Last week in Part 1 we learned about the using simple mechanics and about various level design concepts from the Super Mario franchise. This week we will learn about how to implement those mechanics and designs, and later, we’ll cover how Nintendo tests their players using a variety of boss types.
Getting Straight to Business!
Super Mario Bros: World 1-1 is a famous first level for a reason, the design of it explains the entire game within the first thirty seconds—move right to the end of every stage, there will be enemies that get in your way as well as obstacles, but some of these obstacles might have secrets to help you as well. Games that have simple mechanics like the Super Mario franchise can just throw their players at the game and allow them to figure it out. The more details put in the game, the more the player needs a tutorial: you wouldn’t simply throw a player into a crafting-heavy system without explaining something about how it works, for example. The majority of Super Mario games use their very first level as their tutorial so it appears like a level and not a tutorial. By the time they get to the end of the level, the player will understand the majority of the skills Mario has. This explains the basics of the game as well as establishing the story in a fun way to not sidetrack the players with tutorials.
Mario Would Never Ask for Directions!
Tutorials are mainly for the game as a whole, but what if you need to introduce a new mechanic or skill to the player? Much like the games overall tutorial, you need to create a time and place to show this to the player. Nintendo does this with their Super Mario games in such a beautiful way that again, we never seem to notice while playing.
New mechanics were introduced again to Mario when they made the jump to 3D with the Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64: he can now perform the Wall Jump and the Ground Pound, which are now staple mechanics of the franchise. One thing people learned over the years of playing these games was to find every way to combine the buttons given to them or things they see within the levels. The castle in Super Mario 64 is great for this, because there, it is near impossible to die. The designer of the game kept the player’s testing needs in mind and created a safe place for them to do so. Now, they may or may not learn all possible mechanics of the game, but in levels like Whomp’s Fortress, the player will notice that a “Thwomp“ has a bandage on their back and need to figure out how to hit that spot to hurt the enemy. Eventually they will learn the button combination, or read a sign explaining the button combination. This is important: the game doesn’t tell you to use this to attack the Thwomp. It merely explains the button combination. The bandage on the back hints this to the player. This is another form of throwing the player at a problem and allowing them to solve it on their own, and it works.
Wall jumping is similar in this regard; Mario is constantly shown things that are just out of reach when jumping, but close enough to a wall that if the angle is right, Mario will slide down the wall. Eventually a player will wonder “What happens if I press the jump button while he is sliding down?” and when they move on with their hypothesis, they learn that Mario jumps off the wall and will get whatever it was they couldn’t reach before.
I’ll Show That Boss Who’s Boss
If a tutorial is used to explain to the player the mechanics, then what would we call something that confirms they understand? The answer is a skill check or test, but Nintendo likes to call them mini-bosses. Like the question implies, these are used to test if a player fully understands the mechanics, but it also can do something else if done right: they can show the player a possible new combination of mechanics that they wouldn’t have thought about combining on their own. Usually with Super Mario games, the level leading up to a mini-boss is slightly more difficult than normal and sometimes requires the player to combine one or two more mechanics of Mario’s jumping abilities to get through, and at the end they are met with the mini-boss, usually a named character that is based off one of the basic enemies—like Boom-Boom from Super Mario Bros 3.
Another way to implement a mini boss is to follow a theme. If your area designs or series of levels leading up are based on fire then make your mini-boss reflect that. A common archetype of this particular mini-boss would be a giant lava monster. These mini bosses can reflect the mechanics or the level designs you are trying to achieve depending on what was leading up to it – either way, they should also be reflecting the gradual increase in difficulty or signal that it will be increasing from there.
Did You Do Your Homework?
Amping it up, we have the next step, the world boss, and past that, the final boss. These two have their differences, but ultimately they are more alike than they are different. Like the mini-boss, the world boss is placed as a test for new mechanics learned in the level, but it also wraps up the theme if there is one. Usually in larger games, this wraps up a story arch of some kind or a major quest, but in the great nostalgic bomb that is Super Mario, it wraps up a theme. Each world is decorated to clearly depict a theme, and when the player beats the world boss and goes to a new world there is a new theme just as omnipresent as the last, whether this is shown by transforming the theme from a fire world to an ice world or appearing once the level itself begins—like one of the distinct places from Super Mario Bros 3: Big Island, where suddenly Mario is incredibly small compared to the enemies.
As mentioned, a final boss is very similar to a world boss, but how? Like a world boss, a final boss tests the player, but in a much harder way than a world boss would. The easy comparison would be to think of a world boss as a mid-term exam in the middle of the year, and the final boss as a final-exam at the end of the year. It covers both new information learned in the latest section, but also brings in old information to make sure you remembered it. A final boss might take on a form or mechanic from an earlier World Boss to see if the player remembers the trick or pattern to beating it. The final boss might also do something completely new and unexpected to test the player to think of a new way to utilize the mechanics to hit the boss.
Making the Trip Worth It!
Hopefully you’ve had the change to fully take in everything in these past two articles and have a clear idea as to how to implement a tutorial, or how important mechanics can be, or how to use a world boss. There are tons of games out there that are incredible for their use of minimal mechanics and great level designs. Here is my personal short list:
- Any Mega-man Series: Slightly more action than a normal ‘Super Mario’ game, but the mechanics are similar if you break it down and the way the ‘Megaman‘ series uses Bosses is revered for a reason.
- Super Meat Boy: If you want a bare-bones version of ‘Super Mario’ than this is the game for you. Even simpler mechanics, but easily far more precise level designs and mechanics.
- Any Rogue-like game: Typically, the rogue-like genre games (Such as The Binding of Isaac, Rogue Legacy, or Enter the Gungeon) are a great example of simply throwing a player at the problem and letting them figure it out—over and over again.
That wraps up this two part series on Learning from ‘Super Mario’ – this was a blast! In the future I hope to revisit this concept with a different game or genre, maybe one of the ones from my short list. If you have an idea for a game to breakdown like this leave a message down below!