The Many Worlds of 2D Mario

One of the most common complaints of the Super Mario Bros. series nowadays is that the level variety has grown very stale. It is an understandable complaint and you can see its effects in a variety of games, such as Mario & Luigi Paper Jam which plays its location fairly safe when compared with previous games. A lot of people blame this on the New Super Mario Bros. series in particular which has seen four games where the setting doesn’t appear to be taking any risks with its aesthetics. Is this really true though? We know a lot of fans like to jump on the bandwagon and not take the time to consider the facts. So, I decided to do the research by looking at every level in the 2D Mario games in order to figure out how lacking in variety the series has truly become.

Before I submit my findings I need to go over how I researched this and which games I looked at. There are a lot of Mario games out there but for this, I wanted to stick to platformers and specifically the 2D ones. It’s not that the 3D games have so much variety but rather the amount of levels in the 3D games is often significantly less than the 2D ones. As well, most complaints are often lobbied specifically at the 2D games. I am also omitting the Super Mario Land games from these results. While they are 2D games they were not made by the same team as the main console games, being lead by Miyamoto, but instead by Gunpei Yokoi’s team. Super Mario Bros 2 (USA) was made by the main Mario team however and was originally conceived as a Mario game so that is being included here. New Super Luigi U is also included as its own unique thing. Originally I wasn’t going to but it turned out a few stages do change up the theme so I felt I needed to.

So, what this left me with were 677 levels to look over. I did this by watching let’s plays and checking wiki articles. Most stages are fairly straight forward but some have multiple themes in one. In situations like this, I often gave it to whichever stage was the more predominate theme. If you start and finish a level outside but the majority was spent underground I feel like it should be an underground stage.

Now, let’s check out these results. There were 11 games covered, 677 levels in total and 27 different level themes to cover. Here are the results:

Lost Levels
Total Levels of this kind
Appears on X amount of Games
Plains 7 15 16 5 5 5 3 5 4 3 3 71 11 10.49%
Underground 2 3 3 4 5 6 3 6 6 3 3 44 11 6.50%
Castle/Tower 8 12 18 7 17 16 16 17 19 5 2 137 11 20.24%
Ice / Snow 5 3 4 1 4 5 6 8 8 2 46 10 6.79%
Sky 1 8 1 5 9 8 7 7 3 1 50 10 7.39%
Underwater 2 3 6 3 6 3 6 4 4 37 9 5.47%
Treetop / Mushroom 5 8 2 2 7 2 6 1 1 34 9 5.02%
Desert 9 4 5 5 3 3 3 4 36 8 5.32%
Seaside 4 2 4 5 3 3 3 24 7 3.55%
Ghost House 4 4 3 7 4 5 3 30 7 4.43%
Airship 11 4 1 2 2 3 23 6 3.40%
Pipe 3 2 1 1 1 1 9 6 1.33%
Forest / Jungle 6 5 3 3 4 3 24 6 3.55%
Mountain 1 5 2 2 6 5 21 6 3.10%
Lava 1 2 7 5 3 4 22 6 3.25%
Ruins 1 3 1 1 6 4 0.89%
Special Zone 4 5 7 4 20 4 2.95%
Bridge 2 2 1 1 6 4 0.89%
Dark 0 2 2 4 2 0.59%
Rainbow 8 1 9 2 1.33%
Beanstalk 1 1 2 2 0.30%
Haunted Forest 4 4 8 2 1.18%
Sunset 2 2 4 2 0.59%
Boss / Enemy 2 4 6 2 0.89%
Courtyard 1 1 2 2 0.30%
Brick 1 1 1 0.15%
Waterfall 1 1 1 0.15%
Total Stages on the game 32 48 86 42 83 84 93 82 83 24 20 677 100.00%
Kinds of Stages on the game 8 9 12 15 17 17 20 19 19 8 8

Spoiler tagged below are some pie charts for individual games, showing the % of level themes used in each individual game.

Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels
Super Mario Bros. 2
Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario World
New Super Mario Bros.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii
New Super Mario Bros. 2
New Super Mario Bros. U
New Super Luigi U
Super Mario Run

So what can we gather from this? Well, let’s start by looking at the games specifically. There have only ever been three instances where the variety has dropped in some way. The American Super Mario Bros. 2 has 1 less level theme than Super Mario Bros. the Lost Levels.  New Super Mario Bros. U has 1 less level theme than New Super Bros. 2 and Super Mario Run has 11 fewer level types than New Super Luigi U. Most of these drops can actually be explained, however, as Super Mario Run is a mobile game and much smaller than the big console titles, and Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) began development before Lost Levels but was put on hold. The only real drop in variety comes from the Wii U title but it is only a drop of one and hardly anything major. New Super Mario Bros. U ( & Luigi) are still the second most varied games in the series.

The most varied game in terms of themes (20) is actually New Super Mario Bros. 2. This surprised me as I know many see it as the complete opposite and the most pointless title. The games with the least amount of variety (8) are, unsurprisingly, the first Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Run and Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA). This should be expected so let’s move onto the individual level themes themselves.

There are twelve themes that most people complain are overdone in 2D Mario. These are the plains, underground, underwater, castle, deserts, beaches, snow, sky, mountain, forests, ghost houses & lava based levels. This makes up just over half of the themes present in 2D Mario so do these themes really appear more than others or is their place justified. Mostly this is the case. There are only two level themes that appear above these twelve and those two are the Treetop/Mushroom levels and the Airship levels. Both of those could be seen as quite common nowadays as well but they are thought about less, for reasons I will get to in a second.

Of the twelve themes mentioned above, you would think the generic plains would be the most recurring. It is always the first level of every Mario game and gets used a lot in spin-offs. You would be wrong however. The Castle theme is the most used one, mainly because every world has at least one castle, but most of the time two. Plains comes in at second and then surprisingly the sky theme at third. Possibly because worlds based in the sky make for exciting platforming levels. The least used of these twelve themes is the mountain one.

So yes, a lot of the levels people complain about are the most overused so can definitely see the connection there but this still doesn’t explain something. People have been complaining that the level variety has been getting worse and worse in each game but this isn’t true. Yes, it dropped by one after New Super Mario Bros. 2 but the later games have had more variety than any of the classics. So why? I have two thoughts behind this.

First off, the amount of levels in each game has obviously increased which means the amount of levels based on ghost house or castles has increased, even if the % is the same. This would make sense, you’re being exposed to more of the same level types after all, but this isn’t true of every level theme. The generic plains have actually been used less as time goes on with New Super Mario Bros. 2 only having three themes based on plains whereas Super Mario Bros. 3 has 16. This thought alone doesn’t hold enough evidence but my second idea does.

While the level themes are the most important part of what makes the game unique it is not necessarily what people first see. Those would be the world themes which began in Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA). World Maps began in Super Mario Bros. 3 and has continued on to the present day. There are usually eight worlds in each game with a variety of levels in each world. When looking at these themes in each game we begin to see a pattern. The plains and desert have been world themes in every single game they have appeared in since Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA). This gets worse in the New Super Mario Bros. series where every single game has used the same eight themes over and over again. The big exception to this is, once again, New Super Mario Bros. 2 which has three worlds based on the special zone.

In conclusion, Nintendo has been increasing in level variety with each game but, the world variety is severely lacking. This is making the series appear stale, and it does not help that spin-off series like Mario & Luigi tend to look only at the worlds. This is what is generating the ‘New Super Mario effect’ in his most recent games. So, a message to Nintendo. When you make your next 2D Mario game you can still use all your recurring themes for the levels but please make the world map more interesting. What I’m saying are fewer deserts and more ruins, fewer forests and more swamps, and so on. With that said I hope I have informed all of you and if there are any other series you would like to see me tackle the level themes off let me know in the comments below or on twitter. Until next time guys, always check your sources.

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Video Content Lead at Source Gaming
If video game historian was a career that would be my goal in life. I have spent a lot of my life studying various histories and so I am super familiar with sourcing, which is pretty essential for this site and just a good thing to do in general so you do not spread lies. I have a huge fascination with the old days and ips with Nintendo. There is so much potential for old franchises like Balloon Fight, Marvelous, Nazo no Murusame Jo and more to come back in the modern age. At least Smash celebrates those games! My focus for source gaming are the Dream articles and working on Project Omega. I hope you enjoy reading my work.
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  1. This is also only part of the picture. Since recent times, we’ve seen the same themes crop up more in spinoffs as well.

    For example, Mario & Luigi Paper Jam has New Super Mario Bros like areas, with plains, desert, a tropical island, a snowy mountain, a haunted forest and a castle being the main ones. Paper Mario Sticker Star has less interesting level/world themes than before (Color Splash drastically improved on this). Mario Party has gotten less varied, with the last two console games both having traditional level/world themes for boards. Etc.

    I suspect an interesting follow up article would look at these spinoff franchises and confirm if variety has gone up or down there.

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever seen complaints about lack of level variety in any one game on its own, its always been an issue of the same themes being used over and over again across multiple games with little variation. Lack of variety across the entire series has always been the main reason the NSMB games get flak for this while earlier games didn’t. Note that no one really complained about the level themes in the first NSMB game prior to the release of later NSMB entries.

    Another reason NSMB games get hit harder with this criticism may be because of the lack of any other differences between games to distract players from the sameness of the levels. Despite having a lot of shared level and world themes, the earlier games largely avoid this criticize because the games themselves look and feel different enough that people aren’t going to get hung up on one thing they have in common.

    Playing through an underground level in SMB3 feels different then playing through an underground level in SMW, because even if the level is thematically the same each game’s unique aesthetics and mechanics make the experience distinct. On the other hand, playing through an underground level in NSMBU with the same exact aesthetics, music, and mechanics of an underground level from NSMBW, I’m just left with the feeling like I’ve done this all before. Stagnant level themes are only part of the reason why the NSMB series feels so stale.

    The last big issue that comes to mind is lack of variety even within a single level theme. Look at how well received Super Mario Odyssey’s levels have already been, despite having a desert and forest level in the mix. The Mexican theme and out of place ice in Odyssey’s desert level and the rusted, metallic, man-made structures that populate the forest level set these two apart from any other desert or forest in the series. All too often the description of a desert level in Mario can start and end with “it a desert”. The issue isn’t entirely that there are too many deserts in recent Mario games, its also that all these deserts in recent Mario games are exactly the same.

    When people say the NSMB games lack level variety I never got the impression that they were saying there weren’t enough types of levels in any single NSMB game. Its just a much simpler way of stating something more along the lines of “I dislike how the NSMB games all reused the exact same level themes while already being so mechanically and visually similar, as well as how little variation there tends to be between levels of the same theme to set them apart from one another.”

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