The Measure of Mario pt.4
Saturday, November 28, 2009 at 11:15AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Counterpoint, Genre, Platformer, Super Mario Bros.


Mario's gameplay is designed around timing jumps. But simply JUMPing over pipes and pits can only be interesting for so long. To solve this problem every Mario game features enemy elements. Enemies not only force players to maneuver around them, but the way they move through space creates organic timers. This is especially important to undertand. If the obstacles the player must time JUMPs to progress communicate their timing visually, the player doesn't have to memorize how to get through levels. Instead, the player can just read the screen. Throw in a little interplay to the enemy design, and the variety of timing based challenges increases substantially. This is the essence of Mario's core counterpoint design.  

The enemies in the Super Mario Brothers games are each designed to take up a unique, functional design space. In other words, there's no enemy element that completely overlaps a Goomba in function (or any other enemy for that matter). Each enemy is different from each other, and even the smallest difference can contribute to very different gameplay scenarios because of emergence. 

In our investigation of Mario enemies we must consider an enemy element's function, arrangement in levels, and how it contributes to the counterpoint of the core gameplay experience. Let's start at the beginning.


This game started it all. The excellently design SMB enemies can be found throughout nearly every Mario game. The genius of the enemy design in SMB is in its simplicity. Most of the enemies move at a constant speed in a predictable fashion. In other words, most enemy elements don't have any AI or randomized actions of any kind. The Lakitu and Bloopers are slightly more complicated in that they follow the player around. Also, the Hammer Brothers and Bowser have randomized patterns and/or complex timers that make predicting their movements much harder. But the vast majority of the enemies in the game are simple ones. 

Because of how Mario, level elements, and enemies are all designed to react off of each other, what appears to be a straightforward level section can be designed to teach players through their emergent actions. In the Iwata Asks series on New Super Mario Brothers Wii, Shigeru Miyamoto describes how the intro to World 1-1 works on an emergent level. This example shows us that we must always think of Mario's challenges and level design in layers that come together in emergent ways. 




SMB:LL was made with all of the existing enemies from SMB. The closest SMB:LL comes to a new enemy is a flying Blooper. In general, the enemy arrangement in SMB:LL is designed to make challenges more difficult.  





SMB2 is the Mario game in this study that is the least like the others. This comes as no surprise to those who know this game's history. Beside a host of new enemies, there are many design features in SMB2's enemy design that hold the game back from developing a level of deep interactivity that the other Mario games have. 

Bosses (video)


SMB3 takes all of the enemies from SMB and only one from SMB2 (Bob-Omb).

Bosses (video)


SMW takes all the enemies from SMB, some from SMB2 (Pokey, Ninji), and some from SMB3 (Bob-Omb, Boos, Dry Bones, Paragoomba, and Thwomp). The enemy design of SMW is closer to SMB2 than any other 2D Mario platformer. Compared to SMB3, the enemies move quickly and have comparatively complex patterns/AI. Full list here.  Also, enemies can attack in great numbers at once compared to the numbers in SMB or SMB3. For these reasons the layered counterpoint of SMW isn't as rich as SMB or SMB3. Furthermore, SMW features one core mechanic that puts a strain on the entire enemy design. 


Ask yourself if this battle is very interesting to watch.



The enemy design and arrangement of NSMB follows the trend of SMB3 rather than SMW. Levels are differentiated by unique game ideas, platforms/structures, and by using unique enemies. And like SM3, less is more. NSMB uses a small number of interesting enemies (based on movement patterns and interplay) to develop a rich layered counterpoint. The follow are what NSMB adds to the enemy design of the 2D Mario platformers. 

Most of the encounters feature very few enemies



With the expanded screen size the developers of NSMBWii had a lot of freedom with enemy design. Like a proper sequel, NSMBWii takes the best elements of enemy design and/or arrangement from all the other Mario games. NSMBWii...

Of course, "less is more" and "many enemies in small places" are two contradictory ideas. To clarify, all of these trends are reflected in some NSMBWii levels but not necessarily in each level simultaneously.

Bosses (part1. part2)


The flip side to enemy elements that are designed to challenge, threaten, and harm the player, are positive elements. Mario is a richer man for the coins he collects and Mario's gameplay is a richer, more well-rounded experience because of coins; the topic of the next part in this series. 



Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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