With the release of Super Mario Odyssey being only a couple of weeks away, I have decided to rank the soundtracks of the Super Mario games, from the original in 1985 all the way to the recent New Super Mario Bros 3D World.
I knew it would be difficult to write, but there were some surprising hair pullers that I had a lot of trouble placing. To put it shortly: almost all the soundtracks are crackers and it ain’t Christmas. Anyway, there is a lot of Super Mazza content to get through so let’s get cracking.
13. New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009)
Coming in dead last is New Super Mario Bros Wii. While it is an unfortunate honour, it should be noted that this is far from a bad OST. The problem is that one game had to land in this unfortunate position and New Super Mario Bros. Wii has that honour.
While listening to this OST, the tracks often felt like pastiches of past titles that were knocked out by fans. The beats, while hummable for the few minutes after a level, will soon be forgotten. Uninspired beats that would be perfect for an elevator.
I did find the bah bah noise that is played regularly throughout the album to be bloody irritating. I am not sure why this perverse decision was chosen – sure, it evokes Mario, but you also wouldn’t want ‘Itsa me, Mario’ injected every couple of seconds.
There are a couple of tracks that were quite good, though. My favourite is Enemy Course, a remix of the Super Mario Bros 3 Battle Mode track, that ramped up the tempo and added darker undertones to indicate that this was an enemy level.
Stand out tracks: Jungle, Koopa Kid Castle, Enemy Course
12. New Super Mario Bros. U (2012)
Similarly to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, this game makes use of unusual syncopated rhythms and an array of strange instruments such as cow bells to craft a unique sound, but these tracks rarely reach the standard that I have come to expect from a Mario title.
I loved that there were numerous pieces that mixed up beats of previous tracks, changing instruments and tempo such as the transition between Acorn Plains, Layer-Cake Desert, Sparkling Waters, and Frosted Glacier.
Each one only lasts about two minutes with the tempo and style quickly changing. One moment, there would be cow bells, the next could heavily use xylophones, or various string instruments. It is a bizarre arrangement that fits the whacky, hectic level design of New Super Mario Bros. U to a tee.
Most importantly with this OST, only occasionally did it feature that annoying bah bah sound that diminished the experience of the previous New Super Mario Bros game. Similarly, unlike its predecessor, I felt that this soundtrack was telling a story through its tunes, developing and changing to match the action that is occurring on screen.
Stand out tracks: Staff Credits, Swimming, Superstar Road
11. Super Mario Maker (2015)
Super Mario Maker is one of the more unusual inclusions as it neither plays like a typical Mario game, nor does it largely feature an original soundtrack.
What Super Mario Maker does incredibly well, besides offering the player the chance to hear the original versions of classic Mazza music, is remix some of the more famous past tracks. For example, the glorious rearrangement of the underwater theme from Super Mario Bros. Similarly, on other occasions tracks have been slowed down or distorted. It’s great fun to listen to and creates a contrast between music from old levels, newer ones, and the editing screens.
Some of the stronger tracks include Super Mario Bros – Castle Editor that shows how effective the original boss level could have been if it was possible to use real instruments back in the 1980s. I loved that the track creates an even creepier vibe by creating something that sounds like a xylophone being played with bones.
Stand out tracks: Course World Menu, 100 Mario Challenge Map (Easy + Normal)
10. Super Mario Bros 2 (1988)
Unsurprisingly, the one game on this list that isn’t really a true Super Mario game -having been created under the name Doki Doki Panic and then quickly repackaged as gamers clamoured for a sequel to the ground-breaking original- ranks quite lowly on this list.
Granted, it’s not bad, but it lacks any Mario magic to propel it to being anything more than average at best.
The one track that I did quite like was Overworld, as it has a memorable melody, but it still wouldn’t rank in my top ten, twenty or even fifty tracks to have featured in a Mario title.
Stand out tracks: Overworld
9. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)
On face value, it would be easy to argue that Super Mario Galaxy 2 has a better soundtrack than its predecessor, but the problem is that many of the musical pieces are reused or remixed SMG 1 tracks. For this reason, I felt it would be unfair to rank it higher.
It’s a shame as the orchestration used in the first title was phenomenal stuff, and when SMG 2 did feature original tracks they were always fantastic. One of my favourites is Sweet Mystery Galaxy. It’s a slow, emotional piece that progressively becomes more emphatic, yet simultaneously evoking loneliness.
I loved that many of the musical pieces had been created in multiple segments so that they could be slowed down or sped up to better match the action occurring on screen. This is a massive undertaking as not only would each track needed to be recorded multiple times, but the musicians would also need to create pieces that lend themselves well to various tempos.
Everything from collecting certain coins or stars, riding Yoshi or moving upside down brings in new musical elements that compliments and often enhances the aural experience.
Stand out tracks: Staff Credits, Slimy Spring Galaxy, Sky Station Galaxy (2), Yoshi Star Galaxy
8. Super Mario 64 (1996)
The new powerful 64-bit era ushered in a more aurally diverse range of possibilities. Unfortunately, it paled in comparison to the PS1’s large CD ROMs and Nintendo 64 games often had a murkier, less articulated sound.
That’s why when flagship titles such as Super Mario 64 were released, they had to become doubly impressive to sell the system to an audience who were quickly falling in love with the PS1.
To achieve this, Super Mario 64 made full use of an array of instruments. The opening track, for instance, remixes the original Super Mario theme with steel drums and a drum machine. It wasn’t only detailed and crisp, but also ushered players into the game by showing them how much the series has evolved since its 2D days.
Similarly, later tracks such as Dire, Dire Docks were just as – if not more – impressive. The piece used a simple piano melody, but cleverly overlapped slightly with another piano melody, a drum beat and some string instruments to create the vibe that it is being played underwater. It is a complex arrangement, yet retains the simplicity of the water world level design.
Stand out tracks: Dire, Dire Docks, Piranha Plant’s Lullaby – Piano, Cave Dungeon
7. Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988)
The sequel to Super Mario Bros featured a bouncier and more fleshed out soundtrack than its predecessor. Unfortunately, like the other NES game on this list, the limited cartridge space meant melodies had to be simple and short, even if Nintendo squeezed more out of the hardware in SMB 3.
Yet, even though Kondo had to work with these limitations, tracks rarely became boring. In part, this was due to the sheer volume of pieces that were somehow packed into the tiny cartridge. I loved that each world and overworld sounded different from one another; whether it is the slow, ethereal sound of the ice levels or the chirpier calypso beat of Overworld 1.
The special sound chip that was utilized in this game (Famicom Audio Expansion) gave SMB 3 a more realistic drum sound, rather than the muffled notes of the original.
Each track had an infectious beat, but lacked that special quality to elevate them to the emotional heights of Yoshi’s Island, the grandeur of Super Mario Galaxy or to simply be as memorable as Super Mario 1 – aside from one or two exceptions.
What it did do well was encapsulate the atmosphere of each world, while providing tunes that carried Mario through levels – sometimes changing the emotion in the player in order to raise tension or relax them, depending on the need of the stage.
The Overworld 2 theme manages to capture the hectic speed of the auto-scrolling stages but will awkwardly use an off-key note, raising anxiety during tense stages. Similarly, the melodies used during the water levels are slower, but change pitch with each note, matching the action of Mario moving up and down through water.
Stand out tracks: World Map 1, Overworld 2, World Map 8
6. Super Mario World (1990)
Following the two ground-breaking Mario titles, SMW had a lot to prove. The first showed how games could effectively use music; the second added more depth and fleshed out the world through audio.
While SMW was never as memorable as any of the games below, the music was consistently great. I am particularly fond of Forest of Illusion as it manages to capture the mysterious environments in only a few notes yet be catchy enough to become my favourite track.
Amazingly, it wasn’t until YouTube user pointed it out that I noticed the similarity between many of the tracks. For example, the note progression in Overworld, Underground, and Bonus Level is eerily similar, but different enough that a player wouldn’t ever notice.
The decision to reuse audio was probably due to memory limitations of the SNES cartridge, and clever workarounds had to be found. It is indicative of the crackerjack team at Nintendo that they could not only mask their reuse of audio so regularly, but managed to make so many catchy tracks using the same beat progression.
Stand out tracks: Forest Of Illusion, Vanilla Dome, Underground
5. Super Mario 3D World (2013)
Honestly, when I first played Super Mario 3D World, I wasn’t expecting much. The two new Super Mario OSTs released prior to this game were OK, but never had the same sense of adventure or fun that other Mario titles had.
This isn’t the case with Super Mario 3D World, as you may have guessed by its very high ranking.
I loved that there was an eclectic mix of sounds in the arrangement. One moment there would be a marching band and a full orchestra, the next would have a traditional Indian vibe, then there were pieces that gave a fresh twist to Ninty classics. It is a broad mix of sounds that somehow worked cohesively, never becoming bombastic.
Everything from Legend of Zelda to Donkey Kong are paid homage to in this game, sometimes even with the help of a big band. It’s beautifully weird and I regularly had a smile on my face as the memories came flooding back to me with some of the unexpected remixes.
Stand out tracks: Shifty Boo Mansion, World 3, Piranha Creeper Creek
4. Super Mario Sunshine (2002)
The perennially underappreciated Mario title has a soundtrack that is equally deserving of more praise. Consistently outstanding from start to finish; from the moment the player is greeted by the title screen, they are hit with the warm, tropical sounds of Delphino. Nintendo utilized an array of interesting instruments to create the exotic vibe, such as marimbas and steel drums, that truly sets Sunshine apart from other games in the series.
I loved that the soundtrack never once lost its sense of fun. One moment you will hear a track that heavily uses maracas, then the next will be an unorthodox arrangement with steel drums. A smorgasbord of unusual instruments are used in the soundtrack, yet it never once became inconsistent with the tropical environment.
There are several stand out tracks, including the title music produced by the legendary Koji Kondo. The Delphino Plaza piece, for example, uses bongos, accordions and a few other instruments to encapsulate the beach, holiday world of Sunshine. It is effective, warm, inviting, but, more importantly, it is catchy as hell and it never once became tiring, even after a hundred listens.
Stand out tracks: Delphino Plaza, Secret Course, Noki Bay (Yoshi), Deep Sea of Mare
3=. Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels (1986)
Not that much to say with this one. It was more of a Super Mario Bros 1.5, quickly pushed out by Nintendo to capitalise on the popularity of the original.
Most of the tracks are the same as its predecessor so, unsurprisingly, it’s pretty damn good. The only original track is the one used during the ending sequence and, honestly, it’s alright but nothing special.
For these reasons, I am giving this game the same ranking as the original.
Stand out track: The one original track, I guess.
3=. Super Mario Bros (1985)
Undoubtedly the most memorable and influential soundtrack on this list: ask anyone who grew up in the eighties and they will more than likely be able to hum the overworld theme.
Koji’s second project for Nintendo and his first Mario turned out to be a Stone Cold Stunner. It opens with possibly the most memorable of any videogame musical piece, a simple du du du melody. It didn’t matter that the same set of sounds repeated over and over for a track’s three-to-four-minute duration or that these musical pieces were reused multiple times throughout the game. It never became boring or grating.
Not only that, but in a few simple notes, Kondo managed to capture the whimsy and essence of water levels, the freedom of ground stages, or the scariness of the boss battles. Such is the talent that he possessed.
The only negative that can be levied at this game is that, due to limited technology, there was only a small number of tracks and each one consisted of only a couple of sounds; but, then again, maybe that simplicity was its greatest attribute. Stand out tracks: All of it. Bloody brilliant.
2. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995)
Prior to 1995, all of the Mario games had featured happy, bouncy tunes that played as you battle your way through various worlds. It is only when Yoshi’s Island arrived that I felt games had the potential to carry emotional gravitas.
Yoshi’s Island opens with a slow track that uses a xylophone to initially evoke warm childhood memories, but nefarious undertones permeates into the track as the tempo changes up. The track then seamlessly switches back to warmer tones and the game begins.
So evocative is this track that I can never listen to it without feeling sad – quite an achievement considering I’ve replayed the game possibly 30-40 times.
The soundtrack played with dark and light tracks; sometimes enabling foreshadowing, other times to keep the player on their feet, but mostly it was to allow the darker themes of the story to seep into the gameplay.
One of the games many exceptional tracks includes the final boss fight music, Koopa. The beat starts off slow and builds over a couple of minutes, eventually leading up to a satisfying crescendo as the action on screen reaches a conclusion.
Stand out tracks: Koopa, Ending, Mid-Boss, Above Ground
1. Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
Before I started writing this list, I knew Super Mario Galaxy was going to be one of my top picks, but I felt it would have been pipped by a few other soundtracks such as Super Mario Sunshine and Yoshi’s Island.
Well, I was completely wrong.
Maybe it was easy to overlook just how magnificent this OST was due to the outstanding gameplay and vividly detailed world that swept me off my feet ten years ago, but Super Mario Galaxy is nothing short of incredible.
I was blown away by the music within the first minute of loading up the soundtrack. Unlike previous games, Nintendo decided to use a full orchestra and it pays off.
The soundtrack mixes digital with classical instruments. Wood, wind and computerized sound effects all mix together in a delightfully quirky concoction that captures the sense of adventure of Mario taking off into space.
One moment the soundtrack reaches a dramatic crescendo, the next is a soft xylophone track, then after that we’re back to something fully orchestrated. Oh, and top that off with a quick nostalgic trip with a remix of the world 8 theme from Super Mario Bros 3. Each of the games’ musical pieces are equally excellent and consistent with the world Nintendo were trying to create.
Stand out tracks: Star Festival, Gusty Garden Galaxy, Space Junk Galaxy
Special mention: Luigi’s Mansion (2001)
I wouldn’t have felt completely satisfied creating this list unless I mentioned the Gamecube gem Luigi’s Mansion.
The green plumber’s maiden title has a creepier, less upbeat vibe than typical Mario fare. A quirky experience that regularly switches up the tempo, knowing when to slow it down, ramp up the tension or change tone entirely.
The game often and effectively flips between taut piano orchestrations and syncopated beats to keep the player on edge. Most tracks are between 30-50 seconds as Luigi quickly moves between rooms.
For me, the idea of creating beats that can effortlessly transition from tranquil or emphatic to a tune that indicates a ghost has entered the room would be a maddeningly difficult line to straddle. But for Nintendo, it always felt effortless.
Stand out tracks: Ballroom, Super Mario Bros. Theme