LESSONS IN 2D GAME DESIGN
A game by Nintendo for NES, originally released in 1985.
People have a strong tendency to use Super Mario Bros. as a comparison when discussing any type of platforming game, and even side-scrolling action games in general. This is due, in part, to the fact that the original Super Mario Bros. has been experienced by more people than practically any other console game ever made, and is therefore easily relatable. But more than that, the game is tightly designed. It wasn’t successful just because it was technically superior to the other games on the market; it was a better designed game overall. At the time of its release it was a revelation, but even decades later, it still holds up.
We all understand what an important role Super Mario Bros. played in shaping the gaming landscape, and in revitalizing the U.S. game market, but the question is: how is it that a game created at the start of the NES era – with a relatively small team, small budget, and laughably simple hardware – could outshine many of the multi-million dollar blockbusters of today? The answer is in the game. And it’s been right in front of us the whole time.
New technology and digital distribution have once again opened avenues for small teams and talented individuals to make something akin to the classics of their youth (and possibly even get paid for it), and the gaming industry is finally starting to recover from the hardware-led assault that eschewed straightforward 2D gameplay for 3D “realism”.
But just tossing a game into a 2D framework doesn’t make it a classic, and simply mimicking the design of Super Mario Bros. won’t get you anywhere if you don’t understand what it is that makes the design work. For evidence, you need only look at the countless mediocre copycat platformers and mascot-based games that filled console libraries back in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Super Mario Bros. is not a perfect game. Its formula has been continuously tweaked and revised across the span of numerous games and console generations, which has resulted in a number of superior 2D action games. However, the basics are in place, and there are many lessons in game design that may be learned…
Lesson the First: Connection to the Environment
Mario’s connection to the environment is accomplished in a variety of ways. First, and perhaps most importantly, Mario is affected by inertia and gravity. Pressing the JUMP button doesn’t just send Mario into the air a certain distance and return him to the ground at the same speed. Instead, as he reaches the apex of his jump, he will begin to slow down, and then he will be pulled back to the ground, accelerating as he falls.
As Mario runs, he will pick up speed, and letting off of the D-pad will see him slow to a stop. If you wish to change directions while running, Mario will actually skid to a stop – with a sound effect and animation that emphasizes this fact. Running and then ducking will allow Mario to slide across the ground, potentially beneath lower platforms. And, while it defies the laws of natural physics, Mario can also change directions in midair, and again the player’s influence over his trajectory is impacted by inertia.
Gravity-influenced jumps and inertia driven movement aren’t necessary for 2D action games – in fact, many games are all the better without them – but its inclusion is an important thing for a game designer to consider. It impacts the pace of the game and the precision of the player’s movements. It also adds a bit of anticipation on the part of the player who is attempting to make a long jump, reach a higher platform, or line up a perfect landing on an enemy’s head. Super Mario Bros. could certainly have been developed without these additions, but the game would have had an entirely different feel.
There are a number of more subtle environmental connections as well. For instance, a Fire Flower-powered Mario can launch fireballs from his hand… but they don’t just shoot straight forward like a gun. Instead, they travel across the ground. More importantly, they bounce across the ground, potentially bouncing high over an open space, or falling down a bottomless pit. They’re somewhat less predictable because the player has to consider the effects of the environment when using the ability. The main reason why the fireballs were designed to stay near the ground is obvious: most of the enemies that Mario faces are shorter than he is. But making them bounce brings the environment into the equation, while removing a bit of precision. The player cannot simply run to the right and expect the fireballs to destroy all of his enemies – particularly given that some types of enemies can jump over them – so it works to retain the pace of the game. Also, only 2 fireballs are allowed on the screen at a time, so a player running behind a pair of bouncing fireballs will not be able to fire another.
Another major environmental connection comes in the form of blocks. Rather than simply filling the world with standard platforms and roaming enemies, the world is filled with numerous blocks. Some are made of brick, others are question blocks, and some are immovable and unbreakable. Again, this keeps the pace of the game somewhat slower and more deliberate, as the player is free to explore the area for coins and powerups, although the timer will prevent him from exploring absolutely everything. What’s truly interesting about the blocks, however, is how Mario interacts with them.
When Mario is in his small default size, he cannot break the bricks, although he still gets a reaction from them – an environmental connection – as they bump up and make a sound when he hits them. This effect is a remnant of his days in the original Mario Bros. where the only way to stun enemies was to bump them from below. Here, Mario can kill enemies outright by hitting them from below, and he will be rewarded with any coins or powerups that he finds in these blocks, even though he cannot break them.
As Super Mario, however, he can crush bricks from below, actually making changes to the environment around him. While the difference in Mario vs. Super Mario is introduced in World 1-1, it is strongly emphasized in World 1-2 where Mario is presented with a wall of bricks with a narrow opening beneath them. If Mario is small, he can run straight through, but Super Mario cannot. Super Mario, however, can crush a row of bricks above him and make his own way through and potentially find hidden coin blocks or powerups while doing so.
This seemingly minor difference in character size changes the landscape of every level. There are certain areas that you will not be able to reach in one form versus the other. And, as a player, you will be constantly aware that you could change forms at any time. Now the game isn’t simply about surviving from one end of the level to the other, but to seek out and retain powerups that will help you to succeed. Again, this forces players to consider the environment, search through rows of blocks, and potentially take additional risks to gain them.
Swimming around dodging Bloopers without any powerups can be maddeningly dangerous, but you might voluntarily give a blooper the opportunity to catch up with you if it means going after a question block with a mushroom inside. And when players hit a water level with Fire Mario, you can be darn sure that they will swim high and unload on every living thing, both clearing the path to safety and gaining satisfaction knowing that they destroyed their most hated foes (Hammer Bros. notwithstanding).
Enemies too, are tied to the environment. Some enemies will turn back when they reach the edge of a platform, while others will fall off the side. Knowing how the enemy will react to the environment is critical to Mario’s survival. Turtle shells, are very environmentally driven as well, as kicking one in an open area is a great way to take down enemies, while doing the same in an enclosed space is a good way to get yourself killed.
Even many of the game’s pickups force you to consider the environment. Activating a block with a mushroom inside means that you’ll have to consider where it will end up, because it will start to move as soon as it emerges. It may head toward a bottomless pit, or bounce off of an obstacle and head back off the left – and impassible – side of the screen. Whatever the case, the game makes you work for these pickups; they are not merely lying about or waiting to be switched on. And the invincibility star is rightly more wily and harder to catch.
Lesson the Second: Self-Evident Gameplay
This is a lesson that has been discussed many times before in terms of design philosophy, namely the concepts that the player learns by traversing World 1-1. The player starts walking to the right, and the screen scrolls with him, but when he moves to the left, it does not. And thus, he interprets that the goal must be to move to the right. The player encounters his first enemy almost immediately, whereupon he must jump or he will die. Now the player understands the jump mechanic and encounters a row of bricks and question blocks, including one that is floating above the rest.
In this little playground, the player learns about hitting blocks from beneath, jumping on top of them, and that blocks with question marks have things inside of them. When he hits the first question block, he gets a coin, and the player may say to himself “Hey, these question blocks contain coins”, but when he hits the second, a mushroom appears. “Surprising,” the player says, followed by, “Hey, where’s it going? Oh it hit that pipe and now it’s coming back. What happens if I touch it? ZOMG!” (or something similar). Now the player knows to start checking blocks to see what else might be in them, and the careful player may be rewarded with the gameplay-altering fire flower or invincibility star.
The lessons continue to unfold throughout the level, teaching the player about his maximum jump height with a row of ever-taller pipes, showing the environmental dangers with enemies and bottomless pits, and demonstrating the need to build up speed before jumping by giving the player rows of staircases over gaps.
Again, these discussions have occurred before, but what’s important is that all of these gameplay concepts were introduced without the use of a formal tutorial. Sure, you may have read the instruction manual… maybe. But the game was designed to be understood by simply playing it. And if there was any question about how to get started, just wait a few seconds at the title screen and watch Mario run through the opening section, demonstrating that first 30 seconds of important learning on his own.
Super Mario Bros. even made an appearance in the arcade as part of the Play Choice 10. Kids in the arcade weren’t sitting down to thumb through an instruction manual before playing it; they learned by doing it themselves. Sure, the instructions tell you about how to kick a turtle shell (and how offscreen enemies can magically jump over it), but once you’ve squashed your first goomba, chances are you’ll try jumping on a koopa as well. And either you’ll drop back down onto the shell by accident, or you’ll see it lying on the ground and say to yourself “I wonder what that’s doing there?”
From the second the player hits the START button, the game is on. He’s not sitting through a 10 minute tutorial explaining what the buttons do… how to break a block, pick up a mushroom, or kick a turtle shell. The game doesn’t constantly interrupt the player when something new comes on the screen, and explain what the thing is and how to deal with it. No, the player simply plays. The how is evident in the design and is structured in such a way that the player learns the lessons as he goes.
Sure, the first time you encounter a flagpole at the end of a level, it may not be immediately evident that you should hit it from a running jump from the top of the staircase. But it’s unavoidable, and you get scored based on where you touch it. Done. Now you know, and next time you’ll be shooting for the top – or trying to jump over it altogether, just to see if you can.
And the flagpole? That’s another environmental connection. Anyone can design a game where you simply scroll off the edge of the screen when you reach the end of a level. Here, for no logical reason other than “because it might be fun”, the player gets to slide down a flagpole. It probably doesn’t hurt that sliding down a poles is something that kids do on playgrounds, and the idea of sliding down a flagpole – or a fireman’s pole – is something that has its own sort of exciting allure.
Lesson the Third: Pleasant and Discoverable Surprises
Hiding something is easy. Hiding something in a place where you know it will be found is slightly more challenging. No parent hides Easter eggs in such a way that their children will never be able to find them, because that’s no fun for anyone involved. The kids want to find the eggs, and the parents want to see the excitement on their children’s faces when they discover them. What’s more, kids have a tendency to search the obvious hiding places. “Hey,” the imaginary children say, “that looks like a nice little out-of-the-way spot; I bet they hid something in there.”
Tadaa, you’ve just learned the joys of both discovering hidden treasure, and the act of hiding it. There’s a reason why video games eventually adopted the term “Easter egg” to describe surprises hidden by the developers, although it doesn’t tend to be used to explain every hidden item in a game.
At any rate, this is precisely what Super Mario Bros. does. It hides things in places where you might be inclined to look. Only the madly obsessive would take any kind of pleasure from meticulously playing every level over and over, breaking every visible brick, and jumping in every open space looking for secrets. In Super Mario Bros. the first secret is a hidden 1UP block in a spot where you just got done making a series of jumps. Later, you’ll discover that some plain bricks have secrets in them as well, including pickups, multi-coin blocks, and even vines leading up into bonus areas in the clouds!
Technically, the first true secret is the pipe just before the 1UP. Today, everyone knows that Mario can descend into certain pipes, but you wouldn’t have known that the first time you played the game. Most pipes can’t be entered, so you may have tried a couple and naturally assumed that you couldn’t do anything with them. But, you get another quick lesson between World 1-1 and 1-2… Mario walks into a pipe, and descends into a dark underworld that is very different from the land of blue skies and green grass that he just left. And so, maybe you try out a few more pipes, drop down into one, and find a bunch of coins.
The first pipe takes you to a few rows of coins, but the one in World 1-2 offers a double row, one on top of a line of bricks and one beneath. Mario can run along the bottom to grab the coins as he goes, and he can break the bricks as he walks to collect the coins above. The last brick doesn’t have a coin above it… but you just broke a whole row of them, so there is at least some temptation to break the last one before you exit the area. And lo and behold, it’s a multi-coin block. You’ve just discovered a secret that the developers wanted you to find, and you are rewarded with not only a sense of accomplishment, but also with additional coins.
Not only that, multi-coin blocks are games in themselves, as the speed in which you hit them determines the number of coins you can harvest. It has a rule (collect the coins before time runs out), and a goal (get the maximum number of coins possible). A rule and a goal are the minimum requirement for any game. Getting the maximum number of coins from one of these blocks offers both challenge and reward, which are core to making a game fun. And all of this is taking place within a single block, and it existed years before the industry would coin the term “mini-game”.
After a while, you start to get a feel for where something might be tucked away. You see that oddly-configured cluster of bricks, or a row of blocks that’s way out of your reach, or that enemy pacing back and forth on a platform that is well away from your travel path? There could be something there. And by continuing to place rewards in the obvious hiding places, the designer is building a connection with the player, and vice versa. This also gives the designer license to hide a few things in less obvious places, without offending the player’s sensibilities by making the hidden item seem “unfair” due to its unpredictable location.
And let us not forget warp zones. The ceiling in World 1-2 is made out of destructible blocks. It could have been made out of any type of block; it didn’t need to be anything special since it functionally only acts as a ceiling to emphasize the fact that the player is underground. However, by making it out of destructible blocks, and demonstrating that out-of-the-way blocks could have something hidden in them, the player is led to wonder whether it would be possible for him to get up there and break them.
Then, once he finds a spot that lets him break the bricks, he discovers that his jump height takes him just slightly above them. And now the player wonders if it’s possible to actually get up there. Later in the level, a row of upward moving platforms makes this a realistic goal (although it is certainly possible to get up there earlier in the level).
Once the player walks down that path a bit, his retreat is blocked by the ever-scrolling screen and he has no choice but to walk past the obvious exit… only to discover 3 more pipes, each with a different destination! (We’ll discuss the ramifications of warp zones shortly.) Odds are that it will take players a few playthroughs before they encounter this secret on their own, but since World 1-2 must be replayed on every attempt, the area will become more and more familiar to the player, who will be more apt to try different strategies.
Lesson the Fourth: Varied Gameplay
You know what’s fun? Running through World 1-1, killing goombas and koopas, getting coins, and finding powerups. You know what’s not so fun? Doing that same thing for 32 levels in a row. Granted, a vast majority of console games in the pre-NES era featured the similar environments that simply repeated ad-infinitum, pitting the player against ever stronger, faster, and/or more numerous foes until he was eventually defeated. The point of those games was to score as many points as possible, and it was a remnant of the arcade days when you were shooting to put your initials on the top of the score table at the end of the game.
But the NES allowed for more gameplay variety, and while Super Mario Bros. still has a score at the top of the screen, that is no longer the player’s primary motivation to complete the game. No, the player is on a quest, a quest to rescue a princess from a terrible monster in a distant castle. It is a story that predates video games by literally thousands of years. And in these stories, the journey is always part of the joy of the story. The hero must travel to faraway lands, overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, take some lumps along the way, and eventually emerge victorious. And, with the proper skills (or liberal use of warp zones), that’s exactly what this game offers.
Mario starts out in a fairly idyllic setting – enemies notwithstanding – with green grass, a blue sky with puffy clouds, and hills and bushes in the background. Soon thereafter, he finds himself deep in the underground, surrounded by darkness, with a dank feel, greenish blocks, and echoing sounds. He then travels to a world of moving platforms suspended over bottomless pits, and elevated plateaus crawling with enemies, with very little room to dodge. And finally, he braves the lava and fire of Bowser’s castle, eventually facing off against the beast himself… only to find that the goal of his quest – the princess – is in another castle. Not to be stopped by such a minor inconvenience, the hero leaves the castle (which sits at the beginning of World 2-1, and offers the player a connection to his previous environment), and continues on his quest, braving numerous other environments and dangers.
Some of the new environments present only visual changes, which keeps things from growing stale and aids in a feeling of progression, showing that Mario is indeed traveling through various lands. And some environments offer entirely new gameplay challenges, such as the levels where you must run across platforms with fish jumping up at you from below, underwater sections where you must constantly tap the JUMP button to swim and avoid currents that will pull you down to your death, and platforms on pulleys that must be aligned properly using your weight and which will drop off into a chasm should you stay on one just a little too long. Of course, you’ll also encounter a few new foes along the way, including several variations of koopas, and the deadly Hammer Bros.
Each chapter culminates in a challenging fight. It’s against the same enemy each time, but the fight gets a bit more difficult with each attempt, as does the gauntlet that you must survive in order to reach it. This gives chapters a clear ending, and offers the player a sense of accomplishment before continuing. These fortress levels are evenly spaced at every 4 levels, setting milestones for the player and allowing for an escalation of challenge.
Not only that, there are actually several different strategies for defeating Bowser. You can jump over him or run under him. As Super Mario you can even run straight into him and use your temporary invincibility period to make it past. Once you’ve done this, you’re free to grab the axe, “cutting” the bridge, which falls away and sends Bowser plummeting into the fire below. Or, if you manage to survive all the way to Bowser with your fireballs intact, you can simply stand on the far edge of the screen and launch fireballs at him until he inexplicably turns into a regular enemy and falls into the lava.
Lesson the Fifth: Accessibility and the Escalation of Challenge
Let’s face it, Super Mario Bros. was, for many people, their introduction to video games as a hobby. Sure, they might have played a couple of games of Pac-Man at the arcade, bowling alley, bar, grocery store, laundromat, etc. (arcade machines used to be all over the place), but the act of actually sitting down to play a game would have been an alien notion to most. Prior to Super Mario Bros., most games were little more than distractions that could be picked up for a few minutes and enjoyed, and then put down again. That was the arcade mentality as well. Drop in a quarter, get a few minutes (or seconds) of gameplay, die, repeat. You basically saw everything the game had to offer in the first few minutes, and playing the game didn’t really require any further commitment or learning on the part of the player.
Super Mario Bros., on the other hand, introduces its core mechanics in the first few worlds, and then builds upon them as the game progresses. So, rather than just facing the same levels again and again with faster or more numerous enemies, the player instead must learn to play the game. Then, he will be tasked to use what he has learned in order to overcome more difficult challenges, such as smaller platforms, new mixtures of enemies, and an all around higher concentration of things that will kill him. The end result is a game that anyone can pick up and play – and enjoy – but only truly skilled players will complete.
We’ve spent multiple console generations trying to separate the casual games from the hardcore, and games for kids versus games for adults, when one of the industry’s founding titles is a game that is designed to appeal to all of the above. In the height of the NES era, most gamers had played Super Mario Bros., but only a fraction of them had actually played it to completion. It’s not an easy game, and the initial challenge is to simply get as far as you can before you die.
The modern debate, of course, is whether the player who hasn’t the skill to beat a game receives as much enjoyment as the player who has. In 1985, there was no such question. Super Mario Bros. was meant to be an enjoyable experience for anyone who sat down with it, whether they made it to the end or not.
A design choice that emphasizes this philosophy is the use of warp zones. Warp zones – aside from being fun little secrets – serve 2 distinct gameplay purposes: For less-skilled players, warp zones afford the opportunity to sample the game’s later levels, without requiring the skill necessary to access them directly via level progression. And they offer a hint of things to come for those who are willing to put in the time and build the skills necessary to make it through.
For more-skilled players, warp zones allow them to drop into the game and skip past some of the easier stuff. In a game with no save system or password feature, this was the only real way to pick up where you left off, which is particularly handy since there are a total of 32 levels in the game.
If you made it to World 6-1 on your last playthrough, chances are that you’d like to be able to give it another shot without having to defeat the preceding 20 levels in succession. So, players can hop in, shoot forward to a specific world (or shoot past for a look at the even harder levels) without becoming bored with easier levels that they have already mastered.
Lesson the Sixth: Collection With Purpose
Many games task the player with collecting doodads of some sort. The trouble is that collectibles by themselves have no intrinsic value.
Collecting for the sake of collecting is not at all rewarding, and only the mad – or tie-wearing gorillas, apparently – could derive pleasure from it. In Super Mario Bros., collecting coins leads to 1UPs. 1UPs are generally needed to complete the game, because it is quite difficult. Every game of Super Mario Bros. starts you off in World 1-1, and if you’re going to make it to the end of World 8-4, you’re probably going to need more than 3 lives.
Technically speaking, you’re “collecting” a score as well, which also has no intrinsic value. It does factor into gameplay somewhat, however, by offering players ever-doubling point values by bouncing from one enemy to the next without touching the ground, and by displaying that increased score prominently so the player can see it. Also, by kicking a turtle shell at just the right time, these doubled points will eventually pay off in the form of a 1UP. Otherwise, a score in a game like this is just a remnant of the preceding arcade era.
Lesson the Seventh: The Importance of Sound
Sound in video games has come a long way, from hardware-generated beeps to fully-orchestrated soundtracks. In the early days, sound was not a key driver to the gaming experience, and generally amounted to a tone being played whenever something vital was occurring in the game (item collection, weapon fire, something exploding, etc.). That’s not to say that sound design was absent from the process altogether, but it was often strictly limited by what sounds the hardware was capable of producing rather than forethought by the designer as to how he felt the game should sound while it was being played.
Even once consoles were developed that had a higher capacity for producing sound, the sound designer was typically given a very tiny portion of the cartridge for creating his composition. It wasn’t until the advent of the CD medium that sound designers (and composers) were really free to create something that existed entirely outside of hardware limitations.
There’s no arguing that Super Mario Bros. had some strong and effective themes. Most gamers can easily recognize the World 1-1 theme, which offers a fun and jaunty (yes, jaunty) introduction to Mario’s adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom. The theme invites players to come in, have fun, and play around. But the songs change as the player encounters new environments, with a darker theme in World 1-2, and a sinister theme once the player breaches the walls of Bowser’s castle. And of course, there’s the very memorable floaty carnival-style theme that plays in the underwater levels, which the player first encounters in World 2-2.
But even more than the themes, the sound design of the game helps to emphasize the action that is taking place onscreen. There are separate sound effects for bumping blocks versus breaking them, the unique sound of an emerging powerup, and different sounds for squashing a goomba versus kicking a turtle shell. Many of these sounds add to the overall mood of the level, with the echoing sounds of the underground levels and the menacing sounds of Bowser launching fireballs at you from offscreen. And, the theme comes back into play when it comes to the level’s timer, speeding up when time is running out, and adding a very real sense of urgency for the player.
So, while sound is often one of the final pieces to be incorporated into a game, it is often one of the most important elements for setting the tone of the experience and for offering an immersive setting. When used properly, it is a tool that allows developers to tie the player to the game world by providing feedback to the player’s actions.
It’s true that many of the above lessons were further fleshed out and refined in later entries in the series, with the addition of new powerups and new gameplay, but the core concepts were largely in place in the first. Some of these lessons have became less important with time, such as the series’ penchant for awarding 1UPs to players who have the ability to continue as often as they like and resume their progress from any point.
Still, the lessons are important, even more so now that so many new indie developers are entering the marketplace and creating new 2D gaming experiences. Every 2D game designer (and likely every 3D game designer) can learn something from Super Mario Bros. If nothing else, it is important to understand what it is that makes the game work, and why it remains a favored classic.
LESSONS IN 2D GAME DESIGN