There are few examples of a more universally appealing, iconic game series than Super Mario. Over the years, the series has helped propel Nintendo to gaming super-stardom. With vibrant visuals, colorful worlds, and solid mechanics — the delightful platforming gameplay remains fun and accessible for a diverse audience of most every skill level.
As a result, the series still possesses a highly vast appeal. With its long, rich gaming history, the lineup naturally covers a range of styles and difficulty. Even when limiting things to the core platformers, these titles run the gamut from a relative cakewalk to white-knuckle-tough.
Updated May 25, 2023, by Stephen LaGioia: While Nintendo’s famed platforming series has been fairly quiet on the gaming front, Mario-mania has seen a rejuvenation by way of the Super Mario Bros. movie, which has fast become a hit. This fun adventure through the Mushroom Kingdom has reminded old-school fans just what makes this imaginative series so iconic, while drawing in new fans to its inviting colorful worlds.
This, coupled with a smattering of new game releases, such as Ubisoft’s Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, has kept this series shining brightly in the Mario galaxy. And so, it seems fitting to reinvigorate this list of the most notably tough and simplistic Mario titles. Even when continuing to focus on the mainline platformers, there is no shortage to pick from on either side of the aisle.
20 Easiest: Super Paper Mario
This black sheep of the Paper Mario family tends to get overlooked, particularly following the release of The Origami King on Switch. Those who have played this Wii platformer regard the game for its creative mechanics that allow you to shift from a 2D to a 3D plane. This concept sets the stage for some fun exploration and unique level design.
Still, this style also makes for a slower-paced experience and more room to work with. This means it’s easier to avoid baddies and hazards in Mario’s path. Most of the game’s depth comes from its story, and traversing the areas in both dimensions — while foes are often sparse and non-threatening. This is especially the case for the fire-breathing Bowser, who can incinerate those in his path.
19 Hardest: Super Mario Land 2: 6 Gold Coins
One of the best ways to experience this famed franchise on Game Boy is also one of Mario’s hardest outings. Instead of defeating Bowser, it’s Mario’s devious counterpart Wario who steps in this time, and he’s not pulling any punches. The plumber must power through six distinctly bizarre biomes, along with tough secret levels scattered about. Examples include a Halloween-themed Pumpkin Zone, and an elaborate house featuring a shrunken Mario.
These unconventional stages can give newcomers the runaround if they aren’t thoroughly prepared with power-ups, especially in the more chaotic later bouts. Even with smoother, tightened-up mechanics compared to the first Mario Land, this three-hour journey can be a doozy.
18 Easiest: New Super Mario Bros Wii
Unless you’re aiming for a complete run, which involves nabbing each Star Coin, you’re in for a laid-back ride with this classic Mario debut for Wii. The enemies are often more passive and fewer in number than other 2D Mario games, and the inclusion of Yoshi adds a solid layer of defense a la Super Mario World.
The relatively slower, floaty physics usually gives you ample time to plot out your pathways and attacks. Save points are frequent, as are extra lives and power-ups. That’s not to say the game isn’t a joy to play, especially when jumping into the fray with up to three other players. As it happens, the multiplayer mode can ironically make the game tougheras you’ll tend to get in each other’s way.
17 Hardest: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
Super Mario is perhaps most famous for two things: platforming, and being a humble plumbing mascot. But Paper Mario sets itself apart as being an RPG starring the little red dude with the mustache.
Though the mechanics may feel familiar to RPG fans, platforming fans will have a tougher time adjusting to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door’s systems. Paired with frustrating boss fights against the likes of Bonetail or the Shadow Queen, this can make for a less-than-enjoyable Mario experience. That said, the story in the game makes the tricky battles well worth the trouble.
16 Easiest: Super Mario 3D Land
This platformer was released for Nintendo 3DS in 2011 and was the first Mario game on that console. The game uniquely combines 3D and 2D elements like side-scrolling and roaming. Though the game was slick and fast-paced, some critiqued Super Mario 3D Land’s difficulty level.
While platforming veterans may find themselves never in fear of losing a life, Super Mario 3D Land does introduce abilities never before used in a Mario game. It also maintains that final stage anxiety that so many fans love about Mario games. If fans want a Mario game that they can play and just relax, Super Mario 3D Land might be a great choice.
15 Hardest: Super Mario Maker 2
This follow-up to the Wii U platformer lets Mario fans and amateur level designers flex their creative muscle even further this time around on Switch, with a slew of new objects, themes, and features. Super Mario Maker 2 also brings the addition of a new core campaign, which, while fairly brief, offers more of that fun, familiar 2D Mario gameplay.
Of course, where the game really shines is its endless supply of user-made levels, and its highly deep design feature. Playing with both can prove equally tricky, though for different reasons. But once you wrap your head around the level-crafting, the game makes it ironically easy to build absurdly hard stages. This means that many user-created levels will range from tricky to virtually unbeatable.
14 Easiest: Super Mario Galaxy 2
Nintendo’s galactic Mario platformers on Wii prove similar when it comes to difficulty, though many agree that the sequel is a bit harder and more involved in general. Even with the addition of Mario’s lovable transport Yoshi, the core gameplay has been amped up somewhat, featuring more hazards, trickier bosses, and deeper worlds to traverse.
New concepts are thrown in, such as the disorienting Upside Dizzy Planet, which can take some time to wrap your head around. Still, the game adheres to the familiar Galaxy formula at its core, making for a straightforward experience with ample wiggle room for error.
13 Hardest: New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe
While the New Super Mario Bros. line can be more of a breeze overall, this robust version on Switch brings some surprisingly tough platforming. This mostly comes in the form of the added content featuring Mario’s oft-overlooked brother, Luigi. The experience has largely recycled assets from its mainline counterpart, but you wouldn’t know it from its more punishing gameplay.
Some denser, action-packed stages, more hazards, and the clumsier controlling Luigi can all make this one a grind compared to New Super Mario Bros U. The levels are smaller, though this also means a shorter time limit, ramping up the pacing and forcing you to keep scurrying forward.
12 Easiest: Super Mario Odyssey
Completionists might cry foul — as nabbing all 999 Power Moons is no easy task. Yet, the core gameplay of Odyssey allows you to coast through and finish off the main campaign with relative ease. Gathering the minimum amount of Moons to sail on over to the next planet is usually a simple feat.
You can often simply wander about and gather a sufficient collection of Power Moons without much effort; sometimes even by accident. The added Cappy mechanic enables tons of interesting and super helpful abilities. The game ends up with a fairly forgiving health meter also making this a pretty unthreatening platforming/open-world game.
11 Hardest: Super Mario Land
Those old enough to remember the plumber’s debut on the classic Game Boy should recall perishing often in this tricky sidescroller. You’ll face a myriad of hazards, along with small, swift baddies creeping about. Stages are often rife with pitfalls and frenzied, fast-paced scrolling.
It certainly doesn’t help that the game was on the tiny, dull screen of Nintendo’s old handheld. Stiff controls don’t typically do platformers any favors, and they’re prominent here. On top of this, both lives and power-ups are also quite rare and hard to obtain.
10 Easiest: Super Mario Galaxy
This 3D Mario platformer on Wii entrances you with a celestial, majestic universe that may or may not cause nausea. The game also nicely showcased the motion features of the Wiimote. Still, even some fans will admit it doesn’t always feature the epic, exhilarating gameplay one might find in, say, Super Mario Odyssey.
The experience has you blasting in thrilling fashion from one typically small, segmented planet to the next. Most planets are fairly sparse when it comes to hazards and objectives. Because of the game’s somewhat disorienting mechanic of running upside-down, perhaps Nintendo toned down the action to keep you from getting overwhelmed. Collectibles also aren’t huge in number, and the linearity gives Galaxya more centralized focus that’s easy to deal with.
9 Hardest: Super Mario Sunshine
The slower action paired with Mario’s slew of abilities in his 3D outings usually makes for an easier — if not lengthier — experience. However, those seeking a tougher romp in the 3D realm need look no further than this deceptively cheery platformer. To be fair, it can be pretty simple washing down paint splotches and getting through much of the core campaign.
Yet, the latter stages of the game up the intensity as you blast an increasing number of splotches along with foes. This, coupled with grueling retro challenges, and hard-to-reach Shines make this one a harder grind than its whimsical tropical theme lets on. Gamers were reminded just how tricky this one can be after playing its remaster on Super Mario 3D All-Stars, contrasting with the relatively chill Mario 64 and Galaxy.
8 Easiest: Super Mario World
Super Mario World is also known for its slew of secrets and branching paths, many of which can be tough to unlock. Like many on this list, this entry comes with its caveats when gauging its difficulty. In this case, the tricky Star and Special World stages make it difficult to classify.
Overall though, one can power through this SNES debut without breaking much of a sweat. There are quite a few shortcut paths, along with ample power-ups like Cape Feathers that allow the player to literally coast through segments of stages. And of course, there’s Yoshi, who acts as a retrievable safety net and transportation vessel for Mario.
7 Hardest: Super Mario Bros. 2
One of the most bizarre versions of Mario also happens to be among its most difficult. Taking the form of a reworked Japanese game, Doki Doki Panic, this romp presents a new, more exploration-focused brand of platforming. Super Mario Bros. 2’s slew of diggable areas and underground mazes can feel overwhelming even to seasoned Mario players.
You’ll find yourself scrambling to secure keys and dig underground while ducking and weaving around flying baddies and projectiles. While it can be beaten in a few hours, the more open-world nature of the second Mario game in the series makes the journey seem longer and more treacherous.
6 Easiest: New Super Mario Bros.
After a several-year absence on the 2D front, Mario made an emphatic return on Nintendo DS, returning to his roots. NSMB tended to serve as a simplistic renaissance for the plumber—and a way to get a new, younger generation into Mario games.
Because of these factors, it’s perhaps not too surprising that this DS platformer is pretty tame. The game gets back to basics by dialing down the insanity to focus on a more straightforward experience. Even without help from friends via co-op — which future NSMB games would add — the bulk of this platformer is pretty simple.
5 Hardest: Paper Mario: The Origami King
This Paper Mario game continues the tradition of involved, often-tough combat — especially when it comes to boss fights. Yet it also perfectly captures the nostalgia of playing the original Paper Mario with its charming graphics and amusing storyline. Fans are understandably split over recommending this unique game to newer players.
The battle system features rotating rings that let users combo attacks for more efficient performances. While intriguing at times, the combat can get cumbersome and is not especially rewarding. The Origami King does pick up steam during boss battles, though.
4 Easiest: New Super Mario Bros. 2
Take the formula of NSMB, shorten the stages, and toss in a fountain of coins, and that’s this DS sequel. The game’s focus on breezing through levels and nabbing coins gives it a more mellow feel during its 5-hour campaign. This design seems intentional on behalf of Nintendo.
It certainly offers an enjoyable experience for those who covet coins. Yet, gamers who crave a challenge aren’t likely to get much out of this romp. It stresses showering you with coins and extra lives rather than obstacles and foes. Naturally, this drives down the difficulty level quite a bit.
3 Hardest: Super Mario Bros. 3
Shorter levels and nifty Warp Whistles aside, the renowned Super Mario Bros. 3 on NES is wrought with challenging gameplay. Even by the third water biome, you’ll likely struggle to keep up. Mario must jump, run, and swim his way through a slew of ever-changing hazards and foes. Loads of enemies and obstacles are crammed into the brief but chaotic stages.
The game keeps you on their toes throughout the game by constantly throwing curveballs. One minute, Mario must tangle with flying Lakitus or Angry Suns. The next, he has to evade mega-sized baddies or navigate pipe mazes. The abundance of obstacles and lack of saves make this one of the hardest Mariogames – even decades after its release.
2 Easiest: Super Mario 64
Labeling Super Mario 64 as “easy” might make veteran players cringe. However, when one examines the mechanics of the game, the classification makes sense. Much like playing the drums, this game is easy to pick up, but tough to master when it comes to getting every Star and really finding a rhythm.
Completing Super Mario 64’s core campaign isn’t too difficult and should be doable even by those who are new to gaming. That’s because there are, for the most part, enough easier Stars that allow you to hit the 70 required and reach the final boss.
1 Hardest: Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
Take the already grueling Super Mario Bros. formula and elevate the chaos even further, and The Lost Levels is the result. Originally meant to be the sequel to Super Mario Bros., this game was actually deemed too hard for a Western audience by Nintendo. Instead, the company decided to reskin and rebrand a slightly easier version of Doki Doki Panic 2 for that version of Mario 2.
In terms of the wild level design, much of the experience feels akin to the sadistic creations of some Super Mario Maker 2 users. The game is populated by tons of baddies, hidden blocks, and gaping pitfalls; bringing an intense onslaught of trials throughout. While it’s now decades old, it’s still widely considered one of the hardest Mario games.
NEXT: A Definitive Ranking Of Every Paper Mario Game