Mario has been jumping and kicking around for a very long time at Nintendo. Though the iconic plumber was celebrated at Nintendo for 35 years worth of Super Mario Bros., Mario himself has been around even longer than that, and boy have he and his friends changed over the years. It’s Mario Day, March 10, and in honor of this special day, we’re going all the way back to the beginning to take a look at just how much Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom have shaped up over the decades since his first true appearance back in 1981. While this history contains many of the core entries, only some of the spinoffs will appear, notably those with relevance to the overall growth of the franchise. Nonetheless, join us in observing a selected chronological evolution of Mario and friends!
Donkey Kong - 1981
It’s 1981 and Nintendo has been trying to find its mark on North American arcade markets. Meanwhile, it’s also sitting on a number of Radar Scope arcade machines that need to be converted to something new and pursuing a license to use Popeye the Sailor in a game at the same time. While the latter failed, the groundwork was laid and Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi converted their assets to create Donkey Kong. This was Mario's first appearance, though, at the time, he was unnamed. Initially, audiences would refer to him as Jumpman, but we know today that this is where Mario got his start: the opening chapter in decades of creative and addictive platforming games.
Mario Bros. - 1983
It may not entirely be common knowledge, but Super Mario Bros. was not the very first Mario-titled game. Mario finally got his name in the marquee in a 1983 arcade classic, Mario Bros. It was here that a lot of iconic elements were introduced. The platforming was tweaked to allow Mario to bop enemies from below. Those enemies were turtles (later named Koopa Troopas), Mario took up the official mantle of a plumber, and his palette-swapped bro, Luigi, was introduced for the very first time. Mario Bros. wasn’t groundbreaking and industry-shaking, but it did lay much of the foundation for the game in which Mario and company were about to become known all around the world without fail.
Super Mario Bros. - 1985
This was the big one, the one that brought Mario to the world and made him a household name. With the Nintendo Entertainment System home console, games at home became a much-expanded reality and the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt game that was often packaged with these consoles formally introduced players around the world to the style of Mario that we would become familiar with. The platforming, the pipes, Princess Toadstool, King Koopa (Bowser), the mushroom-like Toad folk, the Goombas, the Piranha Plants… All of the elements that we have come to associate with Mario were here. This was truly where Mario went Super in every way.
Super Mario Bros. 2 (the Doki Doki Panic one) - 1988
I’m actually not going to talk about Super Mario: The Lost Levels, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s mostly just more of Mario 1. Super Mario Bros. 2, the reskin of Japanese title Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, might be a bit of a black sheep among the series, but it still had a resounding effect on the franchise. It was here that Luigi and Peach got some major boosts in personality to them that stuck through the years. Mario was the portly one, Luigi was the tall lanky one, Peach could float, and Toad was Toad. That wasn’t all though, Shy Guys, Birdo, and a few other encounters also made their first appearance here and have become unique staples of the series since. It’s actually quite funny when you think about the fact that this wholly transitioned game would go on to feature things that would become parts of the Mario Bros. franchise that we now consider normal additions and occurrences.
Super Mario Land - 1989
Super Mario Land was Mario’s first debut on Nintendo’s wildly popular Game Boy system, and boy howdy is it a weird one. Interestingly enough, Miyamoto didn't personally handle this one. Rather Gunpei Yokoi took the helm. There’s still Mario, but he’s a very stubby little pixel boy. The fire flower still makes an appearance, but your fireballs shoot directly down in front of you before trailing off diagonally into space. Turtles still make an appearance, but they explode when you jump on them for some reason. There are even Gradius-style shoot-‘em-up levels in which Mario pilots a ship and guns his way through foes. Super Mario Land had very little that we would consider familiar to the Mario franchise outside of standard platforming, but it was still one of the first mainstream times we could take Mario anywhere. Who were we to complain at the time?
Super Mario Bros. 3 - 1990
Here was another benchmark in the Mario series. Super Mario Bros. 3 was bigger, better, and, in many ways, another iconic moment in the Super Mario franchise. No longer simply levels, we could now explore themed worlds with level-selects that sometimes allowed us to choose paths and discover secrets. These worlds also had their own uniquely themed challenges and aesthetics to them whether you were running from an angry sun in Desert Land or dodging big enemies in Giant Land. Add to this the introduction of iconic power-ups like the Super Leaf that allowed us to become Raccoon Mario and fly and the first introduction of the Koopa Kids as world bosse. You’ve got a game that still stands the test of time as many people’s favorite of the classic franchise.
Dr. Mario - 1990
Not all Mario games had to be platformers, though. Mario is very versatile and has always been a key part of Nintendo’s grand design. He’s also prone to occupational changes, such as when he went from carpenter to plumber between Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. Such is the case of Dr. Mario, a puzzle game akin to the likes of the wildly popular Tetris. Dr. Mario was a wonderful break from the usual platforming grind in which Mario put his efforts towards getting rid of viruses. It may have started as a silly spinoff, but Dr. Mario caught on so much that it’s one of those titles that remain ingrained in gaming culture, even seeing sequels and remasters today, such as the ongoing Dr. Mario mobile game.
NES Open Tournament Golf - 1991
This game is well worth mention because it can be traced as the starting point of a beloved subset of Mario’s library: Mario sports games! Yes, Nintendo had done plenty of sports games before NES Open Tournament Golf, and yes, supposedly the character in the NES game simply titled “Golf” is supposed to be Mario, but that portly guy in the red shirt is a little bit of a stretch in my fair opinion. Mario is blatantly in NES Open, and so are Luigi, Peach, Toad, and Daisy. This embrace of the Mushroom Kingdom characters felt like the true opening chapter of a nearly always fun direction of Mario games in which they’d stop going on adventures for a bit and just enjoy various sporting events. Whether it was golf, tennis, soccer, or even the Olympic Games, Mario sports titles have always been a delightful and charming distraction and we largely have NES Open Golf Tournament to thank for kicking it off.
Super Mario World - 1991
Another big step forward for Mario came with the launch of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Super Mario World was an interesting release. We got a cleaner, colorful, more polished Mario and many of the elements that go with his mainline games. The Super Leaf was swapped for a cape but we also got Yoshi, giving us a friendly companion with which to take our journey that would stay with Mario and friends throughout the franchise. Super Mario World’s lush levels and curious secrets made it a game worth exploring over and over again like Super Mario Bros. 3 and even today, it’s still quite debated which one is truly the most iconic of the 2D titles.
Super Mario Kart - 1992
Though we’re not going to go over every sporting venture that Mario and friends have ever partaken in, it would be foolish not to talk about Super Mario Kart. The racing spinoff of Mario is easily the most beloved of the bunch. With classic foes like Bowser and Donkey Kong jumping into karts to race against Mario and friends along with a series of harrowing and exhilarating tracks, Mario Kart mushroom boosted right into our hearts and kicked off a series of games that have even managed to best many mainline Mario games in sales. Mario Kart is arguably a great reason to own a Nintendo system and it all started back here in 1992.
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins - 1992
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins was, for a long time, the definitive portable Mario game. It felt far more proper to the Mario franchise over the likes of the first Super Mario Land and, despite not really having a lot of elements of a traditional Mario game, it did have some pretty iconic things that would go on to remain staples of the franchise. This is the game that introduced Wario, Mario’s childhood acquaintance, and greedy rival. That alone makes this game worthy of a special place on our gallery of Mario evolution.
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island - 1995
Yoshi’s Island is a treat for a whole lot of reasons. For one, it gives not only our pal Yoshi but all of the Yoshis the opportunity to shine. It also introduced us to Baby Mario and Baby Bowser, giving us some backstory into the rivalry between these forces of good and not-so-good. It also established the wizardly koopa Kamek as Bowser’s confidant and caretaker. Outside of that, Yoshi’s Island is an engaging and lush game full of coloring book style and iconic melodies we still find ourselves humming to this day.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars - 1996
Super Mario RPG titles are few and far between, but when they’re good, they’re good. And that bar was set by an unexpected, yet stellar entry in the form of the first Super Mario RPG on the SNES, back in 1996. This interesting collaboration between the then-named Squaresoft and Nintendo was an incredible mood setter for the types of games we could expect whenever Mario dipped his toes into an RPG adventure. I could talk at length about how good Super Mario RPG is, but I’d rather let fellow editor Ozzie Mejia do it in his extensive features about the 25th anniversary of this delightful game.
Super Mario 64 - 1996
Super Mario 64 was the entry into the 3D space for Mario. There was a lot riding on the success of the game and the endeavor couldn’t be more daunting. Nintendo had to adequately add a third axis to its star platformer, make it look good, and ensure it played well. Simply put, Super Mario 64 was a wild success and changed the industry in astounding ways as we got to explore the Mushroom Kingdom and encounter its iconic characters like never before. Super Mario 64 hasn’t aged all that well, but there’s still no doubt that this was an effective first step into the 3D space and it changed our expectations of Mario games moving forward.
Mario Party - 1998
Another sidestep, and quite a good one at that, Mario Party got its first entry in 1998 and allowed us to jump into a new space of party games with our favorite Mushroom Kingdom characters. Who doesn’t like a good board game? Originally alongside Hudson Soft, Nintendo took this idea and turned the premise of Mario into a living board game so popular that the spinoff series has produced numerous titles of its own. Not every Mario Party game is the best of the best, but there’s still something shared between all of them: There’s nothing quite like screwing your friends out of a Star or mini-game to seize victory in the most underhanded and random of ways.
Paper Mario - 2000
Paper Mario picked up where Super Mario RPG left off after Squaresoft started dedicating itself to the development of games on the Sony PlayStation. That left Nintendo to figure out how to craft new Mario RPG experiences, and craft it did with new developer Intelligent Systems - Papercraft, to be specific. Where Super Mario RPG set the foundation of gameplay elements, Paper Mario developed an iconic style for Mario RPGs that would carry on throughout further entries for years. The Paper Mario series has had its ups and downs, but it’s also produced some of the most memorable moments of lore in Super Mario history with its charming stories.
Luigi’s Mansion - 2001
A Mario game that barely features Mario, on a new console that didn't even have its own Mario yet?! It will never sell. Ah, but who could have expected the charming power of the lovable, fearful bro that was Luigi?? Luigi’s Mansion was a very, very outlandish step for Nintendo as we got to learn more about Mario's second banana with a game that truly set him apart from his brother. Luigi’s Mansion is a fun and spooky treat and also gave us our first introduction to the likes of Professor E. Gadd, who would be rather instrumental in the curious inventions in not just further Luigi’s Mansion games, but other Mario games as well. Even so, it was also just refreshing to see Luigi get his time in the spotlight for once and get to form his own stories apart from just playing second fiddle to his brother.
Super Mario Sunshine - 2002
Super Mario Sunshine is a tropical treat. The inaugural entry of the GameCube era of Super Mario games, Super Mario Sunshine tried a lot of new things we hadn’t seen before. First, it introduced us to Bowser Jr., Bowser’s foul-tempered and mischievous kid. Second, it also gave us the FLUDD system, which also makes an appearance in the Super Smash Bros. series. It kind of stands on its own for the gimmicks it employs throughout, but Super Mario Sunshine is still simply a tropical fruit basket of fun with an appeal that’s hard to deny among modern 3D Mario titles.
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga - 2003
If papercraft wasn't your thing and you owned any of Nintendo's handhelds since the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo didn't exactly leave you out in the cold when it came to Mario RPGs. Mario & Luigi was an interesting offshoot series that began on the GBA and focused almost entirely on the stories of these two brothers as they run around fixing up the Mushroom Kingdom and beating the baddies that would threaten it. The Mario & Luigi games have nearly always focused on the dynamic of the Mario Bros. working in tandem for its mechanics, but it produced some absolutely amazing games that continued on through Nintendo's portable devices, including the impeccable Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story.
New Super Mario Bros. - 2006
New Super Mario Bros. may not be the best or most popular out of the Super Mario titles, but it is worth mentioning because of its design. This was one of the first 2.5D Super Mario games and laid much of the groundwork for future Mario games of the sort. Going back to the conventional side-scrolling platform style, New Super Mario Bros. built the template on which modern graphical touches could be applied to traditional, old-school Mario gameplay. We would hardly call it our favorite Mario game, but it was a foundational step for a lot of what we see in games like Super Mario Maker 2 when it comes to its 2.5D Super Mario style.
Super Mario Galaxy - 2007
Super Mario Galaxy marked a return of the Super Mario franchise back to a more purely distilled form of 3D platforming. Super Mario Sunshine is still a platformer, and a good one at that, but a lot of the game’s design is reliant upon the unique FLUDD system. Super Mario Galaxy isn’t without gimmicks, as in the case of traveling around small planetary bodies as unique levels, but at its core, it is pretty much a 3D Mario platformer, and a solid refinement of the style of running, jumping, and exploring that made earlier 3D Mario titles so beloved.
Super Mario 3D Land - 2011
If Super Mario Galaxy was a refinement of Super Mario Bros. 3D platforming with a sprinkling of gimmick mechanics, then Super Mario 3D Land and the following Super Mario 3D World games that follow are a pure distillation of that style. It's not that Super Mario 3D Land forgoes charm altogether, so much as it brings the concept back to purely what it does best. Super Mario 3D Land and World levels are simple 3D platforming fun - obstacle courses built for the 3D Mario running and jumping purist. Things like catsuits and Plessy levels assuredly break up the flow and offer fun and interesting ways to play, not to mention the addition of the Bowser’s Fury mode in the most recent launch of Super Mario 3D World, but whether you’re going alone or with a friend, this is arguably 3D Mario at its simplest and most enjoyable form.
Super Mario Maker - 2015
Super Mario Maker was and is a gift. For years, Mario Bros. players played through the games, seeing everything that Nintendo had to offer. And there were most certainly those among us whose imagination soared as they thought, “here’s the level I would make.” Finally, Nintendo gave us that opportunity with Super Mario Maker, and they added new tool after new tool and new feature after new feature to the games to the point that, in Super Mario Maker 2’s last update, we could create full-blown Super Mario 3 and Super Mario World level selects. This evolution might not be for Mario himself or his friends, but the amount of things it has allowed a hungry and imaginative Nintendo community to create has been nothing short of breathtaking.
Super Mario Odyssey - 2017
The last new, true mainline Mario Game coming into his 35th anniversary was Super Mario Odyssey, and what an adventure it was. Odyssey feels like the proper evolution of Super Mario 64, where we don’t exactly go to beat a level so much as pursue different challenges within various vast worlds. The mechanic of taking over various enemies and gaining their abilities as Cappy was also a welcome addition. But perhaps the most interesting addition to this game was giving us a new look at what the very original damsel-in-distress from Donkey Kong, Pauline, has been up to. Whether you find Odyssey to be a better version of Mario 64’s style or not, getting to do a musical number with Pauline was an easy top 10 moment in Mario history and I won’t be told otherwise. Bowser didn't look too shabby in his evil tuxedo either.
And here we are at the current end of the timeline. Super Mario has been a constant and faithful adventure in every form it takes and Nintendo seems far from finished with it. With things like an actual Super Nintendo World theme park now a reality to us, Mario is as alive and vibrant as ever in Nintendo’s ongoing efforts, but we’ll always have the decades of memories that led to this place. What was your favorite game or era of Mario Bros.? Let us know in the Shacknews Chatty comment section, and please have yourself a very special Mario Day.
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Mario Day special: The complete evolution of Mario Bros.
I find it a little odd that you mention both Mario RPG and Paper Mario but then not Mario & Luigi, although I get the general gist that the Mario & Luigi series is dead and you're trying to include only mainline Mario games and a representative of the offshoots. In that way, this is a great summarization of the Mario series. Man I love these games.