How the levels are built in Super Mario 3D World and why the same scheme can be used when creating any other game – Mark Brown, an indie developer and editor of the Pocket Gamer resource, told the video cycle Game Maker’s Toolkit. With the author’s permission, we have translated the material and prepared a text version.
This time I want to talk about Mario 3D World – about a game that is bubbling with ideas. There are conkdors in it (conkdors, creatures similar to a cross between an ostrich and a condor – approx. App2Top) and switch panels, double cherries and box bombs, ant soldiers and musical blocks, gymnastic trapezoids and piranha flowers. The game is replete with finds.
How did Nintendo manage to push so many mechanics into one project without overloading the game and feeding the player with tutorials? Koichi Hayashida, one of the co-authors of 3D World, will answer this question best. In the process of working on several games, he developed his own concept of level design, which allows him to come up with new ideas very quickly.
In essence, each level is a separate platform for demonstrating game design ideas. Each of them has its own mechanics. Within five minutes, it is shown, developed, changed, taught to the player and thrown out.
Every time it all starts with the fact that the basic idea of the level is demonstrated in a safe environment. In Cakewalk Flip, there are panels that flip from one red side to the other – blue, every time the player jumps. The first set of panels is at a low level, so if you fall, you will not lose your life. After that, the idea is developed further and further. Very soon there is no “airbag” left under the player. And he has to deal with the shifting panels as he climbs up the sheer wall.
Then comes the turn of the plot twist. From this moment until the very end of the level, we simultaneously jump on the shifting panels and dodge the blast wave – it is sent by the enemies we met at the beginning.
And finally, we come to the end of the level. On the segment of the way to the finish flag, we have the opportunity to demonstrate the skills we have acquired one by one.
In an interview with Gamasutra, Hayashida said that he was inspired by a narrative structure called kishotenketsu, which is used in four-line Chinese poems and Japanese comics from four frames. The structure looks like this: first the viewer is offered an idea, then it develops, then there is a plot twist that changes everything, and everything culminates in a climax. Similarly, in each Mario level there is the same interesting sequence – the beginning, development, turn and climax. The stars or stamps that need to be collected add to the difficulty level. And Nintendo sometimes replaces the road to the finish flag with a boss fight, as, for example, in Bowser’s Highway Showdown, where the player is shown how to use exploding balls as preparation for the battle with Bowser.
Even in a boss fight, you may need mechanics from earlier levels again. If a player has already reached, for example, the Bowser Express, then from his previous experience he knows that the game has a swing with spikes, concdors, bully (bully, spherical blue creatures with horns, – approx. App2Top) and ant soldiers.
It’s interesting to see how the design of the Mario series changes from game to game. It begins to take shape in Super Mario Galaxy, on which Hayashida worked as the head of the level design department. But the galaxies in this game, for the most part, are a hodgepodge of different mechanics, and not a single consistent concept.
Super Mario Galaxy
Take, for example, Gutsy Garden Galaxy’s Bunnies. This level is initially dedicated to floating islands – Floaty Fluffs, but then the focus shifts to beanstalks. And there is also a race with a rabbit. Don’t get me wrong – the game is brilliant in its unpredictability, and it has very different ways of interacting with the 3D world. But it also doesn’t let the mechanics unfold properly every time. And it’s not always possible to get used to it completely: sometimes the game stuffs you with several concepts at once at the same time – like in the Flipswitch galaxy. And at the same time, as in the Bubble Breeze galaxy, the training is based on a standard tutorial.
In Mario Galaxy 2, the creation of which Hayashida led as director, the levels are more often built on the basis of a single concept, and the narrative structure already familiar to us becomes visible. Galaxy Beat Blocks introduces the player to the basic mechanics in a safe environment, then develops this mechanics throughout the level, and finally introduces a plot twist with silver stars.
In Super Mario 3D Land, Hayashida promotes her philosophy much more consistently. World 2-2 is dedicated to folding panels, world 2-4 is dedicated to reverse platforms, 3-4 is dedicated to falling blocks, and so on.
Super Mario 3D Land
By 3D World, the philosophy is revealed in all its glory. In addition, it is sometimes used in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. The mechanics are shown to the player in the same way, developed, and then changed. Although at the same time it is less consistently implemented, since the levels have a more open end.
In Mario games, the tutorial has been integrated into the gameplay before. In Super Mario Bros, Shigeru Miyamoto had to find a way to explain to the player that mushrooms are good, and mushroom-shaped gumbas (goobma, evil mushrooms with legs from the Mario game series, – approx. App2Top) is bad. So the first time a player releases a mushroom and tries to jump over it, he hits his head on a beam, still bounces on the mushroom and realizes that there is nothing wrong with it.
And, of course, it’s not the first time the Mario series has thrown ideas around for five minutes of fun. In Super Mario Bros 3, the Gumba Boot powerup appears only once. After level 5-3, he will never be anywhere else.
Super Mario Bros 3 – powerup “Gumba Boot”
Nintendo managed to create a convenient, reusable structure that allows you to teach the player new mechanics, develop it, introduce a plot twist, and then not return to it anymore. You can also use this structure. It’s enough just to come up with an interesting idea and an exciting plot twist. So – good luck!
Translated by Irina Smirnova
Source: Mark Brown’s blog