the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Architecture of Super Mario Bros. (The NES Era)

The Architecture of Super Mario Bros. (The NES Era)

Note: You can click any of the pictures to see a full-size image.

I’ve been writing about level design here at Gaming Symmetry for about a month now, but I have yet to do an in-depth analysis of a game in the genre where level design is most important: the platformer. After all, without excellent level design, a platforming game will not succeed, period. The entire point of the genre is to get from the beginning of the stage to the end, and since platformers generally don’t test your combat skill (like an action game) or your strategic planning (like an RPG), the only way to make the game challenging is by testing your agility with hazardous terrain. Of course, if I’m going to introduce the platforming genre to The Architecture of Gaming, there’s only one logical game to start with: Super Mario Bros. In fact, I’ll actually be highlighting all of the Mario platformers for the NES this week.

Super Mario Bros.

Released as a launch title for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, Super Mario Bros. was one of the primary reasons for the NES’s popularity in western markets, and was largely responsible for helping the video game industry recover after the crash of 1983. It appears near the top of almost every “Greatest Video Games Ever” list ever made, and was the best-selling game in the world for over 20 years (until being usurped by Wii Sports in 2009). SMB has been around for so long and has been showered with so much praise that it’s easy to forget what made it so successful in the first place.

The first reason for SMB’s acclaim is its sublime set of controls. A number of features – momentum-based gameplay, a limited ability to alter your trajectory in midair, the ability to control how high you jump – were combined and balanced to create the most precise and intuitive gameplay of the era. The game’s controls still hold up as some of the best in the industry. The other reason why Super Mario Bros. succeeded where many like-minded games had failed is the level design, which is just as polished as the controls. Beating the game is challenging, but it never feels unfair. If you fail, you know it’s not because of some BS that the developers pulled, but because you messed up, and that just gives you more reason to try again and get it right.

I’m not going to claim that I know the most about the level design in Super Mario Bros. That honor would likely go to the people that speed run the game. As one of the oldest and most popular games on the Speed Demos Archive site, its speed run is probably the closest to perfection that any speed run will ever achieve (unless you count the three-second blind accusation run of the SNES version of Clue). The current record is a swift 4 minutes, 59 seconds by Andrew Gardikis, who at this point could probably play through the entire game blindfolded. A common description of skilled gameplay for any given game is “pixel-perfect maneuvers,” and nowhere is that more appropriate than the Super Mario Bros. speed run.

None of these situations resulted in death.

Another aspect that SMB executed well is level identity. When I mention “level identity,” I am referring to what makes any given level stand out from the rest, or more specifically (and metonymically), the ability of a game to give all of its levels their own identities. This can be achieved by making every level look unique, or having each one focus on a different enemy or game mechanic. Essentially, this means giving each level a gimmick, but keep in mind that gimmicks are not inherently bad. There are few things that a game can do to annoy its audience more than by making them play through the same locations and situations repeatedly. Depending on a game’s genre, the importance and effectiveness of level identity can vary. A story-based military FPS like Call of Honor 8: Modern Shooting will be bound by the restrictions of “reality,” but it should still have variety, and too many developers use “realism” as an excuse to copy-paste the same few grey-and-brown levels over and over.

Meanwhile, in a cartoonish platforming game like Super Mario Bros., levels that focus on platforms hanging from pulleys in midair not only fit fairly easily into the aesthetic of the game, but contribute to the game’s strong sense of level identity. Platformers generally have dozens of distinct levels as well, so a great deal of creativity is needed to give each stage a unique feel. Alice Kojiro has already written about the striking 6-3, which I like to call “the Pleasantville level,” and the stage directly before that has its own distinctive gimmick: a plethora of Piranha Plants.

Why are there so many?!!

SMB’s level identity also benefits because the developers realized that some incredibly simple ideas are elegant and engaging enough to carry an entire level. A couple of mid-game levels have relatively straightforward layouts, but are still challenging because Lakitu will continuously throw spiky enemies at you. 2-3 consists of little more than a bridge to run across, but Cheep-Cheeps will be constantly jumping out of the water at you. 7-3 revisits the same scenario, but complicates the matter by adding various Koopas.

If you’re reading this, Grandma, the fish are the Cheep-Cheeps and the turtles are the Koopas.

The Mario series is also famous for its power-ups, and there are parts of some levels that are designed with the power-ups in mind. After picking up a Super Mushroom, Mario will be twice as large, and can break brick blocks from below. There are some areas that can only be reached by breaking blocks. Since being Super Mario lets you survive an extra hit before dying and lets you pick up Fire Flowers, it makes sense to always grab a Super Mushroom if you see one, right? Well there are also areas with small openings that can only be accessed by regular Mario. Admittedly, there are very few areas in the game that can be accessed by only regular or Super Mario, but the idea was expanded upon in the sequels.

You can’t reveal that P-Switch if you’re Super Mario… unless you know the Duck-Slide Trick.

Lastly, no discussion of the level design in Super Mario Bros. would be complete without mentioning the many secrets hidden in the game. Easter eggs have existed in games since the days of the Atari 2600, but SMB had better and more plentiful secrets than ever before. By now, the Warp Zone has become common knowledge among gamers, but there’s another secret in the game that is just as important.

One of these is hidden in the first level of all eight worlds.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japan)

So from Super Mario Bros. 1, it would naturally make sense to move on to Super Mario Bros. 2. However, there are actually two completely different games known as Super Mario Bros. 2. The game pictured above (considered by many to be the “proper” SMB2) was originally released in Japan in 1986, but didn’t see the light of day in other territories until 1993, when it was included in the SNES compilation Super Mario All-Stars as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. Using contemporary vernacular, SMB2J could be described as an “expansion pack” (although it technically has over 1 ½ times as many levels than SMB1). A new item was added, as well as a new enemy, and there were slight improvements to the graphics, sound, and physics engine, but it was otherwise built entirely from the same pieces that were used to make the original game.

This similarity to SMB1 is one of the main reasons that SMB2J was not originally released outside of Japan. The other, more popularly-cited reason is that SMB2J is much, much more difficult, and Nintendo of America felt that western audiences would not be able to handle it. (“Pshaw!” I say to that.) The obstacle courses were made more complex, with levels being populated by more enemies, and the jumps requiring more precision from the player. The developers also got rather devious with the level design: the new Poison Mushroom was easily confused with a standard Super Mushroom, but it would actually harm Mario; there were many more sections that would loop endlessly until you found a secret way out; some of the Warp Zones would actually send you back a world or two; and certain stages late in the game require intimate knowledge of some of the game’s “quirks” in order to pass them.

Levels 8-1 and 1-2, respectively.

In the level shown on the left, you must use the enemies as “stepping stones” to cross the gap, a technique that most people forget was not even possible in the original release of SMB1. For the level on the right, you need to be familiar with invisible blocks – the two blocks in the screenshot are initially hidden. It’s this difficulty spike that leads me to view SMB2J not as an expansion pack, but as an officially-sanctioned Kaizo Mario World-style ROM hack from the days before ROM hacking actually existed.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA)

Since Nintendo of America decided not to localize Japan’s version of SMB2 but still wanted to release a sequel, they took a different Japanese game, Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, and changed the sprites of the playable characters into Mario characters. (Ironically, Doki Doki Panic began as a Mario prototype before being developed into a promotional game for the Japanese TV channel Fuji Television.) Released in the US in 1988 and PAL territories in 1989 (and Japan in 1992???), this is the game that western audiences know as Super Mario Bros. 2.

While an elitist might disregard SMB2USA as not a “true” Mario game, I am still going to discuss its level design for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Nintendo felt that it was a good enough game to represent the Mario franchise (it helps that Shigeru Miyamoto worked on Doki Doki Panic). Certain enemies encountered in SMB2USA – like Bob-ombs, Shy Guys, Pokeys, and Snifits – have resurfaced in other Mario titles, giving credence to the game’s claim at a place in the Mario canon.

SMB2USA actually represents a significant improvement in level design for the series. I’ll begin by showing you the first four levels of Super Mario Bros. 1. is an amazing website.

Notice something about those stages? Specifically about their shape? Aside from the occasional Warp Pipe detour, every level in SMB1 is a straight line from left to right. For comparison, here is the first level of SMB2USA.

Have I mentioned how awesome is yet?

Not only are the levels in SMB2USA much larger, but they also have sections based on vertical movement. Some areas require you to scale a tower or climb a series of vines. Other sections, which involve moving downward, are cleverly designed to be just as challenging as moving upward, despite the fact that gravity is now on your side. Some of the vertical sections even utilize wraparound, meaning that running off the left side of the screen will cause you to enter from the right side. There are also several means of traveling from one area of a level to another, such as doors and ladders, making some of the stages practically labyrinthine. It’s not just a one-way charge either; occasionally you will have to double back and even (gasp!) move to the left. For example, in level 3-2, you start by running to the right, as per usual, before heading underground and traveling back to the left underneath the first half of the level.

I heard Beyoncé is a big fan of the second half of this stage.

Basically, if a level from SMB1 was the impressive single-shot fight scene from the film Oldboy, a level from SMB2USA would be the longer, much more complex single-shot fight scene from the Tony Jaa film Tom-Yum-Goong.

As can be expected, the final level is particularly large and complex, even more so than the follow-up game, Super Mario Bros. 3. Thankfully, SMB2USA does not impose a time limit on any of the stages.

The level pictured above also shows some areas where certain characters can take a shortcut. Each of the four playable characters has their own strengths and weaknesses. Mario, as usual, is the balanced character; Toad is the weakest jumper, but can pick up objects more quickly and is the only character who runs faster than normal while carrying something; Luigi can jump higher at the expense of picking up objects more slowly; and Princess Toadstool lifts things the slowest, but possesses the curious ability to hover after jumping (a trait that carried over to her appearance in the Super Smash Bros. series). As such, the Princess is able to jump across long gaps (or in Luigi’s case, up to higher platforms) and bypass sections of the level that other characters would have to traverse.

Luigi and Toadstool can actually skip most of level 4-3.

SMB2USA also has more puzzle elements than Super Mario Bros. 1. I’m not talking about the “solve this Sudoku to unlock the door” kind of puzzles; rather, I’m talking about the “how do I get through this part of the level?” kind of puzzles. Almost all of these puzzles are based on the game mechanics in SMB2USA that no other Mario game has. Unlike every single other game in the series, jumping on an enemy’s head will not defeat them. Instead, you will simply stand on top of them (unless they are spiky, electric, fiery, etc.) and “ride” them. There are times that you must actually ride an enemy across a bottomless pit or hazardous gap.

The example on the bottom confuses many players, who assume you are supposed to kill Birdo.

Once you’re standing on an enemy – or another small enough object – you have the option of picking it up and carrying it. Several of the puzzles are designed around this mechanic as well. Some levels have blocks that can be moved and stacked to reach higher plaforms. Others require you to use the “lifting” mechanic to dig through layers of sand. The tricky part about the sand-filled rooms is digging in a way that prevents patrolling enemies from dropping onto your head.

Protip: Digging in a zig-zag pattern works wonders.

Of course, the most memorable puzzles are the ones in which you must carry a key to a locked door. Invariably, picking up the key will cause a floating monster to start chasing you. If you’ve never played this game, find someone who has and ask them how they feel about Phanto.

PHANTO WILL HAUNT YOUR NIGHTMARES! (And since this entire game is revealed to be a dream, I mean that literally.)

SMB2USA also expands on the idea of level identity. While the levels in Super Mario Bros. 1 were divided into eight different “worlds” (nine, if you count Minus World), there was little to differentiate them beyond their numbers. This sequel was the first game in the series to associate each world with a biome. It starts (as platforming games often do) in a grassy area before moving on to an ice world, a nighttime world, and oddly enough, two desert worlds.

And of course, SMB2USA has more secrets. Pulling plants from the ground will occasionally reward you with a magic potion (a genie’s lamp in Doki Doki Panic) that when thrown on the ground will create a door to Subspace. In Subspace, the current screen is reversed and everything besides your character is seen as a silhouette. Pulling plants in Subspace will give you coins (which can be used in a slot machine minigame at the end of each level to gain more lives), and entering Subspace at certain locations will reveal a Super Mushroom that will add one segment to your health meter for the rest of the level. This game’s version of the Warp Zone also involves Subspace: entering certain vases while in Subspace will warp you ahead in the game.

The Game Boy Advance remake (right) changed the art style of Subspace. Personally, I prefer the old version.

Super Mario Bros. 3

Released in 1988, 1990 and 1991 in Japan, the US, and PAL territories respectively, Super Mario Bros. 3 is generally considered the pinnacle of Mario’s oeuvre on the NES. With more levels, more power-ups, and better gameplay than ever before, it’s not hard to see why. This game was so big that it got its own movie.

Another one of the reasons I decided to cover the level design of the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2 is that it serves as an important step in the series’ evolution. Many of the improvements that that game made were carried over to (and in some cases, further improved upon in) Super Mario Bros. 3. For example, while SMB1 had horizontal levels and SMB2USA introduced vertical levels, SMB3 was the first game in the series to include… diagonal levels!

This is insanity! Next, we’ll be seeing human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!

But seriously, that diagonal level is just one example of the way that the level designers utilized their newfound freedom. SMB1 could have levels that were more than one screen wide, but were limited to one screen tall; SMB2USA could have levels that were more than one screen wide or more than one screen tall but not both simultaneously. (Whenever you go from a horizontal section to a vertical one, the game has to load the new area.) SMB3’s levels aren’t quite as big as SMB2USA’s, but they could be whatever shape the developers desired. This flexibility allowed the level designers to give the stages much more variety. There are even a few levels with multiple paths through them.

It turns out you can skip most of this level (and get a free 1-up in the process) if you have a racoon tail.

Super Mario Bros. 3 also has the strongest sense of level identity of the NES Mario platformers. While SMB1 had easily distinguishable stages and SMB2USA had easily distinguishable worlds, Super Mario Bros. 3 has both. Each world’s distinctiveness is aided by the introduction of map screens to the series. Given that the map screens feature patrolling Hammer Brothers and even a few secrets, they could arguably be considered an extension of the overall level design. Over the course of the game, Mario travels to the obligatory grassy world, desert world, water world, sky world, ice world, and fire/dark world. He also visits two themed lands that haven’t become anywhere near as cliché as the others: the Pipe Maze and Giant Land.

Pictured: The greatest world in Mario history.

Even within each world, every level feels unique. Each stage manages to have its own gimmick, without feeling too disconnected from the core Mario gameplay. One stage that has achieved a significant deal of popularity is 5-3, which remains the only level in the Mario franchise to date where you can find the popular Kuribo’s Shoe power-up. Another nice detail is that each level matches up with its location on the map screen. For instance, a level whose icon appears in a lake on the map will be a water level of some sort. My personal favorite level occurs in Sky Land. Despite being the sky world, the first few levels (including the aforementioned Kuribo’s Shoe level) take place on solid ground. About a third of the way through the world, you reach a level represented by a tower icon instead of a number. The level itself tasks you with climbing the tower, on the inside and outside, after which you emerge on an entirely new map screen in the clouds (with the previous map still visible far below).

The “Sky” part of the map is the only time in the game that you will see a blue Fortress.

Puzzles aren’t quite as prevalent in Super Mario Bros. 3 as they were in SMB2USA, but when they are present, they can be quite tricky. Fortresses may require you to go through the correct series of doors or find a hidden exit. World 7 in particular has a number of labyrinthine levels.

There’s a reason it’s called the Pipe Maze.

Finally, like all good Mario games, there are a bucketload of secrets to discover, from brief detours…

Hey! That’s the number at the end of the game’s title!

…to huge secret areas that can take up half of the overall level.

Not many people know that there’s a bunch of stuff up there.

The Mario games are without a doubt some of the greatest titles for the NES, but these four installments are just a small slice of the franchise’s evolution. I won’t be discussing any other Mario games for a while – instead I’ll be spending some time analyzing other Nintendo games that pioneered or greatly refined certain subgenres – but you can be sure that you’ll be seeing more from the portly Italian plumber in the future.


One Comment

  1. This was incredible. Never before have I seen such an exhaustive study of the levels in the NES Mario games. You’ve compacted so much information (and a lot of memories) into such a concise article. It’s a fantastic tribute to Mario’s early days.


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