level design lesson: low overhead

there’s a lot of neat design in super mario bros., but it often seems like we only talk about those first couple screens. (i am no exception.) the above is one of my favorite setpieces in the game, appearing almost at the beginning of world 4-2.

the centerpiece is the narrow hallway on the right, down which three goombas march toward mario. the player has to get past them: by this point the screen has scrolled far enough to the right that there’s no way back. the hallway is only three blocks tall; a fully-grown mario is two blocks tall. if mario tries to jump over the goombas, he will most likely hit his head on the ceiling and fall back down.

something else happens when fully-grown mario jumps into the ceiling, though: a block’s worth of ceiling is destroyed. the “solution” to this screen is to use big mario’s strength to carve a hole in the ceiling – to make the ceiling higher – giving the player the head room to jump over the goombas. they advance slowly, and the player has plenty of time to prepare for their arrival.

what if the player’s not big mario, though? that’s what the part at the left is for. the coins lure little mario through that tiny crawlspace (too small for big mario to enter) into a small room. in that a room is a hidden, but pretty obviously placed (it’s easy to hit the block by accident, even, trying to jump out of the room) mushroom that will turn little mario big before he confronts the hallway at right.

if big mario can’t pass through the hallway without touching the goombas, he reverts to little mario. so this mushroom is a reward, then, for figuring out how to get through the hallway unscathed. there’s another power-up block immediately after the hallway that will provide mario, if he’s still tall, with a fire flower – or provide little mario with the opportunity to become big again, if he can catch the mushroom (the block is right next to a pit, which to an immobile fire flower makes no difference).

if mario enters the hallway small? then he has a lot more head room, and can jump the goombas without too much trouble, but he doesn’t get the fire flower reward at the end. if mario gets here big? then he has the opportunity to drop into the little coin room, collect a fire flower and use fireballs to clear the goombas from the hallways, but he might miss the fire flower because the crawlspace doesn’t lead him there.

so you can see this area is staged really well. thought has been given to the state mario enters the hallway in and the state he’s in when he leaves. and the problem itself – remembering and taking advantage of big mario’s latent ability to change the shape of the world around him – is one of my favorites in the game. it’s almost a lateral thinking puzzle: what does a man who can break through bricks do when the ceiling’s too low?

11 thoughts on “level design lesson: low overhead”

  1. a fun thing to do on that screen: as big mario, you can hit the bottom entrance to the too small hallway with enough momentum to duck-slide and glitch into the level geometry. as a result, the game slides mario right until he is in the room with the fire flower. ah, the thrill of taking paths we weren’t intended…

    there is a coin block hidden in the ceiling further down that hallway. what purpose does it serve? since it is past the 3 goombas, you’d never find the block unless you continue to tear apart the ceiling even after the threat is gone. and you are given a reward for this?

  2. Real men crouch-jump over those goombas.

    Your next post should be about the amazing secret hidden just to the right of this very section – one that I never found without outside help, and one that I could never figure out how to consistently activate without outside help. It might be the hardest single thing the player can accomplish in the game, considering how easy it is to irreversibly muck up.

  3. Incidentally, it took me awhile to fully appreciate how Super Mario’s ability to pummel the cave’s ceiling gives the underground areas a great feeling of openness and passivity compared to the oppressive – even though both kinds of levels contain the same claustrophobic passages and limits of space.

    It’s a bit sad that this mechanical distinction between caves and castles is lost in later Mario games – in SMB3, cave rock is just as solid as castle stone, and in Super Mario World, the caves even appropriate the lava that was the castle’s signature hellish hazard.

  4. are we allowed to say “real men” on this blog without some sort of signifier that such a concept is purely hypothetical? or does it speak for itself?

  5. I came here because you were linked by a man named Tim Rogers (http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=999) in which he called you “surely the best games journalist in the world, and it’s not even a full time job.”

    I don’t regret coming here. This article is great. I go through so many games without THINKING like this. I hope that I will learn to.

  6. Sorry for writing a book here, but this is my favorite area of SMB! There were so many fun elements, beginning with the double-jump where you have to land on a 2-tile space then a 1-tile space… It might seem easy now, but at age 7 I felt like the Wizard. It’s full of little discoveries, like the hidden power-up in that little coin crawlspace, the random coin block hidden in all of those regular blocks, and the super-tricky hidden vine to the warp.

    Then, there’s so many approaches to playing it. The article went thru several variations, and commenters have already mentioned pro-tricks like duck-jumping and duck-sliding, all of which made me feel like a genius when I discovered them growing up. The approaching trio of Goombas is a stunning example of a transparent puzzle, and uses existing game elements in a way that forces the player to think outside the box. Add to this the fact that the area is sandwiched between 2 warp points on the “fast-track” to World 8 (1-2, 2-1, 4-1, and the beginning of 4-2), and you can see why it’s the most memorable moments of the game for me.

    Kudos on the article, I never saw Mario’s brick-breaking ability as “changing the shape of the world around him”. Lol, I know there are design reasons involved, but I get a chuckle out of knowing that in most “realistic” modern shooters, a grenade does nothing to brick wall, but Mario was busting ’em up 25 years ago! I can’t help but lose a little respect for “geo-mod technology” with this new perspective, lol.

    Sinoth- Your question about the coin block is somewhat self-explanatory; The coin block is your reward for taking the time (a valuable in-game commodity) to tear down the blocks that would otherwise only earn you a measly 50 pts each. This area has one of (if not THE) biggest density of breakable bricks, and I found that coin-block on my first playthrough only because I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something hidden up there in all those blocks, and sure enough there was. Imagine a Zelda game where you see a whole screen-full of bushes, so you chop them all down, but you don’t get any rupees. Kinda makes you wonder if you should bother cutting down bushes, right? These seemingly random and insignificant rewards reinforce the idea that breaking blocks or cutting bushes is “good” and it encourages players to keep breaking them to find more important secrets. Like many of the hidden powerups in SMB, they could have placed it where you’re already likely to jump, but this random little coin-block had a simple message: “Break every block in the game, you never know what you’ll find!”. Sorry for the rant, but this was one of those secrets that we loved to tell everyone about at recess, and I’d like to think Shiggy would be proud of that.

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