Nintendo's consoles are littered with platformers. And not only are there scores of games that focus on navigating 2D worlds, but they often sport a cartoony, family-friendly aesthetic that makes it difficult to distinguish one from another at a glance. Seriously, is there a major difference between Mario and Donkey Kong? They do both run from left to right, after all, and have a penchant for jumping. They're practically clones! Well, I don't buy into that reductionist belief one bit. Nintendo's franchises each fill a different gaming need, so I happily play new offerings to see what direction my favorite characters will go next.
So let's explore how Nintendo's four biggest platforming series compare to each other, and figure out which one to play depending on your gaming mood.
Super Mario Bros.
- Super Mario World
- New Super Mario Bros. Wii
- New Super Mario Bros. U
The quintessential platforming franchise has remained true to what it first represented almost 30 years ago. The predominant appeal comes from the sheer joy of movement that Nintendo has injected into every one of these koopa-bashing adventures. Mario has a gravity-defying jump so you can bound effortlessly on top of goomba heads and across cavernous expanses. In-air control lets you adjust Mario's placement down to the pixel, and such free-flowing acrobatics just make me smile. Nothing defines Mario more than his incredible movement, and that is the core reason I've spent so many hours playing his many games.
We see Nintendo highlight this strength through the varied suits that each game employs. Soaring through the air with the cape in Super Mario World is still one of my favorite things to do in any game, and the squirrel suit in New Super Mario Bros. U furthers the argument that Mario is at his best far above the ground. It's in the strongest games that we see level design that forces you to take advantage of Mario's prodigious talents. Pulling off a precise series of leaps is eminently rewarding, so much so that we still love each new addition even after all these years.
Who is this for: Everyone! Seriously, Mario games are so empowering, and so freeing, that anyone who wants to bounce through imaginative locales will love spending time in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Donkey Kong Country
- Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest
- Donkey Kong Country Returns
- Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
If Donkey Kong Country has taught me anything, it's that gorillas aren't nearly as agile as humans. Oh, and they look better in neckwear than I ever could. Unlike Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong's movement is so heavy, so methodical, that the appeal must come from something outside of the core action. And the strength of Donkey Kong Country is firmly in its level design. We first saw how impressive stage construction could offset limited movement back in Donkey Kong Country 2. Expansive locales rewarded anyone willing to venture off the beaten path, and the collectibles dotting the landscapes weren't needless busywork, but tokens proving our cunning.
Retro Studios has taken over development duties from Rare, though the switch hasn't affected the focus of the franchise. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze contains some of the most masterful, varied, and downright exciting levels that I have ever seen. Even something as seemingly mundane as mine carting has been elevated because of how expertly each element has been placed. We use the term "roller-coaster ride" far too often to explain thrilling sequences in games, but no term better fits the events of these fantastic stages. Throw in consistently amazing visual design and a top-notch score, and it's easy to understand why Donkey Kong Country has remained as popular as it has for so many games.
Who is this for: Are you methodical? Do you find it difficult to connect to plumbers? Then Donkey Kong Country is the franchise for you. Oh, and if you're one of those people who listens to gaming music when you're doing other things, point your ears toward these soundtracks.
- Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island
- Yoshi's Story
- Yoshi's Island DS
Even though Yoshi's Island was first categorized as a sequel to Super Mario World, it's so different from its progenitor that it soon became clear that it's a separate franchise. So why would you spend time on board Yoshi instead of venturing forth in another platformer? Because of the aesthetics, of course. There's nothing else that looks quite like Yoshi's Island. By employing coloring-book sensibilities, it creates a world that evokes a familiar feeling of childlike joy. And that feeling is further communicated through the docile action sequences. Unlike Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country, Yoshi's adventures steer away from dexterous challenges. It's the fanciful visuals that draw you in, the eye-catching worlds that keep you invested.
In many ways, Yoshi's Island works as an entry-level platformer for those who have never mastered the precise demands of its more challenging counterparts. That's why its impressive artistic design defines it. Your attention is focused more on how the game looks than how it plays, and Yoshi's Island uses that fact to showcase some truly fantastic set designs. The levels work as guided tours that let you experience all of the lovely sights, and a catchy musical score keeps you humming along as you bop toward the finish line. This sightseeing focus is taken too far in Yoshi's New Island at times, though the better offerings provide just enough engagement from an action perspective to keep you from growing bored as you stroll through the many worlds.
Who is this for: Video games are hard. What with all the button presses and stick wiggling, a person can be overwhelmed in a pinch. But Yoshi's Island? It welcomes everyone. Warm your icy heart in the colorful worlds of this lovely franchise.
- Kirby's Return to Dreamland
- Kirby: Squeak Squad
- Kirby Super Star
Kirby looks more like a monster than a hero, and his actions only further the argument that he's not natural. But the main draw of his many games stems from his horrific talents. That pink blob can inhale the many baddies that populate his world, but unlike Yoshi, who merely turns his enemies into eggs, he absorbs their souls. Well, maybe not their souls, but at least he devours their powers. And so you venture through each stage with the intent of inhaling the many feeble foes to see what new abilities you can add to your repertoire.
Such a unique draw forces you to look inward. The emphasis of Kirby's games is on the versatile protagonist instead of the many background elements. Experimentation feeds your determination as you realize the strengths and weaknesses that come with each power. And because so much of Kirby's appeal is built upon the varied abilities you earn, each sequel has a ready-made hook that quickly communicates exactly why you should once again embody that marshmallow puff. With new enemies, there's the inherent promise of new powers, and seeing what else Kirby is capable of is reason enough to face off against King Dedede one more time.
Who is this for: Kirby rewards those who love to experiment. Mixing between elemental attacks or juggling weapon types ensures that there's tons of variety in both traversal and combat, so these games are ideal for anyone who wants to dictate progress on their own terms.
- Kirby: Canvas Curse
- Super Princess Peach
- Wario Land: Shake It
Just about every mainline entry in these franchise has been worth playing, and they're often borderline classics. However, we're a jaded bunch, so Nintendo has to keep things fresh or else we would soon grow tired of the expected. That's where spin-offs come in. By throwing familiar characters into unexpected endeavors, we keep them in our hands alongside our hearts, and we're even more eager to dive into the next proper sequel. It's one of smartest strategies that Nintendo has. By turning Luigi from a platforming star into a ghostbuster (hello, Luigi's Mansion!) or letting your control Donkey Kong by banging on a drum (I miss you, Jungle Beat), we're given a new look at old franchises.
So, Nintendo does have lots of games starring their lovable mascots, but they fit so many different needs, and come in so many different forms, than they've been able to stay fresh even as the decades roll by.