Design Club – Super Mario Bros: Level 1-1 – How Super Mario Mastered Level Design
Hey there! Welcome to Design Club. So, let’s get down to business. Today, we have decided to start at the beginning, and when it comes to modern gaming, things really don’t get much more “beginning” than Super Mario Bros.’s Level 1-1. Level 1-1 is a master class in level design. An incredible amount of thought and care went into modulating the player’s experience and crafting the learning curve, even in the first two screens! Given the tight limits on resources for an 8-bit game, a lot of clever decisions had to be made to make this game appeal to a generation completely unfamiliar with games. Of all the 8-bit greats, Super Mario Bros. has some of the best examples of well-used affordances and well-designed learning curves, and it does it all without blocks of text or requiring people to actually read the manual. So, let’s take a look at the opening screen. Mario starts, facing right, with a ton of negative space in front of him. Nothing is moving, nothing is apparently threatening. This static screen gives the player some time to mess around with the controls and get used to them. The way Mario starts also informs the player where they’ll be going for the entirety of the game: Going right. Just looking at the screen shows you the wide open path. Despite the fact that Mario spends most of his time in the center of the screen, the designers made a deliberate choice to start Mario elsewhere. This affordance through the use of space does a mountain of work that games today spend lengthy cutscenes on. The player never feels lost in purpose, and they know how to begin without even needing to be told what the goal is. Just move right. So, along Mario’s wayward journey to the right, the first thing we see is a question mark, bright and flashing so we can’t miss it. It invites exploration without being threatening. You can approach it at your own pace, so you do. But just as you get close, something else appears. Our first enemy slides on screen. How does the player know it’s an enemy? Well, two reasons: 1. The sprite itself has some distinctly angry eyebrows. 2. The Goomba, unlike the object you’ve already encountered, is moving right towards you. Imagine if the Goomba was stationary. Not nearly as threatening. Your first encounter with the Goomba ensures that you’ve learned a major skill before proceeding. You cannot get past this spot without jumping. Given that the NES controller had four nondirectional buttons to explore and, as a designer, we already know the player’s already used the directionals, it was totally reasonable to expect the players to experiment with them without the need for explicit instructions. And if the player dies, nothing big is lost. The player’s just sent back a very short distance and has to try again. Short iteration cycles are your friend. Immediately after the first enemy comes the first encounter with the power-up system. The player, being intrigued by the question mark and all the flashing, usually hits this question block, releasing a mushroom. The mushroom does a few interesting things. First, it moves right, usually following the player. This gives the player plenty of time to watch this new entity and learn how it moves. Second, it moves above the player and then drops down. This teaches the player about how other objects are affected by gravity, unlike the block it originally came from. As an extension, it bounces off the green pipe, showing how mushrooms interact with other solid objects while virtually ensuring that the player will get it. Even if the player decides that, based on what they’ve experienced so far, that mushroom-shaped objects are generally bad, and tries to jump over it, the natural path to try and jump over the mushroom puts the player on a direct collision course with the blocks above Mario. The angle which the player would use to jump over it causes them to be knocked right down into the mushroom. While still allowing the player complete autonomy, the clever designers at Nintendo managed to induce the players to touch a mushroom that, at first blush, seems like a dangerous enemy. The next terrifying obstacle the player has to overcome is a set of pipes of increasing height. The increasing height of the pipes requires the player to learn a slightly unintuitive mechanic: Mario’s jump height is related to how long the player holds the jump button. Again the player cannot advance until they learn this mechanic. But these pipes have way more to teach. The movement patterns of the Goombas and how they interact with each other are revealed below the pipes, and once the player fails to clear the jump, they’re in the pit with the two Goombas where it’s possible they’ll learn that you receive bonus points for stomping multiple enemies. More importantly, these pipes give you a safe space to practice the pit-jumping the player will do later. They mirror challenges that Miyamoto plans to present the player with down the line, but here he makes sure they have basic facility with the skill before really presenting it in a threatening way. Lastly, we have the final pipe and the first pit, where the designers put the game’s first two secrets. The last pipe in the row allows the player to enter a secret room full of coins, and, really, this is for old hands of the game. It’s for veteran players to be able to get through the level more quickly and back to a place that challenges them, so it doesn’t have much impact on the new player experience. The invisible block before the first pit is another story, though. While 95% of new players will never see it, it’s placed in such a way that if you’re really going to miss your jump, if you’re really going to jump early and dive right into that pit, you’ll find a secret instead! And with that, we will wrap up this week. There’s a lot going on here, and that’s just the first 30 seconds. Try breaking down the rest of Level 1-1 as an exercise for yourself. Why are these two pyramidlike objects here? What’s the purpose of these four Goombas right in a row? If you haven’t played through at least the first few levels of Super Mario Bros., you definitely should make the time. It’s also worth a quick trip down memory lane even if you have played it. and you will see it so much differently looking at it now as a designer rather than simply playing it like your first time through. You’ll be surprised how much fundamental game design knowledge displayed here is still used today. We gotta get going, but let us know what you think of the show in the comments. If this is something you guys would love to see more of, let us know. Good luck and good gaming.