The 20 Best 2D Mario Levels of All Time

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  • 2d-mario smb-1-1 Super Mario Bros.: World 1-1. The very first level in a franchise that would reignite an entire industry is still a master-class in teaching players how to play. A small mound plods toward you; you jump over it. A shiny block looks different than all the others; you jump into it and a mushroom slides out, bumping against a wall and heading toward you. Stand still and the power-up reaches you regardless. Now you’re bigger. You’re Super. And ready to take on the rest of the game. Honorary Mention goes to World 1-2 and 1-3: the first time we hear the famous “denim-denim-denim” bassline of Koji Kondo’s Underground Theme, and that equally-catchy Underwater Theme as squids named Blooper chase us erratically through the sea.
  • 2d-mario smb-2-43 Super Mario Bros. 2: World 4-3. What madness is this: Birdo, habitual end-boss, is waiting for you at the beginning. Leap past him to no avail; a giant body of water halts your progress. Birdo spits an egg at you. You cross to the left; a steep cliff is in the way. Birdo spits another egg. This time, hop on that projectile and ride it across the sea. Just don’t pick it up too soon… The clever use of enemy-artillery-as-locomotion deserves a comeback in newer 2D side-scrollers.
  • 2d-mario smb3-2-question-mark Super Mario Bros. 3: World 2-?. Not every level is numbered. Some are marked on the overhead world map with a simple icon or graphic. This memorable stage appears as a block of moving quicksand; enter it and be chased by the long misunderstood but aptly-named Angry Sun. This obstinate orb circles a few times in the air before swooping down at Mario, only to repeat his attack again. Halfway through the course, a sand tornado halts your progress. Nature itself is trying to kill you. Resist the temptation to see this as an allegory of our diminishing ozone layer and the rise in tumultuous storms stemming from climate change.
  • 2d-mario super-mario-world-funky Super Mario World: Special Zone “Funky”. The Special Zone was only available to players who had successfully found and completed each of the Star World stages. Each of these levels had a name plucked from any ad aimed at kids in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: Tubular, Groovy, Gnarly. “Funky,” the final level, is most notable for what awaits you at the end: As you race across the ground, coins arranged in the air spell out a message, a secret granted to only the very best in a pre-Internet age: YOU ARE A SUPER PLAYER!! Moreover, beat the level and start again; now the entire world map has changed color, your first glimpse of this changed game from summer green to autumnal orange. Weirer yet, Koopa shells are now odd Mario-looking heads. This is not without precedent—in Doki Doki Panic, which would become SMB2 in the US, an enemy named “Big Face” appeared to be a severed head, or a mask, that would become a red shell in the American version.
  • 2d-mario sm-ds-6a New Super Mario Bros. (DS): World 6-A. After 1990’s Super Mario World, Mario went on a sixteen-year hiatus from his side-scrolling 2D adventures. But in 2006, the appropriately (or not) titled New Super Mario Bros. released on Nintendo DS. Some deride this next series of games (followed up with sequels on Wii, 3DS, and Wii U) for an uninspired art style, annoying music, and altogether lack of distinctiveness. But the control adds moves taken from his 3D games, such as double- and triple-jumps, ground-pounds, and wall-jumps, allowing for more dynamic course layouts than ever before. The hardware is used in clever ways, too: If you drop into a pipe, the action displays on the DS’s bottom-screen. In World 6-A, old nemeses like the sand twister return, only to fling you up to a line of coins otherwise unapproachable. And, as in SMB2, not all quicksand is to be avoided…
  • 2d-mario nsmb-wii-7-2 New Super Mario Bros. Wii: World 7-2. The highest-selling game on the Wii without “Sports” or “Kart” in the title, this game introduced four-player multiplayer to the Super Mario Bros. franchise. Sadly, the two extra characters were color-coded Toads; poor Peach had to wait for Wii U’s Super Mario 3D World for another starring role. Regardless: This late level stands out with another weird, outside-of-nature phenomenon that seems to fit right in with the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom. Floating water orbs dot the sky; when you pierce the glob, you’re now swimming. To navigate the standard platforms takes on a new style of maneuvering and shifting your momentum. Fun, brain-bending stuff.
  • 2d-mario smw-castle-1 Super Mario World: World 1-Castle. This first end level of the 16-bit classic reminds us quickly that the rules have changed. You can now cling onto fences throughout the lava-filled mansion; certain squares can even be flipped while you hang on, placing you on the other side and showing us Mario’s front. My favorite moment, though, is in the second room, where giant pillars stomp down from the ceiling. Race to the low spot on the ground to stay safe as it crashes just above you. Though it makes no difference, I can’t not push down on the D-pad and watch Mario crouch as he clutches his hat tightly to his head.
  • 2d-mario smb-2-6-3 Super Mario Bros. 2: World 6-3. This classic Desert level is really two experiences in one. You can either climb out of your starting room and head right, through a challenging series of platforms, towers, Bob-omb filled caverns and vines beset with ladybugs. Or: Head left, stand against the brick wall, let the quicksand take you, then jump and push to the left, not sinking completely, sliding all the way underneath the wall and out the other side, where a door awaits. You’re dropped at the end of the level, right before the fight with Triclyde, the three-headed hydra. Though most privy to the shortcut will take it, the normal route is worth venturing down if only for the ludicrously large door into the cavern, unexplained and never repeated.
  • 2d-mario smb-3-4-1 Super Mario Bros. 3: World 4-1. The first thing you’re asked to do is warp down a pipe. You exit underground, jump up to another pipe, and then find yourself on a new part of the world map. The small gesture is unnecessary but one of the many details we take for granted; Nintendo was warning us, “You’re not where you once were.” You’re now on Big Island. When you finally enter a proper level, everything is huge. Or… have you merely turned miniature? The first screen looks wrong. The green pipes look like redwood trees. Above, a cloud hangs the size of a small ship. A single brick explodes into four normal-sized bricks. This first glimpse of Big Island is an early reminder of Nintendo’s designers’ willingness to throw out the rules and take us somewhere we hadn’t been before, a habit they’ll most often employ on future 3D iterations like Super Mario 64 and the Super Mario Galaxy series on Wii.
  • 2d-mario smb2-jpn-3-4 Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan): World 3-4. The Japanese sequel to Super Mario Bros. was so cruel that Nintendo didn't bring the game over to the West; the Japan-only title Doki Doki Panic infamously took its place, having its four playable characters swapped with Mario and Friends for the American release. This level is representative of the original SMB2’s disregard for its players. This castle stage is split into three horizontal layers, with gaps and steps allowing you to choose which corridor to go down at various times. But the only way to reach the end was to choose the exact right sequence; if you picked the wrong path even once, the level would begin to repeat. There was no visual clue or indicator. The first time American players saw the sequel, when it was included in Super Mario All-Stars for SNES, Nintendo added an errant tone and a happy chime to aid the confused maze-runner. Still, many of us remain stuck in that cement fortress, trying to get out.
  • 2d-mario super-mario-world-5-ghost-house Super Mario World: World 5 - Ghost House. We are now in the famed “Forest of Illusion,” a sequence of levels that will never end unless you find a secret exit. Ghost Houses are a staple of the Super Mario formula, but this one proves to be especially memorable for its use of space and off-putting confusion tactics. Most levels are wide-open affairs; here, you begin in a narrow corridor, the rest of the screen black. Yellow doors are visible on top of the corridor but you don’t know how to get there. Meanwhile, boos large and small chase you down, forcing you into split-decisions. Choose incorrectly and you never get out. When you realize what to do and break that giant white ribbon at the end, you don’t forget.
  • 2d-mario smb-world-2-3 Super Mario Bros.: World 2-3. You forget how many new ideas were presented in the original game. This short but frantic level takes place across a segmented bridge. Throughout the entirety, those flying fish named Cheep-Cheeps jump out of the water in parabolic fashion, raining down upon you like hail with gills. The safe-and-careful way is to walk slowly, evading each fish as it launches around you. But it’s hard not to overcome the urge to race across the bridge, leaping atop those unlucky Cheep-Cheep heads and surviving by instinct and (eventually) memory alone.
  • 2d-mario smb-world-5-3 Super Mario Bros. 3: World 5-3. Put on the fabled Kuribo’s Shoe and dance atop spikes like Gene Kelly in a rainstorm.
  • 2d-mario nsmb2-gold-classics-coin-rush New Super Mario Bros 2: Gold Classics Coin Rush pack. New Super Mario Bros. 2 is often maligned as an unnecessary cash-in. But it does a few things that no other Mario game does, and those decisions made me play it differently, and more, than many “superior” 2D Mario games. It has a meta-game of collecting 1,000,000 coins. There's a supplement mode called “Coin Rush,” a trio of levels played all in one life where you challenge other players (via StreetPass) to high scores. Nintendo released extra downloadable “Coin Rush” levels for purchase. The “Gold Classics” pack included variations on levels from the original SMB with an emphasis on this new coin collection prerogative. It embodies the distinctive traits of NSMB2 all in one go: A weird new way to play Mario (coin collection madness), asynchronous competition, cheeky nostalgia, and a first for the series (paid DLC). This was either the death knell of your Mario love or evidence of a conservative company evolving with the times.
  • 2d-mario smb3-6-airship Super Mario Bros. 3: World 6-Airship. Whereas each final stage in the original ends with a Bowser clone, SMB3 introduces the Koopalings, Bowser’s seven children, each with their own personalities. And instead of castles, these final levels take place aboard a flying pirate ship of sorts, filled with cannons and wrench-throwing moles. The sixth airship is protected by Lemmy Koopa, allegedly named after Motörhead lead singer and bassist Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister. Bedecked with a colorful mohawk, Lemmy rolls on a giant rubber ball and manifests other, smaller balls with the aid of his magic wand. Defeat him by bopping his head thrice and, as in each end level, the wand falls, the room disappears, and Mario falls down into the King’s chambers, newly transformed to human form. Defeat the boss using an outfit like the Raccoon suit or Hammer Bros. suit and the King has an especially odd request from you: “How about lending me your clothes?” he asks. Um, no thanks. “No dice?! What a drag.”
  • 2d-mario nsmbu-painted-swampland New Super Mario Bros U: World 5-4 “Painted Swampland”. This is less an interesting array of obstacles or challenges than it is a glimpse at a more aesthetically bold future where 2D Mario games return to striking artwork and distinctive personalities. For some reason, this level alone uses a Van Gosh brushstroke effect to illustrate the dark night sky and eerie swampland environs of this world, itself a call-back from the SNES game’s Forest of Illusion. By the time you jump on the flagpole and a painted Bowser stares at you from the horizon, the remaining levels feel staid and replaceable.
  • 2d-mario smb2-1-3 Super Mario Bros. 2: World 1-3. It is here where many will first encounter the dreaded living mask, that harbinger of night terrors and sucker of joy: Phanto. The first section is a satisfying mix of waterfall-platforms and high-low elevations. Savvy players will find a secret Warp Zone here, too, if they know where to look. But that would deprive them of facing off with the demon of Subcon. Enter the door and climb a chain upward, navigating an industrial tower cursed with rotating electric orbs. In the highest room is a key guarded by five hanging masks. Grab it and one flashes, awakening with a rumble, only to swoop down after you. A locked door awaits in the tower’s basement. But you must evade this foul rigid face along the way. The sequence is known by many, but the first time Phanto chases you is a frightening new kind of anxiety previously unknown in the light-hearted franchise.
  • 2d-mario super-mario-world-front-door Super Mario World: World 8 - "Front Door”. Bowser awaits in the very last castle of every game. But the final sequence and end-battle in the 16-bit game will for many always be the high point, if for no other reason than the giant mutant turtle’s vehicle of choice: a propeller-powered clown head. The rest of the stage is a pretty satisfying gauntlet, including disco spotlights and wind-up alligator toys. Cue the thunder and lightning.
  • 2d-mario smb-5-2 Super Mario Bros.: World 5-2. I call out to my wife, “Name a Mario level.” “From which game?” “Any 2D one,” I say. “Level five, world two,” she says, an adorable mish-mash of stage nomenclature but I know what she means. “I could never get past that level for some reason.” I watch it on YouTube and, sure enough, it looks tricky: a jumping spring over a gap, three sets of Hammer Bros., and a dicey split-staircase complete with Jumping Winged Koopa. But what amazes me is that, decades after playing, seconds after being asked, she still remembers the exact location of her stalled progress. This is the power of Mario: All we want is to keep playing.
  • 2d-mario nsmb-wii-6-tower New Super Mario Bros. Wii: World 6 – Fortress. Some fiendish architect decided to install a giant, spiked drill bit that shoots all the way up the middle of the stage, over and over again. Your task is to time the ascent in fits and spurts so as not to be destroyed. The higher you get, the harder it is to judge when the drill will slam upwards from below. There’s a distinct sense of anticipation and dread that feels different from many other Fortress levels in the game. It’s a fun one to play with friends. Whatever you do, absolutely do not pick up your pals and throw them into the ascending drill. No way. I do not condone such devious acts. Not at all.
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