My earliest experiences with the Mario Brothers were not spent playing, but reading the instruction manual while watching my younger brother play the very first game on our Nintendo Entertainment System. As I scoured over the game controls and characters, my brother would play through this relatively new experience with the ease of a much older gamer. All of Mario’s moves seemed natural to him, as if he had traveled these fantastic worlds for years. The reality of the situation is that my brother has better eye-to-hand coordination than I do, but the level design of Super Mario Brothers had something to do with his genius as well.
Think back to that very first level, World 1-1. There was no tutorial, no overt guidance for the player; only a stubby little plumber standing on the far left side of a screen. Any attempt to travel further left would result in the player hitting a wall, so to the right we must go. Oh no, there’s an angry looking mushroom heading your way. Quick, try one of those red buttons on the controller. Okay, ‘B’ doesn’t do anything… what about ‘A?’ Ooh, you made Mario jump! Try to stomp that mean looking guy. Hey, you squished him, good job. No time to celebrate though; there is a timer counting down up there. Let’s get going.
The design of these early Mario games provided levels that taught players the rules without beating them over the head with exposition and hand-holding. Almost all of the necessary skills could be communicated through visuals and the experience of play. To sweeten the deal, these games had such a reliably steady difficulty curve. Each concurrent stage added new challenges, but they hardly ever put the player in a situation without the resources to learn and grow. This trend of difficult but fair level design has continued in the Mario Brothers series to this day.
Over the years, I have enjoyed many a title in the Mario series. I would consider myself a rather advanced player; not a genius like my brother, but someone who has played enough of these games to acquire skills beyond the average. I have put in the hours, completed dozens of stages, stomped many a koopa troopa. In other words, I am pretty damn good at Mario. However, I recently witnessed a charity event that humbled me to my very nerdy core.
Awesome Games Done Quick 2014 started on January 5th and featured some of the most amazing speed-runners playing games and accepting donations for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Over the course of seven days, 115+ games were played continuously for charity, including a hearty block of titles from the Super Mario series. I just happened to tune in right at the start of a race between two players in the SNES classic, Super Mario World. What I saw in that live stream blew me away:
Video from Youtube User: SpeedDemosArchiveSDA
Just look at these guys- they never seem to stop running! They are using tricks within the game design that I have never seen before. It seems like every level is not merely a slog from left-to-right, but a challenge to discover new and inventive ways to speed through the game. While they do exploit some glitches over the course of play, the meat of their performance comes from intentional secrets and layouts within the level design. This is particularly noticeable in the stages made up of platforms or mushrooms suspended above bottomless pits. It looks like the placement of enemies was designed to be vaulted upon for a quick trip through difficult spots. It’s as if the designers wanted to reward dedicated players with the means to bypass the usual routes and discover entirely new ways for Mario to travel. This intention from the designers is made even more clear through the Super Play videos included in the more recent Mario titles.
That is the lesson I have come to realize in between the moments of actually playing games with the Mario Brothers. There is an amazing balance in the design of these levels so any player can pick up the controller and have a worthwhile experience. The novice player can discover a new hobby that eases them into the game with intuitive controls and a steady difficulty curve. World 1 will prepare them for World 2, which will prepare them for World 3 and so on. Behind the scenes, these levels have skilled routes carved into the background; perfect paths with a hidden time limit that provides a challenge to the expert who is looking for something new in a beloved game. For every level that made good use of my instruction manual studies, there is a stage that provided a seamless flow of play for my brother. It seems that across the long list of games in the Mario Universe, there is a level for every player.
For the record, the level for me is World 1-7 from Yoshi’s Island: Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy. But that’s just because I am a sucker for trippin’ dinosaurs.