Coins are design gold. But like the Midas touch, too many coins can be a bad thing. There's a proper place and proportion for coins in a Mario game. Coins are that extra layer to a level that's neither Mario, platforms, or enemies. To understand how influential these golden pieces are we must analyze their original function, and then examine how coins have evolved through the Mario series.
In this classic game, players get 3 lives to make it from World 1-1 to 8-4. This design makes every 1up that much more precious. Aside from grabbing secret 1up mushrooms, collecting 100 coins is the easiest and most reliable way of prolonging your life.
Miyamoto described counterpoint or layered gameplay in simple terms in the latest Iwata Asks. When Miyamoto described what made the original Donkey Kong so interesting he broke down the gameplay into parts. Jumping over a barrel is easy. Climbing up the scaffolds is easy. Even finding the shortest path to the top is easy. But, when you have to do all three at the same time, everything becomes much more difficult.
Let's say, for example, that there's one action in the game that the player can perform easily. Then let's add another simple action. These actions may be simple in themselves, but when the player is required to do them both at the same time, it becomes a whole lot more tricky. ~Miyamoto
In fact, the challenge becomes significantly more difficult when you put all the layers together. This is because doing any action affects the viability and timing of each other action. For example, you may want to go up one ladder because it's the fastest route. But if a combination of barrels roll down that force/influence you to climb a ladder for safety, by the time you make it over to the shortest route, it may be compromised with more barrels or a flame enemy. For another example, if you grab the Hammer, you have to wait until the timer runs out before you can climb ladders again. By then the game state will be different.
In a layered game like Mario, every action generally affects other actions to created different emergent experiences and to make the gameplay challenging. If enemies are harmful, negative elements and platforms are neutral, then coins are the layer of Mario's core design that is purely positive. Unlike the other elements of Mario counterpoint design, coins are completely optional.
Because coins sustain player life and can be quite easy to nab, players tend to choose to collect them. This choice is very important because some coins are much more difficult to obtain than others. When the player chooses to go after any coin, they're increasing the difficulty of their play experience and adding an additional layer of factors to process.
Coins are a way of making small actions count over the long run. In other words, they not only influence the player actions within a level, but they carry over between levels. Coins are an element of suspension. Read more about suspension here.
Coins are used in SMB mainly to...
- encourage more excessive/expressive JUMPing. (image top-left)
- encourage exploration. (image top-right)
- reward the player for finding a secret. (image bottom-left)
- set up a more difficult platforming challenge. (image bottom-right)
The following are the rules or trends of coin placement in SMB.
- Coins are never put in areas the player must travel through to progress outside of bonus rooms.
- Coins are never arranged so that the player must take damage or die to collect them.
- Coins are never given to the player in batches. Each coin on the screen represents 1 coin.
- Every coin you see you can grab all in a single pass through a level unless you take an alternate path.
SMB developed a few different ways to add coins to a level.
- floating coins
- Some levels have very few hanging coins. For example in the castle (x-4) stages, there are only 15 free hanging coins out of all 8 stages. This arrangement has a subtle effect on the play experience. Less coins means there's less positive player choices to counterbalance the neutral/negative elements. This is just one touch that makes castles unhappy places to be.
- Another good example are levels in world 8 (1-4). 8-1 only has 15 floating coins outside of the bonus room. 8-2 has 0 floating coins, 4 coin?-blocks, and 1 bonus room. 8-3 only has 1 coin-brick. And 8-4 has zero coins. Each stage has fewer and fewer coins. At this final stretch of the game, the diminishing positive pickups give the play experience a serious undertone.
- ?-blocks: At the very least, you'll earn 1 coin for hitting this block. At the most, you're earn a powerup.
- coin-brick: These perfectly camouflaged bricks can hold up to 10 coins. Players have a limited amount of time to squeeze coins out before the brick hardens into a block.
- invisible block: These blocks are often used to create platforms to hidden areas or help the player get up and over tall obstacles when no other platform is provided. Each block holds a coin or some kind of powerup.
SMB:LL follows the same coin design and arrangement as SMB. The main differences are there are very few hanging coins throughout the entire game, and the alternate paths/bonus rooms have more coins. Finally, I'm not sure if all of the coins/?blocks can be collected. See image right.
Compared to any other 2D Mario platformer game, SMB2's primary function is split between JUMP and GRAB. For every enemy you want to dispose of, you generally must JUMP on it and then PLUCK it. If you don't PLUCK the enemy, you have to PLUCK something else to throw at it. This two step process puts hiccups in what would otherwise be a smoother play experience. SMB2's design already suffers from a weakened counterpoint with less level transformation and enemy variety/interplay. On top of this, the coin design is much weaker.
First, the only real coins in the game can only be plucked after using a potion and entering sub-space through the door. In this mirror world, instead of plucking vegetables player pluck coins. Instead of collecting a certain number of these coins to earn a 1up, players merely get the chance to play a roulette game for 1ups at the end of each level. This design choice substitutes giving the player a reliable way to increase their lives with a game of chance. With this design, you can do a lot of work collecting coins and get nothing for it.
There are other analogs to coins in SMB2. The vegetable tops sticking out of the ground are like ?-blocks. You know something is hidden there, but you don't know whether it will be a small/medium/large vegetable, Bob-Omb, Koopa shell, or a potion. The problem with investigating these unknown vegetable tops is that PLUCK isn't a very dynamic or variable mechanic. JUMPing for coins or ?-blocks in SMB requires timing and aim that involves using the game's primary mechanic. Also coins and ?-blocks can be arranged in a variety of patterns and formations to increase the challenge and layer well with the other elements of the game. PLUCKing vegetable tops, on the other hand, encourage the player to stay close to the ground and adds hiccups into the experience.
Finally, the cherries are arranged like coins. These items are scattered throughout a level. Collect five cherries and a Starman will float up from the bottom of the screen. Any positive outcomes from strategically collecting cherries is diminished somewhat by how the Starman spawns. Like releasing stored powerups in SMW or NSMB, there's a chance that the player will be unable to grab the Starman in SMB2 as it floats up. Such design is just another way to reduce the reliability of the cherry/coin design.
SMB3 takes off where SMB left off with its coin design. With the new freedom to design levels that scroll horizontally and vertically, SMB3's alternate paths no longer had to be made via pipes and beanstalks. With the level design of SMB3 doing more with exploration, coins were arranged to encourage and reward exploration more so than in SMB. Also, because the levels are so short, coins were arranged to...
- slow down progression. We all know that the Mario platformers are relatively short games that are made even shorter when players run straight through each level. To slow down the player, coins are arranged in bunches. (3-1)
- reward taking the more difficult path. (3-2)
The basic function of coins is the same, but some of the rules/trends are different.
- You can't get them all. There are areas in SMB3 where the player is unable to grab all the coins on screen. These areas are usually activated with P-Switches. The player learns to grab as many as possible while there's still time. (2-3) (2-5 bonus room).
- Coins in your path. These can be used to encourage the player to interact with safe/new elements. By putting coin in paths that the player must take to progress, the player feels more confident moving forward even when interacting with new game elements. Coins make things safe for players because they're arranged to never steer them wrong. In other words these are the "show me the way" coins.
- Like how coins are limited in SMB's castle levels and in world 8, SMB3 arranages coins to create bigger game ideas. The desert world (2) has few coins hanging out in the open. Yet the riches of these levels can be unlocked when you understand the secrets of the desert.
SMB3 takes all of the coin types from SMB and adds these.
- quantum coins. This is just a comical name for all coins/bricks in the game. With a push of the P switch, all bricks turn into coins and visa versa. Like being in two states at once, bricks and coins are just a phase apart.
- frozen coins. Just toss a fire ball at these bricks and the coin is free for the taking.
- silver (gray) coins. These coins appear for a limited period of time after the player hits a P-Switch.
- Players get 1 coin from each enemy that's on the screen when completing a level.
- Coins arranged in symbols
SMW gets rid of the fozen coins but keeps all the other types and uses of coins. Unfortunately, the coin arrangement and design is sub-mar.
Outside of the bonus rooms and special areas, coins are a bit of a rarity in SMW. Instead of encouraging new JUMP patterns, setting up more difficult platforming challenging, or adding that extra layer to influence player decisions, coins are commonly used as P-Switch walkways and to point the player in the right direction. There's not much to say about SMW coin arrangement. Some levels have more traditional arrangements (Soda Lake & Cheese Bridge Area), but most do not.
When SMW does arrange coins areas, they are sometimes over used. Of course, there's not a exact rule to determine if there are too many coins in an area. All I can really say is that there are many areas in SMW that are more densely packed with coins than in any other 2D Mario platformer.
Instead of collecting 100 coins for a 1up, it seems like the developers focused on implementing dragon coins. Collect just 5 of these coins in a single level and you'll earn a 1up. The dragon coin design inherently takes away from the suspension in the game. Instead of gradually collecting coins to reach 100, if you get 4/5 dragon coins on every level you play you'll never earn a 1up. For this reason, the actions of collection dragon coins can fail to amount up to a meaningful reaction. In other words, the player can do a lot of work and get nothing for it.
Another problem with dragon coins is their arrangement. SMW levels are much bigger than SMB's levels making it easy for the developers to space out 5 coins throughout the levels. The dragon coins are generally placed in easily accessible areas. It's not much of a challenge collecting a few dragon coins. If the player nears the end of a level, they might find it riskier to look for any final dragon coins than to just finish the level. Dragon coins have more in common with collecting the KONG letters in Donkey Kong Country. It's great if you managed to collect them along the way, but chances are they're not worth going out of your way to find.
The final problem with dragon coins is that they're not in every level. What little positive and interesting influences they have on gameplay can't occur where there are no dragon coins. This possible oversight was remedied in the GBA remake.
A few new elements of coin design in SMW worth noting are...
- flying ?-blocks.
- coins from fireballing enemies
- coins that trace out a path controlled by the D-pad (ghost houses)
- coins that spell out a message (video)
NSMB returns to the more traditional coin arrangement of SMB and SMB3, gets rid of dragon coins and frozen coins, and adds 4 new coins to the mix. This new coin design is more versatile than ever for influencing players in a variety of ways.
- star coins.
- These coins are similar to dragon coins (SMW), ace coins (Super Mario Advance), and advance coins (Super Mario Advance 4) in that there are a small, limited number in every level. Star coins are completely optional, which allowed the developers to hide many of them in very hidden and/or challenging places. The player seeking to make their gaming experience more challenging can set their sights on collecting star coins. With only 3 per level, they are spaced nicely to mark the beginning, middle, and end of each stage. Getting in and out of a level alive after collecting these star coins is the only way to permanently have them marked as collected.
- red coins. Remember how certain structures in SMB3 were designed to encourage and reward players for staying put and playing around? I called these areas playgrounds. In other words, these sections were more about playing around and overcoming challenges in a small space rather than pushing forward through a level. The red coins in NSMB are a versatile tool for influencing the player. After JUMPing through the large red ring, 8 red coins appear nearby for a limited time. By collecting all 8 red coins, the player is rewarded with an item. With this basic setup, red coins can be arranged closely together to keep the player in a small area (playground), or they can be spaced out to encourage the player to keep moving quickly through obstacles. Either way, this optional, player activated, timed tool can make a given area in NSMB more challenging and interesting.
- outline coins. Pass through an outline of a coin and a second later, a coin will appear in that space. These coins can be used to 2 effects. To grab these coins the player must either travel very slowly through an area or double back. Either way, these coins are very effective at influencing the player to slow down.
- bubble coins. Encapsulated in an air bubble, these coins float around in water levels as if propelled by ocean currents.They add a small touch that makes the water levels feel more like liquid.
A few other elements to note about NSMB's coin design...
- Some coins are arranged with unique behaviors like trailing behind a Cheep Cheep for example.
- Players can kick shells into coins/star coins to collect them even when they're slightly off screen.
- Run for it coins! Silver coins are often arranged to encourage the player to move efficiently and quickly through an area to collect them all. Once you hit that P-Switch, you have to move it.
NSMBWii takes the coin design of NSMB and makes small alterations that allow fresh new coin arrangements. Finally, NSMBWii breaks the ridged brick like coin formations that originated in SMB. In NSMBWii coins be arranged on a slant, move in new ways, fall from their floating positoins, and even dance!
- dancing coins. In some levels, platforms dance to the music. It is only fitting that the coins dance too.
- new ways to move. Now coins can drop and scatter on the ground, rotate with large platforms, blow by on the wind, or slide into formation.
- pow blockable. The Pow Block has the power to knock floating coins and star coins out of their gravity defying suspension. Just one slam and they come raining down.
- coin battle. Though this mode isn't a part of the single player game, it expertly uses different types of coins to balance competitive play. Collecting more coins than your opponents is the winning tactic. Like in the single player, if one player races ahead they pull the left side of the screen along, which can be very troublesome for other players. Fortunately, this mode is highly populated with outline coins. So, even if one player races ahead, they will most likely activate the outline coins for trailing players. This dynamic creates a never ceasing push-pull between moving forward to access new areas/coins and slowing down to collect them. Floating coins are still scattered throughout the level to reward the player who gets there first. Also, star coins equal 10 coins, which is just enough to fight over without being game winning grabs. Throw in up to 20 extra coins for being at the top of the flag pole at the end of the level and the mode is complete.
In part 6 we'll look at how the Mario series creates layers of gameplay on top of Mario, level structures, enemies, and coins. It's finally time to tackle powerups.