Mario games have always quietly subverted expectations. What has become common knowledge—mushrooms make you big, flowers give you fire, pipes lead underground—was once a sequence of surprises delighting players who thought they knew the territory.
The same could be said with Mario’s dip into role-playing. What was once a dalliance, starting in 1996 with Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars on the SNES, has become a biannual trend, with ten games released in twenty years, split between the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi spinoff series.
Though role-playing games were once dominated by fantastical dragons and beefy warriors, Mario’s take on the genre has remained steadfast in its priorities: Goofy characters, witty dialogue, and a surprisingly deep battle system. But which RPG is the grandest in the Mushroom Kingdom? And which should be sent to the Pit of 100 Trials, ne’er to return?
Please note: This is an objective list, arrived at by exhaustive considerations. The formula by which we came up with the results is… around here somewhere. In the meantime, behold: The one true ranking of all ten Mario RPGs.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.
1 of 10
10. Mario & Luigi: Partners In Time (Nintendo DS, 2005): Let's get this disclaimer out of the way: There is no bad game on this list. The "worst" Mario role-playing game is still a technically sound, well-written, humorous and challenging game that's worth playing.
That said, among the twenty years of entries, Partners In Time feels less inspired even though it was the first episode to arrive on Nintendo's new dual-screen portable, filled with possible hardware quirks to be explored. Perhaps these additions distracted the designers away from what the series has always done best. Instead, we're forced to play with baby versions of Mario and Co. Maybe I just don't like babies.
2 of 10
9. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (Super Nintendo, 1996): What an unlikely origin: A Mario game with CG-graphics in the style of Donkey Kong Country, co-developed by Squaresoft, released on old hardware the same year of Nintendo's 64-bit juggernaut. This first entry in the series hits a surprising amount of right notes that continue to resonate two decades later. Arguably the first text-heavy Mario game, the writers knew they couldn't hope for players to take the story of a plumber saving the world seriously, so they leaned on the weird and whimsical from the get-go.
Even better, Super Mario RPG took the turn-based battles of genre classics like Square's Final Fantasy and made them more active, increasing the effectiveness of attacks and defense with proper timing and keen attention. This basic system remains in place to this day. R.I.P. Mallow, the "frog" that looked like a marshmallow, and one of many side characters born here but sadly forgotten.
3 of 10
8. Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (Nintendo 3DS, 2013): The formula began to feel a bit tired with this iteration, an entry with good ideas and the funny, bizarre characters we've come to expect. But the overall quest takes too long and your progress gets bogged down by complicated, unnecessary tasks.
The twist here is that part of the game takes place in a dreaming Luigi's subconscious; here, Luigi becomes the powerful hero he's always sought to become. That his powers include teetering around on a tower of clones and an enormous sneeze are indicative of the lovable scamp's mediocrity complex.
4 of 10
7. Paper Mario (Nintendo 64, 2000): The strangeness of Mario's forays into the role-playing genre only grow with this, the first sequel to Super Mario RPG and the first time we see Mario reduced to a single slip of wood pulp. Consider the time: This was the era of polygonal wastelands and ambitious three-dimensional movement. Nintendo already played that game with Super Mario 64; in their inimitable fashion, they zagged while the industry kept trying to zig, pressing their hero into a flat plane and making the Mushroom Kingdom a giant set of pop-up book dioramas.
The result? A clean, refreshing style that still holds up today. Bonus points for the introduction of Chuck Quizmo, a floating worm who wears a top hat and hosts a game show. The world needs more game shows.
5 of 10
6. Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam (Nintendo 3DS, 2016): We're still playing this one in the Paste offices, so we'll need some more time to place this in its proper ranking. To hedge our bets, let's slot it somewhere in the middle, just left of the Top 5, since time has yet to cement its standing in our collective memory. But so far, the amalgam of the Paper series with the Mario & Luigi formula is a clever and worthwhile mix, and the collision of universes provides the kind of identity confusion you could never see in a more straight-laced, traditional RPG. It's like The Mothman Prophecies meets The Butterfly Effect. Think about it.
6 of 10
5. Super Paper Mario (Wii, 2007): This title was long in development on the GameCube before transitioning over to the Wii console. The arduous creation process may have impacted the most fascinating aspect of this divisive game: When playing as Mario, you can "flip" the perspective and see a 3D version of what's on-screen. What seems like a dead end in 2D can simply be walked around in 3D space. Many felt similarly about this title; they expected one thing (another RPG) when this was something else, closer to an alternative style of platformer.
But it's all about perspective. There's really no other game like this and it remains worth playing forthwith. Super Paper Mario also shows us a Nintendo that is increasingly aware of their fans (and detractors), poking mild fun at certain aspects of internet gaming culture that was, and still is, rising in volume.
7 of 10
4. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Nintendo GameCube, 2004): In some ways, this is a safe sequel. What worked in the original Paper Mario is refined and improved here. But when that source material is already so inspired, and with the leap in technology offering a crisp, near-perfected version of the beautiful paper aesthetic, it's hard to begrudge developers Intelligent Systems for staying close to the template. This is #1 in many fans' personal Mario RPG rankings for a reason.
8 of 10
3. Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (Nintendo DS, 2009): The same can be said about this second DS title in the M&L pantheon. Where Partners in Time and its developer AlphaDream set the stage for how to use the two-screened hardware for a Mario RPG, this title made good on that promise and delivered on all counts.
Where Bowser's Inside Story stands apart from its role-playing bros. is in its chosen theme—Mario and Luigi have been shrunk down and voyage across Bowser's innards—and the inventiveness by which that choice is used in puzzles and quests. The top-screen shows Bowser while the bottom shows M&L, wading in the big lizard's gastric juices. Interplay between the two is a master course in cause and effect, and of properly exploiting a hardware's given traits.
9 of 10
2. Paper Mario: Sticker Star (Nintendo 3DS, 2012): For some reason, a lot of people don't like this game. I'm happy to report that our "Objective and Correct Ranking Formula" has proven my hunch correct: In fact, this first portable Paper Mario is a deceptively stunning achievement, stalwart in its creativity and never afraid to try something new. Sticker Star throws out old, tired conventions with abandon, and makes this reviewer question why many games adhere so closely to a certain genre's rigid formula.
To appease a fan base's narrow set of expectations? Perhaps, especially given this game's negative reputation. Kudos to Naohiko Aoyama, director, for leading the development team down an unpredictable path. Bonus points for the audacity to use gyro-controls for the most superfluous, yet remarkable, detail in a portable game: By tilting the 3DS, special stickers on the bottom-screen actually shimmer.
10 of 10
1. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (GameBoy Advance, 2003):
Superstar Saga is the perfect Mario role-playing game. It introduced the dual-brother command system, where one button controls Mario while the other button controls Luigi, in turn lying the foundation for the entire series. The GBA hardware demanded a more restrained experience, providing a stripped-down fun that can go missing at times during the somewhat-bloated sequels to come.
The shiniest star in this saga? Dialogue that ripped up the localization handbook and let Nintendo's writers send-up the history of their craft. Let's turn it over to Fawful, one of the more memorable villains in game history, for the last word: "Your lives that I spit on are now but a caricature drawn by a kid who is stupid… Snack on my wrath, fink-rats!"