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The Measure of Mario pt.1

It all started with the brick. This small equal sided object is the degree that all the gameplay elements in Super Mario Brothers are organized by. Small Mario and most of the enemies in the game are the size of 1 brick. Big Mario stacks up to about 2 bricks. Mario's standing JUMP clears 4 bricks, while the running JUMP clears 5. Recognizing this quantified unit of measure was essential for understanding how SMB was built and why all the elements fit together like puzzle pieces.



Over a year ago I wrote the Mario Melodies series exploring the design of the original Super Mario Brothers. It was all in an effort to establish and become familiar with the concepts and language necessary to completely understand game design as a system of interconnected parts. Analyzing video games and articulating nuances of game design is hard. To make things easier, I often compare other games to the SMB model. Now that New Super Mario Brothers Wii is out, it's time to compare all 7 games. Barring Super Mario Land 1 and 2 for the Gameboy, I intend to put an end to the popular debate of how the 2D Mario platformers measure up against each other.

 Here's the line up:

  1. Super Mario Brothers
  2. Super Mario Brothers: Lost Levels
  3. Super Mario Brothers 2
  4. Super Mario Brothers 3
  5. Super Mario World
  6. New Super Mario Brothers
  7. New Super Mario Brothers Wii


First Mario's Mechanics. 

I've detailed Mario's basic mechanics throughout this blog in addition to creating this comparison chart. To sum up, all the 2D Mario games have these core mechanics. WALK. RUN. JUMP. DUCK.



 The following mechanics are not present in every 2D Mario platfomer.

  • DUCK while small Mario: added in SMB2, removed for SMB3-SMW, and returned in NSMB-NSMBWii.
  • GRAB and THROW: added in SMB3 - NSMBWii. 
  • SLIDE on slanted surfaces: added in SMB3-NSMBWii.
  • SPIN JUMP: added in SMW, removed in NSMB, and altered for NSMBWii.
  • GROUND POUND: added in NSMB - NSMBWii. 
  • LIFT and THROW: added in SMB2, removed in SMB3-SMW, and altered for NSMB-NSMBWii. 


Controlling Mario by using the above mechanics is what many refer to as the "feel of the game." Though these mechanics may look about the same from game to game, there are subtle differences that if ignored can throw one's entire game experience off. It's all about expectations that are learned for one game and assumed to be the same for another. This is why some of the most bitter critics of long running series are also some of the biggest fans. For some gamers, if the smallest detail like how quickly Mario skids to a stop from running is changed, it's automatically bad. 

From a critical perspective, we know that the real issue isn't that some versions of Mario's RUN or JUMP are better than others. After all, the quality of mechanics is measured by a game's level design. Considering that mechanics are primarily designed to be used to overcome challenges, a game's level design is where we must look. For a mechanic out of the context of its game is just potential. So if Mario is designed to carry over a lot of momentum when changing directions, designing levels with very small platforms and precise jumps may be deceptively difficult and counter intuitive to some experienced gamers. Looking at how all the elements work together is key.

Designing levels for a Mario game starts with creating challenges through a counterpoint between Mario, the level obstacles, and the enemy elements. Based on the player's maneuverability, the level design can shape the gameplay. For example, in SMB and SMB:LL players only have the core JUMP mechanic to move through the air. Every JUMP must be carefully made to avoid pits and emergent enemy traps. Even with the air control that Mario is famous for, Mario has fairly limited vertical options. The levels were designed around this limitation to challenge and empower players to JUMP and JUMP well.

Some have commented how the difficultly of Mario games is undermined by new mechanics. For example, the SPIN in Super Mario Galaxy can be used like a mini double jump to help players "get out of danger for free." The problem with thinking about the game in this way is that it doesn't take into account how the game creates challenges that can't be undermined with the SPIN mechanic or challenges that aren't designed around JUMPing and falling into pits in the first place. Sure, some jumps by no longer be as challenging in Galaxy as they would be in Super Mario 64, but as long as levels are designed to challenge/engage the player in some other way, there isn't a real loss to criticise.

If you're upset about the newer Mario games and the new undermining mechanics, you should know undermining design has been happening since the beginning.


  • SMB-SMB:LL: The Fire Flower powerup gives players a highly effective range weapon. Though well balanced to influence the player to JUMP and platform in new ways, the powerup still undermines many of the game's enemy based challenges. This is not even mentioning how Big Mario can take a hit and run straight through enemies or even the Koopa bosses. Also, the Starman is a temporary powerup that gives players temporary invulnerability. The very nature of a powerup is to undermine game challenges.


  • SMB2: The differences in character abilities can be used to undermine some challenges. Peach's float ability specifically makes avoiding pits very easy.


  • SMB3: The Super Leaf and Tanooki Suit give players the ability to reduce their fall speed to adjust their landings. With these powerups and a little speed, players can also fly up and over large sections of levels. The rare P-Wing powerup gives players the ability to fly indefinitely.


  • SMW: The spin jump allows Mario to jump off of dangerous enemy elements. From Piranha plants to buzz saws, the once harmful become platforms. Similar to the Super Leaf from SMB3, the Cape Feather gives Mario the power of flight. And with a bit of skill, you can fly forever. If you collide into an enemy element while flying, instead of losing the powerup, you simply lose your flying state. At this point, you can reduce your fall speed and float to the ground. Furthermore, with Yoshi's help you can take an unlimited amount of hits without losing your powerups.


  • NSMB: The wall jump makes dying in small pits a thing of the past. That is, unless an enemy fall into the pit on top of you. Also, to delay one's fall, it's possible to use a ground pound to hover slightly in the air. With some dexterous finger work, you can repeatedly ground pound in the air to significantly delay your landing.


  • NSMBWii: In co-op play, putting yourself in a bubble is an easy way to undermine just about any dangerous situation. The repeated air ground pound maneuver is also in this game. Furthermore, by twirling in the air with the shake of the Wiimote, Mario will slightly hover similarly to the SPIN mechanic in Super Mary Galaxy. 


With Mario's mechanics cleared up, we can move on to the bulk of this series. Level design.

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Reader Comments (2)

Inserting SMB2 in the discussion somehow bias your results, imho. SMB2 wasn't a Mario engine at start (we all know this, right ?) and it is obvious when considering the on-ground mechanics (walk/stop/half-turn clearly doesn't obey the same core rules as in other SMBs)

Oh, and what is "grab and throw" you're refering to on SMB3 ? have i forgot so much about SMB1 that i think you can carry a koopa shell around even by then ? is that the core feature SMB3 added?

November 20, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersylvainulg

@ sylvainulg

Here's the deal about SMB2... one day before I posted the first entry into this series I was in a Mario discussion on my google wave (you're welcome to join. just let me know). SMB2 was brought up and I explained that it wasn't really a Mario game and therefore I excluded it from the list.

Then I thought that my reasoning was a little myopic. Even if the game didn't start as a Mario game, it is now. Miyamoto was actually on the SMB2 project. And the final reason I included it was because it featurs a lot of innovations that the Mario series has taken (freely scrolling levels, keys, doors, folded design). I figured we'd have a missing piece of the puzzle without SMB2.

And yes, the grab and kick shells mechanic was first introduced in SMB3. In SMB2, you can find a red shell in the ground and grab it, but those were rare. Plus they didn't come from enemies.

November 20, 2009 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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