Tuesday, March 19, 2013


My Favorite Mario Games

I've long counted myself as a Nintendo fan, but it's more accurate to say that I'm a Mario fan.  At least, this is what I've been telling myself for years.  But when Super Mario 3D Land didn't impress me and I actively disliked New Super Mario Brothers 2, it made me wonder if some sort of problem has arisen.  Am I growing out of the series?  Has its quality dipped?

But then I got to thinking.  There have been a lot of Mario games, haven't there?  And it's not like I've loved every single one of them.  I'm not alone in dismissing Super Mario Brothers 2.  Super Mario World was flashy and 16-bitty, but it didn't really inspire the same cherry Kool Aid sugar rush addiction that its immediate prequel gave me.

And it made me wonder.  Do I have another Zelda situation here?  In spite of my stated devotion to the Mario franchise, am I really just talking about a small number of favorites?

So sure.  Here's my favorite Mario games.  Only the good ones.

And since Mario has been in everything from tennis to Dance Dance Revolution, I figured I should narrow the scope strictly to platformers.  You know, games where your primary means of interacting with the world is running and jumping.  You start at one spot in a level, and you try to reach a different spot.  By this definition, I'm discluding the RPGs with turn-based combat.  Super Paper Mario would qualify, but it's not on this list because I just plain don't like it.

Also, it would have to be a Mario game.  Mario has to be a playable character.  So a number of games that I really like -- Warioland, Yoshi's Island -- are not up for consideration.

So here's the list.

Super Mario Brothers

Super Mario Brothers was the killer app for the NES, and it really pushed the whole video game industry to a different level.  It was sort of the pivot point where developers stopped thinking in terms of quarter-sucking amusements and toward more adventurey kinds of games.

These days, it sticks out as looking kind of primitive, and the gameplay is kind of basic, but damned if I don't still play it.  There was a long period where I wouldn't, just because it was such a step backward.  But then it was re-released for the Game Boy Color, and it made me realize, yeah, this is still fun.  Even without the raccoon suits or airships or even the ability to scroll left, it's still so much fun to play.

Super Mario Brothers 3

This game was one of the marvels of the NES.  I mean, it was just HUGE.  So many levels, so many great ideas, so many secrets.  Owning this game was basically THE event of my childhood.  I spent so much time going through its strategy guide, so much time exploring it just to explore it, so much time just thinking about it even when I couldn't play it.  And it still stands up today, whether it's on the Wii Virtual Console or on the Game Boy Advance.

Donkey Kong '94

The Game Boy was a pretty amazing gadget when it came out.  If not the first of its kind, then at least the first runaway success.  And yet, when I played the Super Marioland games, I could never escape the fact that these were the pocket versions, you know?  It was like playing a Game & Watch or Tiger Handheld remake of your favorite NES game -- there was just no getting away from the fact that this was the shrunken-down version.

Then the Super Game Boy launched with this remake of Donkey Kong, and I didn't really pay attention to it.  Donkey Kong was that old NES game, right?  The one with four levels that looped forever?

But when my cousin let me try his copy, I was floored.  Yes, it's Donkey Kong, but it's like Donkey Kong reborn.  There's so many more levels and so much more to do; it was Donkey Kong taken apart and rebuilt with more modern, Mario-y sensibilities.  I bought my own copy, and I've loved it ever since.  This was the real Game Boy Mario game.

Super Mario 64

Why Super Mario 64?  Why is this the one that I keep coming back to?  Why not the more impressive Sunshine or Galaxy games?  Is it just the nostalgia goggles?

I think it's just the fact that Super Mario 64 was designed to be a world to be explored rather than an obstacle course to be run through.  There's a real feeling of openness to its worlds that sort of encourages you to have a look around and see what might be hiding in its nooks that you don't get with some of the more modern 3D Mario games.  Your path isn't very well-defined.  You can get the stars out of order and skip some altogether.  And while this can be kind of frustrating at times -- I remember spending a lot of time wondering what the hint at the beginning of a level was supposed to mean -- it's also very freeing.  You can strike off in any direction you like, and you're almost certain to find something interesting eventually.

And there's also a very pleasant retro-future feeling to it.  Like, back in the 90s, this is what we thought Virtual Reality was going to look like.  Things made of polygons, weird floating geometric shapes with flat shading or incredibly pixelated textures.  The world is just so strange and alien.  I love coming back to it.

And the DS version -- with more playable characters and new levels -- is a lot of fun too.

The Subspace Emissary

Maybe I'm kind of fudging my definition here -- this qualifies as much for my Zelda list as my Mario list -- but hey.  You can play as Mario.  There's platforming.  It fits.

The Subspace Emissary doesn't get enough love, as I've opined in the past.  I'll never understand how people can be unhappy about a game where all of the Nintendo characters meet to battle each other and, eventually, to team up against an enormous evil that's threatening all of their worlds.

New Super Mario Brothers Wii

This is the single best Mario game ever.  Where New Super Mario Brothers on the DS was just sort of a nice throwback to classic platforming games, this felt like a game that was decades in the making.  Not a single note rings false.  So many familiar elements of the Mario canon have been brought together -- the Koopalings, Bowser Jr., Kamek, the airship, Yoshi, Bowser -- and not a single one of them was thrown in offhandedly.  Everything has been developed and had a new twist put on it.  Every single level has an idea to it.  Simultaneous four-player is so fun and so natural -- it's really the only way to play.


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