The Super Mario franchise is not considered to be that difficult in the grand scheme of gaming. After all, Mario is Nintendo’s mascot, and you don’t want your mascot scaring away gamers who can’t beat most of the levels. However, if you think that all Super Mario games are easy…well, you just haven’t played enough Super Mario games.
You know why we’re here, so here are a few things to consider before you browse these rankings.
– This list primarily focuses on the mainline “platformer” Super Mario games (with a few notable adjacent titles tossed in). Super Mario spin-offs are not included, mostly because it’s tough to compare the difficulty of so many different types of games across so many genres.
– The one major Super Mario game you won’t find on this list is Super Mario Maker. It was obviously tough to compare hundreds of fan-made levels against the other mainline Nintendo games, though the toughest Super Mario Maker levels would obviously top this list by some distance.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the Super Mario games that made us cry “Wahoo!” and those that left us uttering a solemn “Mama mia!”
21. Super Mario Run
I was originally going to leave this game off the list because of how different it is and how low it would rank, but it’s here because it’s generally considered to be part of the mainline Super Mario franchise and at least features some (incredibly basic) platforming elements.
Billed as a Super Mario game that you can play with one hand, Super Mario Run certainly lives up to that hype so far as its overall difficulty goes. It’s slightly more challenging than some auto-runners on the market, but it doesn’t really rank compared to most of the other games on this list.
20. Super Mario Odyssey
I generally consider the 3D Super Mario games to be easier than most of the 2D titles. That’s largely because a lot of those games only emphasize precision platforming (the most difficult aspect of most Super Mario titles) in very specific areas. They tend to be more about exploration and experimentation. That’s especially true of Super Mario Odyssey.
There are challenges in Super Mario Odyssey for those who wish to seek them out. Actually, getting 100% on this game will probably take you quite a long time. Aside from some bonus levels and a few tricky collectibles, though, the base game is about as simple as Super Mario gets. Odyssey may be one of the best overall Super Mario games, but it’s not exactly meant for those seeking a challenge.
19. Super Mario 3D Land
While it’s a little closer to a classic platformer than some other 3D Super Mario games, Super Mario 3D Land is about as accessible as that style of Super Mario game gets.
Perhaps due to the unique nature of this game’s handheld 3D technology, Super Mario 3D Land sometimes feels like it’s holding its challenges back just so it can make some of its gimmicks work. New players will probably love how this game’s difficulty scales and grows to offer some challenge in the later levels, but anyone familiar with any other Super Mario titles will have little trouble with this one.
18. New Super Mario Bros.
As the name suggests, New Super Mario Bros. was Nintendo’s attempt to revive the classic 2D Super Mario platformer formula in a 2.5D way for the Nintendo DS. While that means that New Super Mario Bros. is filled with the pits and perils that made some of those old Super Mario games so challenging, this game was clearly designed to be significantly easier than those titles.
New Super Mario Bros. often relies on elaborate power-up gimmicks that negate some of the challenges you typically see in a “pure” Super Mario title. That doesn’t make it a bad game by any means (it’s a ton of fun), but it’s clear that this game was meant to be more accessible.
17. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins is a fairly short game (you can beat this Game Boy title in a few hours if you’re dedicated to doing so) and not that difficult in the grand scheme of things. So why does it rank slightly higher on this list? Well, it’s because there are some absurd difficulty spikes in the later part of this game that will remind you that difficulty balance is an ever-evolving art form.
The Mario’s Castle (or Wario’s Castle) section of this game features some surprisingly difficult platforming sections made that much more challenging by the fact you’re asked to navigate those sections via the Game Boy’s small screen and tiny controls. If it takes you a few hours to beat this game, most of that time will be spent on those final levels.
16. New Super Mario Bros. U
This is where the rankings start to get tricky.
There are sections of New Super Mario Bros. U that are surprisingly difficult. I would even say that this game is slightly underrated in terms of its toughest challenges. There are aspects of this game that are certainly intended to push players of various skill levels to their limits.
Overall, though, New Super Mario Bros. U at least tries to ease you into the process by front-loading the game with fairly easy platforming levels. There are challenges here, but this is not one of those Super Mario games that offers a high overall level of difficulty or especially difficult stretches of game design.
15. New Super Mario Bros. Wii
I feel pretty confident saying that New Super Mario Bros. Wii is more challenging than New Super Mario Bros. U, but deciding where to rank it against the rest of the franchise is slightly more complicated.
If we push aside the intentional insanity of these games’ optional four-player modes, I find that the New Super Mario Bros. games typically offer pleasant challenges rather than overwhelming ones. They’re just solid examples of platformer gameplay that is difficult enough to keep you engaged but not so challenging (outside of some special levels) that you’ll hit the wall too often.
14. Super Mario Land
Much like Super Mario Land 2, some of Super Mario Land‘s difficulty can be attributed to the challenges of trying to make a Super Mario game work on early Game Boy technology. Nintendo tried to make this feel just like an NES Mario game, but they couldn’t quite get some of the physics and visuals right.
The result is a game that always feels at least slightly off. It’ll take anyone familiar with just about any other Super Mario game more than a few minutes to adjust to the timing of this game’s movement system. An expert can easily beat this game in less than 30 minutes, but new players will have to adapt to this surprisingly tricky part of the franchise.
13. Super Mario Bros.
After all these years, the original Super Mario Bros. remains a surprisingly challenging game. It may have practically written the book when it comes to so many of the concepts we talk about when we talk about other Super Mario games (and other platformers), but don’t take that to mean that the game doesn’t pack a genuine punch. Some of those World 8 levels are still a nightmare.
If Super Mario Bros. is held back by anything in terms of its ranking, it’s the simple fact that Nintendo soon grew much more confident in both its abilities and the player’s ability to handle this type of gaming experience. As we’ll soon see, that quickly led to much more challenging adventures. Still, this is an early example of “NES Hard.”
12. New Super Mario Bros. 2
For the most part, the base New Super Mario Bros. 2 is actually slightly easier than its predecessor. However, Nintendo decided to end this DS title’s run by releasing a series of downloadable levels appropriately known as the “Impossible Pack.”
The Impossible Pack feels like a response to some of those fan-made Super Mario levels you see in Super Mario Maker and other, less official sources. It’s designed to push platforming veterans to their limits. While the rest of the game is shockingly easy, I do think the audacity of the Impossible Pack deserves at least a little love.
11. Super Mario Bros. 2 (U.S.)
I’ve found that quite a few people seem to remember this game being quite difficult, but I think it’s more accurate to describe it as “different.” Because Super Mario Bros. 2 is actually based on a non-Super Mario game (Doki Doki Panic), it’s just different than what came before or anything that came after. It’s actually more of an adventure game that asks you to navigate some slightly more elaborate levels than what we typically see in a 2D Super Mario game.
However, outside of those ice levels and those pursuing stone faces that probably gave you nightmares, Super Mario Bros. 2 really isn’t that difficult compared to other platformers of its generation. Hey, there’s a reason why we got this game in the West rather than that other sequel we’ll talk about later.
10. Super Mario World
I imagine that some will find Super Mario World’s place here in the top 10 to be at least somewhat controversial. After all, Super Mario World wasn’t as tough as some of its predecessors, and it certainly wasn’t as tough as the most difficult platformers available at that time.
However, Super Mario World features some truly difficult Super Mario levels that live in infamy to this day (looking at you Tubular). More importantly, this was the Super Mario game that really started to experiment with the kind of subtle movements and slightly more complex controls that remain the basis of challenging fan-made Super Mario levels to this day. This game really evolved the concept of a difficult Super Mario game in some interesting ways.
9. Super Mario Galaxy
Super Mario Galaxy is an odd game so far as difficulty goes. It’s certainly not the completionists’ nightmare some other 3D Super Mario games are, and it’s certainly not one of those Super Mario games that were clearly designed to challenge veteran players.
However, this game’s combination of motion controls and slightly more traditional platforming challenges (as well as genuinely truly tricky special levels) make Galaxy slightly more daunting than some of the other games we’ve previously discussed on this list. “Precision” is a word you’ll hear a lot when talking about tough platformers, and Galaxy occasionally asks for a level of precision that some other slightly more modern Super Mario titles don’t always demand. It’s generally pretty well-balanced so far as its difficulty curve goes, though.
8. Super Mario 64
While Super Mario 64’s controls and camera were practically miracles of game design in 1996, they obviously feel slightly more cumbersome these days. Modern gamers who try to play this classic for the first time will likely find it to be surprisingly difficult due to the lack of certain modern conveniences.
While collecting every star in Super Mario 64 remains a daunting task, the base experience really isn’t as difficult as you may remember it being. Aside from a few tricky precision jumps and those aforementioned camera angles, Super Mario 64 really did start the 3D Super Mario tradition of sometimes emphasizing experimentation and exploration over pure platforming mechanics.
7. Super Mario 3D World
Super Mario 3D World’s emphasis on platforming over the collectibles we typically see more of in other 3D Super Mario games bumps it up a couple of spots on this ranking. However, the thing that pushes this game over the top are those nightmarish challenges known as Champion’s Road.
The Champion’s Road challenges almost feel like they were made to spite those who have said that 3D Super Mario games can’t be as challenging as their 2D counterparts. Disappearing platforms, narrow ledges, bullet-hell-like projectiles…if you’re going to survive Champion’s Road, you simply have to perfect. It’s actually an exhilarating example of just how tough a 3D Super Mario platformer can be.
6. Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario Bros. 3 saw Nintendo push the limits of the still-young franchise and try things that most gamers had never dared to dream of seeing. It was also considerably more difficult than the Super Mario games that came before (at least in the West).
The thing that makes this game so difficult is the thing that makes the game so good: its diversity. This game is constantly presenting you with new ideas and new challenges that you have to solve in order to overcome. From auto-scroller levels to levels that force you to find safe spaces in waves of incoming projectiles, Super Mario Bros. 3 can be as relentless as it is brilliant.
5. Super Mario Galaxy 2
Super Mario sequels generally tend to be more challenging than their predecessors (with some of the exceptions we’ve already looked at), but the difficulty spike between Galaxy and Galaxy 2 is still somewhat surprising.
Simply put, Galaxy 2 features some of the most challenging levels you will find in any 3D Super Mario game. Shigeru Miyamoto previously stated that he felt people’s experience with Super Mario Galaxy afforded the team the chance to make the sequel much more challenging, and you can really feel the results of that philosophy as you work your way through this one. If nothing else, Grandmaster Galaxy may just be the most difficult 3D Super Mario level ever constructed.
4. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
The unlikely sequel to Super Mario World put Yoshi in a starring role and relegated Mario to a constantly crying infant. While Yoshi’s Island is generally more difficult than its predecessor, it’s the difficulty of the game’s special levels that make this one a real nightmare.
Along with some truly infuriating platforming challenges made that much worse by having to hear Baby Mario cry whenever you mess up, Yoshi’s Island offers some of the most unique obstacles in the history of the franchise. Somewhere near the top of that list is the bonus level known as The Impossible? Maze: a labyrinthian level that is almost Portal-like in the ways it forces you to solve puzzles in order to make real progress. Good luck getting through that one.
3. New Super Luigi U
People didn’t know what to expect from New Super Luigi U (which was released as part of Nintendo’s famous “Year of Luigi”). Many figured that a Super Mario game starring Luigi had to be some kind of gimmick. Well, aside from Luigi, it turns out that this game’s most obvious gimmick was its shocking difficulty.
I can’t believe that Nintendo decided to release a relatively modern Super Mario game that is this difficult. The hardest levels in New Super Luigi U (and there are many of them) demand perfect timing and the kind of trial-and-error gameplay we just don’t see much of from Nintendo these days. You absolutely have to try this game if you’re looking for the hardest official Super Mario games. It’s almost Mario Maker-like in its sadism.
2. Super Mario Sunshine
It’s generally agreed that Super Mario Sunshine is the hardest 3D Super Mario game by some distance. However, there is quite a bit of debate over whether or not that means Super Mario Sunshine is more difficult than the hardest 2D Super Mario games. You can tell where I stand on that debate.
Super Mario Sunshine is notably challenging in two distinct ways. When you have the FLUDD equipped, you have to deal with some unique navigation mechanics the likes of which we’ve never seen in another game (Super Mario or otherwise). It can be awkward at best and really challenging to get right even when you feel like you’ve gotten a hang of the FLUDD controls. That also makes gathering even essential collectible items surprisingly tricky.
The game’s non-FLUDD levels are arguably even more difficult. These were Nintendo’s earliest attempts at bringing some more 2D-like platforming challenges to a 3D Super Mario game, and it shows. I actually find them to be a ton of fun, but they will break some players who will ask why the game would possibly put them through something so cruel.
1. Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels (AKA Super Mario Bros. 2, Famicom)
As you may know, gamers in the West did not get the “proper” version of Super Mario Bros. 2. The version of that game that Japanese players got to enjoy was deemed too difficult for the West (though that’s not the only reason it wasn’t released outside of Japan initially), and U.S. gamers go that reskinned version of Doki Doki Panic instead. If you ever get the chance to play the original version of this game, you will quickly see what Nintendo was so worried about.
Nintendo would later revisit the idea of essentially releasing a “challenge pack” for an existing Super Mario game (we’ve talked about a few of those on this list), but The Lost Levels is arguably their boldest example of that concept. This is a game made for Super Mario veterans, which is hilarious when you consider that a Super Mario veteran at that time was someone who had played the only other Super Mario game.
Lost Levels didn’t just become the template for every difficult Super Mario game that would follow; it’s genuinely challenging to this day.