Just say the name out loud. “Mario”. Is any other name on the planet as immediately recognizable as a beloved game character? While fantastic games in their own right, chances are when you say “Joel” or “Soap” your first thoughts don’t immediately go to Last of Us or Call of Duty. But Mario is one of those characters that’s so intrinsically tied to his own gameplay, that you can’t help but associate it. The Mario Bros. franchise is quite possibly the biggest in the world, selling over 500 million copies, with the platformer main series taking up a hearty 300 million of that on its own.
With literally hundreds of games released worldwide over the course of decades, you’re surely aware that there have been countless games influenced by the creation of Super Mario Bros. No one is ever not craving to play a Mario game either; it’s whimsy and wonder in their most basic and distilled form. The simple mechanics of just running and jumping, combined with creative environments and settings, means just about anyone can jump right in and enjoy their own escapist fantasy.
But you’ve also probably played them all countless times. With the upcoming release of Super Mario Odyssey for the Switch, you may be looking to play something else to satiate your hype for a while. However, there are so many different platformers out there that it might be intimidating to pick a few out. So, we thought we might help you make your choice by suggesting a few of the better Mario-style games!
1. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
- System/Platform: Sega Genesis, Sega Saturn, Mega Drive, GameCube, Wii, DS, 3DS, Xbox, Xbox 360, Playstation 2, Playstation 3, Playstation Portable, Mobile, iOS/Android, PC
- Publisher: Sega
- Developers: Sonic Team, Sega Technical Institute
- Release Date: November 24, 1992 (US)
We naturally couldn’t have a list about games similar to Mario Bros. without also including Mario’s greatest rival! If you’ve somehow avoided the Sonic franchise all these years, you might find this more freeform approach to level design refreshing. See, Mario games are a bit more like extended obstacle courses where a lot of the fun comes from how each hazard is designed, and figuring out the best way to approach the situation. The famed Sonic speed, however, really comes from how a level flows so that you never have to stop moving, similar to what it’s like when you’re driving and you change your route to avoid traffic. Even if it’s technically slower, it feels better because you’re at least always moving.
While any classic Sonic is going to be a fine pick, we specifically chose Sonic the Hedgehog 2 because this was the game where the franchise came into its own. It’s the first time we start seeing new characters enter the fold back when it was welcome rather than dreaded, with the addition of Miles “Tails” Prower for co-op play. Also, while the original game set the formula for Sonic, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is really the game that opened up the aforementioned level philosophy with big, sprawling levels that seemingly never ended. If you got a friend who’s also not great at games, toss them a controller and spend a lazy afternoon playing.
- System/Platform: Xbox One, PC, Playstation 4
- Publisher: Playdead
- Developer: Playdead
- Release Date: June 29, 2016
For a completely different approach to the platformer genre, here’s maybe the most depressing one around. You play as a small child on the run from an unknown force, avoiding dangerous traps and generally just trying to survive. It’s not a pleasant game to watch at times, with horribly brutal deaths awaiting any failure. And you’re going to fail. It’s often how you figure out what you need to do.
At its heart, Inside is a puzzle game with platforming as its means to progress. Often, you’re messing around with what the environment gives you and figuring out how you can use it to travel just another few yards into its world. Platforms aren’t the obstacle, but the reward. But every step further in, just brings you new horrors to overcome. It’s not an easy game to deal with, but Inside shows how the genre can still be twisted in new and interesting ways.
- System/Platform: Playstation 3
- Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Developer: Media Molecule
- Release Date: October 27, 2008
LittleBigPlanet often gets a bad rap for being a bit too blatant of a Mario clone. This isn’t entirely fair. After all, while Mario made the transition to 2.5D graphics (3D graphics, 2D gameplay), it’s never made use of its third dimension quite like LittleBigPlanet. Even now, very few platformers allow you to hop between both the foreground and the background like Little Big Planet does. It adds an extra layer to the depth of the gameplay beyond just running and jumping.
But while LittleBigPlanet owes a lot to Mario, Mario in return actually has a lot it owes to Little Big Planet. After all, Little Big Planet was one of the first of its kind to offer an in-depth level creator, which Nintendo would later base an entire game around in Super Mario Maker. Heck, LittleBigPlanet even took advantage of online sharing, which was pretty uncommon for console games back in 2008. Platformers owe a lot to LittleBigPlanet, and for that we thank it for starting the trend.
4. Super Meat Boy
- System/Platform: Xbox 360, PS, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Wii U, Android
- Publisher: Team Meat
- Developer: Team Meat
- Release Date: October 20, 2010
If the phrase “warp zone” doesn’t elicit immediate, boisterous glee, then you’ve clearly never played Super Meat Boy! It’s less of a franchise-building title and more of an unapologetic celebration of everything we love about platformers. Every unlockable stage is a reference to the history of the genre, whether it’s stumbling upon a warp zone, the game pretending it’s glitching out and opening up an intentionally buggy level, or creating alternate hard-mode versions of its already existing levels. Between that and finding all the collectibles, you’re going to be spending a lot of time plumbing the depths of the game.
Admittedly though, a lot of that time is going to be spent just trying to beat the game. Make no mistake: Super Meat Boy is one of the toughest platformers around. The game almost mocks you with the insane amount of dangers it throws your way. You’re going to be dodging missiles, avoiding spinning blades, and dashing across crumbling platforms, often all at the same time, and just in the first world! But every failure still feels like a learning experience. You (almost) always get just a little better with every attempt. There are few games that feel this tough and unfair yet keep you going.
5. Rayman Legends
- System/Platform: PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Developers: Ubisoft Montpellier, Ubisoft Casacblanca
- Release Date: September 3, 2013 (US)
Anyone who got into New Super Mario Bros’ wildly chaotic co-op play will feel right at home with Rayman Legends. It’s all about silly fun, watching your friends inflate like balloons when they get hit by enemies, or slapping each other around just for the fun of it. The art reflects this, with hyper-exaggerated animation and goofy set pieces. It’s a game that absolutely refuses to take itself seriously, recalling a time when games were just meant to be about fun.
But, at its core, there’s actually a really meticulously designed platformer within. You’re graded on your score on the end of the level, and getting high scores of Lums (the collectible in Rayman Legends) adds to your overall score for the game. As you get more Lums, you get more chances to unlock new levels. Often times, playing levels, if you collect Lums in a sequential order, you’ll actually double your intake. You’ll have to arc and time your jumps perfectly to boost your overall score. This allows for casual fans to just play for the goofiness and to run through the game, while hardcore platformer nuts still get their precision platforming.
6. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
- System/Platform: Wii U
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developers: Retro Studios, Monster Games
- Release Date: February 21, 2014
Finally, here’s another platformer that comes straight from Nintendo themselves! It took years for Nintendo to finally revive the Donkey Kong Country franchise, but thankfully they managed it on the Wii, because otherwise, we wouldn’t have seen it come back again on the Wii U. Much like its predecessors, this is a game that’s loaded with secrets, each stage harboring all sorts of well-hidden collectibles. It even makes use of its own perspective to hide items behind scenery.
“Lush” isn’t a term that’s used to describe 2D platformers, but that’s exactly how Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze feels. While the added hardware power of the Wii U certainly helps a lot, it mostly comes from the art direction and musical direction. So many creative visuals, like the African tribal parade in Grassland Grove, are just brought to life by soaring chants. If platformers were viewed like movies, then Tropical Freeze would be the blockbuster summer adventure.
But, more than anything else, it’s a game that really involves you in its presentation. Don’t be taken aback by just the visual style: you’ll have to pay close attention to the art to understand what you actually have to do. Make note of where scratch marks start and end in the wall to see the path of a shifting platform so you don’t miss-time your jumps. Pay attention to the sections that look like they could be open if you were looking from Donkey Kong’s perspective. It doesn’t simply have visual panache; the art actually serves the gameplay.
We have not even begun to scratch the surface here people. There’s no exaggeration when we say that Mario is perhaps the most influential game of all time, repeatedly revolutionizing what can be done both with platformers and the medium of videogames as a whole. This list is a mere drop in the vast ocean of platforming greatness that exists out there. Help us out by telling us your own favorites in the comments below!