A quest to run from left to right seems limited. How many ways can such a simple goal be presented? Surely thirty-two will suffice. When Super Mario Bros. released in October 1985, nearly thirty long years ago, the nation’s children (and their parents) began playing what would become one of the most influential videogames in history. To them, these eight worlds comprising four levels each were brand-new, unprecedented. Now they seem like blueprints for the future. Thirty-two levels was not enough.
Not counting remakes and compilations, nine traditional Super Mario Bros. games have released since 1985; this means two-dimensional side-scrolling adventures in the style of the original. (The Game Boy Super Mario Land games are, I argue, an entirely different beast altogether, the birthchildren of Gunpei Yokoi straying far afield, with bizarre and refreshing irreverence, from Shigeru Miyamoto’s original.)
With Super Mario Maker approaching, we’ve studied up on the past so as to better create a pleasing, surprising, or punishing future. Some stages are iconic. Some, infuriating. Some introduced us to items or mechanics destined for repeatable greatness; some allowed us a glimpse at something never to return.
Truth be told, nearly every Super Mario level has a hint of ingenuity or modicum of brilliance; a dozen people could list a dozen different lists with no overlap and all would be correct. But today, these are the best 2D Super Mario levels, in no particular order.
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 20
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.
2 of 20
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.
3 of 20
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.
4 of 20
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.
5 of 20
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…
6 of 20
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.
7 of 20
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.
8 of 20
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.
9 of 20
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.
10 of 20
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.