After more than a dozen titles from the Super Mario franchise, it is clear that Nintendo has perfected their formula. There are several things we could learn from the franchise as a whole, but I want to focus on one or two that are the most prevalent to us developers no matter our experience – mechanics and level design. How is a game with basic mechanics one of the first games we can recall when talking about our childhoods? Why are we able to pick up any of these games and instantly feel gratified and accomplished?
Jump-Man Doing What He Does Best . . . Jumping!
Simply put, the basic mechanics, the level design, and the years of polish and branding are why we will always admire the levels from any of the Super Mario games. By basic mechanics, I mean exactly that: they are simple, but if we make the most of them we may start to understand the formula Nintendo has perfected. Breaking down Mario’s mechanics, we see just how elementary they are—he jumps. Mario can jump regularly, slide down a wall, jump from one wall to another, spin jump to attack or break things, twirl to help glide a little bit farther and even perform a ground-pound to trigger things or trigger certain enemy mechanics. If you were to count them separately, that is six game mechanics, all consisting of one main theme—Mario jumping—but they are completely different and utilized for different reasons.
You Get an Item, and You Get an Item. Everybody Gets an Item!
Those are things Mario does, but what about the things within the game that grant him other abilities? Again, these are simple things that can be lumped together as “items.” Players interact with these items—By Jumping and touching—and depending on the item, a different thing happens. Flowers allow Mario to throw either a fireball or an ice ball. There are four different types of mushrooms that have appeared over the years, most of them making Mario either bigger or smaller and one granting an extra life. Coins are used for different things from replenishing health, unlocking secret areas, or giving Mario an extra life depending on their color. The last item to talk about is the invincibility star. This star, as its name says, grants Mario invincibility for a short time.
Next Time, Dress to Impress!
The franchise has also used items called “super suits” to allow Mario special abilities. Unlike items, these suits normally give Mario abilities and the appearance of an animal. Over the years, Mario has been a raccoon, tanooki (Japanese raccoon dog), hammer brother, a boo, frog, penguin, cat, “lucky” cat, and a bee; all of these suits grant abilities ranging from flight to special attacks and even environmental luxuries like sticking to honey-walls (bee suit), swimming faster and jumping higher (frog suit), and even the ability to pass through fences (boo suit). All of these suits are obtained in the same way an item is: by Mario touching them. And each has its own item form.
It’s Not What You Do—It’s Where You Do It!
Enough about how Mario does things, it is time to talk about the levels themselves and how they work. Each level offers a new terrain for Mario to get through in order to stop Bowser and save Princess Peach. There are way too many mechanics to go over—after all, the franchise celebrated its thirty year anniversary last year. To save time, here is a short, generalized list.
- Platforms – Move in various directions, patterns, flip and rotate or simply fall.
- Pitfalls – Areas where the screen ends that if Mario moves past it, he dies.
- Static Obstacles – Spikes, lava or anything else that once touched, kills Mario.
- Moving Obstacles – Environmental hazards that threaten to crush Mario.
- Moving Levels – Levels that are on the move and force Mario to keep up.
- Limited View – Narrow viewpoints on levels that hide other obstacles or enemies.
Designing and Placing, Two Peas in a Pod!
Along with great level mechanics, the Super Mario franchise has great level designs that we can learn from. It is a level designer’s job to harness everything a game offers and create a level. The designer should know the mechanics of the player and the levels inside and out. They know how far the player jumps in order to place the platform just inside that reach, giving the player the thrill of “Am I going to make this?” They also know how to bend the levels to make a player wrack their brains on how to solve a puzzle with the player’s mechanics given to them. Everything within a level is there for a reason, so don’t overlook anything. They also know when and where to place items to both be hidden and yet still help the player with the upcoming challenge.
The End is Nigh!
This was part one of two for ‘Learning with Mario’. Hopefully, you understand a little more about using simple mechanics and how to craft brilliant level designs. Remember, level mechanics and items are great, but if there are too many, the level and game as a whole will feel too easy. On the other hand, if they are too sparse, then the feel of the game will be too difficult. Next week we will be taking a look at how Nintendo sneaks tutorials into their Super Mario games, as well as another popular design choice of the Super Mario games, the boss fights.
Are you really fighting against bosses or is the game testing you and making sure you are ready for the next challenge? Think about it. For the eager ones who are still not satisfied and don’t feel like waiting a week, you can check out Extra Credits on Youtube. They have a great video that talks about level design and only uses the first thirty seconds of the most famous video game level. That’s right, World 1-1 of the original Super Mario Bros. The video is titled ‘Design Club – Super Mario Bros: World 1-1 – How Super Mario Mastered Level Design’. Funny, I wonder where the inspiration for this article came from, see you next week!
Extra Credits (Design Club – Super Mario Bros: World 1-1 – How Super Mario Mastered Level Design):