The Measure of Mario pt.6
Thursday, December 3, 2009 at 10:25AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Genre, Misc Design & Theory, Platformer, Super Mario Bros.


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. 



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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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