The Measure of Mario pt.7
Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 5:37PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Genre, Level Design, Misc Design & Theory, Platformer, Super Mario Bros.

Locks and Secrets

It's a secret to everybody. At least, that's how we try to make it. Back before I was even in grade school, I remember playing SMB and SMB3 as a group. All the kids would take turns playing, and in between turns sharing every secret we could remember. We had no concept of spoiling the experience for we were all youngsters putting our limited focus and motor skills together. 

Super Mario Bros. showed the world how to make and hide secrets so many years ago. Since then more 2D Mario platformers have been released each with secrets of their own. Designing secrets is very tricky. The nature of many secrets is a test in player knowledge. Once you know that the fourth pipe from the beginning is a secret passage to a bonus room in SMB 1-1, that particular secret becomes less surprising and more routine for future play. Once the secret is out that pipes can be secret doors to room with wonderful coins, won't the player simply test every pipe in the game? The answer is no. And understanding why is quite complicated.

Finding a secret is initially about stumbling upon one or being told about its whereabouts. And for secrets that are repeated throughout a game, continually making a secret secret is all about manipulating player expectation. It's a classic exercise in theme and variation, or working with a limited set of elements and figuring out how to continually make the old new. 

Like every other topic in this series or subject on this blog, we must start by breaking things down into types, categories, or levels. 

Video game secrets fall into one of these types. 

  1. Abstract, coded secrets. These are secrets that you'll rarely find on your own no matter how hard you try. Even if you manage to stumble across one, chances are you won't be able to reproduce the complex sequence of steps to ever do it again. For these secrets, the easiest way to experience them is to look them up. If you've ever held down on the white blocks in SMB3, run behind the scenery, and found the secret room behind the level end, you've experienced an abstract secret. 
  2. Clued/cued secrets. These secrets are easy to spot. A ?-block in Mario or a treasure chest in Zelda hides something, but you don't know what it is until you investigate. 
  3. Look-alikes. The developers have the power to make an object look like one thing and act like something else. In a medium where the visuals communicates the majority of crucial information the player needs to make informed strategic decisions, look-alikes will continually fool us. All bricks that look like bricks but actually hold coins or powerups fall in this category. Any given pipe can be an obstacle or a passageway. You never know until you investigate.
  4. Emergent/Organic secrets. Some secrets are well hidden from the player view. To uncover them players must use the any number or combination of mechanics in just the right way. Initially, these secrets may seem as difficult to discover as abstract or coded secrets. Keep in mind that the main difference is that the player is much more likely to stumble upon these secrets by merely playing the game. All invisible coin blocks are organic secrets. If you play enough, even if you attempt to play the same way through a level, small changes in your timing and behavior will make you more likely to find one of these secrets. As long as you can stumble into a secret from normal play (however you define normal play) and the secret doesn't have any visual, audio, or tactile cues, then it falls into this category. 


This is the game that of course started it all off. Hopefully by now you realize that even though this game is an early NES title, every facet of its design is very well developed. Let's look at World 1-1.

In the first level of the game there are many secrets that reward the player in a variety of ways (coins, level short cuts, and powerups). But it's not enough to simply count the number of secrets in a level or game. We must look at how these secrets are hidden or implemented to throw off what the player expects. So, in 1-1 there are 30 bricks and 6 pipes total. This gives finding one of the brick look-alike secrets low odds. 

With look-alikes and invisible blocks, SMB has more than enough room to continually throw you off your game to surprise you with a secret. But using variation of level elements is only the beginning. Mario has proved that one of the best places to hide secrets is within or underneath another secret. Let's look at World 1-2.

Most of 1-2 is composed of bricks. This design already gives discovering a brick look-alike secret extremely low odds. Notice how 2 of the 3 brick powerups can only be accessed after breaking the bricks beneath them with Super Mario. In other words these secrets are locked away so that only the Super Mario JUMP key can unlock them. This design adds a layer to the secret that makes the odds even larger. After all, if Small Mario can't break the bricks, players are forced to move on without testing bricks for their potential secrets. The more a player passes these areas without being able to test for secrets, the more experiences they build thinking that there's nothing out of the ordinary.

The first pipe in 1-2 takes players down into a bonus room. From the look of the room, players are free to grab the coins and get out. As you can see the last brick above the exit pipe is a secret coin-brick. The design of the bonus room in 1-1 has no secrets. So players might develop an expectation that bonus rooms are pretty straight forward. What you see is what you expect. This possible expectation makes the secret coin brick in the bonus room in 1-2 that much more effective.

When we play SMB now, we hardly think twice about using Super Mario to bust up through the roof of 1-2 and run around where the score is displayed. But if you can think back to when you first experienced 1-2 (or if you have imagine that's cool too), it's probable that you eventually beat the level without ever looking closely at the top of the screen. If nobody tells you that you can break through the roof, you might play through 1-2 many times without ever considering it. As your skills increase and you become more comfortable transforming/destroying bricks as Super Mario, you might look up at the roof and wonder of those bricks can be smashed too. Eventually you might make it up there and laugh at how the game didn't freeze and how you can just skip over the level. This is a neat experience and a reward in itself. When you get to the end of the road and you see the exit pipe, you might assume that you reached the only exit to the level unaware that if you continued traveling on top you would find warp pipes to other worlds. The large gap filled with moving platforms is what helps hide the warp pipe room secret within another secret. Every play experience builds expectations that can help conceal secrets from the player. 

Secrets are a layer of game design that depends on a careful balance. Put too many secrets in a game, and they all become less significant and run the risk of making the game more about finding secrets than platforming. Fortunately, to help distract the player from discovering secrets there's the core game of SMB. The layers of mechanics, structures, enemies, and coins are more prominent and obvious thus occupying much of the player's attention. Ignore enemies and it'll soon be gameover. Dawdle too long, and the time limit will take your life. These elements of contrary motion and tension work well to keep the player moving. 

The designers of SMB had to balance secrets within a level and between levels. If there are levels with many secrets then there must be levels with very few. Right after 1-1 and 1-2 there's 1-3, a level with only 1 ?-block and no other secrets. Enjoy focusing on platforming for a bit. Also in 1-4 there's only 1 ?-block and 6 invisible coin blocks. 2-2 has no secrets whatsoever. 


SMB:LL's secret design extends the formula from SMB. By extending the secret design ideas from SMB, the developers created new ways to surprise even well seasoned SMB players. This was a particularly difficult thing to do considering SMB:LL shares many most of its assets with SMB. For an excellent example of hiding secrets within secrets and designing around player expectations, look at World 1-1 and 1-2 in SMB:LL.

The bonus room in 1-1 is simple, yet the invisible blocks can lead up to secret brick powerup and/or unleash a Poison Mushroom. World 1-2 is an underground level in classic form. But instead of 1 normal exit and 1 secret exit, SMB:LL has 1 normal exit and 3 secret exits one of which is hidden within a secret path of another exit. 

For the first and last time for the 2D Mario series, SMB:LL features secrets that are more like pranks than anything else. Playing off the players experiences that were built up playing SMB, SMB:LL punishes players for exploring certain pipes. One of the pipes in World 8-1 takes players to a warp pipe to World 5. Why would anyone ever want to go back in worlds? Instead of giving players a safe way out, the only options are to warp or die to reset the level. It's twisted. 


With less secrets (total number) and less ways to mix up player expectation (fewer look-alike and invisible secrets), the secret design of SMB2 isn't as developed as SMB. What's worth noting is that SMB2 introduces 3 new types of secrets; player locked (only be accessible using a specific character), secrets hidden beyond dangerous zones, and a new type of secret within a secret. 

Character Locks



Embrace Danger and Curiosity


Suspension To Hide Secrets Within Secrets


SMB3 takes the SMB and SMB2 secret design and expands on them.

Secrets within Secrets within Secrets. 

Abstract Secrets

Locks & Keys

Locks that require powerups to unlock are not a new concept to the Mario games. There are many secrets in SMB that require Super Mario to break bricks for. Just look at SMB 1-2 for examples. However, with new powerups comes new opportunities to expand the types of powerup keys. 


Embrace Danger and Curiosity



Much of the focus for SMW's secrets was put into secret exits. Each exit unlocks new ways to move on the world map and often times new levels. Alternate exits and warps are nothing new to the Mario series. To keep things fresh the designers hid away many exits in alternate paths and restricted behind locks that require powerup keys. 

When In Doubt, Just FLY Out. 

The following is a list of the secret exits that can be accessed with the power of flight. Notice how this category represents the majority of secret exit types. 



Powerup Keys (other than FLYing)

Abstract Keys

Run On The Roof SMB 1-2 Style

Embrace Danger and Curiosity



NSMB takes elements of the secret design of all of its predecessors. It has invisible blocks. Passageway pipes. Dangerous sand and water paths. Secrets within secrets. Suspension based secrets. Powerup keys. Abstract secrets. And secret exits. Though not as many as SMW, in NSMB only 18 levels have alternate exits. To cover them briefly I made this list. 


 Other secrets include...

The main focus of NSMB's secret design is no secret at all. Star coins are optional special coins that are set up to challenge the player in a variety of ways. Some are found easily, some can only be unlocked with specific powerups, and others are hidden in secret areas. I've organize the star coin challenges from nearly every level in the game into 3 groups. Results below.

Star Coins

My favorite Star Coins in NSMB. 



The secret design of NSMBWii is the same as NSMB. Reaching the flag pole at specific times yields mushroom houses. Star coins are hidden throughout each level. And there are plenty of look-alike secrets like bricks and pipes.

One new feature NSMBWii adds to the look alike design is see through surfaces. Like special caves and coves from SMW2:Yoshi's Island, only after stepping into these areas can you see what's inside. While SMW2:YI reveals the whole areas after stepping inside, NSMBWii only reveals a small circular view holes.

I'm still working through all the secrets in NSMBWii so bear with me. Because NSMBWii shares its design most closely to NSMB, I know that it features a wide variety of secrets as well. In fact, all the Mario games (with the exception of SMB2) feature many secrets that are designed with lot of variety and/or well developed with the player's expectations in mind. 

Before I wrap up this series, I want to finish talking about layers by covering NSMBWii's co-op and (p)layered design. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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