It’s hard to imagine where video games would be without Mario. Nintendo’s mascot represents everything that makes video games so magical. Playing a Mario title is like stepping into a vast world of endless imagination and limitless possibilities. Everything from the characters to the music is exceptional, but above all, the Mario games shine thanks to the immense talent that goes into level design.
The Mario series is a masterclass in how to make awesome platforming levels, especially in 2D games. Whether you’re revisiting the NES classics or enjoying newer titles, you can always expect some of the most creative and memorable levels in the genre.
10 Pumpkin Zone – Super Mario Land 2
Mario games excel when they take risks and try new things. Super Mario Land 2 did it all by mixing up the formula and creating some memorable stages. Pumpkin Zone is one of the most memorable worlds in the game, thanks to its bizarre enemies and terrifying levels.
As you run through graveyards and haunted houses, you encounter flying leeches, vampires, and even a ghoul wearing a hockey mask and a knife sticking out of his head. No other Mario level would even dream of mentioning Friday the 13th. Running past a row of tombstones with bunny ears is exactly the kind of silliness that makes Mario special.
9 World 2 Desert – Super Mario Bros 3
Mario is weird. There is no other way to describe a plumber who fights a giant turtle while riding a dinosaur by shooting fire from his hands. But that’s what makes it so great, and the series is at its best when it embraces its inherent silliness. World 2 Desert from Super Mario Bros 3 is a great example.
After Mario defeats a few enemies and escapes a rampaging trickster, imagine his surprise when the sun comes crashing out of the sky and tries to kill him. This angry fireball is invincible and chases you through the second half of the stage, cementing her as one of the most iconic and unique villains in Plumber history. Let’s hope Mario brought sunscreen.
8 Painted Swampland – New Super Mario Bros U
Mario has a history of jumping into pictures, so it’s surprising that it took Nintendo until 2012 to create a level like Painted Swampland. This stage is a striking allusion to Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. The addition of Boos as the main enemy was a nice touch that added to the mood of this beautiful piece of art.
The new Super Mario Bros. games aren’t known for groundbreaking changes to the formula. After three and a half games with the same themes, entering the Painted Swampland is like entering Oz. The idea of a stage based on a real picture is genius and should be done more often.
7 World 8 Bowser Castle – New Super Mario Bros Wii
Mario has raided a lot of Bowser’s castles over the years, but the one from New Super Mario Bros Wii stands out thanks to its boss. It starts out as a throwback to the original Koopa King fight from Super Mario Bros. on the NES, but things take a turn for the false ending.
Just when you think it’s over, Bowser reappears as a giant and chases you through the castle. This fight is intense and tests your skills as you jump from platform to platform while avoiding Bowser’s attacks and tricking him into destroying the walls that block your path. He is one of the most unique bosses in the series and an epic conclusion to this adventure.
6 Donut Secret House – Super Mario World
Ghost houses are always memorable for their unexpected twists, especially the Donut Secret House from Super Mario World. The puzzle is just figuring out how to reach this level, as you need to find two secret exits in the previous levels to unlock it. Once you get in, it gets even harder.
This place is a maze that takes you in circles until you solve the mystery of how to escape. It’s also the only level without a castle or fortress that has a boss battle. If that’s not enough, beating this level leads to the Star Road entrance, which contains a shortcut to Bowser’s Castle. This is a great route for fast runners that adds value to this already outstanding level.
5 World 9-8 – New Super Mario Bros Wii
World 9-8 is the final level of the secret world and ensures that this game will go out with a bang. This level is full of bouncy clouds that act like trampolines and send you and enemies into the air. There are tons of coins scattered around which are very enjoyable to collect as you dodge goombas and bounce around.
To top it off, huge royal bills fly off-screen, destroying the surrounding environment. All these factors combine to create a chaotic fun scene that feels like a cross between a bouncy castle and a game of dodgeball. This is one of the best sky levels in the series and a great reward for completing the game.
4 World 1-1 – Super Mario Bros
This is the level where it all started. World 1-1 had the formidable task of teaching people how to play a Mario game for the first time, and this is a masterclass in how to make a tutorial.
The first thing you run into is a goomba, and since you don’t have any power-ups yet, you die on impact. You have to find a way around the pesky enemy, which is the perfect way to introduce this game’s revolutionary mechanic: jumping. The next floating blocks are just low enough that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to power jump. From the very beginning, the game clearly shows you what things are good and bad for you, while also teaching you control. It’s the perfect way to start this legendary classic.
3 Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy – Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
Yoshi has starred in several games, but none can compare to this Super Nintendo classic. Yoshi’s Island is one of the best games for the SNES, thanks to its hand-drawn art style and memorable levels.
Long before the Miracle Seed was warping levels in Super Mario Bros. Wonder, the fuzzy ones in Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy were doing the same thing. These fiends fall from the sky and if Yoshi touches one, the ground will shake and the world will be distorted. This effect was impressive for the SNES and represents one of the most unique levels in the game.
2 Forest Of Illusion – Super Mario World
The Forest Of Illusion features what makes Super Mario World so special: secrets. This adventure is full of alternate exits that lead to hidden levels, and there is no better example than this mysterious forest.
The exit to these woods is hidden in one of the levels and you must find it to progress. The atmosphere is mysterious, with trees obscuring the sky and occasionally blocking your view of the level. This world even introduced the Wiggler, who is now a series regular. This is one of the most memorable forest levels in gaming and a treat to revisit.
1 Giant Land – Super Mario Bros 3
Super Mario Bros 3 improved on the first two games in every way. These worlds are filled to the brim with creativity and wonder, and nowhere is this more evident than in Giant Land.
This world is full of huge objects and enemies. As you run through these levels, you dodge giant piranha plants, jump over giant warp pipes, and throw giant shells to break giant blocks. This world is so iconic that it even inspired a stage in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy 2. Interacting with this gigantic environment is fun and satisfying, and perfectly highlights the imagination that makes Mario so amazing.
NEXT: The best 2D platformers for beginners