He's played tennis, baseball, soccer and basketball. He's golfed, driven go-karts and refereed boxing matches. He's sprinted, hurdled, flipped, trampolined, rowed, swum, fenced, skiied, snowboarded, skated and curled. He's painted scenery, composed music, and danced like there's no tomorrow. He can throw one heck of a party, and he's been seen traveling through time and playing with dimensions. Heck, he's even written prescriptions, taught typing, and juggled (no, seriously -- Mario the Juggler, look it up).

In his three decades in the gaming industry, Mario's seemingly done it all except pull out a sword (a temptation it seems every other character's given in to), and it's easy to see that his reputation as gaming's biggest figure is cemented not only by his platforming exploits, but by his consistent dabbling in other genres. Who knew a chubby plumber in overalls could be so multi-talented?

A little criteria for this list: I'm only looking at games that undeniably either starred Mario, or focused on the Mario-spawned universe. So while his cameo in Punch-Out!! and his co-starring role in the Super Smash Bros. series are undeniably part of his lore, they won't be considered here. I'm also only going to feature one game per sub-series to allow for some variety -- while all the Mario Kart games likely belong here, I'll only feature one.

We open up with the game that's a little iffy about fitting into the list's overall topic: Paper Mario is classified as a "console-style RPG", but as we all know it mixes in plenty of platformer elements into that framework. Still, it's enough of a non-platformer (and popular enough as well) to be included here.

Released in 2000 in Japan, Paper Mario was a sort of reinvention of the Mario franchise. Nintendo understood two things about its cornerstone series: first, people love Mario games, but second, the same type of game over and over can get stale quickly. It was important for them to make a game that had the same general type of appeal of the rest of the Mario series, but was far more than a glorified level pack for the previous game.

Enter the genre-bending Paper Mario. The platformer framework is gently preserved in the game's world, with more a puzzle twist than the classic run-and-dodge notion. The major twist is the massive inclusion of numerous role-playing elements. Many of the normal RPG accouterments are here, such as turn-based battles, experience points, magic points ("Flower Points"), purchasable items and learnable skills.

The result is an interesting, but ultimately successful mash-up. With Paper Mario, Nintendo strikes a very happy medium between most games on this list (the completely unrelated spin-offs like Mario Kart and Mario Party) and classic Mario platformers. The result is an entire new Mario franchise that spawns multiple sequels, and successfully allows Nintendo to double up on its Mario library without oversaturating the market with a single type of game.

From there we move on to a game I include on this list only begrudgingly, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games and its little sister, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games. I say begrudgingly because I'm personally not a huge fan of either game, but they're important in the way they grow the franchise and represent a real-world connection -- oh, and the union of two historic gaming franchises.

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games debuted in 2008 to coincide with the Beijing Olympics. The games star the characters from the Mario and Sonic franchises competing in numerous events, like running, swimming, gymnastics, shooting, archery and skiing (in the Winter games). Licensed alongside the Beijing Olympic games, this represented likely the largest instance of a real-world event meeting a video game license in gaming history. None of the Madden games, no movie tie-in games, no American Idol spin-off game can even come closer to matching the size of the Olympics as a partner for a game.

But what's extremely interesting about these games is that perhaps the most memorable thing isn't even the Olympic tie-in. It's the fact that for the first time, Mario and Sonic, long-time rivals in sales and prestige as mascots for their respective companies, come together for the first time in one game. That alone was enough to make the games interesting for long-term video game fans -- Mario and Sonic in one game? What could be better?!

The Olympic tie-in and the union of Mario and Sonic is almost enough to gloss over the games' relative shallowness and simplicity (did the Wii really need another collection of mini-games?). And what's even more interesting is that it raises the possibility of more Mario and Sonic unions in the future -- perhaps a Mario and Sonic RPG? A Sonic character in Mario Kart? The possibilities are... well, not endless. But there's a lot of them.

As part of his rapid expansion into other genres, Mario went through a phase where he tried out just about every sport known to man. Some of those sports won't make it onto this list -- while his forays into basketball, soccer and baseball were pretty strong in their own rights, by that time we'd become well aware that Mario is the Deion Sanders of the gaming world.

But early on, the notion of Mario in the real sporting world was a bit bizarre -- I mean, go-karts sure, but real athletic sports? How could a plump little plumber compete against a giant spiked turtle in a game that's based on brute strength more than wits?

Over the course of two games, we became fully aware. Another game started this trend (the next on our list), but Mario Tennis brought it to its completion. Released in 2000 for the Nintendo 64, Mario Tennis pitted our various familiar characters against each other in the classic sport. The game is Nintendo's development prowess at its finest: no other developer has ever been able to capture simple video game enjoyment the way Nintendo has. With very simple controls, the game was extremely appealing to Nintendo's classic casual gamer demographic, but still involved enough skill to allow for personal improvement.

The game is also notable for several other developments. It included four-player multiplayer, a first for Mario sporting games (and only the third Mario game to do so, after the two Mario Party games). It also introduced the now-somewhat-maligned character of Waluigi to the gaming world, as well as reviving Daisy from her slumber since her previous game. Its Game Boy Color connectivity was still rather innovative at the time, and perhaps most importantly, it sold like absolute hotcakes, proving that Mario is a top seller no matter if he's beating Bowser with a fireball or a tennis racket.

The sporting abilities of Mario that were solidified by Mario Tennis first arose in the subtly titled NES Open Tournament Golf (yes, there were ten years separating the two releases, so this might be a bit of a stretch to connect them -- but go with me). Despite its Mario-less title, NES Open Tournament Golf was the first sports game to star the plumber (and his brother, Luigi). I should mention that the game was preceded by a couple other Golf games, but I'm referring to them all as a whole here under the most recognizable game name.

NES Open Tournament Golf stripped out the vast majority of the features we see in Mario sports games today (well, not stripped since it came first, but you know): there were only a couple characters, no unique power-ups, and no real flair: after all, this was the original Nintendo Entertainment System. But what the game did was very important: it was the first time Mario stepped out of the platformer genre and into the sports arena.

The success of the early games, as well as the continued success of Mario-themed sports games (or sports-themed Mario games?) has spawned multiple sequels as well: Mario Golf, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, and Mario Golf: Advanced Tour are all spiritual successors to this first time that Mario strapped on the cleats, grabbed a golf club from Peach (yes, Peach was his caddie) and hollered "FORE!" before pegging a Koopa in the head with a renegade golf ball. Ouch.

The release of the Nintendo 64 console presented a minor problem for the Mario franchise: the key strength of the Nintendo 64 was its multiplayer functionality, supporting four players simultaneously where its competitor only could handle two (with the basic console). However, aside from the Mario Kart series, Mario wasn't really equipped to make use of that. Platformers were an essentially single-player game (well, until New Super Mario Bros. Wii), so how can we put Mario in the hands of four players?

The answer was Mario Party, a party-style game based on the idea of a board game and mini-games. Before you groan, this was a time when the notion of a collection of mini-games was still somewhat new and interesting -- it's become oversaturated now, but it was interesting back then. The game typically puts two or more people against each other and some CPUs in a board game to collect stars and coins from a game board, playing minigames along the way to gain, lose or steal coins and stars.

The game series has reached interesting levels of complexity, often involving unclear boards and unpredictable events. The game is certainly not a game of pure skill either, as the reliance on random chance in many places means even the best players will lose to novices sometimes: but for a party game like Mario Party, this is exactly the objective, allowing novices and experts to play side by side without feeling mismatched.

The original game has spawned numerous sequels: 10 to be exact, taking us through eight different core games and three portable games. While the franchise has become a bit stagnant (and appears to have been put on temporary hiatus), its early contributions to Nintendo's domination of the multiplayer market are very important. Plus, the games are just dang fun.

Mario has done a lot for the gaming world: as I've said a hundred times, he basically single-handedly saved the industry back in the '80s, when the notion that gaming was a fad was actually starting to stick. He popularized the platformer genre, but he can't be expected to start every trend: that's where our next two entries come in.

Dance Dance Revolution got its start in 1998 as an arcade rhythm game, spitting arrows at the players and asking them to pound them with their feet to the rhythm of a beat. A year later, the game hit home consoles for the PlayStation system, and immediately exploded in popularity. It has become the most recognizable arcade game in the world, and inspired a near sports-like following, with individuals actually working extremely hard to master the toughest dances. It's even worked its way into mainstream society, becoming a workout mechanisms for home console owners and school physical education classes.

Needless to say, Mario had nothing to do with this game's explosion in popularity: but he's more than willing to jump on the bandwagon. Released for the GameCube in 2005, Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix features the plumber getting his groove on to remixes of some classic Mario music, like the original theme song and track music from the Mario Kart series.

The game never satisfied long-term fans of the Dance Dance Revolution series, but for Mario fans it was a great addition to his already varied library. It was also the first Nintendo Dance Dance Revolution game released in America, setting the stage for Nintendo to conquer the exercise-gaming market with the Wii console.

As we said in the description for Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix, Mario is pretty adept at spawning and popularizing new genres, but he's certainly not above jumping on bandwagons either. And when he does, he does it with style, as in the 1996 classic Super Mario RPG.

The platformer genre had dominated the video game market for several years, but the new Final Fantasy franchise and its similar competitors introduced a new genre: role-playing games. Over the next several years, role-playing games would come to dominate the home console market, and Mario certainly wasn't going to be left behind. But if Mario was going to be in an RPG, Nintendo wanted to make sure it was done right: so, they hired the team behind the Final Fantasy series to take care of the Mario RPG as well: Square.

Square did not disappoint. Super Mario RPG was rated very highly at its release time, but has gone down in history not only as good, but as one of the best games ever made. GameFAQs' own Best Game Ever contest ranked Super Mario RPG 26th of all time, beating out classics like the original Pokemon, the original Legend of Zelda, Half-Life, Doom and Tetris.

Perhaps even more importantly, Super Mario RPG spawned yet another series of Mario spin-offs, as now the Mario & Luigi series, the direct successor to Super Mario RPG, has three games of its own. The Paper Mario series is also quite the spiritual successor to this Square product, with another three games as a part of a separate series, allowing Mario to continue to pop up for years to come without becoming redundant.

The words "cult classic" don't really even begin to describe Mario Paint. It's easily the most non-traditional of any Mario game, and in the same ways it may be the most memorable and unique.

Let's start with the basics. The game comes with a mouse. A surprisingly high number of games used the SNES mouse in its heyday, but Mario Paint is by far the most recognizable. The objective of the game is... well, there isn't one. It's less of a game and more of a suite of little tools, like music composers and sketchpads. Players could color in drawings, create animations, and compose music.

Sound like any Mario game you've ever played? Probably not. The game did have some more game-y elements, like the Coffee Break mini-game, but its focus is certainly on this sandbox playground environment. At the time, it was incredibly different from anything else on the market, and while it never reached the popularity of other Mario games, it was always a favorite for some of the more hardcore SNES gamers.

But Mario Paint's high position on this list comes not from its original popularity, but the cult following it has received more recently as the explosion of user-generated content has made it easy to share your own creations. Searching YouTube for "Mario Paint" reveals some truly incredible homemade compositions, and even the original episode of the internet classic Homestar Runner is said to have been animated in Mario Paint. Not bad for a 15-year-old non-game.

So with all this hullabaloo about Mario's frequent excursions outside the platforming world, the question arises: how did this all start? Mario's first significant fist-first jump outside his platformer comfort zone came with the 1990 puzzle game Dr. Mario.

Inspired by the success of Tetris, Dr. Mario largely mimicked the overall game stype with a different objective: rather than trying to fill up entire lines across the bottom, the player is trying to align similarly-colored medical capsules alongside "viruses" in order to destroy them. Not quite as simple and classic as the original game, but it represented an important jump outside of his genre for Mario: for the first time, the Mario mascot was selling something besides running, jumping and fireballing Goombas. No, Mario was back, and this time, he was writing prescriptions.

Since its release, Dr. Mario has garnered huge popularity, second only to Tetris among games of its type. And although the fact that it's Dr. Mario is relatively insignificant to the puzzle game itself, serving only for context, it's critical in that it shows Nintendo's first willingness to use their key mascot to sell games aside from his traditional platformers. It's this that made Mario the icon of the gaming industry: while his rivals over the years like Sonic and Crash Bandicoot have been largely his rivals on the platformer front, none have ever touched Mario's selling power outside the platformer genre.

Dr. Mario as a game certainly isn't dead either. It's been revived numerous times, including a Tetris & Dr. Mario compilation in 1994, a Nintendo 64 sequel Dr. Mario 64 in 2001, and a re-release in 2004 for the Game Boy Advance. Most recently, it can be seen without its recognizable figurehead as the "Virus Buster" minigame inside Brain Age 2 -- but Mario's not in it there, so who cares?

But despite all the variety, all the flexibility, all the genre-bending, all the spin-off series, there is one non-platformer Mario franchise that stands head and shoulders above the rest: Mario Kart. Here, Mario and all his friends pile into little go-karts and race each other around custom tracks, battling for the fastest time and using items to hinder each other's progress.

When Super Mario Kart was first released in 1992 for the SNES, it was an instant classic. It was one of the highest-rated games of its time, combining simple controls with surprisingly deep gameplay to give gamers the racing sim they were looking for. The game alone holds the distinction of being generally the highest-rated sports and racing game on any list of the greatest games ever; on GameFAQs' Best Games Ever contest, for example, it ranked at #61: not a terribly high ranking, but impressive for being the first sports or racing game to appear.

But what puts Super Mario Kart on top of this list is its legacy, on two fronts. On a general front, the game spawned the "kart-racing" subgenre, a genre of racing games that focuses on simple and appealing gameplay for more casual players, rather than the ultra-realistic efforts of other racing games. In fact, kart-racing games are now incredibly common as spin-offs of other series: among the franchises to see a kart-racing spin-off are Sonic, South Park, Diddy Kong, Mega Man, Disney, Bomberman, Digimon, Lego, Looney Tunes, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Star Wars, Pac-Man and Nickelodeon.

But more importantly, Super Mario Kart spawned the Mario Kart subseries of games, and that alone has proved to be one of Nintendo's greatest sellers over the years, rivaling the Mario platformer games themselves. To date the series has seen six major installments -- one each for Nintendo's six consoles -- as well as two arcade games. Perhaps the two most notable are Mario Kart 64, which sold 9 million copies, and Mario Kart DS, largely considered to be the best-implemented game of the series.

When Mario rose to popularity in the 1980s, Nintendo had to know that they had an absolute gem of a mascot and an opportunity on their hands. The question was, how do you make momentary success into long-term success?

I don't know whether Nintendo considered this as their overall strategy at the time when these developments took place, but it's clear what the end-result was. Mario was a hot commodity in the late '80s and early '90s, but as any fad creator can tell you, the quickest way to kill a fad is to oversaturate the market with it. But, at the same time, Nintendo had to keep making games to remain profitable and keep controlling the market, and while franchises like Legend of Zelda and Metroid certainly helped, nothing ever sold like Mario. So, how do you release lots of Mario games without oversaturating the market?

The answer was clear: diversify. Don't oversaturate the market with Mario platformers, but put his name on other games instead, to lend his credibility to a new type of appeal. Then, if the new games are successful, don't just smile and cash the check: let those new games become entire new series of their own. In this way, it becomes entirely possible to release two or three Mario games every year, while still keeping his appeal because the games remain so different.

As a result, look at all the different sub-series within the Mario universe. There's the platformer series of course; there's the RPG series; there's Paper Mario, just distinct enough to be separated from the RPG games; there's Mario Party; there's Mario Kart; there's Mario Golf; there's Mario Tennis; there's Dr. Mario; and now in their infancy are Mario Strikers, Mario Baseball, Mario Hoops, and Mario & Sonic. That's twelve different series, and no one would give it a second thought if Nintendo released just one game in each series for each of their consoles, both now and in the future. Consider a console's life span to be about 6 years, and that's a game every six months automatically: before we even touch Super Smash Bros. or the possibility of multiple platformers within a single console. That's incredible diversity, and it's what has helped keep Mario relevant for generations.


List by DDJ
(04/13/2010)

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