(Image by Flickr User: daveynin)
Mario has been Nintendo’s flagship franchise since they first burst onto the scene with Super Mario Brothers for the NES (Or with the Donkey Kong arcade game if you want to get technical). It takes quite a bit to maintain that kind of staying power for more than 25 years, and we can rest assured that it’s not the portly plumber himself who’d the cause for the series overwhelming success. No, instead it’s always been Nintendo’s ingenious ability to consistently push the boundaries of level design as we know it. Nearly every main series entry has shown us new ways to explore the world with our mustachioed friend, and has left long-time fans with a lifetime’s worth of memorable locations that we can’t help but mentally revisit from time to time. The following are but just a few of my personal favorites.
Pachinko Machine (Super Mario Sunshine)
I’m not sure if that’s really the name or not, but that’s how I’ll always remember this one. It’s not a very popular level due to its stupid level of difficulty compared to the rest of Super Mario Sunshine, but for me that’s kind of the point. It took so many tries to beat this level the first time that I honestly couldn’t even give you a ballpark figure (it was A LOT.) but few things over the years have beaten the feeling of triumph of finally beating it after so many tries and so many failed strategies. Finally beating that stinking machine made all the frustration totally worth it and forever cemented the level as a favorite…as odd as that may sound. J
Luigi’s Purple Coins (Toy Time Galaxy – Super Mario Galaxy)
Finishing this level was actually one of those few things that beat the feeling of completing the Pachinko Machine level. It’s a challenge that, even though it’s stupidly hard, I heartily recommend that every Mario fan should at least attempt. This was the single hardest challenge I’ve ever faced in a Mario game. The challenge is simple, collect all the coins in the level. However, that simplicity comes with a catch: you are given just a little more than enough time to get them all, and you can never touch the same platform twice. It’s hard, unforgiving, frustrating in the utmost, but like the Pachinko Machine, the feeling of beating it is almost unmatched! It stretches your command of Mario’s abilities to their very limit and walking away victorious feels like earning your platformer mark of mastery! If you haven’t tried it, go do it now! You don’t know what you’re missing!
World 8 – First Tank (Super Mario Bros. 3)
My first experience with Mario was with Super Mario Brothers 3 (The All-Stars version on the SNES), and for the most part I found it pleasant and fun until one stormy afternoon when I warped myself to World 8, and wow. I was really young at the time, so going from bright and happy to what looked more or less like hell was kind of scary. And what’s more, the first level played differently. It wasn’t a regular stage, but an army procession filled with intimidating machines of war and projectile-death all over the place! I did beat it eventually, but that incredibly jarring transformation has stayed with me ever since. I suppose that’s why it’s a favorite, it turned everything about the tone of the game one its head and yet still built on the pre-established gameplay. It caught me off-guard, something that no other level has ever managed to do.
Castle 1 – (Super Mario World)
This was the level that hooked me into Super Mario World! Up until that point the game had offered up the usual platforming fare: jumping, swimming, quirky blocks, and power-ups, but then this castle comes along and suddenly I get to not only climb all over the screen but flip to the other side too?! It was just too incredible! Instead of jumping over enemies, I could climb behind them. Instead of jumping on their head, I could punch them off! What sorcery was this?! The mechanic wasn’t used much afterward, but I didn’t care, the simple fact that I could do something like that was just too exciting to write-off.
Bowser in the Dark World (Super Mario 64)
Everything about this level was, no is, perfect! This was the one that convinced me that Super Mario 64 was not only good, but special. It starts off by just dropping you into the thick of it. One second you’re looking at Peach’s face transforming into Bowser’s ugly mug, and the next you’re in a new level unlike anything else in the game before it and told to find your way out…if you can! The obstacles are daunting but just challenging enough to keep you cautious, the music drives you forward with purpose while simultaneously inspiring a sense of awe and wonder; There’s a secret star to be found, extra lives for those that dare attempt to retrieve them, and it’s all finished off with our first face to face with a 3D Bowser! I have played this level dozens of times over the years and it has never gotten old. All those incredible feelings from that first encounter still surface after dropping into it and have barely diminished. Is it the best Mario level ever made? Objectively, no. Probably not. But for me it’s the pinnacle. From feel, to design, to challenge, to tone, for me this level is flawless!
I could list so many more, but stopping there just feels right. The Mario games are just so chock-full of wonderful places that even some of the great ones wound getting forgotten. These were just the ones that left the biggest impression on me. What are yours? Are they all favorites because they were just wonderful to explore, or was it the rush of beating them that enabled them to rise through the ranks into favorites?