The Measure of Mario pt.5
Monday, November 30, 2009 at 1:21PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Counterpoint, Genre, Level Design, Misc Design & Theory, Platformer, Super Mario Bros.


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... 


The following are the rules or trends of coin placement in SMB.

SMB developed a few different ways to add coins to a level.


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...

The basic function of coins is the same, but some of the rules/trends are different. 

 SMB3 takes all of the coin types from SMB and adds these. 




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...


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. 



 A few other elements to note about NSMB's coin design...


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!


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. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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