When the DS first launched, Nintendo decided to port Super Mario 64 over to the handheld. This game is mostly the same except for a few mini games, a multiplayer mode, and some new playable characters. Over all, the port was a good one with the biggest downside being the adapted controls. It's difficult to configure analog controls with digital buttons.
In the next few years Nintendo released 3 "doubleganger siblings" or 3 platformers that have strong roots in the design of previous Nintendo Masterpieces. For these games the DS touch screen is mostly used for navigating menus and displaying large buttons. New Super Mario Brothers, Yoshi's Island DS, and Super Princess Peach are the doubleganger siblings that all fall short of their predecessor.
New Super Mario Brothers (NSMB) takes after Super Mario Brothers for the NES. Yoshi's Island DS (YIDS) is analogous to Super Mario World: Yoshi's Island for the SNES. And Super Princess Peach (SPP) is modeled after both of theses games. Understanding exactly how these games work compared to the console counterparts is more compliated than it seems. Handhelds are different devices than consoles and requires different design techniques and approaches. The reducsed screen size and aspect ratio is always an issue. Many were quick to judge some of these games as not having innovated, but there are sublte ways to innovate on a theme. Uncovering the structures for these games requires that we look at their structures starting with the core and moving outward.
NSMB starts off with the core of Super Mario Brothers: JUMP, DUCK, MOVE, RUN. Then additional abilities were added: WALL KICK, TRIPLE JUMP, GROUND POUND giving Mario then ability to platform/climb vertically in all new ways as well as destruct the level beneath him. From these expanded core abilities, the levels in NSMB were free to be designed in any direction. Consequently the developers felt free to take bits and pieces of level design from SMB, SMB3, and SMW. The flat level layouts belong to SMB. Some of the bosses and left & right scrolling levels hearken back to SMB3. The world map, chain fences, bosses, and ghost houses can be traced back to SMW.
After drawing from these 3 excellent games, you would think that NSMB would be the most "Mario" Mario game. When I first played it, I enjoyed the game but wasn't very impressed. Now, after studying SMB, SMB3, and SMW more closely, I can appreciate the blend that is NSMB more.
- Blue Shell, tiny mushroom, big mushroom are the new powerups. The blue shell is genius taking the form of the turtle shell that we all know and understand by now and putting a Mario inside. All the interplay desinged into the shell is now under the player's control.
- Levels can be designed to flow up, down, left, and right. The respawning enemies sort of created folded level movements when Mario travels backwards.
- The camera zooms in an out appropriately. When the player needs to see more of what's ahead, the camera pulls back perfectly and smoothly. If Mario can't look before he leaps, then the game just wouldn't quite be Mario.
- The camera also scrolls positioning Mario further left/back on the small DS screen than when on a TV screen like in SMB. Because in NSMB mario is 1/12th the size of the screen instead of 1/16, in order to see enough of the level coming, the screen had to pull back to compensate.
- Some levels are truly inspired (7-3 & 7-5). They not quite like SMB, SMB3, or SMW making them distinctly NSMB.
- Excellent multiplayer modes. Aside from the 4 player Mario Party type mini games, the 2 player side scrolling "battle mode" takes all of the gameplay from the single player in NSMB and pits two players against each other in a looping stage. Who knew all the interplay, mechanics, and folded design would come together so nicely in a multiplayer mode. It's examples like these that show that strong core design goes a long way for any type of game.
- Pits and other level hazards are undermined with WALL KICKs. All pits are almost harmless because Mario can simply wall kick out of them. I found my self taunting the pits by intentionally jumping into them and seeing how low I could go while still being able to safely WALL KICK out. Fortunately, many levels have lava, poison water, and large pits so this strategies . On the plus side, being able to WALL KICK like this helps to minimize the reduced viability problem that all handheld platformers face.
- Too many power ups/power ups in the bank. Because small pits are less of a problem, dying doesn't really happen. To make things worse, there are too many powerups in every level. Unlike in SMB, Mario can take 3 hits before dying from the fire flower powerup state. This extra cushion makes things easier for the player. But then, the player can to store a power up on the bottom screen and use it at any time. Powerups in previous Mario platformers used to be just rare enough so that players would charrish them. Now they're practically given away at every street corner.
- Confused Difficulty Structure: In SMB, players had one clear shot from start to finish to try and beat the game. There were no save options. In SMB3, players had a bit of a cushion. If they lost all of their lives, they would simply start back at the beginng of the world not the game. This design gave the developers the leeway to make the levels trickier and harder. In both of htese games, the player couldn't go back and replay conquered levels. In SMW, players could save after ghost houses, bosses, and big switches dividing the save zones into even smaller sections. NSMB tries to have a linear overward like SMB, tricks to progression like SMB3, and save options similar to SMW. Compounded with the excess of powerups, NSMB difficulty doesn't come from progressing through the levels/game. Instead NSMB positions 3 coins per stage for the player to find and collect to increase the challenge.
- Awkward saving. The limited number of saves in NSMB is awkard like Resident Evil. At some point, I found myself traveling to other world just so I could use a save station because I had run out of saves on the world I was previously in. The save system design has been opened up from the designs of Mario's previous games. There's no need to limit saves like this.
- Some of the new enemies look terribly uninspired and un-Mario. ie. the hanging spiders, running punching ghost thing, the crows, and the pumpkins.
Yoshi's Island DS began with the Yoshi's Island core. MOVE, DUCK, JUMP, FLUTTER, MAKE EGGS, THROW EGGS, GROUND POUND, TONGUE, SPIT, rolling rocks, Piranha flowers, shy guys, flowers, and red coins. For the DS sequel, the developers looked at the character abilities, and decided to add character abilities via the babies riding on Yoshi's back. With the help of these infantile friends the player can now RUN, PARASOL GLIDE, SPIT FIRE BALL, CLIMB ON VINES, and MAGNET objects not to mention collect special character coins. More is better right? With such a solid core how can this game go wrong? It's all in the execution. You can't have a best core design with the worst level design. These two elements of a game depend on each other.
- Reducing the running speed of Yoshi (except with Mario's special ability) was smart because Yoshi takes up 1/35th of the space on a single DS screen instead of 1/48th like on the SNES. Moving more slowly gives the player more time to react to the upcoming level.
- Compensating for the DS screen gap creates a searching/adventure mechanic to the game. Yoshi can adjust the screen up or down by a distance equal to the gap between the DS screens by holding up or down. By hitting X and up/down, the player can shift the main screen of play to the top or bottom screen. This can reveal secrets and parts of the layout to the player.
- Flutter is a genius way to make a downward "JUMP" mechanic, and to show how the different babies have different weights.
- The level design can be quite terrible. The green falling blob level comes to mind. It seems like the developers just threw enemies and platforms together without play testing or tuning the elements to create a solid game idea.
- Creating secret/specific paths that require a specific baby adds unnecessary back tracking the way the baby switching is set up. The unique baby abilities are fine, but the elements that require a specific baby ultimately results in having to memorize areas of the stage for the next pass through or backtrack to get the right baby.
- The levels don't have large governing game ideas. They seem to be in service of the secrets and even those seem forced and artificially placed in the level.
- The new enemies/character look like they were designed/drawn by a child.
Super Princess Peach starts with core mechanics from NSMB and YIDS (MOVE/RUN, JUMP, DUCK, WALK, POUNDBRELLA) with some of the more unique mechanics being functionally analogous (TONGUE = PICK UP, MAKE EGGS = EAT, FLUTTER = FLOATBRELLA). The enemies and level elements are also very similar: Goomba, Paratroopers, Pirahna Flowers, warp pipes, springs, and informative-talking help blocks. SPP even encourages players to collect toads scattered throughout each level like the flowers from Yoshi's Island.
- Primary Function: Understanding and using one's emotions. Each emotional state (Joy, Gloom, Rage, and Calm) have various effects on Peach and/or the environment. Understanding theses effects and using them to progress is the core gimmick of SPP. What's also interesting is that the image of Peach on the bottom screen displays Peaches emotional states and Peach's "woman's intuition." By paying attention to Peach's expression, the player can tune into Peaches more subtle emotions.
- Emotions is the lens through which the whole game is filtered. Not only must the player understand Peach's emotional states, but the emotions of the enemies as well. Like Peach's 5 emotional states (including neutral state) the enemies can also exhibit emotional states. With each state, the enemy's behavior changes. Mad enemies are more aggressive. Calm enemies sleep giving Peach the chance to sneak up on them. Glad enemies walk around with their eyes closed and a song in their hearts and will occasionally jump for joy to throw off the player's timing.
- Nice adjustable difficulty by purchasing upgrades with coins. Just like in Mario Galaxy, there's a balance in how one kills an enemy and the rewards one gains. Jumping on an enemy versus using the homing stomp is harder and rewards the player with life restoring coins. In SPP, killing the enemies with umbrella attacks is riskier and rewards the player with coins. To balance this, player forfeits the opportunity to PICK UP and EAT the enemies to restore their vibe (emotion) meter.
- Due to the similarities with the core Mario design, SPP features the same basic counterpoint that Mario does.
- The broken, piecemeal level design is often very circular and very confusing. By taking too many warp pipes from one section to another the organic, cohesive design of the level is demolished.
- The touch screen mini game levels that precede each boss are neat enough the first time, but become annoying when they're repeated.
- The emotion states are simply not dynamic enough. There are several obstacles throughout each level that obviously require the use of a specific emotion to overcome, but other than these areas SPP doesn't use or layer the emotion mechanics at all. The water from the Gloom state and the fire from the Rage state should have much more dynamic effects on the environment/enemies.
- The level design didn't focus on the Mario mechanics, and couldn't focus on the emotion mechanics because of their lack of dynamics. SPP sits in a state in between familiar greatness and great potential, and falls short of both.
- SPP should have been designed as more of a puzzle/platformer focusing on the emotion mechanics instead of an action/platformer.