In my mind, Super Mario Bros. is and will continue to be, until we’re all dust on a burned up husk of a planet, the most important video game ever released. You might think me basic for holding that opinion, and I’ve made my peace with that. Not only did Super Mario Bros. arguably save the video game industry from utter economic collapse, but it was instrumental in defining the grammar of the medium and remains totally playable more than 30 years later.
I’ve been playing New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe for the last couple of weeks for my review, and it struck me that 2D Mario is like pizza. It’s timeless, everyone loves it, and no matter how many times you eat it, you still want more. Extending this sloppy metaphor, every Mario game has added a couple of toppings—i.e., gameplay mechanics—here and there that are almost completely unnecessary, but still make the game—er, pizza—better.
New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is still a great Mario game, but it doesn’t add any new mechanics, and I’m curious about why it doesn’t. Has Takashi Tezuka—who was a producer on this game and its Wii U counterpart—finally decided that the series has enough toppings? (It is called “deluxe,” after all.)
That might be it, but I still think 2D Mario can stand a little iteration. In the meantime, here are some of the best mechanics that every Mario game has added to Super Mario Bros.’ perfect formula.
Super Mario Bros. 2
Yes, I mean Super Mario USA (as it’s known in Japan), not Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (as Japan’s Super Mario Bros. 2 is known in the U.S.). You might argue that Super Mario Bros. 2 shouldn’t be on this list since it started as Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic, but Doki Doki Panic itself started as a prototype for the sequel to Super Mario Bros., so it legitimately belongs.
Not a lot in Super Mario Bros. 2 stuck. The life meter was dropped in the next game, and it wouldn’t be until New Super Mario Bros. Wii that you could once again play as any character other than Mario or Luigi. Even the different play styles for each character, including Luigi’s now-infamous slipperiness, debuted in The Lost Levels. But Super Mario Bros. 2 added one new mechanic to the series that completely changed Mario games forever: verticality.
Specifically, Super Mario Bros. 2 added the ability to climb. This expanded the series’ concept of level design and pushed Nintendo to make some pretty big technical advancements. Climbing meant that falling was also part of Super Mario Bros. 2, which translated to being able to revisit previous screens, both horizontally and vertically. It forced Nintendo to build levels that weren’t just a series of obstacles, but worlds worth exploring.
Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario Bros. 3 offered arguably the biggest gameplay leap in the series, even to this day. While picking up enemies was the main mechanic in Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3 changed the way this worked by letting you jump on a koopa troopa and then running into the shell to pick it up, completely streamlining the process. It’s hard to imagine 2D Mario games without this mechanic now, especially considering how integral it can be to collecting certain golden coins and unlocking hidden areas in later games.
The ability to (briefly) fly was also a revolution from Super Mario Bros. 3. The Super Leaf in Super Mario Bros. 3 is just as crucial as the Fire Flower, and every flight-based power-up that’s appeared in the series since owes it a debt. Introducing flight to a series that’s all about jumping over obstacles without completely breaking the game is probably worth its own analysis, but let’s just say that it’s a pretty massive achievement and opened up possibilities vis-a-vis level design.
Super Mario Bros. 3’s most significant addition to the series, however, was the world map. This seemingly minor addition to the series actually introduced new staples like standalone hammer bro stages and memorable minigames. It also helped give each world a more solid thematic identity and imbued a more thorough sense of adventure. Sure, each world in previous Mario games had their own themes, but Super Mario Bros. 3 turned the Mushroom Kingdom into an actual place, rather than just a series of screens.
Super Mario World
Super Mario World is the most visually appealing game in the series (not counting 3D entries like Galaxy and Odyssey). The sprites are detailed, the backgrounds are minimalistic while still creating a sense of depth, and the colors are eye-candy.
But Super Mario World was more than just a face-lift. It introduced Yoshi, who is basically a sentient version of the boot in Super Mario Bros. 3 with way more mechanics to learn and master. Yoshi wasn’t just an aesthetic, commercial addition, either. He let Mario get even higher jumps by using him as a platform, he had his own set of power-ups, and he let players gobble up enemies without even having to jump. It’s a shame that the New Super Mario subseries dropped the ability to bring Yoshi across multiple stages.
Super Mario World also added the spin jump. I’d guess this is maybe one of the least-used mechanics in the entire series, but it did open up new possibilities for skill-based gameplay. Certain secrets were locked behind the player’s ability to effectively use the spin jump, which just raised the bar for what Mario games expected of its fanbase.
Super Mario 64
The relationship between 2D Mario and 3D Mario games is a tenuous, uncomfortable one. While I love the 3D Mario games, I do feel a bit slighted by how they’ve dominated the mental real estate Nintendo reserves for Mario games. While the New Super Mario subseries brought back 2D Mario, it’s the 3D Mario games that have become the flagship vehicles for the iconic plumber.
Still, Super Mario 64 in particular introduced two major mechanics that have defined the most recent 2D Mario games: triple jumping and wall jumping.
Triple jumping now seems like it’s been in Mario games forever, but it started in Super Mario 64. It seems like something that would work better in the more measured, controlled level design of 2D Mario games, so it’s funny that Nintendo almost had to reverse engineer the process to arrive at the triple jump. Maybe the freedom of 3D Mario games and the amount of space available inspired the developers.
Wall jumping, on the other hand, seems like much more of a necessity in a 3D space, since Super Mario 64 was often about steadily scaling vertical spaces, even more so than Super Mario Bros. 2. Super Mario 64 exploded the notion of horizontal space versus vertical space in platformers, and the wall-jump was an answer to that paradigm shift. Thankfully, Nintendo brought it over to 2D Mario, allowing for some more inventive level design and more thrilling close calls.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii
New Super Mario Bros. Wii is underrated in terms of how it pushed the series forward while reconciling with the character’s prominence in 3D. Its most defining feature might be the addition of co-op, something that Miyamoto had wanted to introduce ever since Super Mario Bros. 2, but its best quality is how it manages to put together so many pieces from the series’ history into a logical, perfectly designed whole.
That’s not to say it isn’t without its innovation. My absolute favorite thing about New Super Mario Bros. Wii is its secondary spin. I’m assuming that Nintendo wanted to figure out a way to involve the Wii’s motion controls without sacrificing the purity of the 2D Mario experience, so it allowed Mario a little extra midair spin with the flick of a wrist. This mechanic adds style, skill, and accuracy to Mario’s jumps, and yet another complication for the level designers.