The Best Mario Levels of All Time
After 36 years, there have been a lot of Mario games, with hundreds of levels between them — and, dare I say it, most of them are pretty great. So we decided it was time to comb through the treasure trove of stages and poll our entire staff to find out which levels have stood the test of time better than all the rest.
Please note that while certain members of the staff championed to include wonderful levels from games like Paper Mario, and even Super Mario World 2 (which is undoubtedly part of the Yoshi series), we opted to stick with games from the main series. These are IGN’s picks for the best Mario levels ever.
Watch the video above, click through the gallery below, or scroll down the page for the full list!
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10. Bowser’s Fury – Super Mario 3D World
Yes, it’s a very new addition to the series to be included on this list, but there’s no denying that Bowser’s Fury is something really special.
One part new school, 3D exploration-based Mario adventure, and one part old school Mario platforming charm dropped onto one giant map where you seamlessly migrate between levels and challenges. It feels like the “next big thing” for Mario, and while it’s true that games like Sunshine, Odyssey, and even 64 have been described as open-world, this is on a whole new level. See what we did there?
9. Donut Plains 1 – Super Mario World
When we think of the Mario franchise, the first thing that comes to mind is Donut Plains 1. Grabbing that first feather and realizing that the cape would let you FLY was nothing short of revelatory, and turned everything we thought we knew about Mario on its ear. Mix this with the catchy steel drums and tuba soundtrack, secret exits, and bonus block puzzles and you’ve got a template for not only the rest of Super Mario World, but a great evolution of the structure of a Mario level. There are more complex levels in Super Mario World, for sure, but Donut Plains One is a shining example of a game teaching you its own rules and how to break them. Perfection.
8. Sunken Ghost Ship – Super Mario World
Another from Super Mario World, the Sunken Ghost Ship is no normal level by any means. Sitting isolated in the waters at the center of Dinosaur Island, the stage combines the foreboding atmosphere of Super Mario World’s ghost houses with clever references to Super Mario Bros. 3’s airships – which have been noticeably absent in this world. Though somewhat short, its vast hordes of underwater Boos that literally fill the screen make for a lasting impact, as does the subtle storytelling of falling down a seemingly bottomless void with no traditional goalpost in sight to raise the gaping jaws of a giant stone bowser up from the depths. You’d be hard pressed to find a better introduction to a final boss’s secret lair.
7. Giant Land – Super Mario Bros. 3
The levels in Super Mario Bros. 3 are full of clever ideas and fun surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise (pun intended) occurs the moment you enter world 4-1. In this level, the enemies, blocks, pipes, and clouds are just enormous, about four times bigger than usual. You’re still regular-sized Mario, but the world you’ve entered is shockingly huge. The first time you play this level, you probably had no idea the game could even do this. What’s great about Giant Land, though, is the strength of all great Mario levels: it offers a perfect combination of surprise and delight. It has the same precise and satisfying Mario gameplay, but in a creative new package that can make even the most veteran players crack a smile.
6. Bianco Hills – Super Mario Sunshine
Super Mario Sunshine, unlike so many other Mario games, made a daring choice with its setting: a tropical island divided into individually themed biomes, all centered around a relaxing vacation gone wrong. Bianco Hills is easily the most iconic of these, especially as it’s the first level you visit. This believable, pleasant little Pianta town invites the player to test out their new FLUDD capabilities throughout its multiple layers.
There’s a town side and a lakeside, ground areas, water, and aerial bouncing wires that allow you to just climb and climb and climb. What’s more, its topography changes from episode to episode as different structures, paint splats, and enemies re-shape the village. Its clever architecture, attention to detail, and sheer personality makes Bianco Hills a wonderful summation of everything that made Mario Sunshine such a brave and delightful adventure.
5. Darker Side – Super Mario Odyssey
Darker Side of the Moon is not just the hardest level of Super Mario Odyssey, it’s a celebration of the game itself. It’s a 10-minute long marathon that not only throws traditionally fun platforming challenges at you, but also is a sampling of all the best mechanics that are unique to Mario Odyssey. Like the part where you take control of a Podoboo and have to jump from lava pool to lava pool while trying to avoid getting hit b spiked balls, or the bit where you’re a Pokio and have to fling yourself from one platform to the next with your nose; or who could ever forget the lead up to the finale where you control Bowser himself and go on a rampage, crashing through everything in your path. The best part, when you reach the end, you get a heartwarming “thank you” message for your dedication.
No, thank YOU, Nintendo.
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4. Freezeflame Galaxy – Super Mario Galaxy
If there are two types of levels that have been done to death in the Mario series, its lava and ice worlds – which is why it’s a little surprising that a level that combines the two would be so enjoyable. The “Freeze” side of Freezeflame Galaxy is definitely the standout, as the Ice Flower allows Mario to gracefully skate along both water and lava surfaces, creating some fun races against the clock as you dash to safety before the power-up timer runs out and leaves you either in freezing cold water or insta-kill lava. It’s a really mechanically interesting and visually spectacular level that does a great job of combining two very distinct themes into one.
3. World 1-1 – Super Mario Bros.
Aside from the fact that World 1-1 from Super Mario Bros. on NES is one of – if not the – most iconic Mario level of all time, it’s also just about the perfect start to a Mario game there is. Everything about this stage is there to teach you how to play the game, from the first goomba teaching you how to smash and jump over enemies to figuring out how power ups work. There’s even a secret 1-up revealing that this world is chock-full of hidden items, and of course the warp pipe that lets you skip the entire level makes you realize that this game isn’t the linear platformer it appears to be. It’s an absolute perfect start to the adventure before you, and for the Mario franchise as a whole.
2. Bowser in the Sky – Super Mario 64
Bowser in the Sky is the final stage in Super Mario 64, and I mean that in the truest sense of the word. It’s more or less a collection of all of your past challenges you’ve faced so far. It’s got thwomps, spinnings platforms, fire-spitting piranhas — all of the obstacles that Mario’s faced so far are trying to take him down one last time. And while the stage also features some pretty tough platforming, a missed jump doesn’t always mean instant death. Finally, this is also the final showdown with a new neon-drenched Bowser, and it doesn’t take that challenge lightly. The music is different, he now takes three hits to go down, and he changes up the layout of the arena by smashing the stage to pieces – but when he finally goes down and the final star is yours to collect, it’s always a very special feeling.
1. New Donk City – Super Mario Odyssey
Over the last decade, Nintendo has been vigilant in transforming Mario from mere jump-man mascot to a purposeful spreader of joy – and no single level in a Mario game better serves that purpose than New Donk City.
While levels like Donut Plains or World 1-1 remain iconic to a generation of Mario veterans, New Donk City embraces all that Mario was, is, and always will be. Though it’s not devoid of platforming challenges for those who want them, it is first and foremost a playground — a theme park stuffed with toys and rides that react and interact in surprising ways, from electrical wires that that can shock you to musicians to RC cars to even a sad man who cheers up if Mario sits on a bench with him. But it’s also packed with references to Mario history, culminating in its show-stopping New Donk City Festival Power Moon — the ultimate celebration of Mario’s old feats and new, and his joyous spirit.
And there you have it – our picks for the best Mario levels ever. Let us know what’s on your list that didn’t make ours in the comments!