Image courtesy of the huge watermark. Note that this does not perfectly reflect the descriptions below, nor does it include all the characters discussed in this article.
This article will be about Mario characters and their popularity and 'ranking' from Nintendo's standpoint. One can percive this by notcing who appears in what games. This brings us to the distinction between ‘main series and ‘spin-off’ games. For example, why are characters like Wario, Waluigi, and even Daisy often missing in main Mario games like the (modern) platformers or 3D games? Why are they however almost always certain to be in a Mario Kart? That is what we will discuss below. First:
-Main series: The Super Mario Bros franchise and other main Mario games like Super Mario 64 and other 3D games. 3D platformers count as well. Playable characters here will be Mario and maybe Luigi with plots centering around Peach and Bowser. Yoshi is semi-frequent but him being playable (ie rideable) is a toss up and usually limited. See more details on the character spotlights.
-Spin-off games: Mario Kart, Mario Party, sports, RPGs, and others. Here is where it becomes an interesting free for all.
-Technically main-series but antiquated: Games like the Super Mario Land (not 3D land) series on gameboy. Maybe Donkey Kong (arcade) as there wasn't a franchise yet. Mario Bros (arcade) again for the same reason.
Mario: Mario is always the central character somehow, even if you can't play him. Characterization is consistent with most games in the sense that he's always kept a blank slate to be versatile. Notable exceptions (to me at least) is he sort of takes jabs at Luigi in Power Tennis. His feelings for Peach are overtly romantic in Odyssey, but for plot reasons and toned down otherwise. He can talk surprisingly if he wants to. Visibility: 5/5 Playable: 5/5
Peach: Princess of the Mushroom Kingdom debuting in Super Mario Bros. 1. (So up to that point the Mario brothers were in America at least implied or explicitly if we go by outside media.) She is almost always the center of the conflict..predicably. Being playable in a main-series game is rare treat justified because she’s busy being kidnapped and all and can’t be in two places as once. Characterization is often not much because she’s off in another castle. If we see her she is normalish but concerning and often calling for Mario’s help. RPGs offer her a little more justice. Main series wise SMB2 was an early playable role that also cemented her hover jumping. In modern times there's Super Mario 3D World or Super Mario Run. Funny thing about New Super Mario Bros U, they got around that pesky issue by having Toadette use a power up to become Peach. Now Spin off game wise she’s a frequent and has been for some years. Most RPGs don’t have her playable but she’s nearly in everything else. A thing to note is that she is of course a Smash brother from Melee onward. V: 5/5 P: 1/5 main 4.5/5 spin
Bowser: Bowser the series villain is responsible for most conflicts. Justifiably he will often be around but not playable. Characterization varies between cruel and mean but normal, or comic relief and goofy and maybe even dumb. In spin off games except most of the Mario Parties he fares better but not as good as you might think. I won’t list everything but I’ll break it down some. You can play him in all Mario Karts but not Mario Party unless it’s Super Mario Party or Mario Party 10. The RPG’s are normally not playable for him unless it’s Super Mario RPG, Bowser’s Inside Story, and Super Paper Mario. Mario Tennis and Golf are normally good for him but not puzzle games. He is a Smash character as of Melee. V: 5/5 P: 1/5 main 4/5 spin
Luigi : This Mario brother is typically around where ever his brother is. Characterization varies between a sort of wacky sibling of Mario or a hesitant help. In a lot of the 2D platform games even some modern ones, he’s a player two option only. If you are a single player you might not be able to play as him without a second controller. His 3D game track record can also be spotty for some reason. Super Mario 64 or Sunshine famously omit him completely while games like Super Mario Galaxy make him annoyingly an end of game unlock. His spin off track record is more respectable and he’s playable in games where others aren’t like NES Open Tournament golf. A bright spot is that he’s been in Smash Bros since the original. More things to note, his RPG record is better than others because he’s in the Mario and Luigi games. While not usually central to the plot in Paper Mario he is always visible to the point where some of these games have him cameo for no reason really. Luigi has his staring roles too. V: 4.5/5 P: 4/5 main 5/5 spin Yes, his spin off score is higher than main series. This is just because of the 3D game issue.
Yoshi: Yoshi is frequent more than one might think as a regular and supporting character. Characterization is not always consistent in how much of an animal or not he is- interestingly this goes for his game and other media portayals. Sometimes he can talk normally, other times not, but he’s always cheerful and loyal. He does have a bit of the 'is this a single chearacter or generic character syndrome, aka Lakitu, Koopa, Toad, Shy Guy, Birdo, etc. Futhermore there's multicolored Yoshis even in main series games. It's messy. Anyway, let’s start with spin offs this time. Yoshi has an unsuspecting presence in puzzle games like Yoshi, Yoshi’s Cookie, and Tetris Attack. His Yoshi’s Island franchise is also extensive and there’s other things like Yoshi’s Safari and he has a role in educational games. Mario Party, Kart, and sports are sure to always feature him. Moving on to main series he’s more of a power up than playable character. Each game is restrictive in some way, even Super Mario World doesn’t let him enter some levels and later games like New Super Mario Bros restrict him to single levels. 3D games have him either as a cameo or someone to briefly be/use with major restrictions. RPG’s are okay for him but cameo wise only and Paper Mario can be a little weird for him with no direct appearance. (There ARE yoshis in Paper Mario but..) V: 4/5. P: 3/5 main 4/5 spin.
Toad: To start off it’s important to remember that ‘Toad’ isn’t really a single character- unfortunately. Toads are ubiquitous in games, normally docile but cowardly which is probably why Buckenberry and Ala-Gold (Blue and yellow toad from NSMB games) were created to give different looking toads a heroic roll. Captain Toad is also an exception but he is NOT the same character as ‘Toad’, although the canonical Toad IS supposedly in Super Mario 3D World appearing blue as nod to SMB2. (Citation: Mario Wiki: Blue Toad) Back to the analysis, Toad had a break out in SMB2 and the New Super Mario Bros again but that’s about it. Spin off wise Wario’s Wood’s is a notable early role. Toad was especially in older games reserved as a host so he’s not playable in some Mario Party and Sports games. RPGs will heavily feature toads as a species a lot but not playable. Overall the ability to play as him in spin offs is mostly a modern thing. He’s not a smash brother but fake rumors have been around since Melee so there’s that. V: 4.5/5. P: 1.5/5 main, 3/5 spin
Rosalina: Much newer than others but worth considering. Her character debuts from the main series Mario Galaxy franchise. From that point she has respectable appearances in spin offs and even some unexpected games. She is playable in 3D World as an action princess. She’s in Mario Kart since Wii and Smash Bros since 4. She's clearly meant to be a main series stay. The fact that she has statically less time to show up in games does skew the score a little but I attempted to make one anyway. V: 1/5. P: 1/5 main, 2/5 spin.
Bowser Junior: Main stay despite being a relatively new addition compared to others, well, if 2002 is new. (It isn't. I know I'm old.) As a pretty major character he replaced the Koopalings completely for a while but now exists along side them as a superior. He’s actually very likely to show up in main series games 2D or 3D which is unique. He is usually found being a pretty easy miniboss in games. His spin off count is respectable. He’s in Mario Kart since Double Dash!!, Tennis since Power Tennis, and the later Mario Parties as a replacement of the depreciated Koopa Kids. Paper Mario brought him on in Sticker Star and later Mario & Luigi games. Smash Bros brought him on since 4. His personality is what would be expected of a koopa brat. Usually the toys he deals with, Koopa Clown Cars and etc, say more than himself. Either way a main villian. V: 3.4/5. P: 1/5 main, 3.5/5 spin.
Daisy: Princess of Sarasaland and famous for a main role in Super Mario Land to become 'spin-off Queen' from later N64 era onward. So much has already been said about her so let's keep it brief and mention some other things. She lived on through Peach for a while in Smash Bros via a color option which I always thought was interesting. Since she finally got true justice in Ultimate. Daisy in in NES open tournament Golf, yes an NES appearance as a partner for Luigi. Apparently that game started that. She's been 'tough' since Mario Party 3 where she smacks the snot out of Bowser she also at least initially had a darker skin tone than others. She sings a song on Super Mario Compact Disco where she raps and it's my favorite on the CD. No, she is not Peach's cousin dispite what Prima guides will tell you. Overall, theres a lot here, hopefully Nintendo wishes to unpack her character more.
Wario: This guy started out in a Super Mario Land game then very quickly got his own franchise distinct from Mario. He is simply not a main series character but on the spin off side of things he became common as a token sort of bad guy along with maybe Bowser in games like Mario Party and the sports. He’s in Mario Kart consistently from 64 onward. Characterization is very consistent, not that his character hasn’t evolved a bit but from his first solo game it’s pretty close. He’s been in smash brothers since Brawl but is completely absent in RPGs.
DK: Donkey Kong is a cross-over character with is his own distinct franchise. He doesn’t appear a lot in main-series games but because of his history with Mario and presence in spin offs he belongs on the list. He is a Mario Party mainstay, but if you can play as him or not depends. In Mario sports he’s sure to be around but in a few early games Donkey Kong Junior would actually be there in his place. Of course when you think about it Junior IS DK so.. Anyway, he’s a Smash Bros veteran. He has a few other points of interests, like the Mario vs Donkey Kong games, and the precursor Donkey Kong for Gameboy. Characterization would be helpful, brawny, and obsessed with bananas. He thinks he can take on Bowser in some Mario Parties. In other games where he’s a good counterpart to Bowser he literally can, so that’s cool.
Koopalings: While major Bowser villains I'm rating them borderline after some consideration. Talking old school they are major villains in Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World. All else for a long time was spin-off titles if that. While that's still good, they are notably absent in the 3D Mario era onward until NSMB Wii which marked their main 'comeback'. It's weird to think that for a brief moment the Koopalings were sort of old obscureish characters, that's certainly what their showing in Superstar Saga would have seemed like. While Nintendo will use them more, giving clarification on their relationship to Bowser for the sake of not messing up continuity with Bowser Junior hurts them somewhat, it's not nearly as interesting to simply be a minion of Bowser verses being his deranged family members. Anyway, Mario Kart 8 makes them playable so they fill the roster kind of like the babies do. Definitely love or hate it.
Waluigi: I used to call him the 'Spin-off King' with Daisy being the queen. Perhaps that's a bit mean but he really does dominate Mario sports games unambiguously. He's been in Mario Party since three, maybe a little earlier than one might think and can show up unexpectedly like in Game and Watch Gallery 4. He's in most modern Mario Karts which is why him missing from MK7 was such a big deal. Lastly, he's in the Dr. Mario mobile game. The fact that Nintendo keeps him away from Wario games is somewhat telling that the relationship is artificially crafted for sports games, and that's sad. A missed opportunity. His Visibility rating might be a 1/5 honestly.
Toadette: A female toad and mainish side character. Debuted later than some of the others, first in MK:DD (2003) then Wii and 8. She's a mainstay in Mario Party since 6 and in Mario Party Advance and Super Mario Party as a host. She's in some sports but not as many as others, having titles like Super Sluggers under her belt which tend to include rare characters. She's only in some modern Mario Karts. She can appear in RPG games and has roles in the Captain Toad games and later Mario tennis. Got a go in a main series game in NSMB WiiU deluxe and a few others so she's clearly elevating on the scale helped I must add a bit cynically, by the fact that she's a mostly plain toad, Nintendo's character of choice. Odd spin off roles are in Dance Dance Revolution. A fun fact I suppose is that she was very new of a character in Paper Mario TTYD to sort of pop up like that. Until then though, she's a 2/5 I think on both visibility and playability scales.
Toadsworth: A spin off character mostly, though his debut was Mario Sunshine. Frequently in RPGs, his roles are always minor in the grand scheme of things, mostly around to worry about Peach’s well being. In other spin-off games he's usually around but not playable the baseball games are just about his only playable roles. Notable in NSMB he personally ran the toad houses and his cane seemed to be a wand of some sort. This was changed in games since, making it a curious detail.
Baby Mario: You thought we were done talking about Mario? Nope! He started in Yoshi's Island, usually the focus of those games but strangely became a spin off roster filler starting in N64 sports games and later in Double Dash. He's here and there from that point on but since he's not just a generic character to be thrown anywhere like some here, he doesn't have as many roles outside of Yoshi games as one might think. Still, because those Yoshi games he barely makes the second level cut.
Kamek: Borderline, as he is freqently in main series and spin off games his only issue is that at times Nintendo is fine with a generic blue magikoopa (and of course in Japan all magikoopas are 'Kameks'). The Yoshi’s Island franchise remains his biggest roles even though you aren't fighting him directly in those games very often. Still, as a confirmed high ranking Bowser villian who isn't (biological) family to Bowser he's notable.
Birdo: Has an early main role in SMB2, mostly a spin-off mainstay since. Wario's Woods was her wierd puzzle phase and she's in Super Mario RPG. Sometimes included to give Yoshi a partner in sports like tennis or golf or Mario Kart. She's in some later Mario Paries like 7 as an unlockable and randomly in one Paper Mario as a cameo. Overall a side character with some rich history, kind of hard to rate but there aren't a lot of 'important' roles here. The 'are they are unique character or not' syndrome hurts the case as well.
Diddy Kong: A tier one from DK’s perspective, but not Mario. I didn't really realise his lack of appearances in Mario games until this article. He didn't start appearing in Mario games until MK: Double Dash so that puts him past the 2000 mark. Then and after that just some sports games and spin offs in modern times. He was missing from Mario Party until the ninth. He has been in Smash Bros since Brawl, but we're not really counting that here.
Baddies: Lakitus, Goomba, Shy Guy, Hammer Bro, Koopa, Dry Bone, Boo: Freqent generic enemies sometimes put in games as playable extras or at the least cameos. Koopa and Dry Bones get elevated because they are more likely to show in Mario Kart, Koopa even being and original racer. Dry Bones is more spotty but still common enough. Lakitu is always around just rarely playable, same for hammer bro. Shy Guy is often around but his ability to be played as is sometimes wierdly restricted like in Mario Kart DS where he's only for verses play.
King Boo: Luigi's personal villian coming from Luigi's Mansion. Generally he's restricted there but can show up when you least think even in main series like Sunshine or SM64 DS. He's in Mario Kart since Double Dash but not always as playable. He can show up in Mario Parties, not playable though. Overall he's somewhat freqent as a boss in modern Mario games. I would like if he was more than depicted as a large boo in a crown, he's still cool regardless.
Baby Luigi: Think Baby Mario but in distress. While he's not in the N64 games everywhere else he's whereever his brother is. Because of you not playing as him much this makes him more minor (or more infant, get it?)
Petey Piranha: A strange addition so let's talk about him! Debuted Gamecube era in Sunshine and for a while he was a semi-frequent spin off additon. He can or could rather appear in just about anything from RPGs to sports or spin-offs like Super Princess Peach or even Smash Bros. This unpredicability makes it seem like he marches to his own beat and I kind of like that.
RPG characters and bosses: Fawful, and others.
Professor E. Gadd : Mostly relating to Luigi’s mansion but has a few odd appearances elsewhere as a professor like some RPGs and Mario Party 6. This is not counting the references to his inventions in many more games, like confusingly (at least I always felt) Super Mario Sunshine. I will say that from an American standpoint his roles did have a pretty big gap from Partners in Time in 2005 to Luigi's Mansion Dark Moon in 2014, but he's recovered some since.
Pauline: Mario's original girlfriend before the whole Mushroom Kingdom thing. That has to be ackward. She's in Donkey Kong and logically the Gameboy remake but then made a jump after a few years in the Mario vs Donkey Kong. That's not that strange given the theme of those games, what was unexpected was Super Mario Odyssey as the mayor. Wasn't she strictly from the normal world? Oh well. Since she's playable in Mario Tennis Aces and a few others but as a rule she's usually a cameo and not a character to play.
Metal Mario: Why are we reviewing a power up? Silly you, this is a completely original character according to Nintendo at least. Smash Bros first made him be a mini boss and games like Mario Golf has him unlockable along with some other sports titles. He's a boss in Dr. Mario 64 and a clone option in later Mario Karts starting with 7. Not much more to say aside from the fact that he can't say 'mama mia' correctly and he's constantly underwater by the sounds of it. Overall he's a strict utility character, as in you get to use a power character with the frame of a normal one. That's great and all but did it have to be a copy of our Mario to do that? Be aware that that's not why he's ranked so low, this isn't about my opinions after all, he just has a game track record you can count on your fingers.