdoms inspired by real-world locations or myths to rescue Sarasaland’s Princess Daisy from this extraterrestrial menace. These include Birabuto, which stands in for Ancient Egypt; Muda, which is inspired by the mythical lost continent of Mu; Easton, which is based on Easter Island; and Chai, which draws its visual and audio cues from Ancient China. Princess Peach and Luigi are omitted from Super Mario Land.

Chai features Chinese vampires. Credit: The Gaming Historian

Similarly absent is the Fire Flower, which had appeared so far in every Mario aside from the series’ arcade debut and the North American version of Super Mario Bros. 2. In its place is the Superball, a power-up that allows Mario to fling a bouncing projectile. This can collect coins, making it even more useful than its fiery console equivalent. The Superball is accompanied by no visual transformation and would remain confined to its single appearance in Super Mario Land.

Mudo Kingdom is largely set above the waves, but its final stage is played by using a submarine. Credit: The Gaming Historian

Rather than power-ups, Super Mario Land looks to vehicle stages for alternate gameplay sequences. For the fourth stage of the second and fourth worlds, Mario respectively commands a submarine and airplane. The game transitions to an auto-scrolling shoot-em-up, finally fulfilling a concept first suggested by Shigeru Miyamoto during the development of Super Mario Bros. These sections are admittedly brief, comprising only two of the game’s twelve stages, but are among the most memorable innovations offered by Super Mario Land.

Mario Land’s bonus game. This can be accessed by reaching a less accessible goal at the end of each non-boss stage. Credit: The Gaming Historian

While the Game Boy lacked the technical horsepower of home consoles, Super Mario Land confirmed that it could offer experiences similar to those players could formerly only experience in their living rooms. The game would go on to sell over 18,000,000 units despite Nintendo opting to pack in Tetris with Game Boy hardware rather than their flagship franchise’s portable debut. Mario would never again explore Sarasaland, but players could revisit it anytime and anywhere thanks to the magic of Gunpei Yokoi’s new device.

Super Mario World (1991)

Soundtrack (YouTube)

With the advent of the Super Famicom – Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in North America – Mario’s creators would have more leeway to develop their vision. Technical limitations on the NES had been very strict, restricting color palette, audio complexity, and level designs. The studio’s new hardware would alleviate every one of these bottlenecks. Of course, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka were known for being more interested in innovative gameplay concepts than cutting-edge audiovisual presentation; the next Mario title would need a clever hook to inspire its developers and long-time series fans.

That’s Yoshi. He’s the best. Credit: Bella Holloway

That hook would come in the form of a rideable green dinosaur named Yoshi. Miyamoto had been intending to give Mario a sentient means of conveyance since 1985, but technical limitations had precluded implementation of this idea. Tezuka and the art team would first explore the concept of a quadrupedal crocodile companion but would soon settle on Yoshi’s final bipedal appearance. In addition to serving as an extra layer of damage mitigation for Mario – the player can sustain an additional hit or walk on spikes while on Yoshi’s back – the dinosaur can slurp up foes using his tongue. Some enemies are digested instantly, some can be fired back out at the press of a button, and others briefly grant Yoshi new powers like flight or the ability to stomp on the ground and damage nearby enemies. Eating a red-shelled Koopa Troopa even allows Yoshi to exhale fireballs.

Donut Plains, Dinosaur Land’s most delicious region. Credit: Bella Holloway

In keeping with the theme of cartoonish reptiles, Mario’s newest adventure is set in Dinosaur Land. Rather than traversing multiple kingdoms, as he had done in Super Mario Bros. 3, Mario must now explore the various regions of a single large island in pursuit of the perpetually-kidnapped Peach. The Koopalings return, each guarding a castle that gates access to the next region of Dinosaur Land. Mid-boss Boom Boom is replaced by Reznor, a collective of antagonistic fire-breathing dinosaurs on rotating windmill platforms.

Reznor. You guessed it – this monster’s named for the singer of Nine Inch Nails. Credit: Bella Holloway

Dinosaur Land is reshaped as the player navigates it. Individual stages are still explored from a side-scrolling perspective, but these are accessed from an overworld map that evolves over time. Most stages are either depicted as glowing yellow nodes or larger red nodes; the former indicates a standard stage while the latter indicates the presence of a secret exit. Secret exits to stages constitute one of Super Mario World’s most beguiling features, as Mario no longer simply moves from left to right in pursuit of a defined end point in a stage. Instead, the player can pursue hidden goals that open up new paths around Dinosaur Land and eventually grant access to two additional layers of bonus stages. Though Super Mario World’s difficulty level is overall lower than Super Mario Bros. 3, as it was intended to attract a new audience of players on Nintendo’s new console, the secret stages represent significantly greater challenges. The difficulty level can also be altered by players using in-game mechanics, as a handful of hidden stages contain switches which can fill in otherwise-invisible blocks throughout Dinosaur Land and reduce the threat posed by bottomless pits.

Most of the secret exits are unlocked by finding keys and keyholes hidden away in stages. Credit: Bella Holloway

As had been the case in earlier Mario games, numerous new enemies are introduced. Chargin’ Chuck, the unstoppable quarterback Koopa, appears here for the first time. The spell-welding Magikoopa would similarly make its debut in Super Mario World. Many of Dinosaur Land’s other denizens would go on to recur only occasionally in later releases, but one new wrinkle would become a series staple: ghost houses populated by the ubiquitous Boo enemy (now including an oversized variant) would emphasize the series’ increasingly puzzle-oriented level design. Though ghost houses are home to Boo and his eerie friends, the player’s greatest enemy is an ever-ticking clock as he or she seeks a mechanism to open up the stage’s exit. If the timer reaches zero, Mario loses a life and must restart the stage.

Ghost houses are spooky and dangerous. Credit: Bella Holloway

Power-ups offer less variety than had been present in Super Mario Bros. 3. Due perhaps to the gameplay variations introduced by Yoshi, Nintendo opted to scale back Mario’s abilities. The plumber can still jump, grow to twice his starting height, and blast enemies with fireballs if he encounters a Fire Flower, but all other power-ups from previous games have been eliminated. One new suit is introduced, however, and it proves to be one of Super Mario World’s most engaging ideas. If the player finds and grabs a feather, Mario receives a cape that allows him to glide through the air. Unlike the Raccoon Suit of Super Mario Bros. 3, the cape functions as a distinctive flight mechanic rather than an advanced form of jumping. Using the left and right buttons once Mario has built up speed and hurled himself skyward allows the player to control the arc of Mario’s upward and downward momentum. This can reduce some stages to trivial exercises in moving Mario right towards a goal, but more often opens up new navigation challenges; only the most dedicated players will master Mario’s flight paths and access hidden areas of the game.

Cape Mario seems like a step back from Frog Mario or Hammer Mario, but the mechanical complexity skyrockets. Credit: Bella Holloway

Super Mario World was yet another commercial and critical blockbuster for Nintendo. It was one of only two launch titles for the Super Famicom, but was expansive enough to offer hours of enjoyment. Super Mario Bros. 3 had included plenty of secrets, but Super Mario World would be the watershed moment when the series’ identity became inextricably linked with contemplative exploration. Nintendo’s rival SEGA would notoriously promote its Sonic the Hedgehog mascot as more focused on speed in the early 1990s, so it seemed a happy accident that Mario had already begun to reward players willing to slow down.

Yoshi’s Island does feature Baby Mario, but it’s hard to argue that it’s a true sequel to Super Mario World. Credit: xRavenXP

A numbered sequel would be released in 1995, but Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island would be a Mario title in name only. The player directly controls Yoshi as he transports an infant Mario across a version of Dinosaur Land which appears to be drawn in a child’s coloring book. Levels are focused almost exclusively on slow-paced exploration and the collection of various MacGuffins. This would serve as the foundation for a new series based around Mario’s dinosaur companion, and has more in common with later Yoshi titles than the Mario franchise.

Mario battling armored Koopa Troopas within a Trojan Horse in Mario’s Wacky World. Credit: Crayon King

Another sequel more closely connected to Super Mario World was planned for the Phillips CD-i console. Nintendo infamously abandoned a contract with Sony for one with Phillips in the early 1990s which permitted other studios to develop titles featuring Nintendo characters for Phillips’ ill-fated disc-based console. One such project was developed by a studio called NovaLogic and was built directly on the art assets and mechanics of Super Mario World. Mario’s Wacky Worlds would have seen Nintendo’s mascot exploring a combination of environments inspired by real-world locations like Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece interspersed with standard platformer settings like jungles and swamps. A demo of the game was pitched to Nintendo by Castle Wolfenstein (1981) creator Silas Warner, now an employee of NovaLogic, and was well-received. Unfortunately, the contract between Phillips and Nintendo fell through before the game could move forward due to the low quality of other third-party games featuring Nintendo IPs and poor Phillips CD-i sales. Mario’s Wacky Worlds was swiftly abandoned, though an unfinished demo remains available to fans online.

Luigi in Super Mario Advance 2. Credit: World of Longplays

Super Mario World itself, emblematic of Nintendo’s level of quality and inventive design, would be re-released several times over the following decades. Most are direct ports of the original SNES release, but the title’s first portable version – published as Super Mario Advance 2 (2001/2002) – would include several updates. In particular, the player can now alternate between playing as Mario or Luigi from the overworld map; Luigi has a distinctive sprite and performs much as he had in the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2. Happily for fans of Nintendo’s 16-bit masterpiece, the game has been made accessible on every home and portable console since the Game Boy Advance. May it always be so.

Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (1992)

Soundtrack (YouTube)

Mario’s final 2D adventure of the 1990s would have a bumpy road from conception to release. As Tezuka and Miyamoto worked on the plumber’s home console titles, Gunpei Yokoi would produce Mario’s next portable game. Hiroji Kiyotake and Takehiko Hosokawa would take over as co-directors from Super Mario Land’s Satoru Okada. The team initially intended to make the game highly experimental but was forced to scale it back when internal discussions saw Nintendo executives questioning whether the early demo bore any resemblance to the series it was ostensibly a part of.

Note the similarity of the large Mario and Koopa Troopa sprites to their console predecessors. Credit: The Gaming Historian

The final game retains some peculiar elements, but is overall more conservative than its direct portable predecessor had been. Chunkier sprites ensure that character models more closely resemble their home console counterparts. Platforming physics are similarly modeled on Super Mario World. Even the Superball is abandoned in favor of Mario’s classic Fire Flower power-up.

Mario’s Castle is pretty swanky. I guess gathering all those coins was worthwhile. Credit: The Gaming Historian

Surprisingly, Super Mario Land 2 is a direct sequel to Super Mario Land. No earlier Mario game had established a broader sense of continuity, but the staffers on Super Mario Land 2 wanted to iterate narratively on what had come before. In particular, they thought it would be interesting to see Mario attempting to battle for his own interests rather than heroically attempting to save a princess. This framing plot sees newcomer Wario invading and stealing Mario’s castle while he is adventuring in Sarasaland. When Mario returns, he discovers that he must find six golden coins to unlock his erstwhile castle and defeat Wario.

Wario is a punk. Credit: The Gaming Historian

Mario’s newest nemesis was created by director Hiroji Kiyotake and was assigned a name based on the Japanese word warui, which means “bad.” In a callback to the origins of Mario as a stand-in for Popeye in Donkey Kong, Wario’s character design was influenced by the Popeye cartoon’s mean-spirited Bluto. His bulging eyes and stocky figure serve to draw an unflattering contrast with the player character.

Exploring Turtle Zone. This region is only accessible by being eaten by a giant turtle on the overworld map. Credit: The Gaming Historian

Super Mario Land 2 more generally resembles Super Mario World. Stages are accessed from an overworld map on which the player navigates predefined paths. Minigames between stages allow the player to gain additional lives. Some stages even feature two exits, though they are typically adjacent and constitute a platforming challenge rather than requiring Mario to extensively explore his environment.

Several bonus games are present. This one can be played by striking a bell hidden above each stage’s goal. Credit: The Gaming Historian

Unlike Super Mario World, however, no cape power-up is present in Super Mario Land 2. The player instead gains access to a means of flight through the acquisition of a carrot. When one of these items is discovered and consumed, Mario grows rabbit ears and gains the ability to hover for a limited period of time in mid-air. The effect is less impressive than the hero’s parabolic flight paths in Super Mario World but still an engaging alternative to walking.

Bunny Mario is both adorable and functional. Credit: The Gaming Historian

The worlds are perhaps Super Mario Land 2’s most enduring peculiarity. Rather than hewing to templates established by classic side-scrolling titles, Super Mario Land 2 instead features stages set within a giant tree, space, a home that shrinks its human inhabitants, a haunted jack o’ lantern, a massive mechanical Mario doll, and a giant turtle. Tatanga even reappears as the boss of Space Zone. These worlds seem to have been inspired by a unifying principle of being inside something – aside from Space Zone – but are otherwise unique within the wider world of Mario games.

Mario Zone is my favorite, because it suggests that Mario had a massive mechanical sculpture of himself constructed within eyesight of his castle. Credit: The Gaming Historian

Wario would go on to become a popular Nintendo character over the following two decades, including a role as the protagonist of Super Mario Land 2’s direct sequel. Super Mario Land 3: Super Wario Land bears little more than a cosmetic resemblance to earlier Mario games, however, much like Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. In it, the player takes on the role of Wario as he clumsily rams his way through stages in pursuit of treasure. This would set the standard for a series of Wario-based platformers collectively known as Wario Land.

Toruzz’s Super Mario Land DX. Credit: Milesluigi

Super Mario Land 2 would meanwhile remain something of a black sheep for the franchise. Enemies introduced in this game would rarely reappear in later series titles, if ever, and the series would never revisit worlds as distinctive as those in Mario’s second portable outing. The game was even omitted from Nintendo’s official history of the series prior to its inclusion in various art and books produced to celebrate Mario’s 30th anniversary. It was shown a great deal of appreciation by hacker Toruzz, on the other hand, who programmed and distributed a colorized version of the game in 2017. Luigi is even included as an playable character who actually features altered jumping physics. Though it is not playable on any Nintendo device without some degree of hacking, Super Mario Land 2 DX is a genuine love letter to one of Mario’s strangest adventures and a must-have for any fan of the franchise.

New Super Mario Bros. (2006)

Soundtrack (YouTube)

Over thirteen years would pass before the next two-dimensional Mario game. Nintendo would turn entirely to 3D graphics following Super Mario Land 2, aside from quasi-series entries like Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island and remakes like the Super Mario Advance sub-series. The closest the franchise came to a true side-scrolling successor during this period was a 2.5D Mario game planned for the Virtual Boy which included sequences where Mario could navigate spaces from an overhead perspective similar to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991/1992). VB Mario Land would be abandoned mid-way through development in favor of Mario Clash (1995), a 2.5D remake of Mario Bros.

Even with the transition back to 2D, Mario would require quick reflexes. Credit: Project Longplay

It was only upon realizing that many old fans of the series had drifted away during its first decade of 3D titles that Shigeru Miyamoto decided the world needed a new 2D Mario game. The surprising commercial success of Super Mario Bros.’ 2004 re-release – as part of the Game Boy Advance’s NES Classics line of titles – was a timely indication that a 2D game might still find an audience in a polygonal era. With this, Nintendo got to work on a long-awaited successor to Super Mario World and Super Mario Land 2.

Even Super Mario Bros.’ flagpoles make a long-awaited reappearance in New Super Mario Bros. Credit: Project Longplay

New Super Mario Bros. was released on the Nintendo DS in 2006. Rather than making major strides forward in terms of enemy design or worlds to explore, New Super Mario Bros. largely recapitulates the series’ legacy. Its most evident departure is the replacement of sprites with fully polygonal characters and environments. This was intended to give the game a greater sense of depth, but has the additional benefit of allowing the perspective to occasionally zoom for emphasis.

Nintendo calls this the ground pound but I’ve always called it the butt stomp. Credit: Project Longplay

Mario’s verb set is largely identical to what came before with two exceptions: the wall jump and ground pound. The former was present in 2D platformers as early as Mega Man X (1993) but was only available to Mario in his 3D adventures. This move allows Mario to affix himself to a wall when the player holds the directional pad toward it, and then leap in an upward arc away from his position; Mario will slowly slide down the wall, so the player must activate this button sequence quickly. The ground pound is an action similarly native to Mario’s 3D titles. With the tap of a button while Mario is in mid-air, the player can send him instantly toward the ground below. This alleviates some of the precision issues inherent to 2D platformer games and features a rather amusing animation.

Mega Mario lacks all respect for property. Credit: Project Longplay

Power-ups tend towards those already introduced in earlier games, but three new items are available. The Mega Mushroom is an oversized fungus that, when ingested, grows Mario to massive proportions. When in this form, Mario is invulnerable and can crush scenery. Even the flagpole representing a stage’s goal – directly imported from the original Super Mario Bros. – is subject to the plumber’s rampage. Conversely, a Mini Mushroom lets Mario shrink and access hidden areas. Finally, Mario Kart’s infamous Blue Shell makes its first appearance in the core Mario franchise. When Mario acquires and wears said shell, he is able to duck into a slide along flat surfaces and strike enemies with no risk of incurring damage.

The overworld map feels like a fusion of Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Bros. 3. Credit: Project Longplay

As in Super Mario Bros. 3, the player guides Mario through eight worlds. World maps between stages are depicted polygonally for the first time, though Mario must still move along fixed paths. Mushroom houses make a reappearance, again offering power-ups that can be utilized in side-scrolling stages. These power-ups are no longer distributed by a random Toad, however, but are instead doled out by Super Mario Sunshine’s Toadsworth.

The player actually battles Bowser and his son simultaneously in this game. Credit: Project Longplay

Toadsworth is not the only Super Mario Sunshine character to make their debut in a 2D Mario game. Bowser Jr., the rambunctious scamp introduced as the antagonist of Mario’s second 3D title, is the primary villain in New Super Mario Bros. after Mario defeats Bowser at the conclusion of World One. Once Bowser Jr. makes off with Princess Peach, Mario is forced to give chase.

The bottom screen of the Nintendo DS offers an indication of the player’s progress through a stage, the number of Star Coins he or she has collected, and a stored power-up that can be accessed with a tap. Credit: Project Longplay

The audio palette represents one of New Super Mario Bros.’ most engaging additions to the series long history. Voice acting is present in an original 2D title for the first time after having made its 2D debut in the Super Mario Advance sub-series. Voice acting had been present in the series’ 3D games from the start, and veteran Mario voice actor Charles Martinet is as delightful as ever. Though the majority of the soundtrack is composed by Asuka Ohta and Hajime Wakai, long-time Mario composer Koji Kondo supervised its production and contributed one composition. Enemies are timed to move and even occasionally dance in tandem with the soundtrack, introducing a rhythm game element for players seeking to maximize their efficiency.

New Super Mario Bros. marks the first 2D appearance of Super Mario 64‘s Dorrie the aquatic dinosaur. Credit: Project Longplay

Along with several other platformers of the late 2000s, New Super Mario Bros. would play a role in reviving the 2D side-scroller genre after it had been largely ignored for a decade. Players who had grown up in the late 1980s and early 1990s were eager to return to the gameplay of yesteryear. Nintendo sensed an opportunity and, for the first time since the arrival of 3D Mario games in 1996, decided to produce original 2D and 3D titles concurrently as the franchise moved into its third decade.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009)

Soundtrack (YouTube)

New Super Mario Bros. had been a commercial and critical success, even if it had iterated only slightly upon the foundation of what had come before. With the series re-established, Shigeru Miyamoto reflected on what could be improved and how 2D Mario might evolve in the future. Two core ideas came out of this process: (1) increasing the series’ difficulty without reducing accessibility and (2) finally introducing a simultaneous multiplayer mode.

Two players can finally play a 2D Mario game simultaneously. Credit: Project Longplay

The first goal is accomplished through the Super Guide. This feature allows players to watch a skilled AI Luigi successfully navigating a stage and either take control once a particularly challenging hazard is overcome or allow the stage to be completed in its entirety. This system allows less skilled players to see the entire game but is only revealed once a player has failed eight times on a single stage. No secrets are revealed and no collectibles are picked up by the Super Guide, encouraging players to return to reattempt stages that they previously skipped.

Players can activate the Super Guide at any time. Credit: Frank Eivind Rundholt

The second goal had been a longstanding ideal of Shigeru Miyamoto. Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic had evolved from an abandoned multiplayer Mario concept and Super Mario 64 had originally been designed with cooperative play in mind. It was only through a combination of the Wii’s processing power and a comparatively old-fashioned gameplay style that this dream was realized.

Luigi is a big Paul Simon fan. Credit: Eric Fortes

Up to four players can simultaneously explore the stages of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, lifting and hurling one another to overcome tough platforming sections or engage in sabotage as whims dictate. This has the overall effect of enhancing chaos but has the compensating virtue of making New Super Mario Bros. Wii the first title in the series to be a casual party game. Less skilled players even have the option to surround themselves in a bubble and float over troublesome areas while more skilled players do the heavy lifting. Characters available to play as include Mario, Luigi, and two Toads; in spite of plans to include her as the fourth playable character, Peach was omitted due to concerns over animating her character model’s dress.

Propeller Mario is a good time, though the emphasis on swinging the WiiMote might drag down the experience for some. Credit: Project Longplay

Aside from its major revisions to difficulty and multiplayer, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is visually and mechanically similar to its DS predecessor. Graphics are naturally rendered at a higher resolution but character models are unchanged. At the same time, actions available to the player are not meaningfully updated. A host of new power-ups are introduced, however. These include a Propeller Mushroom which lets the player character ascend to the top of the screen with a shake of the gyroscopic WiiMote controller, a Penguin Suit that performs similarly to the Blue Shell of New Super Mario Bros., and an Ice Flower that can freeze enemies.

The Koopalings make their grand re-entrance in New Super Mario Bros. Wii’s opening cutscene. Credit: Project Longplay

The Koopalings make their first appearance in a core Mario game since 1991’s Super Mario World. They had been featured in portable RPG Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (2003) during the interim, but New Super Mario Bros. Wii marks their re-emergence as platforming boss characters. This game also represents the debut of 3D character models for Larry, Morton, Wendy, Iggy, Roy, Lemmy, and Ludwig. While many of the other enemies are returning favorites from past games, a handful of new ones are introduced. These include the Scaredy Rat, Huckit Crab, Foo, and Bramball; all offer new wrinkles in the series’ highly traditional gameplay. In a nod to Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, the final stage features an overgrown version of Bowser which chases the player through a castle as it crumbles around them.

Looks like Mario isn’t the only one with a mega form. Credit: Project Longplay

New Super Mario Bros Wii had followed in the footsteps of the highly successful New Super Mario Bros., but had still represented a risk for Nintendo. Would players see a home console side-scroller as a reasonable prospect in 2009, and would players still be interested in a 2D Mario adventure so soon after the last one? Happily for the studio, the answer to both of these questions was a resounding “yes.” The game launched worldwide to critical and commercial acclaim, cementing New Super Mario Bros. as a reliable new sub-series for Nintendo’s mascot.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 (2012)

Soundtrack (YouTube)

Development on New Super Mario Bros. 2 began in an uncharacteristic fashion. Rather than following the top-down leadership of Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, level design and conceptualization began with a group of new recruits from Mario Cram School. This class had been planned and promoted by Tezuka as a way to introduce Nintendo staffers to the fundamentals of building a Mario stage. In the early 2010s, Nintendo turned to a group of people in the class to effectively design its next portable Mario side-scroller from the ground up.

Some aspects of New Super Mario Bros. never change. Credit: NintendoCentral

Consequently, stages were created before the game’s overarching concept was in place. Co-directors Yusuke Amano and Masaaki Ishikawa were exploring ways to make the game meaningfully different from the preceding two New Super Mario Bros. titles when Tezuka and long-time Mario advisor Toshihiko Nakago suggested emphasizing coins. This dovetailed elegantly with Amano’s interest in making the game highly replayable, and the team settled on a 1,000,000 coin goal for players dedicated to seeing all of the content on offer. No prior Mario game had featured such a focus on collectible coins.

Even the stage title screens have a coin counter prominently displayed. Credit: NintendoCentral

The monetary element is borne out in New Super Mario Bros. 2’s new mechanics. Though it is visually similar to its direct predecessor, players are now encouraged to explore levels with even greater scrutiny than before. Enemies can be turned into gold variants which offer coins when defeated and a humorous Coin Box power-up allows Mario to rack up 100 coins at a stretch if he is not struck while it’s activated. A bonus time attack mode called Coin Rush, which sees players competing and exchanging data to see who can collect the most coins in randomly selected stages, hammers home the central theme still further; surprisingly, this mode was proposed by Amano before the game’s overall focus on coin accumulation.

The Coin Box power-up acquires coins but has the bonus virtue of looking hilarious. Credit: NintendoCentral

Coin Rush would controversially introduce downloadable content to the Mario series. Level packs could be downloaded after the base game was purchased, extending replay value and offering increasingly devious challenges. The development team offered the example of Super Mario Bros. 3’s e-Reader stages as a precedent for bonus paid content in an effort to play down fan concerns that Nintendo was giving in to predatory industry trends.

Reznor’s back! Credit: NintendoCentral

Despite offering some significant new revisions to the series’ gameplay, New Super Mario Bros. 2 also revives a few long-absent features from Mario’s past. The Koopalings return once again – part of a broader effort to re-familiarize players with this cavalcade of Koopas in the 2010s – along with Reznor. The fire-breathing dinosaur had not appeared in any game since 1991’s Super Mario World. Mario’s Raccoon Suit makes its first 2D reappearance since Super Mario Bros. 3 (though it had recently been featured in 2011’s Super Mario 3D Land). The latter also integrates a new White Raccoon variant which grants invulnerability; in a nod to the scaling Super Guide of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, this suit is made available when a player fails repeatedly on a single course.

Gold enemies play a large role. Most enemy behavior doesn’t change, but Lakitu joyfully tossing coins is pretty delightful. Credit: NintendoCentral

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is perhaps the most mechanically inventive of the New Super Mario Bros. sub-series. Still, it was subject to a more mixed critical reception than its predecessors had been. Concerns about its overall lack of originality couldn’t slow sales, however, and the series continued to be one of Nintendo’s most reliable financial performers. A home console sequel was well into development before New Super Mario Bros. 2 even hit store shelves.

New Super Mario Bros. U (2012)

Soundtrack (YouTube)

Only months after Nintendo 3DS owners got their hands on New Super Mario Bros. 2 and slightly more than a year after the E3 2011 appearance of New Super Mario Bros. Mii, the tech demo on which it was based, New Super Mario Bros. U hit the market. The game was released as a launch title for the Wii U in Fall/Winter 2012 and would rapidly establish itself as one of that platform’s few commercial successes. It bears much in common with New Super Bros. Wii but manages to set itself apart in several ways.

New Super Mario Bros. Mii, which was never released outside of its appearance at E3 2011. Note that the character on the right edge of the pipe is a user’s Mii avatar. Credit: GameXplain

Graphics are presented in high definition for the first time in the series’ history. This is a qualified success, as the simplicity of the sub-series’ character models and environments would come under even greater scrutiny. The high level of fidelity does improve the effect of noteworthy stages like Starry Night, which takes its visual cues from Vincent Van Gogh’s artwork.

Why aren’t there more Impressionist stages in Mario games? Credit: PixelMania – Mr. Shu

Gameplay is largely identical to earlier New Super Mario Bros. titles, though one new power-up is introduced. When the player encounters a Super Acorn, his or her character makes use of a flying squirrel transformation to glide effortlessly through the air when the jump button is held down. This lacks the rapid ascent of the Propeller Suit but does allow the player character to cover greater distances with less complex button inputs than earlier Mario flight mechanics had required. In addition to the new power-up, new Yoshi baby characters are included as well; these diminutive Yoshi variants offer abilities like floating or lighting a dark chamber when held by one of the player characters.

The Flying Squirrel Suit is an elegant way to move along both horizontal and vertical axes. Credit: Nintendo Central

The Wii U GamePad is a key peripheral for the console and, unsurprisingly, plays a major role in this launch game. Boost Mode allows for one player to use the tablet device to aid one to four other players viewing the game on a television. The GamePad user can place blocks to either impede enemy attacks or increase the platforms available for Mario and friends to alight upon. This mechanic was aimed at players who might lack familiarity with traditional platforming controls.

Traveling from one region to another on New Super Mario Bros. U‘s interconnected world map. Credit: Nintendo Central

For the first time since Super Mario World, the overworld is presented as a single landmass. Though this was more challenging to design than a set of discrete worlds, it serves the purpose of reminding players how close they are to the goal of Peach’s castle. Regions are themed for food and drink, though they articulate as a revival of biome archetypes encountered in earlier New Super Mario Bros. games. One major new addition to the overworld is the presence of Miiverse messages. The Miiverse system, a social network available to Nintendo users either online or on their Wii U from 2012 to 2017, permitted users to share messages and art. It was used in New Super Mario Bros. U to let users share tips and humorous notes on stages, though the service has since been discontinued.

Mario can carry Baby Yoshis, whose colors denote different abilities. Yellow Yoshi can light up dark places. Credit: Nintendo Central

A major piece of downloadable content was published on Nintendo’s eShop in early 2013. New Super Luigi U, released as part of the studio’s Year of Luigi celebration, offered remixed stages with a much higher level of difficulty than the base game. Players could no longer choose to play as Mario, and his character was replaced in the character selection menu with Nabbit. Nabbit is a devious thief who was introduced as an NPC in New Super Mario Bros. U. A full retail edition of the game would later be released, and from 2015 copies of New Super Mario Bros. U would come with its expansion bundled in.

Airships return but house only boss arenas. Credit: Nintendo Central

In January 2019, Nintendo would release a deluxe version of New Super Mario Bros. U on the Nintendo Switch. It contains the downloadable content, is presented in a higher resolution, and features an additional playable character. Toadette – Toad’s amusing pink companion – can swim faster than other characters and can transform into a Peach doppelganger called Peachette if she acquires a Super Crown power-up.

Peachette, the character that launched a thousand memes. Credit: Mario Wiki

In spite of its similarity to earlier New Super Mario Bros. entries, New Super Mario Bros. U was a critical and commercial success. It was praised as the best of the sub-series and would become the third best-selling title for the Wii U. Its popularity on the Switch six years after its initial release suggests that the series will be around for the foreseeable future.


Most Mario spinoffs have evolved into their own series. Mario & Luigi, Wario Land, Yoshi’s Island, Luigi’s Mansion, and Paper Mario all became successful franchises in their own right. Games featuring the Mario series characters engaging in sports gameplay, like Mario’s Tennis (1995) and Mario Golf (1999), have become regular releases on nearly every Nintendo platform. Even casual minigame collection Mario Party has seen sixteen sequels since its 1998 debut. Some of Mario’s 2D spinoffs were less successful, though. These never spawned side series and consequently won’t be the subject of any other Franchise Festival. Lest these unique titles pass into history without notice, let’s briefly explore them here.

Mario is in the lower-left in this Wrecking Crew still, pursued by his nemesis Foreman Spike. Credit: Old Classic Retro Gaming

Wrecking Crew (1985) followed Mario Bros. by two years and narrowly preceded the release of Super Mario Bros. Though the game lacks Mario’s name in the title, it depicts the hero as a member of a construction crew as he attempts to dismantle buildings. Mechanics have more in common with later puzzle platformers like Donkey Kong ‘94, as Mario must optimize his route through a maze-like stage while dodging hazards. Interestingly, Wrecking Crew offers a foreground/background interaction that would later be echoed by Koopa Troopas climbing on mesh screens in Super Mario World.

In spite of its status as something of a footnote within the Mario series, Wrecking Crew would be the source material for a stage in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (2018). Credit: NintendoMovies

Series spinoffs would become more common in the earlier 1990s, especially as the edutainment market boomed. Mario Teaches Typing (1991) and Mario Teaches Typing 2 (1996), Mario is Missing (1993), Mario’s Time Machine (1994), and Mario’s Early Years! (1993-1994) all seek to impart skills or knowledge to players rather than focusing on the franchise’s characteristically tight platforming. None were developed internally by Nintendo.

Who knew that one’s typing skills would someday help Mario evade a watery grave? Credit: NintendoComplete

Mario Teaches Typing was created by Interplay for MS-DOS and Windows operating systems, while the sequel would exchange MS-DOS for Macintosh. As the title suggests, both games are designed to teach the player how to type efficiently. Each uses a unique visual style not encountered in any other Mario game, though audio is derived from Super Mario World. The MS-DOS version of Mario Teaches Typing actually contains the first instance of Mario speaking aloud, voiced here by Ronald B. Ruben, while the later CD-ROM version would switch voice actors to Charles Martinet. An original rap song is also included in the CD-ROM version.

The level design is similar between the DOS and SNES version, but the off-model characters of the former truly capture my heart. Credit: Lingyan203

Mario is Missing (1993) was developed by The Software Toolworks for NES, SNES, MS-DOS, and (a year later) Macintosh operating systems. It was only released in North America and Europe. In the game’s introduction, Mario is kidnapped while investigating Bowser’s plot to raise the Earth’s water level by melting an Antarctic glacier. This very strange premise leads to some very strange gameplay, as Luigi and Yoshi navigate side-scrolling cityscapes in pursuit of Koopa Troopas who have stolen famous landmarks in an attempt to raise funds for Bowser’s scheme. Once the landmark is located, players take a trivia quiz and return the landmark to its rightful location. All versions of the game are different in terms of plot details and presentation, with the MS-DOS version particularly suffering from off-model character designs but including new content like videophone conversations.

Have you ever wondered what a conversation would be like between Ben Franklin and Mario? Well, wonder no more. This still is pulled from the SNES version of Mario’s Time Machine. Credit: World of Longplays

Mario’s Time Machine was a follow-up developed by The Software Toolworks for North American and European audiences. An MS-DOS version in 1993 was followed by an SNES version the same year, with Mario is Missing’s peculiar character models present in the MS-DOS release. An NES version which bore the same concept but featured different levels was developed by Radical Entertainment and released in 1994. All versions were published by Mindscape and center on Mario exploring various time periods in pursuit of historical artifacts. Mario navigates side-scrolling stages, engages in dialogue with residents of each period to determine where each artifact belongs, and occasionally stomps on an enemy. In the end, the player receives one of several endings based on how quickly and accurately the artifacts were recovered.

Mario’s Early Years! is designed for an audience of a very specific age. Credit: NintendoComplete

Mario’s Early Years! was the final suite of educational tie-ins produced by The Software Toolworks. Three games in the sub-series were released exclusively to North American audiences between 1993 and 1994 on MS-DOS operating systems and SNES, including Preschool Fun, Fun with Letters, and Fun With Numbers. All feature mouse-based point-and-click gameplay as young players participate in activities to test their knowledge.

Though its primary attraction was a suite of painting tools, the audio editor in Mario Paint would prove a popular diversion. Credit: MobyGames

Edutainment titles aside, the early 1990s also saw the release of some non-platforming Mario games. The first of these, 1992’s Mario Paint, is a multimedia art studio developed by Nintendo for the SNES. It is primarily centered on drawing pixel art but also features a music composition component and a fly-swatting minigame. When originally launched, copies of Mario Paint came bundled with an SNES Mouse peripheral.

Mario’s most passive-aggressive adventure is all about slamming doors in Koopaling faces. Credit: Prosafia Gaming

While Mario Paint would go on to inspire fans and future content creators, the next education-free Mario spinoff would inspire only derision. Hotel Mario, developed by Fantasy Factory and published on the CD-i platform by Phillips in 1994 as part of that company’s ill-fated contract with Nintendo, is an unmitigated failure. Featuring poorly animated cutscenes, distorted voice acting, and repetitive puzzle gameplay based primarily on closing doors, the following decades would see Hotel Mario regarded widely as one of the worst games ever made. It was all up from here.

The cutscenes must be seen (and heard) to be believed. I strongly encourage you to seek out a video like the one from which this image is derived. Credit: Prosafia Gaming

Mario’s Game Gallery, later re-titled Mario’s FUNdamentals, was initially developed by Presage Software Inc. and published by Interplay for MS-DOS, Windows, and Macintosh in 1995; the later re-release was programmed by Brainstorm Entertainment and published by Mindscape. All versions feature the player competing against Mario in various card games and board games, including Checkers, Backgammon, Go Fish, and an idiosyncratically renamed version of Yahtzee titled Yacht. This game would be the first to feature voice actor Charles Martinet as Mario, though he would soon appear in the aforementioned CD-ROM re-release of Mario Teaches Typing before being integrated into the core 3D Mario series with Super Mario 64 (1996).

This game is as fun as it looks. The vocal performance is pretty darned amusing though. Credit: NintendoComplete

Mario’s Game Gallery would mark the last of the franchise’s third-party spinoffs during the 1990s. Nintendo would still continue to produce spinoffs internally, though few of these would make their way outside of Japan. Among the most obscure of these Japan-only titles was a sequel to 1985’s Wrecking Crew.

In the same way that many other puzzle franchises would evolve in the 1990s, Wrecking Crew ’98 primarily iterates on the original concept by offering competitive multiplayer. Credit: ShiryuGL

Wrecking Crew ‘98 was originally distributed for Super Famicom hardware through Nintendo Power magazine in early 1998, but a retail edition was on store shelves by the end of the year. The game sees the player taking on the role of Mario as he attempts to smash skyscrapers erected by Bowser across the Mushroom Kingdom. Gameplay is reminiscent of the original game, though Mario is now competing against either an AI or human opponent as he breaks down a building’s support structure. This competitive mechanic is highly reminiscent of the two-player mode in Dr. Mario’s 1990 NES edition.

That hat bears a striking resemblance to the one worn by Mario almost two decades later on the cover of Super Mario Maker (2015). Credit: Mario Wiki

Visuals are brighter than they had been in the original Wrecking Crew, and many enemies are drawn from other Mario titles with the key exception of Foreman Spike. Spike had harried Mario in the original Wrecking Crew and bears no connection to the green, spiked ball-hurling enemy type debuted in Super Mario Bros. 3. Surprisingly, Mario’s Wrecking Crew ‘98 costume appears to have influenced his design in promotional materials for Super Mario Maker (2015).

Mario Artist: Polygon Studio teaches users how to create whatever polygonal objects they can dream up. Credit: Madao Joestar

Nintendo’s next stab at a spinoff to its flagship IP was a follow-up to Mario Paint. Mario Artist was a planned suite of eight creative modules to be released on the Japan-only Nintendo 64 Disk Drive (64DD) which would allow users to create and share fully animated art. Unfortunately, the commercial failure of the 64DD ensured that only four of these titles were released: Paint Studio (1999), Talent Studio (2000), Communication Kit (2000), and Polygon Studio (2000).

From these inauspicious beginnings, the Mii was born. Credit: LJJoeBailey

Though Paint Studio is very similar to the game’s predecessor, the others point to a greater level of ambition and technical expertise. Talent Studio allows the user to import video or still imagery and use it to craft 3D models which were usable in 64DD software Sim City 64 (2000); this game would eventually inspire the development of Nintendo’s Mii characters. Communication Kit integrated with Randnet’s Net Studio to let users share their creations and download others’ work. Polygon Studio allowed users to develop 3D models rather than strictly working in a 2D environment. The names of the unreleased Mario Artist software suggests that users would eventually have been able to develop entire games, but the 64DD was discontinued by early 2001.

Peach is happy when she finds a Toad, though it looks like that Toad is even happier. Credit: Zephiel810

Super Princess Peach (2005/2006) would represent a more traditional approach to 2D Mario design, but would fall short of inspiring an ongoing series like Wario Land and Yoshi’s Island had done. In this Nintendo DS title, players take on the role of Peach for the first time in a side-scrolling adventure since the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988). In light of the broader franchise’s characterization of Peach as a damsel in distress, it’s unfortunate that Super Princess Peach manages to offer an even more problematic rendering of the character.

Mario can run, but Peach can… cry? This game is a bummer. Credit: Zephiel810

She must make use of four emotions – joy, gloom, rage, and calm – to explore Vibe Island and save captive Toads. Peach is aided by a sentient parasol named Perry. As it was directed towards DS owners who might not have played a platforming game before, the difficulty level is low. Reception to the game was very poor, apparently preempting any further releases in this potential sub-series.

Super Mario Maker features a genuinely breathtaking amount of creative tools. Users have made auto-playing levels, musical levels, traditional levels, boss gauntlets, RPGs, and more. Credit: Snoman Gaming

Super Mario Maker (2015), on the other hand, would be among the most successful Mario spinoffs since the franchise’s debut. As a 30th Anniversary celebration for Super Mario Bros., Nintendo released a full level editing suite for the Wii U. Exploiting the touch-based GamePad to its fullest extent, Super Mario Maker allows users to generate 2D Mario stages using four different visual styles: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. Nintendo pulled staff who had worked on earlier Mario games to render stage assets like ghost houses and airships in the art styles of games in which those stage themes had never appeared.

Some users opted to design stages with a nearly unplayable level of difficulty. Credit: Snoman Gaming

Slopes are absent, as levels must adhere to a rigid grid-based design, but most classic elements of the series are included here. Numerous enemies from throughout Mario’s quarter-century past are part of the base game while later free content updates integrate features like keys and locked doors. Despite its release on one of Nintendo’s least commercially successful platforms, Super Mario Maker gave rise to a thriving online community which shared courses through Miiverse and a special web portal dedicated entirely to finding and sharing stages. A 2016 3DS port dropped some of the online functionality but added a more robust Nintendo-designed campaign and the ability to passively share stages with nearby 3DS units.

The fundamentals of Super Mario Run are easy to grasp, but the complexity lies in mastery of its often-branching stages. Credit: ZackScottGames

The latest 2D Mario spinoff, as of writing in February 2019, is Super Mario Run (2016). This iOS and Android title represents the first time that Nintendo allowed a Mario game to be released on non-Nintendo hardware since 1997’s Mario’s FUNdamentals. With visuals drawn from the New Super Mario Bros. palette, players take on the role of Mario as he runs automatically through 24 stages. The goal is jumping at the right time to collect coins and avoid hazards, as the player lacks control over Mario’s constant forward momentum. Players eventually gain access to ten more characters and alternate modes of play. Though critical response was fairly positive, the game under-performed commercially due to its peculiar price structure; in an era when most mobile titles were free-to-play with in-game microtransactions representing the bulk of revenue, Super Mario Run was sold as a complete game at a premium price.


It’s hard to even know what to write about the implications and future of the Mario series. This franchise has become synonymous with video games as a medium, dragging the format back from the brink of its demise in the West and pushing it forward into a new century. Even as the series threatened to abandon its 2D roots following Super Mario 64 (1996), series creator Shigeru Miyamoto and frequent director Takashi Tezuka used New Super Mario Bros. to remind players why they had originally fallen in love with simple yet engaging side-scrolling mechanics. Nintendo’s mascot will undoubtedly be jumping on Goombas and foiling Bowser’s schemes for generations to come.

What do you think? What’s your favorite Mario game? How about your favorite power-up? Do you feel like the New Super Mario Bros. sub-series effectively captures the magic of the franchise’s 1980s and 1990s entries or would you like to see more sprite-based Mario releases? Where do you see the series going from here?

Next week we’ll be covering the 3D Mario games. That article will go live at 9:00 AM EST on Friday, February 15, and then Franchise Festival will be going on a short break. In the interest of transparency, please be aware that I’m looking to get a bigger backlog of articles built up (so the series doesn’t drive me to exhaustion) while also exploring options for a physical publication.

Looking forward to seeing you next time!