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Super Mario Bros Game Design Analysis

January 28, 2013

People usually talk about how cool playing a Mario game is. Common highlights are that it is simple, intuitive, and easy to learn. However, I do not see a lot of focus on why that is the case. Why are Mario games simple? Why are they easy to play? Why does it feel so rewarding when you jump on a turtle?

To provide an answer, one needs to understand a concept called ‘Game Design Analysis’. It is when you look at a games mechanics and structure, while trying to determine how that combines into creating an experience. Game developers do this all the time as a tool of their trade

I decided to create this video analyzing Mario’s gameplay then to share with others how game developers usually analyses their games. My goal is not to have a complete and thorough analysis of Mario’s gameplay. It is just an attempt to give viewers a sneak peek into the design process that these games take.

Axis of Power

Reviewers generally define Mario as a platforming game. This definition comes from the fact that players spend most of their time jumping from spot to spot. Although it is a fair description, I would say Mario games, more specifically the first one, centers on what I refer to as Mario’s spatial axis of power.

Mario has three main reference points when it comes to the spatial axis around him. Above, below and on the sides. Everything, absolutely everything, around the game centers on these references points. I cannot emphasize this enough and you will soon understand why. Although power ups give Mario special abilities, they more importantly change the elements of force around Mario’s spatial reference. Let me detail that a bit more.

Mario in his initial stage, little Mario, is weak on the sides. If an enemy on the sides touches him, he will die. Most enemies in the game exploit that. They all possess a pattern of moving on the same reference point that Mario is weak on. Turtles & goombas fall in that category, since they move from side to side. However, Little Mario can jump on top of some enemies, meaning he is strong from below. Enemies do not pose a threat to Mario when being faced from that axis. To counteract that, spiked goombas play with concept, since they are an enemy that can harm the player when jumped on. This is not a coincidence; this is a design so enemies comply with the spatial reference around the player. Notice also, how easy it is for the player to understand why the spiked goombas are harmful when jumped on, but turtles are not. There is no need to explain this component to the player since it’s self-apparent – spikes are bad, shells are not. You see these characteristics in other areas of Mario’s gameplay as well.

Continuing, little Mario also cannot break blocks when he hits them from above; meaning his spatial reach on the game level has diminished.

As he gets a mushroom, Little Mario then transforms to big Mario. Although the player can take, an extra enemy hit, and return to the little Mario form, his spatial axis of power are still the same. He is weak from the sides and on top, but strong from below. What this changes then is his reach on the game level. He can now break blocks, meaning he has access to areas he did not have before. He also can no longer access narrow paths that only little Mario could.

These changes are easy to learn because it is easy for the user to understand why the gameplay elements have changed. There is no back-story or extra context required for the player to understand why he cannot access a particular point. The game presents to the player rules that are clear and logical. Big objects cannot go through small places, and big Mario has the strength to destroy blocks. Again, another implementation of intuitive design into Mario’s gameplay structure.

It might not seem that obvious, but the mushroom power up is a really good and clever design trick. Here is why.

Assume the creators of Mario, instead of using a mushroom that increases his size, used instead a green glove of power. Rendering the glove of power is unpractical, since it is too small. To address that, we would have user interface that indicates the player when he is in possession of the green glove of power. With it, he is capable of breaking blocks when hitting them from below. In addition, with the green glove of power, force fields that were not visible before now appear blocking the player’s path.

Compare the gloves of power with the mushroom. Although they produce the exact same gameplay mechanic, the experience they provide is quite different. First, seeing Mario growing in size as he collects a power up is a clear empathetic way of telling the user that he now is stronger than before. A bigger Mario implies a stronger Mario, a concept that the player can easily understand. Meanwhile the green glove of power requires user interface and a whole background context explaining what they do and how they work. With the Mushroom, the user interface is Mario itself because he is now bigger. It is a clever way of combining both the user interface & the gameplay changes into one aspect – Mario itself.

As Mario catches a fire flower, he is now able to throw fireballs. Although it is a very neat effect, this element combines again with the spatial reference of power. With the firepower, Mario is no longer weak on the sides, but strong. Although enemies still pose a threat to him on the sides, he can tackle them accordingly. Had the power up allowed Mario to throw fire straight down for example it would have not changed any of the current gameplay mechanics. It might have served as a good counter measure against the spiked goombas, but these enemies are far and few throughout the game. In short, the player’s spatial power reference would be intact and no actual ‘power up’ would have occurred if he could only throw fire straight down.

You might not have consciously realized this before, but subconsciously you probably have many times already.

Have you ever played a game with 50 weapons and all sorts of different power ups? Most often than not, players generally just pick 2 or 3 sets of weapons and use them throughout the entire game. All these weapons, although have different aesthetics, they still have the same equivalent gameplay functionality. Meaning one of them is best suited for the current rules of the game, and players just generally stick with them, disregarding all other weapons. How useful are the other weapons then? In the end, this just becomes noise to the gameplay and do not really add any depth to the game.

The star is the last power up Mario can get and it fits in nicely with the rest of the gameplay mechanics. It is a well-balanced power up, meaning that Mario is now powerful on his entire spatial axis, but only for a limited amount of time. It is useful for new players to pass challenging areas, and gives a nice cathartic element of power for the players.

The spatial analysis of powers around Mario also serves as a mechanism for describing why everyone hates the Hammer bros. The hammer brothers throw their axes in an arced ways, meaning they exploit more than one spatial weakness. I have seen comments from others stating that the problem with the Hammer Brothers is that their axes go to fast. Although it might be true, that argument still misses the point that by exploiting two axis of weakness, the player has no proper way to defend himself. It is a tough challenge, since Mario does not have a proper defense against incoming threats from more than one axis. The hammer bros are my only criticism of Mario’s gameplay, since I believe Mario’s creators could have designed them in a better way. If they threw their hammers via the sides, meaning they would bounce and move just like Mario’s fireballs, they would fit in nicely with the spatial axis I have been describing so far. If Mario’s fireballs could counter act the oncoming axes as well, this would also serve as another additive element to the value of the firepower.

The axis of power are also an easy tool to explain why the underwater levels were so challenging – Mario has no spatial reference of power, he is weak on all sides. The developers though realized this and presented the player either with enemies that moved slowly or in a rhythmic movement.

Let us move to Mario 3 and evaluate how this game improved the axis of power the original game created. Mario was the first platforming game in which the player could scroll both simultaneously vertically and horizontally. The game creators could have explored this new technical in numerous ways, but they choose the simplest to use – allowing Mario to fly.

With Mario’s new flying ability, this enhanced the spatial reference point in all sorts of manners and the creators adapted the game design to this new condition.

The leaf power up, which gives Mario a raccoon suite, mitigates most of the new design challenges a game like Mario 3 has. The raccoon suite allows players to explore by either flying upwards or from falling from great heights. This last point is incredibly important. Since the raccoon suite lowers the rate at which the player falls, the player than has greater control of what Mario is doing. This means that the player will not feel intimidated from falling from great heights; even where he is unfamiliar. This allowed the developers throw the player in all manner of situations, while allowing the player to retain control.

The tailspin also fits nicely into the axis of power. With the ability to jump & tail spin, players have more control on how they can inflict damage onto enemies. As of consequence, enemies now can interact in more ways with the player. You see a lot more diagonally based attacks in this game, but they are not as obtrusive as the hammer bros were in Mario 1. That is because the player has the proper powers ups to deal with these kinds of situations.

The raccoon suite also counterbalances well with the firepower. The firepower gives Mario a great deal of reach on his attack, while the raccoon tail is does not. If the raccoon suite had a ranged attack, it would be too overpowered. The firepower would have no true benefit to the player at all and it would just be noise in the gameplay. Having a balanced set of power-ups means that the player is never at a true loss when switching between different powers.

Moving on to Super Mario World, we see an evolution of the axis of power concept once again. This time though, it comes via the presence of Yoshi. Yoshi enables the player to move in a new way: the player can now double jump.

Using Yoshi as the mechanism for the double jump is clever in two ways. One is that it is easy for the player to understand the concept of jumping off something, while two; it is easy for the player to understand why he can only do it once. Imagine having the same gameplay mechanic but instead of Yoshi, there are the green boots of power. Assume that the green boots of power “dissolve” after the player uses the double jump mechanic. Since they are too small, the green boots would require UI and a background context to why they would dissolve.

Although the green boots present the same gameplay mechanic, it is not as intuitive as using Yoshi.  The user interface for the green boots of power doesn’t present any extra information to the player that Yoshi couldn’t. Using Yoshi as the double jump mechanism, we see once again a clever way of combining gameplay mechanics with the games design.

More importantly, Yoshi created the concept of a friend you carried along the way throughout the game. People care about their companion and players would not feel as much empathy for the green boots of power as they do for Yoshi. This highlights that game design is more than just mechanics; it is the construction of an experience for the player.

Exploration

Another important part of Mario is its exploration aspect. In it, the player is not simply traversing a world but he is exploring it. It is not just a collection of levels — they are the Mushroom kingdom. In the original game, the greatest catalyst for this are the pipes. They break the linearity of the game, which is crucial in creating a sense of exploration for the player. Every pipe can now be a gateway to another area, filled with new things to explore. The pipes themselves also serve as obstacles meaning they can serve a double purpose in the games experience.

Mario 3 expands the exploration concept more broadly by including the world layout. The developers could have achieved the same mechanic via a selection screen where the player chooses which levels he wants to go. Many games possess this pattern of simple level selection. However, the over world made it clear to the user that he was indeed exploring a world. It also served as a ‘waiting room’ where players could use items they have acquired to prep up for the next battle. It was a ‘safe spot’ where players could relax while contemplating what was coming ahead. This mixture of relaxation and tension is critical for creating what is known as ‘flow’ state in the player.

Flow is a state where the player connects seamlessly with the game. It is that moment where the world around the player dissolves and only the games experience exists. I will go into detail on flow design in another video, but Mario serves to display that even the stage selection screen can present a mechanism of experience in a game.

Super Mario World expanded exploration even more. The world would change as you explored it. Mountains would change. Plains would form. The world reacted to the player and his actions, creating a sense of awe. A clear example of exploration as an element of gameplay is right in the beginning of Super Mario World. The game presents the player with the possibility of climbing a mountain on the side. As he does so, the player sees a first glance the rest of the world he is about to explore. It is foreshadowing of not only the next gameplay elements, but also the experience the player will have.

This has a tremendous effect on players. Let me give you an personal example of this. On the side of cookie mountain there is an island that stands closely to the rest of continent. I have had numerous discussions with friends of mine, when I was younger, wondering if there was something on that island. We spent countless hours trying to find that islands secret, even though in the end there was nothing there. The desire of exploring my friends and I had was a byproduct of the games design. The game invited us to explore, and in doing so, we explored it. In contrast, how many times have you seen a game with a fully detailed world, and yet you never even bothered to explore it? That is because the game never gave you any value in terms of experience in order to do so. It still amazes me how sometimes the most beautifully constructed worlds, cannot compare to a single unreachable island in Super Mario World.

Catharsis

Spatial references and exploration are gameplay elements that are clear to the user. However, Mario’s gameplay also invites the user to enjoy simple elements that are still rewarding in themselves. They are scattered throughout the game in many ways and they creates an enjoyable experience when put together.

Take for example the questions blocks with multiple coins. The player must keep jumping in order to get all coins hidden within. Why would the creators do that? It does not ‘actually add any immediate value to the game from what it seems. The creators could have simplified this by having all 5 coins pop-out together when the player jumped on the block.

However, jumping on the coin blocks and getting coins one by one is fun since it is a visceral action. Tapping the jump button repeatedly and getting rewards feels good. Compare this to Donkey Kong’s country multiple banana starches. It is the same gameplay element; the player gets a bunch of bananas instead of just one. Now ask yourself, do these present the same experience for the user? It clearly is not.

Another aspect are the end level quick games. Mario 1 had a flagpole, which invited players to jump as high as they could. Reaching the top was a satisfactory accomplishment just in itself, since the player could see his achievement in a physical way. Mario 3 had the shifting cards, which is similar to a slot machine element. The mystery of which value they would get would add to the player’s overall enjoyment. Super Mario World had the end gates that acted similarly to the first game. Players wanted to get to the highest score not just because of the bonus round, but because of the sense of accomplishment.

Compare this to Donkey Kong Country, which has only an exit sign at the end of the level. There is no cathartic moment of victory as the player finishes the level. It just happens like any other ordinary task. If finishing a level has no element of gain, then why play the level at all then? It is important to give the player the sensation that he is conquering something, and when that is subdued, the experience as a whole gets lost.

Summary

There are hundreds of elements that make Mario games fun to play. Attempting to analyze all of them is pointless since game play is more than the sum of its parts. It is not just getting the mushroom or hitting the question blocks. The combined experience is what makes it an entertaining ride for the end user.

I hope with this video I managed to display to you the various aspects and elements that come into making a good game design. I would love to read your feedback, so feel free to send me an e-mail at daltrey.waters@gmail.com or drop a comment down below. Like and share if you enjoyed the video as well J

Thanks for watching, until then. Cheers.

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