Mario is one of the most iconic characters in all of gaming. In fact, his influence reaches past the gaming community. Ask someone who the mustachioed man in the red ‘M’ cap is, and they’ll likely know his name. The cultural significance of Mario is tough to overstate. To children and adults alike, he’s an icon for fun, youth, and an all around enjoyable experience. Casual Mario Kart players and Super Smash Bros. experts can all agree, without Mario, the world would be a much less “super” place. Let’s break down the mainline History of Super Mario games dating back to the NES days. Feel free to check out other great History Of articles on Comic Years, including pieces on Fire Emblem and Pokémon Go!
This list will exclude non-mainline games. Mario appears in a ton of great series, and whether he’s at the Olympics or taking on Rabbids, he’s been in a lot. This piece is going to solely focus on mainline games, including the classic side scrollers and the more modern 3D adventure titles. Look for a future piece on the non-mainline games to come!
The Origin of Super Mario
Nintendo was in a sorry state before Mario. Radar Scope, the company’s cabinet arcade shooter released in 1979, failed miserably in the United States. Upon release, it did quite well in Japan, so then-Nintendo president Minoru Arakawa took all of the money in the subsidiary Nintendo of America, and put it into Radar Scope. Upon flopping, Arakawa panicked, and enlisted a young designer by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto to save the company. And “save” is not an over exaggeration; another failure would result in the company’s dissolution. Miyamoto came up with a single mechanic on which to center the new game: jumping.
The game was Donkey Kong, and the goal was to traverse items rolling down a sloped platform and climb ladders to rescue a female prisoner named Pauline. The arcade cabinet version of Donkey Kong, its original version, starring the aptly named Jumpman. Points came from destroying things, not taking damage, and collecting items. The game was wildly popular. Later, his name changed from Jumpman to Mario. The name came from Nintendo of America’s landlord, Mario Segale. He interrupted a meeting about overdue rent, and became the namesake for the most popular video game character ever.
From there on out, the official name of the star was Mario. His appearances in Donkey Kong sequels would start to build a fandom around him. His mainline series, Super Mario Bros., skyrocketed him to another dimension in terms of popularity.
Super Mario Mainline Series History
The best way to look back on the mainline History of Super Mario is to break it down into console generations. We’ll start first with the era from the NES days to the Gameboy.
Super Mario Games – NES to First Gameboy Title
Super Mario Bros. (NES in West, Famicom in Japan)
The first mainline Super Mario-starring game was Super Mario Bros., released for the NES in 1985. The game featured 2D platforming, or side scrolling, gameplay. Mario and his brother Luigi live in the Mushroom Kingdom, and the town’s princess, Princess Toadstool, gets kidnapped. Bowser, a turtle-dragon hybrid takes her, and Mario must clear eight different worlds to rescue her. There are 32 levels in the first Super Mario game. Each world has a different theme. The fourth level of every world is always a mini castle, and the last is always a major castle. The end of each world’s major castle level features a boss fight with Bowser. To this day, it’s still one of the best selling games of all time.
Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (NES in West, Famicom in Japan)
Initially intended to be the sequel to Super Mario Bros., The Lost Levels actually released as Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan. A few new additions came with the Lost Levels. These included weather, new animations for movements, and a way higher difficulty level. The same 8 worlds and 32 levels led Mario through another adventure to find Princess Toadstool, but the 1986 release infuriated fans in Japan. For that reason, it wasn’t released in the West until 1993, under the new name, The Lost Levels. The original version of the game for Famicom was outdated by the time it could have ever made it out to America anyways. It’s still talked about today as including some of the toughest Mario levels ever created in the history of Super Mario. If you’re not afraid of a challenge, then this is a bucket list game for you.
Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES in West, Famicom in Japan)
Known as Super Mario USA in Japan, SMB 2 released in 1988 and stars Mario fighting the evil frog Wart. A huge plus in this game was the addition of new characters other than Mario. Players could play as Luigi, Princess Peach (formerly Princess Toadstool), and Toad, the mushroom headed companion seen in the Kingdom. Each additional character other than Mario had an extra special feature to their game style. Luigi jumped higher than his brother, and Peach glides with the use of her skirt. The game also featured a life meter for the first time. You could get hit four times with the meter without dying. Coins are also used for minigames, which are a staple of the series.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES in West, Famicom in Japan)
Arguably the best side scrolling Super Mario game ever, SMB 3 also released in 1988 and featured 8 worlds with 6 to 10 levels in each. Every world also featured item houses, minigames, and bonus stages. Items found at these special buildings could unlock the ability to skip levels, or even bypass worlds altogether. The Super Leaf is often named as a new favorite item, giving Mario the ability to fly. The final level in each world is a boss stage, usually fought against one of Bowser’s Koopalings, other than the final world where Bowser fights Mario. Instead of a castle, each world’s final level took place on an airship. The game featured new power ups, like the Racoon Suit that let you fly, or the P-Wing for permanent flight. If you consider yourself a Mario fan, this needs to be played at least a few times in your lifetime.
Super Mario Land (Gameboy)
A year after SMB 3, Mario moved over to handheld for the first time in the mainline series. Super Mario Land first debuted as a Game & Watch title. Game & Watch were handheld devices that held one single pixeled game, much like an early version of a Gameboy. The title featured the same premise as the NES and Famicom games, with Princess Daisy in distress this time around. Overall, the experience is the same with new villains. Tatanga led the evil charge this time around, as a spaceman of sorts out to strike evil on Mushroom Kingdom. The game featured 12 levels and four worlds.
Super Mario Games – SNES to Nintendo 64
Super Mario World (Super Nintendo in West, Super Famicom in Japan)
The SNES is the second home console developed by Nintendo. The SNES hosted Super Mario World. The game was released in 1990, and featured a world map instead of various worlds. 72 levels were playable, with many having secret exits instead of the single, linear finish. New moves included a spin jump, and more importantly, a rideable Yoshi. Yoshis could eat enemies, and either spit them out as fire, or swallow them. The new Cap Feather, also let Mario and Luigi fly with a cape, not unlike the Super Leaf from SMB 3. For a long time, gamers considered this one of the best Mario games ever made.
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (Gameboy)
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins is the second Mario mainline title for Gameboy, and introduced Wario in 1992. Wario takes over Mario’s castle during the events of Super Mario Land, and now forces Mario to obtain 6 golden coins to reclaim his home. Much like the first one, the game is 32 levels, and features several themed worlds. Super Mario Land introduces the carrot power up for the first time. The carrow gives Mario rabbit ears that let him glide for a period of time after jumping. The story directly led to the next Gameboy game, which we’ll discuss soon.
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (Super Nintendo in West, Super Famicom in Japan)
This is the only Yoshi’s Island-style game in the mainline series. Miyamoto himself said so himself while recounting the history of Super Mario from his memory. Released in 1995, the game features Baby Mario and Yoshi, who move around various islands to find Baby Luigi. It’s considered a prequel to the very first NES Mario title, and depicts the birth of the Mario Bros. Instead of dying, when Yoshi gets hit Baby Mario ejects from his back. The baby floats in a bubble with a numbered countdown, and if you don’t retrieve Baby Mario before it hits zero, the level resets. It was kind of them not to depict the death of babies. Numerous sequels came after Yoshi’s Island. These include Yoshi’s Story, Yoshi’s Island DS, and Yoshi’s New Island on the Nintendo 3DS.
Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)
If you love gaming, you have Nintendo 64’s Super Mario 64 to thank. If it’s tough to overstate Mario’s influence on the culture, it’s even tougher to express how influential Super Mario 64 is to gaming. Released in 1996, it’s the first 3D game to abandon the sidescrolling for an open world. It also served as a launch title for the Nintendo 64. Each level is a closed off world area where Mario explores with no time limit.
Power Stars are located in each level, and unlock other areas and courses. The analog stick made Mario’s movements extra precise, and the experience is unlike anything that came before it. The game introduced punching, triple jumps, and even a cap that allows Mario to fly. Other new items include the Metal Cap and the Vanish Cap. With 105 Power Stars in the game, there’s a lot to do. Fans and critics still consider the game to be one of the best.
Super Mario Games – Gamecube to Wii
Super Mario Sunshine (Nintendo Gamecube)
The Gamecube launched with Super Mario Sunshine in 2002. The title features Mario traveling with Peach to Isle Delfino where a Mario doppelgänger is vandalizing everything. It’s an open world title like Mario 64. If you love open world games, it’s well worth your time. While it’s a little different than Mario 64, it’s the same basic premise. The main feature is the F.L.U.D.D, a power washer of sorts. Mario uses the F.L.U.D.D. to clean up graffiti on the island. It also allows Mario to float, as well as fight foes. Sunshine introduced Bowser’s son, Bowser Jr. He’s the final Koopa Kid associated with Bowser. Yoshi also returns as a ridable character in a few levels as well.
New Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo DS)
Released in 2006, the Nintendo DS title New Super Mario Bros. featured 3D graphics with the traditional side scrolling backgrounds and levels, creating a 2.5D experience. The original overworld map returns, and new items like the Mega Mushroom and mini mushroom help Mario take on levels from a new perspective; literally. The items allow him to fit in different areas and even destroy pipes and enemies without taking damage. The 2.5D style became the new design for Mario games featuring side scrolling from here on out.
Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo Wii)
The first of two Galaxy games released in 2007. The Wii debut of the mainline Mario games took Mario to galaxies instead of worlds. Like Sunshine and Mario 64, Power Stars led Mario to new galaxies, and each galaxy featured planets instead of levels. The game featured a physics system for gravity, allowing Mario to traverse around objects and move upside down.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii)
The next Wii Mario title in 2009 returned to the New Super Mario style with 2.5D graphics. It pushed the history of Super Mario into its current generation. The game featured 4 player co-op, as well as the Propeller Mushroom, Ice Flower, and Penguin Suit for sliding. The Wii’s Wiimote allowed for shaking and motion controls to help jump higher, and Yoshi returned to give all players rides in different levels.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)
2010 brought Galaxy 2, a sequel with the same items and power ups as the 2007 title. Yoshi returned for riding and extra moves, as well as the Rock Mushroom. It received great reviews, just like the first Galaxy title.
Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo 3DS)
2011 brought Super Mario 3D Land for the 3DS. The 3D capabilities of the handheld system allowed a new view of the game. Older items and gameplay features returned for a throwback to older NES era games. The game earned great acclaim from fans and critics.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 (Nintendo 3DS)
The direct sequel to New Super Mario Bros. on the DS came out in 2012, and featured a new challenge to collect one million coins over the course of the game. No new changes really came with the release.
Super Mario Games – Wii U to Now
New Super Mario Bros. U (Nintendo Wii U)
New Super Mario Bros. U released in 2012, and introduced a Flying Squirrel suit as well as gameplay features on the Wii U’s gamepad. The gamepad could be used to move platforms, turn levers, and other environmental influences. A DLC package starring Luigi released, and came out later as a retail standalone title in 2013. New characters Nabbit the Rabbit and Toadette came with the title.
Super Mario 3D World (Nintendo Wii U)
Next, another open world game mimicking the 3DS game Super Mario 3D Land came to the Wii U in 2013. The game also used the gamepad for enviornmental changes, and introduced the Lucky Bell cat suit, and Double Cherry items which turn one character into a set of twins for various levels. Mario and Luigi are playable, as are Peach, Toad, and Rosalina from Super Mario Galaxy.
Super Mario Maker (Nintendo Wii U)
The first Super Mario Maker allowed players to make levels in the styles of SMB 1, 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. If you love Mario, then it’s much like a lover letter to the series. The levels created by players could be uploaded to an online Course World, and a 3DS version of the game released later in 2016.
Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch)
The open world Odyssey released on 2017, embodying a true sandbox style not seen since Sunshine. Mario’s cap is possessed and turns into Cappy. Cappy allows for new gameplay mechanics like throwing the hat for damage, possessing others, and seeing above walls and obstacles. The game is seen as the best in the mainline series since Mario 64. It’s also the first in the history of Super Mario to feature human characters!
Super Mario Maker 2 (Nintendo Switch)
This year in 2019, Super Mario Maker 2 released. Similarly to the original Super Mario Maker, new items, themes, enemies, and features were added as well as online multiplayer. It’s a great ode to the deep history of Super Mario. Pick it up for the Switch if you can!
It’s impressive that Super Mario is still relevant some 24 years after his introduction to the world. If you love gaming, then you have likely played one of the games in this list. Even casually, people all over the world know about Super Mario. Hopefully you’ve learned something running through the history of Super Mario and the mainline series games. Keep reading Comic Years for more great content on gaming, comics, and pop culture!
Taylor loves to play video games in his spare time. He has two degrees in Political Communication and wrote his thesis on Marxism and the exploitation of college athletes. In his spare time, he loves spending time with his wife and two Toy Australian Sheppards. He’s always got headphones in, and he’s a diehard Cubs fan.