What the Hell is a Super Mario Game Anyways?
Last Updated: 2023.10.21
Well, that's a pretty easy question to answer! Or so you would think...
This was written as a sort of response or addendum to jan Misali's second survey on what a Super Mario game is. I tried to submit a response, but it rejected me for talking too much! So I decided to talk more where no one can stop me. I have not watched his original video since the day of release, and do not remember the specifics of its conclusion, so I hope I have provided some original commentary and perspective on this "issue"!
First, lets establish some common ground. Super Mario games can be divided endlessly, and here I want to address what I believe are Super Mario games, and the categories we should place them in. If you don't agree with this list, that's okay! However, I hope to present a good argument for my interpretation of how to divide Mario's catalogue.
Generally, I would say that Super Mario games can be divided into six categories, in order of their relation to what I perceive as the mainline titles. These categories are:
- Mainline Games: Generally, original 2D or 3D platformers starring Mario as the main character.
- Ex) Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario Bros. Wonder.
- Remakes/Rereleases: A rerelease of a mainline Super Mario game.
- Ex) New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, Super Mario All Stars, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury.
- Major Spin-offs: These games change gameplay or genre while still focusing on Mario and drawing on mainline games for primary inspiration, and generally are in a high-selling series.
- Ex) Super Mario Kart, Mario Party 6, Super Mario Maker 2, Paper Mario: Colour Splash.
- Distinct Spin-offs: These games change gameplay or genre while no longer starring Mario and having their own visual and artistic identity separate from that of mainline Mario games.
- Ex) Yoshi's Island, Virtual Boy Wario Land, WarioWare Inc, Luigi's Mansion 3, Princess Peach: Showtime.
- Minor Spin-offs: These games change gameplay or genre and draw on mainline Super Mario games, but generally are one-offs or did not sell well.
- Ex) Mario Paint, Super Mario Run, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Mario Teaches Typing.
- Non-Canon Appearances: These games do not have Mario in a central role or in general theming.
- Ex) Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games, Super Smash Bros, Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!
Defining a Mainline Super Mario Game
A mainline Super Mario game is an original 2D or 3D platformer, starring Mario as the main character, released on a Nintendo console. Mainline Super Mario games generally adapt the themes, characters, settings, and gameplay from their predecessors, most often the 1985 release of Super Mario Bros, and remix them in a way that is unique, but not to the point where the primary genre is changed entirely from a 2D or 3D platformer. Generally speaking, Super Mario games are always focused around jumping and running between platforms to the objective of a level, of which you will complete many to finish the game. Most importantly, their main focus is always one thing: fun!
So with this definition, here is every mainline Super Mario game as of 2023.
- Super Mario Bros.
- Super Mario Bros. 2 (JPN)
- Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA)
- Super Mario Bros. 3
- Super Mario Land
- Super Mario World
- Super Mario Land 2
- Super Mario 64
- Super Mario Sunshine
- New Super Mario Bros.
- Super Mario Galaxy
- New Super Mario Bros. Wii
- Super Mario Galaxy 2
- Super Mario 3D Land
- New Super Mario Bros. 2
- New Super Mario Bros. U
- Super Mario 3D World
- Super Mario Odyssey
- Super Mario Bros. Wonder
We see a common trend in this list, mostly that of adapting the original gameplay of Super Mario Bros. to accomplish something unique and exciting, while still clearly being in the same genre/lineage. Each game here clearly iterates and expands on the last, celebrating what has come before, and adding to it. I don't think I need to provide terribly much rationale for this list, as based on the Super Mario series timeline on Wikipedia, these appear to all be recognized mainline titles. If anything, this may be a bit conservative of a view!
Don't agree with this list? Don't worry, I hear you. I'll be addressing almost every conceivable edge case which could present itself against it. First, let's talk rereleases and remakes.
Remakes and Rereleases
These Super Mario games violate the "original" clause in the definition of a mainline game, although they may fit every other criteria. Although some of these games may be changed by adding significant new content or tweaks in gameplay or graphics, they are still dependent on the original game for the vast majority of their content.
Here are the games which I would consider to fit within this category:
- Super Mario Bros. Special is a remake of Super Mario Bros. for the NEC PC. No argument there!
- VS. Super Mario Bros. Although it has some new level designs, it only uses assets from Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 JPN and does heavily reuse old level designs and enemies. I would consider it a rerelease tailored for the arcade market, rather than a new title.
- All Night Nippon: Super Mario Bros. is a sprite-swap of the original Super Mario Bros, featuring properties from the television show All Night Nippon. This game is certainly not a unique entry, and is a rerelease with a minor sprite-swap.
- Super Mario All Stars. Although remade from the ground up for a different console, the level designs and mechanics here remain the same as the original title. Therefore it must be a remake!
- Satellaview rereleases of Super Mario World and Super Mario All Stars games were broadcast on the Satellaview service in Japan with the addition of live music or commentary. These are rereleases with additional content, rather than unique titles.
- Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, although adding some new content like a world map screen, uses the same graphics and level designs from the original Super Mario Bros. and remains solidly a remake.
- The Super Mario Advance series are certainly remakes, in the same vein as Super Mario All Stars. These titles see remakes of Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario World, and Super Mario Bros. 3. However, Super Mario Advance 3, a remake of Yoshi's Island, is a distinct spin-off under the Yoshi series.
- Super Mario 64 DS, although having new content such as unique playable characters, remains primarily focused on the level designs found in the original Super Mario 64.
- All Virtual Console releases of classic mainline Super Mario titles are not unique, and are rereleases.
- New Super Luigi U, as well as the release of New Super Mario Bros. U with New Super Luigi U included on the disc, are not original titles. New Super Luigi U is a slightly remixed New Super Mario Bros. U that features Luigi and Nabbit as playable characters, along with a more difficult time limit and shortened courses, and is therefore a rerelease.
- New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is a rerelease of the obvious, only including a slight UI change, new powerup and playable character, and inclusion of New Super Luigi U. It certainly does not quality as a unique title.
- Super Mario 3D All Stars, much like its cousin Super Mario All Stars, is not a unique title. It is a compilation of three unique titles, only seeing small quality of life changes such as increased resolution, better controls, and the inclusion of a separate soundtrack.
- Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros, although including both Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 JPN, are simply rereleases on a cute handheld console.
- Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury is unfortunately here. As much as I personally love Bowser's Fury and the changes made to 3D World in this release, both titles are still dependent on the original Super Mario 3D World.
These titles take the characters and themes in the mainline Super Mario games and take a different approach to them, usually by changing the genre. They may remix and expand on those mainline themes, but they will never discard them completely. In addition, major spin-offs must be, well, major, either by selling well, having consistent releases, or by having a strong legacy in Mario's history.
I would consider these games to be major spin-offs:
- The Mario Kart series! This is arguably the largest and most popular Super Mario spin-off, even more popular than the mainline titles themselves. This includes all home console and handheld releases, such as Super Mario Kart, Mario Kart DS, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, arcade releases like Mario Kart GP, and the mobile game Mario Kart Tour.
- The Mario Party series is likely the second most influential spin-off. The series features diverse character designs and settings, while remaining closely grounded in the world and characters of Super Mario. This would include all Mario Party titles, including handheld releases and compilations.
- The Mario RPG/Paper Mario series has been highly influential in the RPG genre, and remains close to the original theming of the original Super Mario games with their own unique additions in style, story, and characters. This includes games such as Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, and all Paper Mario games. Yes, that includes Super Paper Mario!
- Closely related to this is the Mario & Luigi series, RPGs developed for handheld systems while Paper Mario released on home consoles. These games, similar to the Paper Mario games, provide unique additions to the Super Mario world while keeping its defining attributes. These include Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga and the other Mario & Luigi titles released by AlphaDream.
- The Super Mario Maker series is definitely distinct from its mainline counterparts, as its primary purpose is not to be a 2D platformer, but to provide the tools to create one. Despite this, you play others' levels in the games, but the "maker" portion rules out any doubt in my mind that it is not a mainline series. This includes Super Mario Maker, Super Mario Maker 3DS, and Super Mario Maker 2.
- Hotel Mario. Hear me out! Hotel Mario, although a complete and utter failure at the time of release, has had a cultural renaissance in the modern internet. I would argue that Hotel Mario has had more influence on modern internet culture, or at least my perception of it, than any other Super Mario spinoff, bar none. The game is still terrible, though.
These series are completely distinct from the mainline Super Mario games, usually through not only genre, but theming. Although they may technically be derivatives of at least one of its games, they no longer share most of the characters and worlds that are present in modern mainline Super Mario games. In a sense, they are a diverged path that has gone so far from the former that they are no longer recognizably the same. This is distinct from the major and minor spin-offs, which mostly stick close to the themes present in mainline Super Mario titles.
I would consider these games to be distinct spin-offs:
- The Yoshi series, initially branded as a Super Mario World sequel, clearly have their own distinct identity from the get-go, with unique art direction, gameplay, and enemies. Although some of these games do have Mario on the back of Yoshi, their latest incarnations do not star Mario whatsoever, and have clearly grown beyond the bounds of a Super Mario spin-off in theming. This includes games like Yoshi's Island, Yoshi's Story, Super Mario Advance 3, Yoshi's Wooly World, and Yoshi's Crafted World.
- The Wario Land series, although initially derived from the Mario Land games, see their gameplay change considerably that the series now has its own distinct identity. If you placed Mario in a Wario Land game, it simply would not work! This series includes Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, VB Wario Land, Wario Land 4, Wario World, Wario: Master of Disguise, and Wario Land: Shake It!
- The WarioWare series is arguably a spin-off of a spin-off! I would certainly consider it so. WarioWare, outside of the retro Microgames, do not see the appearance of any classic Super Mario characters or mechanics, even having a unique design for Wario. It hosts its own cast of characters that are iconic in their own right, and definitely distinct from the Super Mario franchise. This series includes WarioWare, Inc. and its descendents under the WarioWare name, as well as Game & Wario.
- The Luigi's Mansion series sees distinct enough gameplay, characters, and theming to be entirely separate from the main Super Mario spin-offs. Even as Mario may appear as a "damsel in distress" in these games, Luigi remains the central focus, and the majority of its ghost designs and unique characters do not appear outside of the Luigi's Mansion series. This includes Luigi's Mansion, Luigi's Mansion Dark Moon, and Luigi's Mansion 3.
- The Princess Peach series also sees a distinct artistic style and gameplay that separates it from other major spin-offs, especially with the release of Princess Peach: Showtime, which truly seems to set it apart. This series, in addition to the aforementioned Princess Peach: Showtime, includes Super Princess Peach.
Minor spin-offs, although mostly remaining close to the themes and characters found in mainline Super Mario titles, are either one-offs, did not sell well, or are mostly forgotten. They do not have the gravity of any of the above releases, generally speaking.
I would consider the following games to be minor spin-offs:
- Super Mario Run is eliminated from mainline contention by being released on non-Nintendo hardware, and from its genre change from simply 2D platformer to autorunner. Its overuse of New Super Mario Bros. U assets seals the deal for me. However, this does not eliminate the fact that it does have six worlds of content, and is not an insignificant release.
- I would consider the Mario Sports games their own spin-off series, but you could certainly make divisions within those sports to get more specific. These games all include your standard cast of Super Mario characters, and stay grounded in the general theming of the main games. This series has only seen two general titles, Mario Sports Mix and Mario Sports Superstars.
- The Mario Tennis series. These games sell surprisingly well, are a mainstay of modern Nintendo consoles. This includes games such as Mario's Tennis for the Virtual Boy, Mario Tennis, Mario Power Tennis, and Mario Tennis Ultra Smash.
- The Mario Golf series is another very influential Mario sports series, again seen on every modern Nintendo console. This includes games such as Mario Golf, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, and Mario Golf: Super Rush.
- The Super Mario Strikers series is most notable for its extremely unique and appealing (for me) art direction.
- The Mario Hoops series has only seen one standalone entry thus far, on the DS with Mario Hoops 3 on 3.
- The Mario Baseball/Super Sluggers series is less significant, and includes titles like Mario Superstar Baseball and Mario Super Sluggers.
- The Mario + Rabbids series, including Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, are certainly unique titles, but their development by Ubisoft and relative recency still places them as a minor spin-off series to me.
- The Dr. Mario series. Although a puzzle game, the Dr. Mario games and their spinoffs have remained popular and relevant far past their release.
- The Captain Toad Treasure Tracker releases are expansions of the minigames seen in Super Mario 3D World, and I would not consider the spin-off title unique enough from these minigames to be its own distinct spin-off. Without a sequel that significantly changes theming and gameplay, Captain Toad Treasure Tracker will remain a minor spin-off.
- The Fortune Street series, Itadaki Street in Japan, sees Mario and Dragon Quest characters in a unique board game. As many of the boards feature strong Mario theming, I would say that you could not take the Mario out of this title without deprecating it. Therefore, a minor spin-off it is!
- The various Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch titles.
- Mario Edutainment games, such as Mario Teaches Typing, Mario is Missing, Mario's Time Machine, and Mario's Early Years.
- The Mario Paint and Mario Artist series. I don't consider these to be mainline releases, as Mario Paint was a one-off release and the Mario Artist series never saw life outside of the N64DD.
- Mario & Wario. This game uses the SNES mouse, and is definitely more of a puzzle platformer, making it a definite spin-off.
- Wario's Woods. Being a one-off puzzle game with Toad as the main player character, this game is certainly a minor spin-off.
- The various Mario Picross releases. These games are developed by Nintendo in-house, and feature Mario assets and theming that cannot be taken out without deprecating the game.
- Yoshi and Yoshi's Cookie are original puzzle games featuring Yoshi, and are therefore spin-off puzzle games.
- Mario Pinball Land is rich with Super Mario theming and characters from the mainline titles, and I would consider it a minor spin-off.
- Super Mario Bros. 35 is a remake of the original Super Mario Bros, but with battle royale mechanics. To me, this is juuuust distinct enough from the original to be a spin-off title.
- Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix and Mario Undōkai. Although these could arguably be called something other than video games, but I don't see why they would be! You press buttons to manipulate Mario on screen, so a Super Mario game they must be.
- Mario Roulette. This is, surprisingly, a Super Mario game under my definition. It is a video game, controlled with button inputs, where you play as Mario. In some ways, it is no different than a coin operated arcade machine, just with higher stakes and a dubious reward on investment.
- Super Mario Attack, an arcade release from the time, is also primarily inspired by Super Mario World in theming.
Non-canon appearances of Mario are very common! This category is admittedly especially subjective in some instances, and is mostly based on vibes. Generally, if Mario could be replaced in a game with no consequences on the overall experience (he is not a central focus of the game), is included as a bonus character or has been removed in other releases, has replaced other assets in what was a pre-existing title, or stars alongside other characters from many different series, it is a non-canon appearance of Mario.
I would consider the following examples to be non-canon appearances of Mario, that can sometimes be argued to be Super Mario games:
- Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! has Mario as the referee! Although very cute and a favorite appearance of mine, Punch Out!! is not a Super Mario game.
- Alleyway sees Mario piloting the spaceship in this Breakout clone, but other than that, has no Mario theming.
- NES Open Tournament Golf does feature Mario as a playable character, but that is all. Replacing Mario with a generic golfer would not seem out of the ordinary, as it lacks other Mario theming.
- Wario Blast. This game appears to be what is essentially a Bomberman title with a sprite-swap of Wario in his place, developed by the makers of Bomberman.
- Mario's Game Gallery, although the first appearance of Charles Martinet voicing Mario, is a Microsoft Windows program developed by a third party. Although some of the cards, for example, have Mario theming, by and large the game could stand on its own without the talking Mario to guide the player. Therefore, I would consider it a non-canon appearance of the character.
- Tetris Attack is essentially an asset swap of the Japanese puzzle game Panel de Pon, a trend in the era to to make Japanese puzzle games appealing for American audiences of the 90's. As it is mostly a sprite-swap, it is not a Super Mario game.
- The Game & Watch Gallery series, although featuring Super Mario characters, primarily focus on the original games. I would argue that the Mario characters here serve as a way to market original Game & Watch titles for modern audiences, rather than being a unique entry in the Super Mario series themselves.
- Excitebike: Bun Bun Mario Battle is an entry in the Excitebike series, although it does feature Mario characters on the bikes. The Mario characters here are not essential for the gameplay of Excitebike, and could be feasibly removed and released as a separate Excitebike game.
- The Super Smash Bros. series does feature characters from the Super Mario series, but also from its distinct spinoffs and many, many other franchises. I would consider it a non-canon entry for this reason, Mario is just one part of the larger experience, despite the naming influence.
- Mobile Golf only has Mario as an extra character through use of the Mobile Adapter, and is therefore not a Mario game.
- NBA Street V3 features the "Nintendo All-Stars" in its GameCube release, where you can play as Mario. However, the title was released on other platforms without the addition of the Mario characters, and is therefore a non-canon appearance.
- SSX on Tour, like NBA Street V3, features Mario as a playable character, but his inclusion is just a bonus feature for the Nintendo console release.
- Tetris DS does see music and sprites from the original Super Mario Bros. during gameplay, but it merely serves as an ornamental to the top screen of the DS as you play Tetris.
- The Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games series are not Super Mario games. The general theming of the game's environments and UI is not Mario-esque, as you would expect from a game that needs to represent both Sonic and Mario equally. In this case, I would likely still give it the minor spin-off title, as I did with Fortune Street. However, SEGA, the developer of this series, has released the titles simply as Sonic at the Olympic Games on non-Nintendo consoles, removing the Super Mario characters entirely. This directly proves the title is not dependent on its Mario theming, and is therefore a non-canon appearance.
- Captain Rainbow does see cameos from Birdo and other Super Mario characters, but these could easily be removed without compromising the integrity of the title.
- Nintendo Land features several Super Mario minigames, with Mario Chase and Luigi's Ghost Mansion. However, like Super Smash Bros, it is a compilation among many Nintendo properties, and is therefore not a Super Mario game.
- The NES Remix series, for the same reasons as Nintendo Land and Smash Bros, are not Super Mario games. You can technically play the mainline Super Mario Bros. games within NES Remix, but these are included alongside dozens of other NES titles from the era and cannot be played in full, but only to complete challenges.
- Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition is an asset-swap of Puzzle & Dragons, per the name. It is not distinct enough to be a Super Mario game, in my opinion.
- Skylanders: SuperChargers does see a Bowser cameo, but it is just an extra for the Nintendo console release.
- The Mario skins included in Minecraft's Wii U and Nintendo Switch editions do not make it distinct from the base version of Minecraft, but are just add-ons.
Games that are definitely not Super Mario Games
These games are either certainly not derived from the Super Mario series in any shape or form, are unreleased titles, or are simply not games at all!
If the primary purpose of a Mario-themed item is to be something other than a game, it is not a Super Mario game. Some notable releases under this criteria are:
- LCD Wristwatches featuring Mario in branding and with a built in LCD game. These are primarily watches, not games.
- Game & Watch systems are not worn on the wrist or are the size of a typical wristwatch, and so are primarily games, not watches. It's a Game & Watch, not a Watch & Game!
- Creative software that removes any game-like features or focuses on a non-digital medium. This includes Mario Sweater and Super Mario Bros. Print World.
- Mario Paint and Mario Artist remain Super Mario games as they retain game-like features, such as the fly-swatting mini-game, and is focused on the digital mediums of art and music on the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64.
- Releases that are not video games, such as pinball machines and some Satellaview releases such as Satella-Q. If you're not controlling Mario on a screen with a button input, it is not a Super Mario game.
- The Mario Calculator and Mario Clock utilities on the DSi are not Super Mario games. Although they do feature assets from the original Super Mario Bros, their primary purpose is as a utility, not as a game.
If a game or a game's primary inspiration predates the 1985 release of Super Mario Bros, the definitive beginning of the Super Mario series, it is also not a Super Mario game. It may star Mario, and may technically be a Mario game, but it is not a Super Mario game. If a game is derived from one of these games as opposed to a Super Mario game, it is not a Super Mario spin-off. Some notable releases under this criteria are:
- The Donkey Kong arcade releases, its sequels, and associated spin-offs.
- The Donkey Kong Country series and associated spin-offs, including Diddy Kong Racing and Donkey Kong Land. DKC draws primarily from the original release of Donkey Kong, not Super Mario Bros.
- Donkey Kong '94, although playing much more like a modern 2D platformer than its arcade ancestor, remains inspired primarily by Donkey Kong, not Super Mario Bros.
- The Mario VS. Donkey Kong series is definitely inspired more by Donkey Kong than Super Mario Bros, despite Mario's modern design being used in the titles. Due to the gameplay inspiration, they are more like Donkey Kong games under a coat of Super Mario paint. We, however, see through this blasphemy.
- Mario Bros. and Wrecking Crew, including their Game & Watch spin-offs.
- Mario Clash, a puzzle platformer for the Virtual Boy, features primarily Mario Bros. theming and enemies. It certainly seems to draw on Mario Bros. far more than Super Mario, and in my mind is not a Super Mario game.
- The original Game & Watch games, although later remade with Mario characters, are not Super Mario games.
I hope you enjoyed this thorough waste of time and descent into madness. You're in San Diego and I'm in hell. It may not be useful to categorize Super Mario games as I have done here, but it's a natural thing that Super Mario scholars seem to do. This is the most defined method I could go about dividing these games. However, I do realize that this is almost entirely subjective and based on "vibes" more than anything else. Regardless though, I do think it provides some insight on exactly what titles these games may be derivative works of, or how they have become more distinct over time. Thank you!