Falling With Style
As part of our week-long Super Mario anniversary celebration, Nick Wanserski, The A.V. Club’s resident illustrator, delivered a stunning piece that dissected the ways Nintendo makes falling fun in the Super Mario games. Destructive Recovery pinpointed another delightful trick Nintendo employs:
One of the most fun parts of a Mario game is when a seemingly deadly fall leads to a reward. I always loved the patch of quicksand in Mario Bros. 3 that, instead of killing you, merely leads you to an underground level below. A player can only find this underground area A) by accident, or B) through noticing that this particular patch of quicksand extends down further than the others and getting curious as to why.
The possibility of accidental discovery is something I’ve been keen to include in my Super Mario Maker levels. Falling shouldn’t always equal failure. But as Lord Stoneheart points out, not every creator is quite as humane:
I agree with the premise of Nick’s piece, so it reminds me of two trends in Mario Maker levels that annoy me:
1. Coin trails that lead to certain death. (It feels like such a betrayal)
2. Leaps of faith where you can’t see where you’re jumping, but you have to jump just right in order to land on the next platform correctly.
And Unexpected Dave took this Mario Maker venting session to the next level:
These are problems I see frequently in levels that are otherwise thoughtfully designed:
1. Levels that start with Mario in mortal peril. Before you even have a chance to get your bearings, Mario is dead.
2. Levels with extensive use of single-block platforms. Constantly having to check Mario’s momentum turns jumping into a chore.
3. Levels that can be “failed” without dying. It’s fun when levels have clever and tricky puzzles using p-switches and the like. It’s not fun when you’re left stranded on a ledge because you couldn’t reach a wall in time, and your only option is suicide.
4. Levels that cram in too many ideas. Hey, it’s great when someone has seven distinctly clever ideas for a course. But there’s no need to cram all seven into a single stage. Especially when there’s no option for checkpoints.
The general point, I guess, is that I dislike levels that require absolute perfection to be sustained for a long period of time. After a really tricky series of jumps, give me a safe platform. Let me have a mushroom before I swim into a sea of bloopers. If I run out of time with a p-switch, give me a way to go back and try again. If I need to cross a pit of spikes before my starman runs out, give me just a second or two more than the bare minimum necessary.
90 percent of the courses I play in the “Expert 100-Mario Challenge” don’t feel like uber-hard Mario levels; they feel like Battletoads levels—except even Battletoads had checkpoints.
And bearskinrug added to the list:
5. Question blocks containing enemies. It’s a cute idea and was amusing the first time I ran across it. By now, it’s so overplayed that I barely even trigger question blocks anymore. Design should not give me a disincentive to explore what people have created.
6. Invisible blocks for negative purposes. Again, invisible blocks should be a fun thing to find, but I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve either gotten trapped in a jail of invisible blocks or died when jumping for the flagpole because I hit an invisible block strategically placed to block the “optimal” jump path. That’s just a dick move.
7. Guessing game doors. Every door should lead somewhere interesting or worthwhile. None should lead straight to a lava pit.
In writing these, it seems apparent that my complaints can probably be categorized into a single theme of “There should be positive feedback for surprises.” Good design rewards players for exploring a level. Bad design punishes players for doing the same thing. If I am a creator putting levels out there, it is counterintuitive to punish people who do me the favor of sampling my creations.
TheSingingBrakeman took us back to positivity, calling out the clever tricks users have come up with for creating good Mario Maker boss fights:
One thing that I’ve seen a couple times is well-designed boss fights, which are actually pretty hard to orchestrate using the provided tools. Many levels simply treat boss characters as an obstacle to run past or jump over. But a couple of neat techniques I’ve seen on levels to essentially require a boss fight are:
1. Having a chasm that’s only passable if the player commandeers the boss’ Koopa Blimp.
2. Having a donut platform beneath the player’s feet that is difficult to activate without the boss being cleared.
3. Having a wall after the boss with a small-Mario sized gap at the bottom, so that getting through the gap is too time consuming to complete with big Mario but doable with small Mario if you lose your power-up.
Let’s Get Weird
We started the week with a Gameological Q&A about our favorite “WTF” moments in the series’ history. As always, the comments were filled to the brim with your stellar selections. SirExal remembered a particularly uncomfortable scene Super Mario Sunshine:
There’s always Bowser Jr.’s first real appearance in Super Mario Sunshine. “Shadow Mario” has kidnapped Peach (for the second or third time), and Mario wins a bizarre boss fight to defeat the doppelganger. Shadow Mario reveals himself to be a small, paintbrush-wielding koopa child, who promptly insists that Princess Peach is his “Mama.”
Peach’s response, instead of being along the lines of “What? No. That’s not even—I don’t,” is just to say, “Mama Peach? I’m your mama?” While, of course, this is revealed to be a lie at the end of the game, Peach’s complete lack of denial or even surprise at the maternal allegation is strange, to say the least.
For teenytinygirlsquad, it was the strange inconsistencies of Super Mario Land:
Super Mario Land for Game Boy was always a weird game for me. I remember getting it as a kid, and it felt like I was playing a knockoff. Everything in the instruction manual was so poorly translated and had a weird, pseudo-Japanese name. Instead of rescuing peach from Bowser, you’re rescuing Daisy from “Tatanga” in “Sarasaland” instead of the Mushroom Kingdom. There were “goombos” instead of goombas. You fire weird “powerballs” instead of fireballs. The freakin’ can-can-dance song plays when you get a star. And worst of all, there was no world select screen like I was used to from Super Mario World and SMB3 on my SNES, so if you died you had to start the entire game over!
In Super Mario 64, having some relatively goofy-looking villains early on did not prepare you for the heartless, tooth-filled visage of that giant moray eel. And the only way to lure him out is to dangle your own body directly in front of him until he savagely lunges at you. Staring at you all the while…just staring with those giant round eyes…
In Super Mario World, when you beat all the special stages and change the whole world so that koopas are wearing creepy Mario masks instead of shells. What the hell did you do, Mario?
It’s Dangerous To Go Alone
John Teti dropped by with a For Our Consideration op-ed about how the loneliness inherent in the original Super Mario Bros. has faded as the series continued. Down in the comments, Billy Madison felt the same sensation when playing the early Zelda games:
I had a similar experience with a recent replay of the first Zelda. There are no towns, just stores in caves. The bonuses are hidden, forcing you to bomb every wall or burn every bush on a screen—which could cost you money if you destroy someone’s “door.” It’s almost apocalyptic.
Zelda 2 isn’t as welcoming as Link’s Awakening, but it feels cozy in comparison to the original because of the people you meet. It works so well that the abandoned town with a single magician left behind is genuinely creepy.
Sandler’s List agreed and dug deeper into the effect of increasing population density on Zelda’s atmosphere:
Over time, Hyrule has become a more hospitable place, so now you tend to have some sage or owl or fairy to point you in the right direction at all times. To some degree, the addition of an actual non-hermit populace has helped flesh out that setting, but recent Zelda games rarely give me that sense of danger and adventure that the first one offered. Skyward Sword, in particular, felt overcrowded. A Link To The Past (the best in the series, in my opinion) struck the ideal balance, giving Hyrule a people and culture but keeping their numbers low and confining them mostly to a small chunk of the map. If you met a character outside Kakariko Village, you usually knew they must have some importance, because they—like you—aren’t supposed to be there.
As the series edges closer to redundancy with each new title, I wonder if the best way to rejuvenate it might be to return to the open-ended isolation and hostility of that first game.
That’s it, folks! I hope you enjoyed Super Mario Bros. week as much as we enjoyed putting it together. Thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week.