level design lesson: to the right, hold on tight

from super mario bros., world 1-1

(also in spanish, french, portuguese and korean.)

much of the following is informed by friend and comrade jeremy penner’s breakdown of design trends in super mario bros. for further reading, see his “breaking the law of miyamoto” in the gamer’s quarter issue seven. i’m also indebted to eric-jon rossel waugh for the metaphor of verbs.

games (digital or otherwise) are composed of rules. certain rules give the player liberty to change the state of the game (the “game state”) in specific ways: i like to call these “verbs,” as in the part of speech. if mario is the subject of most of the sentences in super mario bros.’s story, then “jump” is the verb that most often follows – jumping is so crucial that it gets its own button on the control pad.[1] the idea of jumping into a box to open it or onto an opponent to defeat it makes little sense out of context, but since the player’s foremost means of interacting with the game is through the verb JUMP, all of the game’s elements have been designed as potential objects of that verb.

“mario jumps into a block.” “mario jumps onto a goomba.” “mario jumps on top of a pipe.” “mario jumps across a pit.” this is why almost all of the doors in metroid are opened by gunfire, even though i’ve never encountered a door i had to shoot to open: samus aran, having a gun for an arm, interacts with her world primarily by shooting. it makes sense, within the context of that game, for doors to open upon being shot.

the big question of level design – and i mean that every level design lesson i ever write will be a response to this question – is: how do i teach the player these rules? an unfortunate trend in contemporary games is to spell out every detail in a hand-holding “tutorial” session at the outset of a game – unfortunate because it shows both a great deal of contempt for the player’s intuition and a lack of confidence in the designer’s own design. but more than that, it’s a design failure because it tells the player the rules instead of allowing her to learn them.

what if the first level of the game were laid out in such a way that the player could learn the rules simply by playing through it, without needing to be told them outright?

shown above is the “tutorial” from shigeru miyamoto and takashi tezuka’s super mario bros. these first two screens (bigger image) teach the player almost every crucial rule of the game. how? let’s take the very first screen: the left half of the image, just mario under an open sky, a flat landscape beneath his feet. this is the first thing a player sees on starting the game. so what does it teach her? the first and highest concept in the game: that mario’s goal is to the right!

how does it teach this? mario is at the left side of the screen, facing right.  the ground is laid out like a little path, an unobstructed horizontal surface crossing the screen from left to right. the big open space – there’s nothing in the sky, yet, to take the focus from the ground – invites mario to explore it. the player moves mario to the right, and the screen begins to scroll, showing more of the world. as the world scrolls toward mario, the player sees what next?

that flashing ? block, but by the time the screen has scrolled far enough for mario to reach it, something else has shown up that demands immediate attention: a little brown mushroom with angry eyebrows, tromping toward the player of its own will. this is the first time-sensitive situation in the game. the goomba is the second actor we’ve seen so far, mario being the first, and this one moves without our say-so, those eyes suggesting it has its own malevolent sentience. and it’s coming from the right side of the screen – opposite of mario’s quest – toward us! if the allows it to touch mario, it is instantly made clear that this mushroom is bad news and its touch fatal.

in order to pass this first little guardian, the player must learn that the A button makes mario jump. the nes pad being as clean and clearly-designed as it is – the A button big and bright and concave, an invitation to touch – it’s not hard to discover the jump button with a little experimentation.[2] there are several possible outcomes of mario’s first attempt to jump the goomba: one is that the mario might fall short and land on its head, in which case the player learns that jumping on enemies lets mario defeat them. another: remember that first ? block, which is now likely overheard. jumping the goomba, mario might bump his head on the block, causing it to stop flashing and a coin pop out. the player learns to activate ? blocks by jumping mario into them from below.

once he’s passed the goomba, mario heads right and discovers lots of blocks in the sky to test his new jump on. there are two clear types of blocks here: the more enticing glowing ? blocks and the brown patchs of brick in between them, if mario jumps into one of those he’ll just bump off. but if mario strikes the leftmost ? block, the player will be treated to the most elaborate spectacle in the game thus far.

a mushroom pops out of the box and into the air; it lands on that long platform and speeds to the right. when it reaches the end of the platform, it bumps into the pipe, turns around, and heads back along the ground toward the mario who just released it. note how long this mushroom’s path to mario is: the player is given the opportunity to observe the mushroom’s behavior before mario interacts with it. and note, second, that unlike mushrooms later in the game that mario must chase down, this mushroom comes to mario: if the player has mario hit the block and do nothing else, mario will still get the mushroom.

finally note that, in the tight space under that floating platform, if mario tries to jump over the speedy mushroom like he did the goomba, he’s likely to bump his head and be knocked back down into the shroom, whereupon the player will learn that it’s a desirable thing to touch after all. but even before the player has interacted with it at all, the mushroom is differentiated from the goomba in a number of ways: while the goomba marches regardless of the player, the mushroom must be evoked: it does not exist until mario activates it by striking the block. it doesn’t have a face or a little walk animation: it’s an object, not a character, and does not have its own intent. and it glides to the right, the same direction as mario, while the goomba marches toward the left, opposing mario.

when the mushroom touches mario – again, much harder to dodge than the goomba, especially for a first-time player – a fanfare plays and mario grows into big mario. now, if mario strikes those bricks – either as an experiment or because he tried to hit the other ? block and missed (the brick patches are in between the ? blocks, after all, and are closer to this twice-tall mario’s head) the bricks are smashed and the player learns another rule. that ? block at the very top beckons mario to jump through the newly-created gaps and the player to understand how mario can change the game world.

the pipe on the right is the final “guardian” of this screen. it’s a roadblock, to make sure mario doesn’t pass up all these blocks in the sky, it keeps the mushroom from leaving the screen to the right and redirects it toward mario, and it makes sure the player can’t leave this screen before she knows that she can make mario jump higher by holding down the jump button. if the player’s been curious and had mario climb up on top of the floating platform to get at that last ? block, it’s trivial for mario to run or jump off it and land on the pipe. blocks of varying heights on the following screens reinforce the lesson: mario can jump at different heights.

what has the player learned so far? that mario is heading right, and he’ll need to jump (A button) to get there; that he can use his jump to either avoid or kill enemies, to collect coins and to make power-ups appear (by hitting blocks), to smash bricks when big to open new passages, and to climb over obstacles. all in the first two screens – probably minutes of play! and without once explicitly telling the player anything.[3] this is good design!

from super mario bros., world 1-1

here’s another short example from later in 1-1 (bigger image) that i think also bears examination. you can see that these are both essentially the same structure, a staged jump at the top of a staircase, one over a pit and the other – right before it – over solid ground. the other difference between the two is that the second set of stairs – the “for real” jump over the pit – has a top-step that’s twice as wide, both making it easier for a mario bounding up the staircase to land on it without going too far and giving him more room to prepare for the jump.

the first jump is clearly a safe place to practice for the second, yes, but i think it’s also meant as a warning: it’s a harder jump[4], and the player will have an easier time slipping up and landing in the hole. which is likely to have the effect of making her approach the “real” jump with more caution. mario might jump past the top step and fall right in the hole, and the player will make sure to take care in planting mario on that (extra-wide) top step before the real pit. consider that because of the screen scrolling both jumps can’t be seen at the same time: the player might not even realize the second jump is easier, and will probably feel skilled when she messes up the first jump but recovers in time to nail the second, for-keeps one.

good level design is informed by an understanding and anticipation of how the player will move through the game world. all design considers how a thing will be used, and level design is no exception.

[1] the other big red button is for an adverb, “quickly.” mario’s speed, his momentum, dictates the height, angle and duration of his jump. since running is complementary to jumping, the second place in the nes controller’s button heirarchy is reserved for it: the B button, to jump’s A button.

[2] this kind of design is admittedly easier on a nes than a PC, which has tens of buttons to the nes pad’s four. this is why i like the mouse: it has a common denominator of two buttons, plus motion. the more limited range of action is easier for the player to experiment with.

[3] the manual included with the game spells out these rules more blatantly. these days, most digital games have the storage capacity to fit the game instructions in the game itself: that’s what these blatant “tutorials” are. nevertheless, i think the example above proves that good design can obviate the need for the player to be shown explicit instructions (even if they’re available “just in case”).

[4] which is not to say that it’s what we’d call a hard jump, but keep in mind that super mario bros. is the very first of this kind of jumping game that most people played, and the first videogame of any kind that quite a few people played. very careful teaching, here, was essential.

75 thoughts on “level design lesson: to the right, hold on tight”

  1. Mario never lets on about the dash button, which I never learned about until *years* later. I thought it was just for fireballs.

  2. I noticed when playing with other people that sometimes they don’t get the function of the b button, but it’s interesting how often Mario gets by without its use. I haven’t paid attention for the whole game – maybe Mario never _needs_ it?

    If this posts twice or something my defense is that Chrome is incredibly buggy and I need to change browsers.

  3. there were some parts *I* couldn’t get past without it, but I think the game has been cleared without it.

  4. that’s interesting :>

    really, knowing things like these makes people better game designers. you notice them, but aren’t fully aware about it untill someone points you to it


  5. Another great dissection. I completely agree that the design (of a level or even full game) should actually foster the active learning of the player as opposed to a “tutorial.” It’s amazing looking back on an older game like this and the amount of thought and effort that went into accomplishing this task. It makes you feel like designers often cop out instead of putting in the energy and effort that the design deserves. We need more articles like this to call those guys out.


  6. Having replayed Super Mario World lately, I’ve noticed the same sort of intelligent design choices. I was actually thinking of doing a similar breakdown, and seeing yours has definitely inspired me.

  7. do it.

    mario world is an awkward halfway point between the focused stages of mario 3 and the “playground” worlds of mario 64. what’s interesting about super mario world is that so much of the game takes place on the world map.

  8. There’s something elegant about the level design to the first Castlevania (at least for the first three levels) that I’ve yet to bother to nail down. I keep meaning to break down the structure, beat by beat.

  9. I gotta say, Mario World is my favorite Mario game – that said, I hate all of the 3D ones, and I’ve only played half of SMB3 – still, SMW was the only one with interesting enough mechanics to keep me going.

  10. it’s neat the way those first three castlevania stages are presented as a continuous sequence of rooms, with doors seemingly linking each area and the next.

    i like that brief dip into the watery basement of the castle in the first stage. it gives the stage an interesting shape. it’s the hook of that area that’s always identifiable when the stage is recreated in later castlevania games.

  11. Exactly, which is why it fascinates. There’s two levels of play. Your article reminded me of how SMW inverts the beginning of Super Mario Bros 3. You start on the world map and you’re immediately granted the choice of going either right or left, casually suggesting non-linear play. And the genius of the Haunted Woods, an entire world where playing by the rules is (teasingly) punished.

    Alright, now I -have- to do it.

  12. I don’t think I ever played Wario Land. The furthest I got in the series was Super Mario Land 2. Aside from Super Mario Land level post the other day, I rarely see the Gameboy Mario series get much love. I remember SML 2 captivating me with its own nonlinear play and secret levels.

    And Ray, I can sympathize. I learned to fly in SMB 3 by accident, ages after I got it.

  13. After reading Auntie’s SML analysis, I replayed Super Mario 64 for the umptempth time and attempted a similar critique. Even better, I could compare it to the countless imitators and how SM64 works and they don’t.

    I might try my hand at SMW too, as it has slowly etched itself into my subconscious over the years (it was my first foray with games at the age of three). It’s been forever since I played Wario Land, but I remember the treasure hunting mechanic and later marveled at how I found all of the treasure when I was six.

    I’m uncertain of which game to tackle, but I do know that I want to analyze one of them.

  14. I am glad you chose to continue with these break downs. While they point out the thought put into the most simple of level designs, it’s also uncomplicates ideas I’ve collected from other games.

    For instance, I knew I didn’t want to do a tutorial level because everyone hates them and there’s nothing worse than a compulsory start-stop-read this-start level. Most games these days, however, have levels exactly like this, which seems to indicate that we as players do need them to figure out what all the buttons on the controller do. It was easier when you only had two buttons and a D pad.

    Given what I’m working on only makes use of the directional buttons and the space bar, simply letting the player interact with the environment without having to learn button combos and tricks and all that shit is a much better solution than trying to explain every little thing in text.

    Regarding SMW, I always liked it best out all the Mario games because it seemed less strict and more… fun? I guess it was because the levels were less linear and exploration was more prevalent. There were so many little secrets to be found. Shit you not, I played that game for eight years straight (and the only reason I stopped was because we gave our SNES away) and still did not find everything. I never managed to get that tiny Star Island in the Soda Lake hooked up to the rest of the map and frankly, if I hadn’t read a player’s guide, I never would’ve figured out how it was done on my own.

  15. Wow, what’s that, like three people you’ve directly influenced to start analysing level design?

    So when you’re driving a very fast car, and you want to take a turn without slowing down, you can do a thing called drifting. My brother in law used to show me, like, as a surprise, on the way back with groceries. Thoughtful!

    So one of the things you need to do is called a “heel-toe”… thingy. Let’s call it a manoeuvre. It involves keeping your foot on one pedal, and using your heel and toe on the other foot to operate the two remaining pedals – 3 pedals, 2 feet.

    That’s what I loved about SMB, and the design of the nintendo pads – that skill, holding the run button and nudging the jump button with the joint of my thumb, transferred to all of them.

    I wonder what a MadCatz or some other fancy rip-off pad would look like if they made a NES controller?

    Also, I loved Super Mario Galaxy, but probably just because WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO I’M IN SPACE MUTHAFUCKAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA, rather than the clever level design. It’s distracting, actually, all the spectacle. Part of me just wants to play a game like that to see things light up.

  16. That’s neat about the steps — I never thought about that before, but clearly a lot of thought went into that.

    It isn’t a good idea to hope _every_ mechanic is transparent. I was playing Metroid Corruption recently and it clearly was trying to “lead in” to all the uses of the screw attack by eventually presenting a jump that was impossible without using it correctly. I spent a frustrated hour not realizing what was going on with the mechanics. I nearly quit playing altogether.

    In the case of Mario, people (like commenter #1) who didn’t realize B button was for dash will be in for a very frustrating time later when the jumps start to clearly intend dashing.

    I have noticed on occasion “tutorial” levels that involve textual explanation don’t necessarily need that explanation, but then I have to stop myself when I realize not everyone is a gamer and is as good at “reading” game mechanics as I am (or anyone here is).

    Deadly Rooms of Death has always done a good job of “teaching” the various concepts — in some cases so elegantly it is worth a case study in itself — but based on audience feedback for some people it just wasn’t working; hence, the addition in later games of an optional tutorial.

  17. I really liked the way Wario Land 4 (and I would assume the other Wario Land games, too, though I haven’t played them) taught you the mechanics. It didn’t use a long text tutorial, but it didn’t leave it all to chance, either. It just gave a situation you couldn’t pass without knowing a certain skill and told you what button to press to do it. It’s simple, but a bit more direct than Mario Bros., and by the end of it people know which button runs.

  18. This reminded me of the beginning of Metroid. Samus is placed in the center of the room instead of the far left, and she is, in fact, able to travel in either direction. Once you explore the left side, you find the Maru Mari which allows you to roll up into a neat little rolling ball. You can’t “escape” this area without picking up and using the Maru Mari.

  19. Jazmeister was talking about the mechanics of the run jump in Mario and that’s something I always thought about watching someone who couldn’t figure out how to run and jump in that game – at some point I had to figure out what I was doing that they weren’t.

    This is why Stephen Lavelle’s new game, Trigger, is interesting. It makes us very self-conscious about mechanics. There almost is no game there except for grappling with mechanics, even though the controls are only arrows and two other keys.

  20. @Dess
    I love your design-tagged posts as of late. I really like your verb-adverb-etc. framework. It seems (at first glance, anyway) like a very effective way to analyze and create games.

  21. “an unfortunate trend in contemporary games is to spell out every detail in a hand-holding “tutorial” session at the outset of a game – unfortunate because it shows both a great deal of contempt for the player’s intuition and a lack of confidence in the designer’s own design.”

    Easily the smartest thing I’ve read this year… sums up quite nicely why most games these days horribly, horribly fail on the most basic “gaming” level (which is directly linked to FUN, in my book).

    Next time I am arguing with someone while nextgen game X sucks, I will just direct them here.

  22. Really cool post. Looking forward to reading the rest of your recent posts tagged design now.

    This post reminds me of the design critiques of Richard Terrell over on http://critical-gaming.squarespace.com/blog/. He even uses a lot of the same terminology you used in this and has formulated a lot of his game design critique and method on SMB.

    Thanks again for being one of the few people really writing about videogames as an artform and a craft.

  23. Nice job. Good start.

    Thanks Yegwa for the mention.

    Another good game to look at is MegaMan 9.

    Sometimes I feel like a character from Lassie (I hope you’re not too young to know who Lassie is). I find myself bending over my DS, peering at the levels, and asking myself…

    “what are you trying to tell me? I’ll be in danger soon if I don’t learn these mechanics? What mechanics are they? Oh. Thanks. You’re a life saver”

    Have fun!

  24. I think even though the B button isn’t invited or required early on – there are only four buttons on the NES pad, and only two of them stand out as inviting to experiment with. – You naturally find yourself testing both buttons at the start of pretty much every game.

    Also something to note is that if you happen to truly find it difficult to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing, you’ll die to the goomba three times, and be taken back to the title screen, that contains a short run video nicely explaining how to deal with the goomba.

  25. A nice exposition. Nintendo is a master of good design, with many subtle hints and cues that aren’t immediately obvious but which subtly improve the player’s experience.

    A minor note – I would have had a better experience reading this if the text was capitalized and if the question-block “?” symbols were quoted or otherwise marked. Combined, these two things made it difficult to see where one sentenced ended and the next began.

  26. “the big question of level design – and i mean that every level design lesson i ever write will be a response to this question – is: how do i teach the player these rules? an unfortunate trend in contemporary games is to spell out every detail in a hand-holding “tutorial” session at the outset of a game – unfortunate because it shows both a great deal of contempt for the player’s intuition and a lack of confidence in the designer’s own design. but more than that, it’s a design failure because it tells the player the rules instead of allowing her to learn them.”

    I imagine this is what parenting is like.

  27. Actually no, 8-1 is not the only place you MUST use the b button in Super Mario Bros.

    You CANNOT pass level 4-3 without using it (the Mushroom top level). One of the very first few jumps requires the “B-jump” technique.

    I, like others, had no idea about it, but we avoided it by using the obvious warp to world 5 at the end of 4-2. So in a sense you certainly are not REQUIRED to use it until later in the game, but if you want to pass through level 4-3 you absolutely must use it.

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