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.

76 comments

  • MegaMGstudios

    i love how in every game the beginning of level 1-1 is the same

    Reply
  • BySnipzz

    Nice vid but hes going too far with Some things

    Reply
  • Andrew Cook

    I would love to see more episodes like this one!!!

    Reply
  • Jello The Gamer

    SWING YOUR ARMS FROM SIDE TO SIDE

    Reply
  • Prasun Jajodia

    People not taking all the coins makes me cringe

    Reply
  • Tomthehorse

    Really gave me something to think about when designing levels, it's crazy how in depth every object was

    Reply
  • sakor88

    But what if the design was just randomly put together without much thought? And Mario was a success and now we have retroactively analyzed it and created this narrative of ingenious design?

    Reply
  • Chivi-chivik

    And then Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels came and fucked everything up so badly Americans were scared to play the game XD

    Reply
  • Jamie Kiam

    BEST CHANNEL EVER!!

    Reply
  • Alejandro Cordova

    I am getting addicted to your channel!!!. Amazing videos, great host, great content.

    Reply
  • Anthony Tejada

    Need more design club

    Reply
  • Decoy

    I'm just seeing this and I wish you could make a full series analyzing a lot other games like you just did it here. congrats for your work.

    Reply
  • ShadowHwkX7

    you have open my mind by showing me the game in the eyes of a designer

    Reply
  • RaoulWB / Rilliam

    "get paid" "baller" ahah. Great video btw, as an aspiring programmer, it's always neat to watch such videos.

    Reply
  • Xerclipse

    Just watching this, its giving me flashbacks on the "barrel of doom".

    For those who don't know what that is: Sonic 3 and Knuckles had a stage called Carnival Night Zone. There was a barrel which blocked a path. You can jump on it while it rotates as it locks your feet. However, what not many people knew was to press up and down while you stood on it. I just stood on that thing forever. It was back when I was very young and I didn't have the idea of looking it up. That is a flaw in game design. There are no hints just like how that video showed on the Mario level. Carnival Night Zone was the exact opposite of this episode.

    Reply
  • Ignored

    3:51

    ..GET LAID, GATORADE

    Reply
  • Timpin D.

    3:15 you forgot to mention that fact that the instinct when you see your path averted is to go backwards and go to a different height level, which will send you right into a breakable block, showing you that big Mario can break some blocks.

    Reply
  • London Metal Monthly

    yer speaking too fast!

    Reply
  • siddarth sharma

    simply wow (y)

    Reply
  • B O N K O N T H E H E A D

    Note that most players probably wouldn't consider that some pipes could be traveled through, until they got to the next level and saw that you could, and then had to go through the ending pipe to know the controls to do so.

    Reply
  • Gusta Santos

    alguém fala português?

    Reply
  • threemoo

    Have you guys in the comments ever watched a YouTuber play a new game?
    These guys need tutorials on how to use the damn main menu!
    That's why modern games have ridiculous babying tutorial segments and this kind of genius doesn't work as well as it used to.

    I'm a dev that works on VR games and honestly, you actually get hate when people watch a guy failing at a game because they blame the game for it, rather than the fact that the YouTuber is simply terrible at games!

    Reply
  • Xerclipse

    I'd like to see a breakdown on Super Meat Boy's forest world

    Reply
  • Umayrica

    Imagine someone not realising that you're supposed to jump onto a goomba
    Like, they ace the pipe jumps

    Reply
  • KarliN

    I love the video. Never thought Mario had so much though into it.

    Reply
  • super koopa 64

    One of the few channels that made me click the bell

    Reply
  • 33LB

    megaman megaman! these guys are called goombas…

    Reply
  • Gibby Hart

    Where is more!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  • Grofy

    This is why Mario platformers are so damn good. A lot of thought and learning curves are put into each and every aspect of the game. Nothing seems unfair or unpolished.

    If only Sega would've given the same treatment for their mascot…

    Reply
  • Nick Howard

    I always thought that the mushroom was intended for people to jump on it, just like the Goomba they may or may not have defeated.

    Reply
  • Kartoffelschloss

    I loved this game as kid, I'm 15 now so this was already old when I was born. My grandfather had this at his house and would play with me. He is a master a the game, I still can't make it as far as him. He is 92 (93 next month) now and is still playing.

    Reply
  • sErgEantaEgis12

    I need more of this.

    Reply
  • SuperDuperBoy/SDB

    Why did you have to tell me clouds and bushes are the same thing? I Cant Unsee It!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  • Kyle Huo

    the fact that the bushes and clouds are exactly the same shape should be on a things you cannot unsee compilation

    Reply
  • iWillBanU

    1:24 "MOVE RIGHT" says the show where there is a scene of mario moving LEFT

    Reply
  • LEGOMAN 2

    it is possible to not get the mushroom even if you hit the block

    Reply
  • Jackson Wald

    Do more design club I love the series

    Reply
  • Julia Xavier Fernandes

    awesome! want more

    Reply
  • Midnightas - Technical Tutorials

    To be honest most of these are probably accidental

    Reply
  • Craig Po

    0:08 TO DEFEAT THE HUNS

    Reply
  • Hazenhard

    Damn! i want play Mario Bros now .

    Reply
  • nowonmetube

    How could you forgot the first coin (you get from a question mark block) 😑

    Reply
  • _ underscore_

    The thing I'm most amazed by is that the bushes are green clouds with the bottom chopped off.

    Reply
  • Tachanka

    make you voice normal, PLEASE

    Reply
  • WYMO Wai Yan

    excellent review! Thank you.

    Reply
  • Luliby

    This is a lot like how Egoraptor broke down Megaman X's first tutorial level in detail in Sequelitis. Nice work!

    Reply
  • ShycoWar

    I'm gonna throw my first thoughts on there regarding one of the questions submitted at the end. Because why not.

    I think the point of these four Goombas is to make you learn everything you need to know about the Fire Flower acquired shortly beforehand. When seeing such a large group, the player might be tempted to try using one of the previously-learned tricks — running — in order to jump over most of them. So naturally, they press B, and all of a sudden, a fireball takes out the first Goomba. Intrigued, the player proceeds to press B again, and the second Goomba is toast. With that newfound knowledge, they can now enjoy a bit of a cathartic moment by effortlessly defeating the final two Goombas… and voila! The Fire Flower has been mastered right away.

    At least, that's my take on it.

    Reply
  • vaiyt

    One thing you didn't point out is that, if the player runs at the start of the level, they'll meet the goomba just in the right spot so they'll hit the mushroom block as they try to jump over.

    Reply
  • Jason Alen

    1:15 Mario attempts to wavedash

    Reply
  • Jason Alen

    So the designers used an unfair kaizo mario trick
    To make sure the player doesn't fail
    While also getting a 1-up mushroom
    Because they probably suck at the game to the point where they would've jumped right into the pit without the block

    Reply
  • Jeff

    This is the first video I have seen by them and I am looking forward to watching your videos 😀

    Reply
  • Zhōu yǔ Qiáo

    4:46 – so why are those two pyramid things there?

    Reply
  • Pedro Casotti

    perfect video

    Reply
  • aidanplayseverything

    Nope, he’s moving left towards you.

    Reply
  • Ezekiel Blufur

    Designing and planning my new game, I have learnt alot about the significance of first levels and how much they impact the player. Thanks for making this video ^-^

    Reply
  • Bass Fight

    You CAN evade the mushroom, though.

    Reply
  • Christopher Batey

    Literally just watching this gives me so much inspiration for my first game

    Reply
  • 77FantasyAngel77

    MOAR DESIGN CLUB

    Reply
  • TinyNerd

    My problem: I jumped over the first mushroom.

    Reply
  • Quebec

    nobody thinks like this

    Reply
  • kefkaZZZ

    OMFG! I never thought of it this way!!! This level is freaking brilliant!

    Reply
  • Kelvin Shadewing

    Too much Extra History and Extra Sci-Fi. I came to this channel for game design, and so videos like this are what it needs more of. Put that other stuff on a second channel, please. I mean, it's interesting, but it's just not what I'm here for, and I don't like getting excited to be notified of an update of this channel, just for it to be talking about some sci-fi series more and more.

    Reply
  • Kailey Mcdaniel

    4:37 THERE'S AN INVISIBLE BLOCK?! Holy crap I never knew that

    Reply
  • hamdan almuaini

    i would like to see more

    Reply
  • Crazy_Pyromaniac

    he is probably going to make a separate channel just for this stuff

    Reply
  • GWAC store

    great video really well made made my day
    all the commenetrs here are so cool

    Reply
  • Mister Bird

    maybe half life got inspired by mario?

    Reply
  • Derrick McAdoo

    The character 'controls' were Gold for that time. I think that's literally half of it's success

    Reply
  • Naralas

    The mushroom moved based on where you strike the block, not necessarily right.

    Reply
  • The Smart-Casual Gamer.

    I love how the question mark has gone from a surprise, like in Super Mario Bros, to being ignored as so done now automatically thinks it's part of a lengthy tutorial.

    Reply
  • Objectively the best

    Super Mario Bros was the classic rouglike

    Reply
  • Tricky Akshay

    thank u i learn many things with this episode

    Reply
  • Mathichai Decdee

    OMFG
    SO DEEEEEPP

    Reply
  • Raya Koth

    Level 1 -1: Life saving Kaizo block
    Super mario maker:

    Reply
  • D-land Arrese Valle

    Great show bro!

    Reply
  • WadelDee

    Why does the mushroom move but the flower doesn't?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *