I’ve mentioned how I’d love to make a Wii game someday, but to do that, there are a lot of things that I still have to learn, and one of them is good level design. If you’ve ever played a game where every location feels the same, or if you’ve played a game where finishing the level requires some kind of near-impossible jumps and maneuvers, you’ve been a victim of bad level design.
I decided that one of the best places to look for good level design is in popular games and memorable games, and very few games are more popular or memorable than Super Mario Bros, and Level 1-1 is so well known that it became a stage in Super Smash Brothers Brawl, so let’s see what makes this level tick!
(I’m going to be writing this with the assumption that you are not particularly good at video games. It helps to see games from a new user’s point of view.)
Here we are, the start of the level. It starts out very boring, and I’m pretty sure that’s on purpose. All you see is Mario, the sky, and the ground. You try walking to the left, but that doesn’t go so well. You try walking to the right. Oh, what’s that? A question mark box? What could be inside? It’s very subtle, but putting that question mark box on screen gives you a gentle push as to which way you should go, inviting you to explore a bit more.
So, there you are, walking towards the question mark, and… what’s this? A creature of some kind is slowly walking towards Mario. Oh, what an angry fellow he is… why are you so angry, little guy… AAAACK! It killed Mario! Yes, you’ve encountered your first bad guy. At the very least, this teaches you to jump out of the way of the bad guy for next time, and if you’re lucky, you realize that jumping on the bad guy’s head removes him as a threat.
Where were we? Oh yes, the question mark box. The level sets you up in such a way that the most natural thing to do with the question mark is to try and hit it from underneath, and doing so creates a pleasing “ding” sound. The “ding” may seem like an insignificant detail, would you want to seek out question mark boxes if they made a foghorn sound every time you hit one? Neither would I… never underestimate the benefit sound effects can bring to a game.
Well, the first question mark was good (although we’re not quite sure why yet), so let’s hit the second one and get another ding! You hit the box, but it doesn’t ding. Instead, a mushroom comes out. What’s the deal with that? The mushroom is moving, and it doesn’t have angry eyes on it, so what happens if we hit it? Hey, Mario gets big!
Now, obviously, I’ve been describing this in way more detail than you consciously think about when you actually play the level. That was only about 15-20 seconds worth of gameplay. Here’s what the rest of the level teaches you (in order).
- Regular bricks can be destroyed if you’re big, but not if you’re small
- There are limits of how high you can jump (three increasingly large pipes)
- Holes in the ground are bad
- Fire flower power-ups are good, and make destroying enemies much easier
- Jumping on shelled enemies creates a different, slightly more dangerous result than jumping on goombas
- Stars make you temporarily invincible
- The end of a level is marked by a flagpole
Now, those are just the things that you can’t avoid learning. Super Mario Bros. also contains a large quantity of secrets, larger than any game before it. There’s the pipe that you can go into to get coins. There’s the hidden 1-UP block near the beginning of the level. There’s the varying score you can get from landing on different heights on the flagpole. There’s also the mysterious fireworks that occasionally show up at the end of a level, all of it creating a “Whoa, how did I do that?” reaction from the player.
Moving on, you have the cutscene in between level 1-1 and level 1-2, teaching the player that you can go into certain pipes. By the time you hit level 1-2, you already know every basic concept of how to pass the whole game, and the only thing stopping you from finishing the whole game is your own skill (and incidentally, I’ve never been able to finish the game).
I can’t end this little talk about level design without mentioning level 1-3. You remember level 1-3, don’t you? Don’t you? Actually, you probably don’t… it looks like this:
It’s a decent level… nothing wrong with it. So why isn’t it remembered? Because of level 1-2, of course. Everyone who was shown Super Mario Bros. by their friends was shown the end-of-level warp secret. It was one of the worst kept secrets in video games, but it was cool because it felt like you were cheating, and because human beings always like to use as little effort as possible to get to an end goal, you’d probably find that more people remember level 4-1 as the unofficial “third level” of the game.
Thus ends today’s lesson!