Ah Mario, who doesn’t love you? It’s the one franchise that most gamers and even non-gamers can agree on. Its bright and cartoony graphics, simple controls, lack of any real plot and imaginative and fun characters make most Mario games unintimidating and very accessible for more casual gamers. At the same time, the depth of the levels, wealth of secrets and difficult gameplay at higher levels make it similarly popular with well seasoned gamers. For those of us who have been into gaming for a while, Mario represents a simpler time in games and brings to mind many of our most treasured gaming experiences of our youth. It’s easy to see why Mario remains a much loved franchise and has stuck around much longer than most. And the quality of titles hasn’t really waned. The release of more Mario games is a constant that many of us Nintendo fans have come to rely on, like the sun setting every day. So out of all the Mario games ever made, it’s difficult to choose a few levels as my favourites (also because the specifics of many of the older games have faded from my memory over the years), but below are the 5 that have stuck in my mind after all this time. They may not be the best designed or the most influential, but they all hold a special place in my heart.
In no particular order:
Mario Bros. – First level
It’s impossible to pick Mario levels without at least considering this one. Personally, it’s still one of my most loved and I can’t help smiling each time I play it. Despite being very simple compared to later levels and games, it always feels like Mario at its purest. It’s where Mario all started and despite missing all the bells and whistles of later games it’s easy to see why it took off from there. It’s an excellent introduction to most of the core concepts that translate across Mario games including smashing blocks to get power-ups, jumping on goombas and using pipes to get to secret areas. I would suggest everyone try it at least once, even if you’ve played all the more modern Mario games. It’s like playing a piece of history.
Super Mario 64 – Cool, Cool Mountain
There were so many levels of Mario 64 that I loved it’s difficult to choose one. It was the first 3D Mario game and I remember my mind boggling every time I played it. In fact, this game paved the way not just for 3D platforming, but 3D gaming in general. I remember in my youthful naivety genuinely wondering how games could look better than it did then. If only little me could see what games look like now! Mario 64 had its flaws, but generally speaking it was some of the most fun I’d had with a game at that point in my life and I think it still holds up very well today (though some might disagree).
Although most people seem to remember the first and second levels, Bob-omb’s Battlefield and Whomp’s Fortress with the greatest fondness (and awesome levels they are from what I can remember), my personal favourite was Cool, Cool Mountain. Why? Because of those dastardly penguins! Although they’d been around in other Mario and Nintendo games, this was the first time they gained real prominence. Penguins have always seemed to be a source of great distress for many, but I’ve always loved them. In particular, that race down that icy mountain (against a penguin of course) has always stuck in my mind as being equal parts infuriating and wonderful. If you weren’t careful sliding down that icy slope, you could quite easily fall off the edge, which as I remember, was quite often. I remember loving the snow, the sliding mechanic and all the awesome penguiny-ness! I mean come on, giant penguins!
Rainbow level of Mario Kart 64
Mario Kart 64 is still one of my favourite racing games, although admittedly I’ve never been a very big racing fan. With its iconic power-ups, silly cast of characters and colourful and imaginative tracks, I’m pretty sure it was love at first play. Combined with the simplicity of the controls and a choice of different speeds, it’s one of those games that’s very easy to get to, but difficult to master. And like so many of the great ‘Mario’ games, it’s incredibly sociable. It’s still one of my games of choice when I have friends over, especially if they’re of the non-gaming variety. It’s also incredibly addictive. It’s never just one race is it?
My choice of level or track is a very personal one and I may be alone on this, since it seems like most people I’ve played with hate this one. There are certainly much better levels to test your prowess, but this one was my personal track of choice as a kid. When I was a child it looked amazing to my young untrained eyes and I was immediately dazzled by the bright rainbow colours and the space setting. Although it looks unassuming, it’s also much harder than it looks, mainly because the rainbow colour scheme makes your eyes go totally nuts so it’s actually quite difficult to make anything out, the corners are quite sharp and if you lose control of your car mid-air there’s a chance you could go flying off the track and into the desolation of space beyond. Love it!
Super Mario Galaxy – Honey-hive Galaxy
I remember being really confused by the physics system in this game at first, but at the same time really loving the freshness of the core concept. This wasn’t 2D Mario. This wasn’t even 3D Mario. This was crazy on crack Mario like I’d never seen before and I loved it. In this game you travel to various galaxies and worlds. Each planet has its own gravitational pull that draws you in as you get close and allows you traverse the whole surface the world, so you’ll often find yourself upside down or sideways or I don’t even know anymore. You may also have gathered that I really like space. SPACE! SPPPPAAAAAAAAACCCCCE! That’s a reference by the way, I’m not crazy (not completely at least). Don’t be deceived by its bright and friendly exterior either – parts of this game were really really hard!
Beeeeeees! Ordinarily I really really hate bees, but there’s something really awesome about flying and sticking to walls as Bee-Mario. Honey-hive Galaxy is the first time you’re introduced to the bee suit, which other than making Mario look ridiculous allow you to fly in bursts and stick to honeycomb walls. Again, despite its fun and colourful look it’s actually quite challenging at times. There are parts where you can’t touch the floor, which is made of honey and slows you down and other obstacles like ponds that make you lose your bee suit if you touch the water, which are both very fun and pretty difficult. What I loved about it most though, was that it was so different both in aesthetic and gameplay to everything that had come before and perfectly exemplified just how original Super Mario Galaxy was.
New Super Mario Bros – World 3-2
There are so many great levels in this game it’s ridiculous. New Super Mario Bros managed to retain all the things I loved about the classic Mario games, while still making it feel more polished, more fun and completely fresh. It kept and expanded on many of the iconic Mario levels, so there was still your regular lava, ice and water levels for instance, but there were also a vast array of new ones. One of my favourites is a sky-based level full of giant mushrooms that tilt back and forth.
Why? Because it’s just got all the things I love about Mario, while still introducing some new concepts and mechanics. Because the mushrooms are constantly moving and bending, often leaving huge jumps between them, it all comes down to reflex and timing, which I love. It’s inevitably a level that trips my non-gamer friends up as there are fewer places for you to really stop and think. It’s all go, go and go with this level. If you miss the jump you’ll find yourself falling into space with very little chance of making it back up unless you press A and bubble in time (I don’t know if that’s actually the term for it, but it should be). I also just love the look of this level, with the giant mushrooms and bright colours. For me it’s a perfect example of bringing old and new Mario together and is just a ridiculous among of fun.