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The Measure of Mario pt.3


Game ideas are what most people think of when they reminisce about Mario levels. Remember the level where you're running across the bridges and Cheep Cheep kept jumping up at you (SMB)? Remember that one level where the level kept moving up and down in the water and that huge fish kept trying to eat you (SMB3)? Or that level with all the bubbles that float in overhead filled with enemies (SMW)?

When you think about it, or like a computer, gameplay and game challenges can be expressed mathematically. Super Mario Brothers 1-1; Challenge #1. Goomba. The player has at most 2.8 seconds to JUMP over the enemy element. Moving closer to this enemy will shorten the time at a rate proportional to the player's horizontal acceleration. The CPU may think like this, but humans don't. 

Instead we think in ideas. Graphics go a long way in communicating game ideas, but gameplay is quite subversive and highly effective as well. The best games ensure that the interactive and non-interactive elements of a level communicate the same game idea. Even if an entire game is filled with a game idea that's as simple as an obstacle course, the different levels can focus on different types of challenges and thus create many different ideas out of the same building blocks.

At this point, we need to think about variation. Game ideas within each level and throughout a Mario game as a whole need to build. If not by increasing difficulty, then at least through engaging, interesting interactions. If a Mario game features a multitude of game ideas yet all the levels are too short and too easy, the ideas can easily fall flat. And if a game merely copies the game ideas of a predecessor, gamers and critics alike may cry foul.

The purpose of this article is to:

  1. Detail the history of Mario's game ideas.
  2. To gauge the creativity and uniqueness of each game as a whole.
  3. To better understand how the Mario series has evolved.


As the original, SMB set the foundation of game ideas for the rest of the series to build from.

  • Land levels: With pipes here and there, a few pits, scattered brick formations, and some enemies the stage is set. 
  • Underground levels: Less lights. Stone stalagmites. Some pipes. Many platforms. And whole areas made of breakable bricks. 
  • Water levels: Enemies that can't be killed without a Starman or Fire Flower powerup. Underwater currents. Very large pits. Mario is able to swim all over the screen freely.
  • Castle levels: Lava pits. Fire balls. Fire chains. Fewer enemies. A boss at the end. 

These four types of levels or game ideas make up the vast majority of levels in SMB. The levels in each type vary significantly from each other. However, identifying and detailing the difference between castles 1-4 and 2-4 would become unnecessarily cumbersome for the purposes of this article series. To keep things simple, I'll only list levels/game ideas that are very distinct (ie. new elements and playstyles).

  1. Keep in mind that I made up names to any unnamed level to be more descriptive.
  2. I didn't feel the need to explain my criteria for exactly what makes a level "very distinct." These lists are not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, they're designed to provide clear examples. 

  • 2-3. Flying Cheep Cheep. Just when you thought Cheep Cheep stuck to aquatic areas, here they are leaping up out of the water. They make things more difficult and more interesting.
  • 4-1. Lakitu Arrives. This level is one of the flattest in the game. Like with 2-3, with an enemy like the Lakitu throwing out Spiny eggs at you throughout the level, not many level obstacles are needed.
  • 8-4. Bowser's Castle. This level puts players in a maze of pipes. Going down the wrong pipe sends the player back to the beginning creating a loop. 8-4 also mixes in a water section in between two castle sections. This is one of the most complex and interesting levels in the game making it a suitable last stage.


SMB:LL builds right on top of the game ideas from SMB. To increase the challenge, SMB:LL twists the conventions of the land, cave, water, and castle game ideas. 

  • Windy Levels. 5-1. 8-1. With the wind at your back, you can leap gaps that you were never able to leap before. Mario is the only game element affect by the wind. Even when standing on the ground, Mario slides from the wind.
  • 7-3. Super Spring Pads. This level forces players to use a series of super spring pads to progress. High jumps combined with the relatively small landing areas make this level challenging and distinct.
  • 3-4. The Right Path. In this tricky castle, there are areas that are divided into 3 sections. If the player runs through the wrong section, they automatically get looped back around to try again. Only by traveling through the right section will the next area appear. 6-4 is another example.
  • Dangerous Bonus Rooms. Though bonus rooms fall under secrets, I wanted to comment on how SMB:LL adds elements of danger into these areas. In SMB, the player is free to grab coins, break bricks, and discover secrets without threatening enemy elements. Now, bonus rooms can feature pits and/or enemies.


SMB2 doesn't feature any water levels, but it does feature land, cave (underground), and castle levels. Instead of water, there are air levels where players move through the sky. Because the levels in SMB2 are a series of rooms that feature many different distinct game ideas, instead of listing levels, I'll list the different types of areas.

  • Sand pits. Dig your way down. JUMP your way up. Watch out for enemies jumping up, shooting across, and falling down the holes you dig.
  • Bomb walls. Pull up a bomb and drop it in the right place to do a bit of demolition work on these  destructible walls.
  • Retrieving the Forbidden Treasure: The locked doors in this game can only be opened with keys. Once the key is found, the player must take it back to the locked door. Often times the key is located far away at the bottom or the top of long vertical rooms. Because the dynamic of gravity, maneuvering up and down the same area are two different challenges. Factor in how players must organically carry the key with them thus temporarily disabling their ability to lift and throw enemies, and add a crazy mask that attacks players when they hold the key, and you have some excellent folded level design.

  • Surfing the sky. Some areas can only be traveled through by air. Sometimes the player rides a magic carpet, and other times a flying bird or Birdo egg. (1-2. 3-1. 4-3. 6-2)



In general SMB3 features levels with land, cave, water, and castle game ideas. Two new types that are frequently used are airship, auto-scrolling, and moving levels.

This game is best known for its great variety of game ideas. Developing unique game ideas are an inherent part of incorporating new enemies, new platforms, and new level types. And SMB3 has plenty of each. Though the levels are bite sized, the game ideas are all very well developed. Since nearly every level brings something new to the table, I'll give a few game idea highlights from each world.

You can look up the map to each level here or watch this video playing through the whole game.



The game ideas in SMW are significantly less varied compared to SMB3. Adding on to the land, cave (underground), water, castle, auto-scrolling, and moving game ideas...

  • Accordion looped Ghost Houses. The Ghost Houses in SMW loop the player through the level via a series of doors. Until the player finds the hidden exit, they're stuck.

Unique levels include...


NSMB takes the basic game ideas from SMW (land, cave, water, castle, auto-scrolling, moving, and ghost house) and adds towers, dancing, cliff side levels. Towers are vertical levels with little to no horizontal scrolling. Technically vertical scrolling levels started in SMB2. However, NSMB's tower levels are consistent and distinct from the other levels in the game. Dancing levels feature platforms, enemies, and other elements that move/respond to the music of the stage in different ways. And cliff side levels feature small 1-way platforms that Mario must slowly shimmy across.

Other creative game ideas include...


Many of the game ideas in NSMB are modified from levels in other Mario games. Rather than simply copy the levels over to this DS game, the game ideas were expanded and tweaked with the unique design features in NSMB in mind. Even if you think you've played these levels in previous games, the actual gameplay challenges are very distinct from anything that has come before.



NSMBWii keeps all of the level game ideas from NSMB (Land, Cave, Water, Castle,  Auto-Scrolling, Ghost House, Tower, Dancing, and Cliff Side) and adds Dark and Cloudy levels. Technically, SMW played with the darkness game idea on the level "Back Door." However, this area was very brief. NSMBWii takes the idea to the next level.

These are they completely original levels/game ideas...

  • 2-1 Sand Gysers
  • 2-3 Light Up The Darkness (with Starman)
  • 4-Tower Falling Blocks
  • 5-4 The Weighty Raft
  • 5-5 Mana from the Heavens
  • 6-6 The Raft, The Light, And the Dark Cave
  • 7-2 Swimming Through The Sky
  • 7-Tower The Pulley and the Firing Squad
  • 7-4 Dancing Pipes, Sliding Paths.
  • 7-5 The Cloudy Canyon
  • 8-4 Dark Cave Dark Waters
  • 8-5 Teeter Totter Through Fire


These levels expand creative game ideas from other Mario games...

  • 6-2 Inside the Pipeworks is like NSMB 2-3 with the narrow hallways and rising water.


The flip side to designing a unique, creative level is designing variations on existing game ideas to create new timings, challenges, and to accentuate the nuances of core Mario platforming. So far we've covered mechanics and level structures. The final layer to Mario's 3 part counterpoint is enemy design and arrangement. To understand the depth/potential of each game's core design, we must take a closer look at enemies.

Until next time.

« The Measure of Mario pt.4 | Main | The Measure of Mario pt.2 »

Reader Comments (5)

You stopped providing descriptions and explanations for what made levels unique after SMB2. That made this a lot harder to follow.

November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander

@ Bryan

Is that better? I fixed nearly every example with pictures/videos.

NSMBWii is a bit too new... meaning I'm still looking for video of all the levels on youtube.

Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

November 25, 2009 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Sorry, Thanksgiving tends to keep me away from the computer.

The important level design ideas are obvious from the videos, but I think a sentence description for each would help a lot.

SMB 3 is by far the worst section right now, as I don't even know what to watch for in the speed run.

I really think you just tried to fit too much into one article. The next article on enemies has much better detail.

November 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander

@ Bryan Rosander

I added links to the SMB3 section.

I think this article just has too many comparisons that take a lot of effort to line up. I can't make comparison pictures of everything. Hopefully these links will be able to bridge the gaps.

For those who haven't played these games or don't remember them, I don't know if I can do anything about that.


November 30, 2009 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

The updated SMB3 section improves this quite a bit. Thank you!
Seeing the entire level like the SMB3 pictures gives me a different perspective on the level design. The small levels with a focus on a game idea makes the designer's intent much clearer.

I'm sad that those pictures don't include the enemies. Not your fault though.

December 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander

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