Mario’s Mojo: the Gold Standard for Game Design

By Nick Olsen

In 1985, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros., a two dimensional (2D) platform game in which the player guides Mario through a series of increasingly difficult levels to rescue Princess Toadstool from the evil clutches of Bowser. Built with a mass audience in mind, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka utilized simple and intuitive game design allowing players of varying skill to play and enjoy the game. The game was a resounding success, eventually selling more than 40 million copies; in 2005, IGN would name it the number one game of all time. This design would establish the foundation for the Super Mario Bros. franchise as well as the 2D platformer genre that still resonates with gamers and developers today.

Super Mario Bros.’ success spawned a number of sequels, each featuring iterative evolutions of the core gameplay mechanics of the original, creating one of the most successful franchises in video game history. Even when Nintendo moved the Super Mario franchise from 2D to a three dimensional (3D) platform game with Super Mario 64, the innovations established in the original Super Mario Bros. would still remain omnipresent in video game development.

Attack of the Clones

Within months of the release of Super Mario Bros., the video game industry experienced a flood of 2D platform games which utilized similar game design and mechanics as those put forth by Miyamoto and Tezuka; Castlevania, Mega Man, Metroid and many more all mimicked Super Mario Bros.’ emphasis on strategic problem problem solving through running, jumping and the use of occasional augmenters (mushrooms, fire flowers, super stars) to defeat foes and conquer levels.

Even today a number of Super Mario Bros. clones are produced for a variety of systems, from direct copies (Monino, Super World Adventures, Super Daddio, etc.) to derivatives (Super Meat Boy, Limbo, Braid, etc.). But what is it about Super Mario Bros.’ which created a sensation lasting nearly 30 years? The secret to success lies in key elements in the game’s design: instructional level design, intuitive game play controls, and evolving and escalating challenges.

Instructional Level Design

Every aspect of level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. was designed to teach players the rudimentary skills they would need to overcome the challenges present throughout the game. Miyamoto and Tezuka could have easily placed Mario at the center of the screen and let the users decide whether their initial movement should be to the left or right; but they chose instead to place Mario at the far left, indicating to the players that Mario’s goal resides at the right side of the level, and it would remain so throughout the entire game.

level 1-1 game design

Super Mario Bros. Level 1-1

The next lesson follows immediately as the player moves Mario to the right: Mario can, and will need to, jump. The player encounters a floating block labeled with a question mark, showing players a second plane parallel to that which Mario stands upon and encouraging the player to explore a host of possibilities obtained by jumping, on or into. In case the player overlooks the floating block lesson, Mario is rapidly introduced to his first enemy (a Goomba) which Mario must avoid or die. The player instinctively jumps over or on the enemy to avoid or vanquish it.

After dealing with his foe, Mario is presented with more floating blocks, this time creating a bi-level structure with a large platform base allowing a simple and reassuring location for the player to test Mario’s jumping abilities. Finally, within the lower platform are two more blocks labeled again with question marks, the first of which produces a red and orange mushroom when bumped. Upon escaping the block the mushroom moves away from Mario signifying to the player to chase after it; when the player catches it they are rewarded with a size increase for Mario.

And with that the player learns more valuable lessons: Mario’s powers can be augmented and augmentations and other rewards are located within blocks. Less than two screen scrolls into the game and the level design has already taught the player most of the key elements for success in Super Mario Bros. From here, in each new world that Mario encounters level X-1 serves as the player instruction course on defeating the world ahead.

Intuitive Gameplay Controls

One quick look at the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) controller and it’s obvious that extremely complex control mapping would never factor into the equation. But that doesn’t mean that Miyamoto and Tezuka couldn’t have mapped a different control scheme; in fact according to a booklet included in the “Super Mario Collection Special Pack” the original control scheme used “up” on the directional pad to jump rather than the “a” button. This control scheme would have complicated the running and jumping process for the player; by switching jump to the “a” button the player could easily control simultaneous moving and jumping actions (critical to the game play mechanics) without much difficulty.

NES controller design

The original NES controller

With movement mapped to left and right on the directional pad, and jump now mapped to the “a” button, the only button remaining was “b” which was given the abilities of dash and when equipped with fireballs to shoot. These functions mapped to the same button make sense when you consider that neither are core elements to the player’s success. Yes, both are useful tools to the player (which is why they exist) but no scenario exists in the game where they are required.

The two-button (plus directional pad) design of the NES controller may have caused a case of function following form, but the common-sense approach to control mapping employed by Miyamoto and Tezuka allowed players of all skill levels to immediately pick up the controller and intuitively understand how to move Mario.

Evolving and Escalating Challenges

When Miyamoto and Tezuka were designing the levels for Super Mario Bros., there was no written rule prohibiting them from dropping players into difficult and chaotic levels and letting them figure out the solutions on their own. However, they quickly realized that starting the player off with simple challenges and gradually ramping up the difficulty would build the player’s confidence in their ability to deal with the challenges and puzzles they faced. By instilling in the players an innate understanding that they need only rely on the knowledge and skills gained through success in previous levels, they reduced the player’s sense of frustration (and increased their desire to succeed) when they would inevitably fail.

The world structure designed by Miyamoto and Tezuka followed a continuous pattern throughout the game; the player would start with level X-1 which would act as a teaching level providing the player the tools they would need to defeat the challenges in the levels ahead. Each subsequent level would escalate the challenge level, ultimately culminating in level X-4 in which the player would face the most difficult challenges, including a final boss acting as the guardian to the captured princess and the next world.

SMB enemies design

All the enemies from Super Mario Bros.

Similarly, each new world featured an evolution of the previous world’s challenges, often times introducing new enemies (i.e. bullets,spiked turtles, etc.), environments (i.e. water world, night world, etc.) and increasing the difficulty of existing challenges (i.e. longer jumps). Strategically, this design served the same purpose as the escalating level design, but on a grander scale; by completing each world the player acquires a set of skills to better equip them for the challenges they’ll face in the coming worlds, ultimately equipping them with every tool they’ll need to defeat Bowser, the final boss of the game in world 8, level 4.

The Gold Standard

Through the use of the three elements outlined above, Miyamoto and Tezuka created one of the best selling video games of all time and an iconic franchise which set the gold standard for game design. Future Super Mario games would follow a similar recipe as the original while also adding to the core platform to bring gamer players exciting new twists and abilities amplified by the increased processing power of each subsequent generation of consoles (though no 2D platformer Super Mario games appeared on the Nintendo 64 or GameCube).

power up designs SMB Wii

Mario’s power ups for New Super Mario Bros. Wii

The two latest entries in the Super Mario Bros. franchise, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and New Super Mario Bros. U are both based based on these core elements yet introducing exciting new abilities for players to enjoy such as the propeller mushroom giving Mario the ability to fly vertically.

Beyond the Super Mario Bros. franchise numerous successful games were built around these design elements, Castlevania, Mega Man, Limbo, Metroid, and many more have utilized these to great effect. Super Meat Boy is a direct homage to Super Mario Bros. and other classic 2D platformer games which preceded it and received acclaim from both critics and gamers alike. Beyond 2D platformer games Super Mario Bros.’ design influence can be felt in such games Dead Space, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Little Big Planet, which use short introductory levels or sequences to teach the player the game play mechanics before gradually escalating in difficulty with subsequent levels. And each of these games utilizes intuitive controls (despite much more advanced controllers) to quickly immerse the player into the game.

FC3 weapon menu design

The weapon select menu from Far Cry 3

But for every game which learned its lessons from Super Mario Bros. there are games which chose to ignore one or more of these elements in their game design leading to a frustrating experience for the players. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, while well regarded overall, bloated it’s instructional level with a long and exhaustive introduction in which players spent nearly 45 minutes being shoehorned through a tutorial, detracting from the gameplay experience. Far Cry 3 failed to adopt intuitive controls and forced players to awkwardly bring up a menu (without pausing the game) if they wanted to swap to a weapon other than one of the last two they used (the character can carry up to eight) creating a lot of frustration in real-time combat scenarios.

While these games both managed to overcome these design flaws and create enjoyable experiences, these stumbles and shortcomings could have easily been avoided by sticking to the lessons taught by Miyamoto and Tezuka in Super Mario Bros.