The core of almost every 2D Mario platforming challenge is designed around Small Mario. From here layers are built up on top of Mario's core mechanics so that the player's ability to progress through the game is never compromised.
A powerup must give the player new or augmented abilities that help players undermine game challenges. Power in Mario comes in a few forms; the ability to defeat enemies, move through space (including resisting gravity), or alter structures.
The beauty of Mario's powerup design is in its suspension, and fragility. Most powerups stay with you when moving from level to level. If you have the skills, you can take the Frog Mario from World 3 and defeat Bowser with it in World 8. At the same time, pulling off something like this requires flawless execution. Just one hit from any enemy element or one fall down a pit, and the powerup is gone. If you think about it, holding on to a rare powerup can be a very difficult task.
SMB features the foundation of powerups that all subsequent Mario games (except SMB2) have built upon.
- Small Mario. At about the size of a brick, this Mario has the amazing ability to JUMP and beat the entire game. No leveling or powering up necessary. His standing jump clears 4 bricks while the RUN-JUMP clears 5. Just one hit from any enemy element and it's all over for Mario.
- Super Mario (Big Mario). Grab a Super Mushroom and you'll double in size. Though you JUMP the same height as Small Mario, being 2 bricks tall allows your head to hit targets 1 bricks sooner. JUMP into a brick and you'll destroy it and bounce back down. Destroying bricks gives you the ability to transform parts of levels and subsequently change the platforming challenges. When Super Mario gets hit, he shrinks back down into Small Mario.
- Interestingly, even this basic powerup is not without its draw backs. It is commonly thought that the powerups in Mario games add abilities without taking away abilities from the player, but this isn't entirely accurate. Super Mario is twice as tall as Small Mario, which makes him too tall to walk under gaps that are only 1 brick tall. Fortunately, with a bit more skill, players can RUN-DUCK (slide) under 1 brick tall gaps. Also, the level designers didn't put any areas in SMB that only Small Mario would be able to access/survive. This attention to detail never gives the player a reason to think twice about grabbing a Super Mushroom.
- There are more subtle changes to the counterpoint of Mario between Small and Super Mario. Even though Super Mario can break bricks, he is still bounced back down after hitting the brick. Because this Mario is 1 brick taller, he will hit the brick that much sooner, and bounce back down sooner. This is a small change that can be very dangerous for players who assume the timing is the same. To get the Small Mario timing, players can DUCK-JUMP. If you haven't thought about it, the height difference between Small and Super Mario is why Super Mario generally grabs more coins. Not only can he reach higher coins better, but he can squeeze coins out of 10-coin-blocks faster because he can hit the block, bounce back down, and JUMP back up more quickly.
- In later games (SMW-NSMBWii) Super Mario has the ability to break through certain blocks/bricks from above. In SMW, the SPIN JUMP cracks through spin blocks. In NSMB-NSMBWii, the STOMP crushes through bricks.
- Fire Mario. Platforming action combined with projectile attacks is a combination that is proven for facilitating engaging gameplay. But unlike Metroid and Mega Man, Mario's fire balls are more like platforming balls rather than projectile bullets. To keep the gamplay balance of SMB focused on platforming, the developers designed the fireballs to fall sharply, bounce, and only exist two at a time on the screen. For these reasons, Mario's f(x) blind spot above his head is maintained. Read more about it here.
- The one thing players sacrifice becoming Fire Mario is the ability to RUN without throwing a fire ball. For any reason, if there's an enemy you want to JUMP on and you RUN at it, there's a chance the fire ball will kill the enemy before you get there. This is especially dangerous when trying to JUMP off of enemies in mid air over pits.
- Invincible Mario. Starmans are rare. When you grab one, you become invincible. Run through fire, enemies, and the level. The only danger are pits and in later games being crushed. In this state, Mario loses the ability to JUMP off of enemies because they are instantly killed.
- In SMB3 - NSMBWii, levels have been designed that allow players to continually chain Starman powerups by hitting certain ?-blocks.
- In SMW-NSMBWii running into enemies while Invincible Mario creates a chain that can earn 1ups just like repeatedly JUMPing on enemies or bowling over enemies with a Koopa shell.
SMB2 powerup design is almost negligible. The Mushrooms make you bigger, but being bigger doesn't give Mario new ways to interact with the environment like destroying bricks. Additional Mushrooms can be collected for more health. However, this value is reset between levels eliminating any character/powerup based suspension. The only other powerup in the game is the Starman. Appearing after grabbing 5 cherries, Starman are much more common in SMB2. It's too bad the powerup itself doesn't have more interplay and the counterpoint in SMB2 isn't as strong as SMB.
With the exception of Raccoon Mario, the following powerups are more like a unique set piece paired with specific levels than core powerups. I say this because of the rarity of these powerups. Because you can't find these powerups in common ?-blocks, you have to go out and find them. If you only find a Hammer suit in a few places in the game and losing it is just one hit or one pit away, you may not experience it all that much. Because of this design there are few challenges/secrets that require Frog Mario, 1 that requires Kuribo Mario, and none that require Tanooki or Hammer Mario. In other words, they're more like fun bonuses.
- Raccoon Mario. This powerup introduced the power of flight into the Mario series. RUN unto you max out the run meter, and fly away by repeatedly hitting the JUMP button. While flying up, Mario can continually break bricks above him. After any JUMP, keep hitting the JUMP button to significantly slow Mario's falling speed. Hit the RUN button to tail attack that hits backwards and forwards. This tail attack is the only way for Mario to hit bricks from the side outside of using tertiary mechanics like throwing Koopa shells.
- The compact design of SMB3 levels in addition to the hills, slopes, and undulations generally limits the amount of running room in the game. Without enough room to gather speed, flying isn't possible. Some levels were designed with an open sky that players can fly up into, while others only scroll horizontally keeping the level in view rather than on Mario.
- Tanooki Mario. The fourth rarest powerup in the game, Tanooki Mario is the first Super Mario powerup with a large degree of redundancy in its design. It has all the same abilities as Raccoon Mario plus one. Hold down and the RUN button and Mario transforms into a statue. Enemies move right pass statue Mario. Yet, drop on most enemies as the stone figure to deal a 1 hit KO.
- Frog Mario. On the land Frog Mario has trouble moving around. Though Mario JUMPs higher on land, this powerup makes the biggest difference in the water. Instead of gradually sinking in water, Frog Mario stays in place. Also, Frog Mario can swim quickly in all four directions. This powerup isn't as flashy as Raccoon Mario or Fire Mario due to the lack of offensive and defensive abilities, but it's instrumental in transforming any water environment from one that players swim through to one that players can practically fly through.
- Kuribo Mario. This ultra rare powerup is only found on one level (5-3). With it, you can hop around on hazards and kill enemies you normally couldn't by JUMPing on them. Hop around in a shoe. Have fun. And hold on to it as long as you can.
- Hammer Suit Mario. Not only can Mario toss around a pair of hammers a very short distance forward, but DUCKing puts Mario in a fire proof shell. If you can keep the Hammer Suit up to the final battle, you can kill Bowser in 4 hits.
The two common, unique powerups that SMW adds to the SMB foundation are the Cape Feather and Yoshi. Compared to powerups from any other game in this series, these two powerups have the most complexities.
- Balloon Mario. This powerup is used only a few times in the game. As a balloon, Mario keeps rising. Players can control how he floats through the air. This state only lasts for a limited amount of time.
- Cape Mario. The Mario powerup that takes the most skill to master, with a running start players can fly high into the sky. On the way down, players go into a dive. If you hit the ground while diving, the ground rattles and enemies die. If players pull up, they can glide. It's even possible to gain altitude with a little finger finesse.
- The cape is not just for flying. It can be used as a spin attack and to slow Mario's falling speed. For these abilities, Cape Mario is very similar to Raccoon and Tanooki Mario from SMB3. This also means that the cape can hit blocks from the side.
- In the same way that SMW's enemies can be undermined with the SPIN JUMP and the counterpoint is weakened by the enemy and level arrangements, the Cape Feather powerup is not balanced to support the game's core challenges. Instead it has the power to ignore many of them. Cape Mario can stay airborne much longer and with much finer degree of control than Raccoon Mario (SMB3) and Propeller Mario (NSMBWii). Though extended flight takes more skill to pull off, it still gives player the ability to skip very large sections of a level. Compared to SMB3, SMW levels are longer with more open areas. This design makes it easier to get into flight and skip more of a level.
- Flying up into the sky also stresses the game's counterpoint. The space above open levels are either free of danger, or they have high flying enemy elements to collide into. Instead of adding a risky element to upward flight like Raccoon or Propeller Mario, Cape Mario is temporarily invulnerable. Hitting an enemy takes you out of your flight, but you don't lose your Cape powerup.
- Yoshi. This famous Nintendo character and powerup has a lot of features. Yoshi can eat enemies and fruit, spit out fire, JUMP off of dangerous enemy elements, fly with Cape Mario, fall slowly with Cape Mario, fly after grabbing special Yoshi wings, and give Mario a double jump. Unlike many other powerups, if players get hit while riding Yoshi instead of instantly losing the powerup, Mario and Yoshi are simply separated. Getting hit sends Yoshi into a panic run. If players can JUMP back on Yoshi before he falls into a pit, then the powerup is regained. Yoshi is almost too powerful. It's a good thing he's fairly uncommon and can still be lost easily over pits.
By rebooting the core of the 2D Mario platformers, NSMB takes the SMB powerup foundation and adds a few rare powerups on top. In the same way that SMB3 coupled many of its rare powerups with specific stages and worlds, NSMB offers a few guaranteed places that you can find a Blue Shell, Mini, or Mega Mushroom. 2 of the 3 new powerups are ways for the player to increase the difficulty of their play experience, which is a new concept for a Mario powerup. I believe this is the reason why these powerups are so misunderstood. If players want a harder Mario experience, then try playing through levels with these powerups.
- Shell Mario. The Blue Shell powerup item alters Super Mario's abilities in a number of ways.
- Mario gains great control of his momentum when swimming underwater.
- DUCKing pulls Mario into his protective shell. Non fire based moving enemies will either turn around or pass through this defensive stance leaving players unharmed.
- Executing a STOMP in the air also pulls Mario into the shell giving players the ability to crush enemies that were previously harmful to JUMP/STOMP on like the Spiny. This mechanic is similar to the Tanooki statue drop from SMB3.
- Colliding with an enemy while moving inflicts damage equal to a thrown Koopa shell.
- RUNning up to max speed sends Mario into a "shell dash" that's the equivalent of a thrown Koopa shell that can JUMP. The forward motion of the shell dash is non stop, so navigating levels takes more skill (timing) than normal. Also, the shell dash can kill tricky enemies like Boos and Dry Bones. Bricks can be hit from the side in shell dash making Shell Mario the only way to do so without using enemies or utterly destroying the bricks with Mega Mario.
- Finally, when dealing with enemies elements that do not hurt Mario in the defensive blue shell stance, Mario's f(x) blind box disappears. In other words, there's nothing certain enemies can do to hurt a defensive Shell Mario. Because these enemies pass right through Mario, it's possible to DUCK-JUMP straight up through the bottom of an enemy and release DUCK to JUMP off the top of it. Once again, more skill is required to pull this move off.
- Many critics and players alike have expressed their dislike of Shell Mario. I doubt they are aware of all of its subtle augmentations to Super Mario's abilities. Still, I do have a few suggestions that would improve its design.
- Like the modified Starman powerup, it would only make sense to allow players to chain enemy kills for 1ups like they can with a Koopa shell. This would encourage players to stay in the more challenging shell dash in risk reward dynamic.
- To make my #1 suggestion more interesting, it would be neat if the shell dash increase in speed the higher players get in an enemy combo chain. The increase in speed/difficult would generally make 1up farming more difficult and shell dashing more exhilarating and dynamic.
- Mini Mario. As Mini Mario players are so light weight they can float through the air, JUMP off of enemies without hurting them, and even run on water. The floaty fall speed and air control alter the timing if every JUMPing maneuver giving every platforming challenge new timings. Because players don't hurt enemies after JUMPing off of them, players can take advantage of a whole new range of platforming options (see video). Finally, RUNning on water allows player to travel through watery areas at high speeds. The downside to this powerup is its rarity and vulnerability. One hit, and it's game over. However, if you're in need of some extra lives, Mini Mario makes landing on top of the flag pole easier than ever.
- NSMBWii improved Mini Mario with one simple addition. SPINning in the air normally allows players to slightly adjust their fall time and direction. But as Mini Mario, SPINning in the air significantly delays one's falling speed. This can be especially useful allowing 1 or more players to travel through a space on the screen that isn't occupied by other players. In other words, like Propeller Mario, Mini Mario can stay out of way easier.
- Mega Mario. Another rare and under appreciated powerup, Mega Mario is destructive and highly lucrative. Smash into just about anything and grab coins easier while chaining destruction for 1ups. In the Iwata Asks on NSMBWii, Miyamoto discussed how he felt that Mega Mario was the flashy new element to symbolize how NSMB was the bridge between old and new. Smashing right through the old design, entire levels can be leveled. And though there are some areas that are too smash for Mario to grow to giant sizes, it's worth noting that every inch of the levels had to be designed so that players can't get stuck after destroying just part of a structure.
- Unleashing a stored Mega Mushroom from the touch screen is the easy way to win any boss battle. For players who need some help, that's what the Mega Mushroom is best used for. And completionists don't have to deal with it hardly at all. There are only a handful of star coins that require Mega Mario.
- Because Mega Mario is a temporary powerup like Invincible or Balloon Mario, it can't be suspended across levels.
NSMBWii's power up design is reflective of the game's entire design, which is one that takes pieces from several other Mario games. This game features the SMB foundation, flight power like SMB3/SMW, Yoshi from SMW, and a Penguin powerup that's very similar to the Blue Shell. With an enemy and level design that blends the entire series together, it's only fitting that the powerup design follows suit.
- Ice Mario. Instead of throwing fire, Mario can now throw ice. A stark difference between fire and ice can easily be trivialized in a video game, but in NSMBWii the developers carefully designed Ice Mario to take up a unique design space compared to Fire Mario. There are enemies that are immune to fire balls, but these enemies are vulnerable to ice balls. After an enemy is frozen, depending on the enemy, they can be picked up, thrown, STOMPed, JUMPed on, or WALL JUMPED off of. Some enemies are strong enough to quickly break free from being frozen. Ice balls bounce once and much higher than fireballs that bounce forever until colliding with a wall or bounding off screen. Aiming these projectiles takes a new kind of aiming approach.
- Penguin Mario. This powerup is like the Tanooki Suit in that it has redundant abilities. As Penguin Mario, players and throw ice balls. Players can also slide on their belly protected from many oncoming enemy threats like shell dashing in NSMB. The main differences between belly sliding and the shell dash is that the belly slide can slide over gaps that are 2 bricks wide, players won't bounce back in the opposite direction after colliding with a wall, and hitting enemies counts as chaining them (like I suggested for Shell Mario). Belly sliding is the only way to hit bricks from the side without using Koopa shells, of course. Also, like Shell Mario, players have better swimming abilities.
- Propeller Mario. The power of flight has returned to the 2D Mario platformers after being absent from NSMB. Just give the Wiimote a shake and you're off. Running is not required. The flight up is a quick one that blows away clouds. On the way down players can spin drop to fall quickly in a straight line or repeatedly spin to slow their decent even further.
- These details are crucial for the balance of Propeller Mario's Flight abilities. Though flying up is quick, the upward flying force is not variable. Players must set up their paths carefully or run the risk of colliding with enemies. Traveling back down to the ground is a much slower process compared to Mario's normal fall speed. Impatient players can spin drop quickly to the ground, but because doing so is limited to a straight line players sacrifice maneuverability.
- This powerup has a bit of redundancy with the Propeller Blocks.
- Yoshi. The dino-dragon is back and is very similar to the SMW version. Yoshi can eat fruit, enemies, and lick up special objects like Hammer Bros. hammers. Yoshi can also flutter jump (double jump) like he can in SMW2: Yoshi's Island. Unlike in SMW, Yoshi does not stay with Mario after completing a level. This design makes Yoshi more of a rare powerup set piece; loved when around and missed when gone.
Powerups are a layer in Mario's design that allows players to feel more capable and experience loss in degrees finer than losing a life and completing a level. They give the player confidence and security in a game where one mistimed JUMP can be a life lost. For these reasons, powerup design and frequency is a large part of a Mario's game's overall difficulty. But that's another topic for another time. To finish discussing layers we must cover locks and secrets.