The Measure of Mario pt.8
Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 10:44AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Co-op, Dynamics, Genre, Level Design, Platformer, Super Mario Bros.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii is the latest and greatest 2D Mario platformer in terms of dynamic potential. The next-gen design of the game may be difficult to perceive because it lies within the layers of multiplayer. Miyamoto has been trying to design a mulltplayer Mario platformer for years. Super Mario 64 and NSMB DS originally had Mario and Luigi running around together before the multiplayer feature was removed. Even Super Mario Galaxy has a co-star cooperative 2 player mode. But NSMBWii is the real deal. With up to four players on the screen playing at once, the game's challenges get more interesting and difficult with each additional player. Such is the power of solid (p)layered level design and co-op game design. 

Before I get into the (p)layered design of NSMBWii, I'll cover its basic co-op design including co-unter-op mechanics. If you need to brush up on either of these concepts, visit each link in the previous statement.

Level 1) Backseat Playing. When a player loses all of their lives and at least one other player continues through a level, there's not much the first player can do to influence the game. They can point out hazards, cheer on the remaining player, or toot their own horn.

Level 2) Alternating Turns. In one of the Mushroom House games, players are forced to take turns punching tiles in a matching game. 

Level 4) Forced Cooperation. There are a very small number of structures that must be cooperatively activated. The boat and the large yellow lifting platforms are 2 examples. Furthermore, when one player enters a pipe, door, or reaches a flag pole the time the rest of the players have to play in the immediate area becomes limited. After a few seconds, all the players are transferred to the next room (pipes/doors) or the level cuts the straggling players out of the end level ceremonies (flagpole). Though this design is very different from Zelda: Four Swords that generally requires all 4 players to move from one area to the next together, all the players in NSMBWii are still forced to travel together. 

The previous co-op levels make up a small yet important part of the co-op experience. The following levels make up the vast majority. 

Level 5) Co-op Mechanics. The following are NSMBWii's co-op mechanics. These are special moves that can only be done with at least 2 players working together.  

At the same time, we must consider all the ways players can work against the common good of the team. The following are NSMBWii's co-unter-op mechanics and design features.


Level 6) Organic Cooperation. Most of the co-op play in NSMBWii is organic. Players are free to assign roles, help each other, harm each other, wait for each other, and fight together. Aside from powerups like fire and ice balls, team attack is on. At all times, you must watch out for the position of your character, the level structures, enemies, and now your allies. Adding more players inherently changes the potential for cooperative play and the factors you must look out for to play effectively. This brings us to NSMBWii's (p)layered design. 

(P)layered design is when the challenge of a level or level section changes organically with the addition of more players. This means that the challenge changes without any special code that alters the level elements or without going into a separate mode that adjusts game factors.

The core challenge of any 2D Mario platformer is created by forcing the player to move Mario around the screen and engage with gravity by JUMPing over structures and enemy elements. So, if adding a player to a Mario game inherently adds another structure/enemy element to the game, then the core challenge of the game is affected. Recognizing the dynamics of the core gameplay that additional players inherently affect is the first step in understanding a game's (p)layered design. Thus we need to distinguish which gameplay dynamics are also (p)layered dynamics and how the game designs around these dynamics. 

Each player in NSMBWii contributes to the following (p)layered dynamics:






So what does all of this mean to the design of NSMBWii? Basically, the newest addition to 2D Mario platforming design is singularly the most dynamic platform-ally-enemy element ever. Because of the (p)layered design, the more players in a game the harder and more interesting the game becomes. 

Take a simplest feat like collecting powerups from ?-blocks for example. Since the original SMB, the same basic strategy has worked. Hit the block from beneath and either wait for the powerup to come down or JUMP up for it. In a co-op NSMBWii game, things get a lot more complicated. Firstly, a number of powerups come out of the ?-block equal to the number of players in the game. The types of powerups that come out are also depended on the powerup state of each player. The more normal or small players in the game, the more Mushrooms are released. The more Super players there are, the more fire flower, ice flower, penguin suits, and propeller hats come out. 

Depending on how close all the players are to the ?-block, a few players may have to chase down their Mushrooms. Fire/Ice Flowers stay put where they fall while Penguin suits dance and Propeller hats hover then fly away. The combination of Mushroom and non-shroom powerups that are released from a ?-block create a range of different challenges. Grabbing the powerup you need and getting out of the way of the other powerups/players can be quite challenging. Due to the (p)layered dynamics of space, it's easier to get in each other's way than to coordinate actions. Of course, all of this is assuming that all the players want to share the powerups so that all benefit. 

If any player is greedy, clumsy, or inconsiderate, they can take more than one powerup for themselves. Fighting for a run away Mushroom can be hard enough. But having to race/fight players leading up to the ?-block so that you can be in a better position to grab a powerup is a challenge on another level. 

The multiplayer design of NSMBWii is so revolutionary for the 2D Mario platformers (and all games for that matter), that it far outshines the single player experience. As I have detailed in the other parts of this series, NSMBWii's design is the culmination of the design of many of its predecessors. Though its mechanics, structures, enemy, and secret design is the closest to NSMB, the large, open areas and generally sparse enemy arrangements make the emergent, counterpoint gameplay less frequent and less deep. In fact, the single player design of NSMBWii is good, but compared to the ultra tight and creative design of SMB3, it's missing a layer. That layer is the (p)layered layer. Like playing a Mario game without coins or enemies, playing NSMBWii solo doesn't complete the experience. NSMBWii has the potential to be the easiest and hardest Mario game ever.

By bringing players together in the same game, everyone can work together for the common good in ways that harken back to when I was a kid in preschool gathered around the lone object of entertainment. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
See website for complete article licensing information.