Super Mario Nuance pt.2
Friday, February 4, 2011 at 10:33AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Genre, Learning, Motivation, & The Mind, Skill, Super Mario Bros.

The following are the level maps from Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels World 8. I wrote notes where all the nuanced challenges are. Also notice how the spacing of the platforms are generally much wider than in Super Mario Bros. Click on the images to enlarge.







What Do We Lose By Forcing Nuance?

Based on the diagrams above, you can see exactly how nuanced the challenges are in Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels. But what's the difference between SMB and SMB:LL? How does increasing the nuance of the core level design actually affect the overall experience? To answer this question we must consider trial and error. If you're less likely to be exposed to the type of challenges where a specific nuanced strategy is needed, then you're less likely to learn and master it. So if a level continually presents such challenges to the player without previously providing a safe environments for him/her to test and learn the necessary techniques (or some kind of tutorial), the main thing that nuanced level design increases is ultimately the number of trials the player will attempt.

Assuming the player doesn't get too frustrated and quit, such a nuanced focused design doesn't make the game any more challenging dexterity, adaptation, reflex, or timing wise. It only forces the player to attempt more experimenting trials in the game so he/she can develop the necessary knowledge skills. And since complexities (game rules/bits of game knowledge) are the most unique, varied, incompressible, and the most difficult part of a game to learn (store in LTM), you can see how a nuanced focused design can stagnate the entire gaming/development/learning process.

As a designer you have to ask yourself what you really want your players to experience, what you want them to learn, and how you want to test them. I'd imagine that you'd rather test the player's DKART skills. I'd even go as far as to say for most genres (especially actions games) you'd want to test how much the players knows and how they use this knowledge, not how lucky they can be blinding stabbing in the dark via trial and error to learn the knowledge as he/she goes along. 

Of course, it's up to the developers to determine what kinds of experiences to craft. For those who want to appeal to a wider range of players without "dumbing down" the overall content, it helps in some ways to keep the most nuanced challenges as an option either through secrets, alternate paths, or additional modes of difficulty. Furthermore, even if you want to push the nuance level to the max, the difference between losing most of your players and keeping everyone engaged is a matter of education. Though some puzzle games thrive on stressing the player's ability to analyze and devise spoiler like solutions, when developing other genres of games you should consider designing them to inform the player so that key pieces of information are a secret to everybody.  



To close, let's look at a game that does nuanced challenges it right. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (SMG2) green stars design is fantastic. Believe me, as a Mario/Nintendo fan I approach every game and each feature with a lot of reservation. When I first heard about SMG2's green stars I assumed they were some kind of gimmick to poorly extend the play time of the game. To my surprise, the green stars have a handful of design features that make them great.


Example 1. The player must ground pound the edge of the spring to avoid hitting the ?-block, spin to adjust the air control, wall kick off the ?-block, spin again to reverse direction, and land on top of the ?-block. Then the player must back flip spin to reach the green star. Most of these techniques are not mandatory in the main game challenges. 

Example 2. After scaling the wall with Yoshi, players have to get a full swing off the flower, flutter jump to max height, and dismount Yoshi in mid air to reach the green star. Air dismounting is not necessary to complete any core challenge in the main game. Nintendo knew better then, and knows better now.

Example 3. You can clearly hear the twinkling sound as Luigi approaches the vertical bridge. If you didn't know where to look, listening for this sound and then using the first person view to look around is a great strategy. To reach the top, you must wall kick up the bridge. This is pretty surprising considering that to progress in the main game, players are encouraged to knock down the bridge using a new powerup. For the green star, players must deal with the bridge in a new way. Players never had to wall kick up any structure with sides so wide in the main game. Reaching the top of this bridge is therefore inherently more difficulty timing wise. Once you reach the top, a backflip spin will get the job done. 


Nintendo has learned a lot over the years about difficulty design. Nuanced challenges can be extremely rewarding for players if they're ready for the challenge skill wise. But isn't this really just like any kind of challenge? If nothing else, nuanced design should merely make designers more humble to the fact that learning is tricky, sometimes unpredictable, and a task that the player must do for him/herself. If more complex and nuanced learning concepts are like eurekas in that they're restricted by conceptual platforms (read more here) then as designers we have to design our games accordingly. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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