The Measure of Mario pt.9
Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 12:59PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Difficulty Design, Genre, Misc Design & Theory, Platformer, Super Mario Bros.



Each Mario game has different issues with spawning. In SMB, some enemies and objects fail load or spawn correctly when there are too many other elements on the screen. This limitation is mainly due to the technology of the times. With the freedom of back and forth scrolling levels, SMB2 makes things even more difficult. If you don't kill an enemy, immediately when it moves off of screen view, it will be taken out of the active game waiting to be respawned when the screen moves back. Unfortunately, there is no off screen distance enemies can travel in before this happens. This design prevents players from being able to keep track of enemy positions mentally as they move off screen. The results are quite jarring considering that enemies are flipped to oppose the direction of the player in order to maintain a level of contrary motion in the game. Just take one step back and all of a sudden that shy guy you thought was running to the left is now heading straight for you at a brisk pace.

In SMB3, the previous game's spawning issues were resolved somewhat. Though Nintendo was still working with NES hardware they changed a few protocols for spawning. Now, enemies are kept track of off screen for about 3 blocks of distance. If an enemy walks beyond this distance and you pursue it, it will be taken out of the game causing no threat to the player. From this point, players must adjust the screen even further moving back over the enemy's original spawn point and it'll repawn. This system keeps the player safer and the entire game world a little more persistent. Occasionally, awkward moments occur when a Koopa attempts to spawn on top of a brick structure that you destroyed previously. 

The spawning system is mostly the same for SMW except that there isn't large buffer distance where the enemies will be taken out of the game. This makes its design a combination of SMB2 and SMB3. With the increased processing power of the DS, NSMB keeps track of enemies off screen much farther than any previous Mario game. The persistent window is about 12 bricks long! You can even hear enemies making noise off screen thanks to the stereophonic sound design. If you don't kill an enemy they will respawn as the screen moves back over their original spawning positions just like in SMB3.  NSMBWii shares the same design as NSMB. Since the screen size is much larger, spawning issues have been successfully minimized. 



The issue of Super Mario Bros. difficulty is quite an intricate one. Because the game is designed in layers many of which are optional, the difficulty must be addressed in layers as well. In general, moving Mario around is pretty easy. When JUMPing over a Goomba for example, players not only have lots of clearance to leap over it, but players also have a degree of air control. In general handling an individual enemy is fairly easy as well because of the way the levels are designed. For more than one enemy, the player usually has options. If JUMPing 3 Goomba is too tricky for you, you can often times, JUMP onto nearby bricks, ?-blocks, or structures and wait till they're easier to JUMP on or skip them altogether. From here coins are optional and can be difficult to collect them all. Powerups make the game more interesting but also easier in many ways. Uncovering and revisiting secrets is a challenge all in itself. 

Just beating the game of Mario is the easiest part since SMB3 when players didn't have to start all the way back at the beginning of the game after a game over. After SMB3, SMW, NSMB, and NSMBWii added a more flexible save system. So if you grew up on SMB, SMB:LL, or SMB2 you may still think in the back of your mind that simply beating the game should be the most difficult feat. This is not the case anymore. Experiencing all of Mario's layers is the most difficult part whether that means finding a lot of secret exits or star coins.

Beyond these points, Mario has always been a game that allows players to make things more difficult and interesting for themselves organically. If the game is too slow, try RUNning everywhere. If you feel too invincible, play the whole game as Small/Mini Mario. If you want another kind of challenge, try holding on to a rare powerup and beat the game. Many have criticized NSMB for being too easy and the idea of playing as Mini/Shell Mario to make things more difficult. But organic, player controlled difficulty is what Mario has always offered. 

Others still have criticized Mario's arcane "death mechanic" for forcing players to play parts of a level over after dying. First of all, death is not a mechanic. Players don't control or manipulate the game state with death. Death is usually a part of a video game's difficulty design. Secondly, these criticism are way off base in that they fail to realize the correct way to enjoy an action game and the emergent potential of Mario's counterpoint design. 

To put it simply, Mario is an action game. The challenge of the game isn't just making strategic decisions, but also executing these moves in real time. Due to the level design and adjustable difficulty of Mario's design, players who challenge themselves develop crucial skills. Truly, you can make World 1-1 of SMB a very difficult level depending on how you play. Because these adjustable difficulty options are optional, it's also possible for a player to pass the level having exercised, learned, and been exposed to to very simple/few challenges. Because Mario is designed to inform players of upcoming challenges and hazards before they have to make a critical decision, the blame for dying mostly falls squarely on the player. So, if you find yourself dying and replaying a part of the level over and over, perhaps it's because you haven't developed the skills necessary to progress. Playing the section repeatedly is a great way to hone specific skills. 

Negative feedback is simply the way humans learn especially when executing physical and real time activities. The ability to save and resume anywhere in a game would be absolutely detrimental to a game like Mario. To illustrate this point, consider that progressing through a Mario game is similar to progressing through a piece of piano music. If you think the one time you played a note, measure, or page correctly was enough to move on and never return, then you'll never develop the skills to play the entire song perfectly (or nearly perfectly). Real time actions and activities flow in real time. They have a start and a finish. They have difficult, engaging moments and slower, methodical moments. One can only understand a singular piece of music or a Mario level by playing through it as continuously as possible so that the different moments can flow into each other and build larger ideas instead short isolated moments. 

But don't just take my word for it. The father of Mario himself has expressed the very same ideas. Read Miyamoto's account for yourself here in the Iwata Asaks: NSMBWii. 

If you're a player who believes that completing a section in a Mario game means you've mastered it, then you don't understand just how the layered level design (structures/enemy/coin/secret) dynamically change the challenge of any given level section. The more you play a section, the more likely you are to realize just how tricky a well placed Goomba can really be. If you get bored with the repetition, you can always make things harder for yourself with the organic difficulty options or, of course, take a break. 


A simple way to gauge the difficulty of a Mario game is to count the number of obvious and secret powerups in a stage. Especially for the latest games, pits are less deadly than ever. So, if you're fed a Super Mushroom every few steps, the risk of dying drops significantly. To give you a better idea of how the frequency of powerups has increased, I took count of the number of persistent powerups (Mushroom, Fire Flower, Ice Flower, Yoshi) in the first 4 levels of the following Mario games.

There are a few things to note about these figures. SMB3 levels are much smaller. Compared to an equal span of level from a game like SMB, SMB3 would have more powerups on average. In SMW and NSMBWii level checkpoints automatically transform Small Mario into Super Mario. I counted this as a powerup. Additionally, yellow switches (SMW) always yields a Mushroom powerup and eating fruit with Yoshi can yield a powerup. In NSMB, players can grab Mushroom powerups from 10-coin blocks by hitting enough coins out of them. The easiest way to do this is by GROUND POUNDing them from above and holding down. This new feature greatly increases the number of powerups per level. In NSMBWii, this trick only yields extra coins. Finally, collecting 8 red coins in NSMB and NSMBWii gives a powerup. 

One must also consider how the design of the powerups have changed throughout the Mario series. In SMB, Fire Mario transforms into Small Mario when hit. In SMB3, poweruped Mario transforms into Super Mario when hit. This design gives players one more hit they can take before dying from enemy attacks. Also in SMB, world 8 has fewer powerups (and coins) than any other world in the game. Making the final stretch more difficult in this way is a design that has been mostly phased out of 2D Mario games. In NSMB, the final world and even final castles have several powerups throughout. All of this is not to mention that SMW and NSMB gives players the ability to store and release a powerup to aid them on their quest. Finally, players can use stored powerups from their inventory on the world map in SMB3 and NSMBWii.


the grand adventure.

These players are on an adventure!

Many are under the impression that certain Mario games provide more of an adventure experience while others are more gameplay focused, action games. To start off, the term "adventure" isn't a technical one, which means it can too easily be rooted in vague, personal, nebulosities. My thoughts on the matter is that SMW is no more an adventure based on level design than any other Mario game. At one point I thought that perhaps the frequent large areas with comparatively uneventful challenges gave gamers a sense that they were moving through a "world." But now I find it highly unlikely that such a small difference in structural design attributes just a large and widespread opinion. 

In episode 81 of the Retronauts podcast on 16bit Mario games, Chris Kohler commented on how the new save feature is what gave SMW a feeling of adventure over the previous Mario games. Being able to go on a long journey through multiple play sessions and even go back and play old levels was key. This was a keen observation. However, I'm not convinced that these features are a crucial part of gamers' checklists for an adventure. Just like any of the other Mario games, Mario journeys to other lands and worlds engaging with variety of items and enemies to eventually (and hopefully) save the day. 

The answer could lie in SMW's aesthetics. Seeing Mario move around the overworld from the homey starting location to the hazardous ending world in SMW allows players to see every step and juncture along the way. But every game past SMB2 features a visual overworld.  Even remakes of SMB feature a graphical overworld. And if you're thinking the detailed background graphics are what make SMW feel more like an adventure to gamers than SMB-SMB3's solid colored backgrounds, NSMB-NSMBWii feature detailed backgrounds as well. Yet, the common sentiment seems to be that SMW is the most adventurous 2D Mario platformer. 

After writing the article detailing Mario's secrets it occurred to me that perhaps it's the design that allows and incentivizes players to linger, double back, and investigate that gives a game a strong sense of adventure. The way the secret exits are designed in SMW, players might search through a whole level trying to uncover the hidden path all the while thinking outside of the box. And when a player does find a secret exit, they actually exit the level forging a new path to a new area on the overworld map. Perhaps it's when players stand around in a level, observing its design, and doubting all that the adventure feeling really sinks in. If so, this is a quality that all the Mario games share. 

In the end, the feeling of adventure may be nothing more than a gamer's personal store of nostalgia. The only thing I can prove here is that players probably don't regard SMW as a grand adventure because of any significant design differences between it and any other 2D Mario platformer. Personally, I'm a fan of games because of what they offer, not because of how much they remind me of other games I like. For this Critical-Gamer, nostalgia isn't worth much. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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