Mario isn’t just the most famous plumber of all time, he’s an accomplished go-kart racer, tennis player, golfer, soccer star, baseball player, physician, painter, and Olympian. And the Renaissance man of video games is coming back with another new spinoff title, as Nintendo announced Mario Tennis Aces for the Switch last week. That got our staff thinking: What is the best Mario spinoff series? To qualify, a title had to have “Mario” in the title—so that means no WarioWare, Luigi’s Mansion, or Super Smash Bros. Besides saving Princess Peach, here’s what we think Mario is best at:
Jason Concepcion: The first Mario Kart was released in 1992, on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and the core gameplay now is much the same as it was during grunge’s heyday. The object is to race your opponents around tracks of varying shapes and faithfulness to the laws of physics. Along the way, players can collect power-ups to boost them past opponents or to knock foes out of the race momentarily. You can also collect coins that can be used to unlock better vehicles and parts. I probably don’t need to explain this to you. The Mario Kart series has sold over 116 million units since 1992; Mario Kart 7, with sales of over 14 million, is the best-selling non-Pokémon game for the 3DS. Generations of gamers—from the casual to the hard core—have been weaned on Mario Kart’s nurturing mixture of accessible, addictive, family-friendly fun.
Here’s the thing about Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, the latest iteration of the long-running racing series: It runs on the Nintendo Switch. Meaning, you can play the best-looking Mario Kart ever wherever you happen to be. Crucially, as a busy person with barely any time to game, I can play Mario Kart for five minutes or five hours and derive the same amount of pleasure from the experience.
Ben Lindbergh: Mario is a tennis fan first and foremost. His affinity for the sport runs so deep that even before he broke out in Super Mario Bros., he served as a referee in Tennis, the 1984 NES game, which marked his first sports-game appearance. While Mario made cameos in subsequent sports games, Mario Tennis—or, as its original Virtual Boy incarnation was called, Mario’s Tennis—was the first Mario-branded sports spinoff. If not for the mascot’s trailblazing success on the tennis court, we might never have seen him take his talents to the basketball court, baseball field, golf course, soccer pitch, and so on.
Tennis games starring Mario have appeared on every Nintendo console since the Virtual Boy (producing the most memorable intros of any Mario sports series), but the original Mario Tennis for the Nintendo 64 (2000) and Game Boy Color (2001) remains the franchise’s finest hour. The N64 version had perfect-feeling physics and highly intuitive but sneakily complex controls, enabling seven varieties of shot using only the A and B buttons on their own or in tandem, while the GBC port included a story mode with an RPG progression system. Mario Tennis has stagnated in its recent, uninspired entries, plagued by a lack of content and gameplay depth, but this year’s Mario Tennis Aces seems set to restore the series’ luster by bringing back story mode for the first time since 2005’s Mario Tennis: Power Tour. It’s only appropriate that the first Mario sports game on Switch—as well as the first since he officially stopped plumbing—would return him to his storied sports roots.
Super Mario Strikers
Rodger Sherman: The Mario sports series is relatively tame. The games might take place in a magical kingdom where plumbers and anthropomorphic fire-breathing turtle monsters play sports against each other, but the rules of Mario Golf, Mario Tennis, and Mario Superstar Baseball are essentially the same as our versions of golf, tennis, and baseball. The gameplay is simplified so that these can work as fun party games, but there’s nothing particularly unusual about them, besides wondering how Bowser goes about challenging Peach to a friendly game of tennis after kidnapping her for a 483rd time.
Super Mario Strikers, on the other hand, is NFL Blitz for soccer. Players can be obliterated by full-body tackles at any time. The key to winning any game is the Super Strike, an unstoppable shot that counts for two goals. But it takes skill to execute, because the Super Strike meter is tricky to time properly and a player can be tackled at any point in the power-up process. A battle between two players who know how to properly wield the Super Strike turns into a tremendously strategic war of wits.
Super Mario Strikers is not only the best Mario spinoff, it’s the best soccer game I’ve ever played. Until FIFA develops a mode in which Christian Pulisic can win America the World Cup with a last-minute double goal by literally blasting an opposing goalie through the net, it’s trash.
Shaker Samman: I can’t tell you how many times a game of Mario Party led to a shouting match, but I can vividly recall the one that nearly resulted in a fistfight. Despite its colorful packaging and undeniable charm, Mario Party is not the cordial franchise it’s marketed to be. The game pits friends and family against each other on a turn-based quest for coins and stars, earned through minigames, items, and, to use a scientific term, sneaky bullshit.
It was a brand of sneaky bullshit that brought my cousins and I close to exchanging blows. After trailing for most of a 20-turn run through Mario Party 2’s Pirate Land, I stumbled upon two separate hidden boxes containing stars, and won enough coins from minigames to purchase a genie’s lamp. In four turns, I went from last, with no stars to my name, to first, with three. Controllers were spiked and insults were uttered that can never be unsaid. In the end, we lowered our fists and our tempers, but it was a reminder of the sway the Mario Party series had on us. Mario Kart races end after a few minutes, and a tennis match or a golf game takes no longer than 20. Mario Party is the seminal spinoff franchise because for nearly two hours, nothing mattered more to any of us than the fate of our digital companions and their virtual board game.
Matt James: In the summer of 1990, Mario was on top of the world. Basking in the tremendous critical and commercial success of Super Mario Bros. 3, Mario had his own TV show, a line of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, and a series of popular lunch boxes. It was at this time that an altruistic Mario decided he could make a bigger difference in the world by leaving behind his very lucrative career in plumbing for a more modest life as a common doctor.
Like many doctors of the early 1990s, Mario’s primary medical impulse was to throw fistfuls of pills at problems until they went away. Contrary to common medical practices of the time, however, Mario preferred to do all of his work while blasting absolutely rippin’ tunes from Tetris composer Hirokazu Tanaka. Although Mario often hosted head-to-head pill-slingin’ doctor competitions, his well-known friends and family were mysteriously excluded from all of his medical pursuits. It wasn’t until late 2013 that Mario’s brother, Dr. Luigi, took an interest in medicine.
Rob Harvilla: So this is a very simple-to-the-point-of-insulting idea, executed phenomenally: Golf with Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, and the like, over a very blocky but surprisingly ornate series of topographically varied courses. (Boo Valley was hella treacherous and foggy.) Naturally one gravitates toward the bigger guys, who logically had the longest drives—Bowser, Wario, Donkey Kong—but there are also a handful of scrub quasi-human characters who show up just in this game and basically nowhere else in Mario canon. Of those, my favorite was Harry, for the convincingly hapless way he blurted out “Oh, no!” when he shanked it into a sand trap.
For this was the true genius innovation of Mario Golf, that every character had eight individual vocalizations you could trigger while somebody else was trying to concentrate, four of them encouraging (“Nice shot!”) and four of them distracting and derisive. “Hurry up, already, eh?” sneers Luigi. “Uh-oh!” bellows Wario. “[Sixty-four-bit approximation of ape sounds],” hoots Donkey Kong. It introduced a splendidly dissonant undercurrent of uncouthness and trash talk to the Mario universe, and also, for many of us, to golf.
Super Mario RPG
Justin Charity: I fear that Super Mario RPG is the sort of experiment that history simply forgets. The game is shockingly off-genre—a turn-based combat adventure with none of traditional Mario’s signature, woozy physics. But Super Mario RPG is cute, and it’s got beautiful music. I don’t remember it being especially difficult—as far as JRPGs go, the game is about as easy and streamlined as Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest—but Super Mario RPG did challenge my sense of how a beloved franchise might remix and reimagine itself while still producing an essential entry. If I had a Super Nintendo today, the only Super Mario entries I’d insist on revisiting are Super Mario RPG and Super Mario World.
Mario Super Sluggers
Jackson Safon: Mario Super Sluggers has everything you could possibly want in a Mario spinoff. There’s a story mode, minigames, the incredibly underrated “Toy Field,” as well as the classic exhibition mode.
This Wii version takes the GameCube’s Mario Superstar Baseball and jacks it on steroids. Not only does it give you the option to turn the Wiimote sideways and play it just like you would on GameCube, but you can play how the Wii intended you to and wildly wave the remote as if you’re swinging a bat or pitching a ball. Admit it, you love the added risk factor of potentially putting a hole in your television.
Plus, there’s over 40 characters you can play with, giving the game one of the broadest rosters in any Mario spinoff. Pro tip: Toadsworth is easily the best pitcher in the game.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games
Paolo Uggetti: The best kinds of video games, the ones that pulled me away from live sports and into their reality when I was a kid, were those that replicated the real stakes and competition. Mario & Sonic didn’t just do that, it also provided the user with so many different options, both in characters and in using any of the contests of the Olympic games, from archery to swimming, 24 events in total.
The game, which I played on the original Wii, melded two worlds, Mario’s world and the Sega world, into one allowing for endless possibilities, performances, and advantages. Part of the fun was figuring out which characters were the best runners, which were the best javelin tossers, etc. Between the game’s Circuit mode, Single Match, and Mission mode—I preferred Circuit mode unless I was crushing one of my siblings in tennis—it was impossible to get bored. The sheer multiplicity of its gameplay options allowed you to get lost and just try things, which makes for the best kind of video game.
Riley McAtee: Most of these Mario spinoffs make sense. They ask what would happen if Mario were a race car driver, or a professional athlete, or a doctor, or some other profession worth building a video game around. But my favorite spinoff asks something totally nonsensical: What if Mario were his normal self … but everything is flat?
Nintendo has never been afraid to get weird (see: Virtual Boy, the), but few titles embrace weirdness the way the Paper Mario series does. Mario teams up with former enemies, using a turn-based battle system to take down an invincible Bowser and save Princess Peach, and everything is flat for no reason whatsoever. The paper theme is barely addressed until the sequel for GameCube, when Mario can become a paper airplane or boat. None of this makes much sense, which makes me love it all the more—you just have to learn to embrace the weirdness rather than question it.