The Measure of Mario pt.3
Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 10:24PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Misc Design & Theory, Platformer, Super Mario Bros.


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.

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. 


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. 


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.




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...

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...


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


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.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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