A few weeks ago, Nintendo released Mario Odyssey, their first main series 3D Mario game since Mario Galaxy 2 in 2010. I have been a huge fan of these games since Super Mario 64, so naturally I picked it up as soon as possible. Since then I have been enjoying the game immensely, and it has been filling up all of my limited spare time.
I love this game, and playing it has got me thinking a lot about the Mario series as a whole. For over 3 decades this series has been releasing consistently great games that have changed the industry time and time again, and provides a treasure trove of game design wisdom. There is so much to talk about from this series, so for today I am going to be limiting myself to only talking about a few of the early entries in the series – Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros, and Super Mario Bros 3. All three of these games are classics that not only took Mario to the next level, but shook up the video game industry as a whole.
A Pain in the Donkey
Donkey Kong is a game defined by it’s firsts. It is famously the first appearance of Donkey Kong (or perhaps Cranky Kong…), and is also the first appearance of the character we now know as Mario. Although incredibly simple by modern standards, Donkey Kong was extremely influential for it’s time, and introduced a number of elements to gaming that had never been seen before. Namely, it is sometimes considered to be the first true platformer game due to the addition of the “jumping” mechanic.
Because this game represents Mario’s first appearance, it introduces a number of things that would become important parts of the series to this day. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, this game introduced Mario’s most iconic move, the jump. These days, almost any video game character can jump, but none are as closely associated with this move than Mario.
The reason for this is that, starting with Donkey Kong, Mario has always had his identity tied into jumping. He was the first platformer character to be able to jump, and originally his name was simply “Jumpman”. This simple ability drastically increased the possibilities for platforming games, which up until this point had relied upon climbing up and down ladders to get from platform to platform.
From a level design perspective, Donkey Kong was able to do a lot within it’s incredibly tight constraints. Each of Donkey Kong’s levels was confined to a single screen, and had a very limited number of moving parts. Even so, it was able to put a surprising amount of variety into it’s 4 short levels. It had a number of different hazards to avoid with different behaviors to learn, and in addition to the standard ladders it also introduced moving elevators that have to be navigated.
Finally, this game introduced a mechanic seem all the time in early Mario games – using point-scoring items to lure the player into danger. In this game it is represented by Pauline’s items (purse, hat and umbrella) which give you large point bonuses for collecting them, but require you to potentially stray off the easiest path. This can be seen in many other Mario games, which use enticing bonuses (usually coins and question blocks) to lure players off the path.
This mechanic has a number of uses. Firstly, it can encourage the player to explore the stag in order to find all of the collectibles. Secondly, it can add replayability for players to go back later and get the collectibles that they had missed the first time. Finally, this can extend the playtime of the game by causing players to make mistakes trying to collect the items, which is especially useful in arcade style games. These games had limited amounts of content, so they had to find ways to slow players down and increase the number of plays required to complete the game. Luring players with seemingly valuable trinkets is one way to boost the amount of time (and quarters) spent on the game.
While Donkey Kong may have introduced the platforming genre, Super Mario Bros perfected it. This game is one of the best-selling games of all time, and is often credited as being one of the major factors in helping the gaming industry recover from the crash of 1983. It is also a master class in 2D platforming level design. This game takes all of the elements of previous Mario games and brings them to a whole new level.
Unlike its predecessors, Super Mario Bros levels were not bound to a single screen, but instead were able to scroll through many screens. While technical limitations still limited the scrolling to a single direction (left to right), it granted an entirely new level of freedom to the level designers.
One of the most impressive things about Super Mario Bros (and the Mario series in general) is the way it uses the game itself as a way to teach the player how to play on an almost subconscious level. Take the very first level, for example – World 1-1. Much has been written about this level, and for good reason – it teaches the players everything they need to know without breaking the gameplay for a second. While entire articles can be, and have been, written about this one level, I just want to go over a few of the most important points.
Shown above are the first two screens of level 1-1. Just from these first few screens, players are forced to learn the major mechanics of the game. Mario is placed towards the left side of the screen facing right, which immediately signals which direction he is supposed to move. Once he starts heading to the right, he immediately meets his first enemy – a goomba. The player must jump over the goomba in order to survive, which guarantees from the get-go that players know how to jump.
In order to ensure that players learn the properties of blocks, they adorned them with a question mark – a universal symbol of mystery. Upon learning to jump over the goomba, players immediately begin pressing the blocks and gathering coins from them. One of these blocks contains a super mushroom, the first one in the game. Super mushrooms turn small Mario into Super Mario, but after seeing the goomba players might be afraid of this new mushroom shaped object that just appeared. Because of this, a pipe is placed in such a way that the mushroom will ricochet off the pipe, practically forcing players to collect the power up.
This trend continues throughout the level and the rest of the game. The levels teach players how koopa shells work, how to jump over gaps, how to get and use the fire flower and the Super star, etc. By the end of the first level, the player should have a pretty good idea of how to play the rest of the game. When new challenges do appear, these same methods are used to teach the player how to deal with the challenges before throwing them into the deep end.
Another really cool design feature of the original Super Mario Bros is it’s use of secrets and mysteries. From the very first level there are invisible blocks and hidden areas inside pipes that practically beg the players to explore the world. These mysteries also provide a huge amount of replayability to the game, with players going back to previous worlds and scouring them for anything that they may have missed. They also provide a high skill ceiling for the game, as many of these secrets are found in areas that require a lot of skill and practice to reach.
The Rule of Threes
The final game I want to look at today is Super Mario Bros 3. This game significantly evolves the Mario formula, taking everything that was introduced in the original Super Mario Bros and blowing it out of the water. It has the same attention to detail and replayability as it’s predecessor, but is packed full of much more variety and content.
One of the biggest assets to Super Mario Bros 3 is the removal of a number of key technical limitations that had held back the original Super Mario Bros. Because the game was contained on a cartridge, designers were able to add additional storage and processing power to the cartridge itself, which drastically expanded the possibilities of what could be accomplished. This led to a number of innovations, including larger levels that are able to scroll up and down as well as left and right, and a much larger pool of enemies and power ups.
This additional variety is probably Super Mario Bros 3’s biggest strength. While the original only had a few different enemy types and 3 power ups, this game introduces dozens of new enemy types and several new power-ups. However, more important than the fact that they have a lot of variety is how it is implemented. In some games, adding new enemies might be as simple as “this one is a different color, and requires more hits to kill”. In this game, however, every type of enemy is distinct, and has it’s own patterns of movement and abilities. In the same way, each power up provides Mario with unique abilities such as flight or better swimming ability, which go a long way in keeping the game interesting.
This variety extends beyond simply adding new enemies and power-ups, however. Everything in this game has been expanded, from introducing new platform types, to having different themes for each world (a tradition that has become standard in platformers even beyond the Mario series). Every single level is packed with different things to jump on, avoid, and defeat, which makes the platforming stages of this game still some of the best that have ever been developed.
This amount of content makes the “level as tutorial” design method even more important, and this philosophy is on full display in this game. There is hardly a single enemy, obstacle or platform that is not cleverly previewed and introduced to the player in order to give them the tools to deal with them later on in the level. This game never plateaus – it constantly keeps players on their toes with new challenges, but never throws something at the player without giving them the means to deal with it first.
Finally, one of the biggest changes that Super Mario Bros 3 makes from the original is the addition of non-platforming game elements. While the original Super Mario Bros was simply a series of platforming levels, this game is much more. It adds an interactive map that allows players to choose which level they would like to go to next, and the map contains optional mini-games that the player can use to get more lives, power-ups and items.
Until Next Week
There is so much to talk about in these games, and I am only barely scratching the surface in this article. And I haven’t gotten past the NES era! It would be impossible to go through everything in one article, so I will not. I have lots more to say, so if there is a certain topic in these games that you want me to write more about, please let me know in the comments below. If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe on to the blog on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t like the article, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I will be continuing this series and looking at the SNES era and beyond!
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