It's amazing how far video games have come since the NES days. In games like Red Faction we have game engines with the power to destroy parts of the level to transform the way the game is played. In Viewtiful Joe, we can stun and knock enemies into each other to create crazy combo strings. In Katamari Damacy, we can stick more objects to our magically sticky Katamari ball to grow in size which naturally changes the way we can move through the environment. In racing games, we can hold down the accelerate button to move more quickly through a course while at the same time increasing the difficulty of maneuvering and turns to hit that perfect flow zone. In Everyday Shooter or Every Extend Extra, just a few floating enemy elements floating around can create intricately woven patterns that help to keep the game fresh. In games like Star Fox 64, we can choose which path we want to take through the game skipping whole planets if we so desire. In games like Bangai-O Spirits, there are amazing puzzle levels that are designed around the nuances of the game's action mechanics. Or in games like Spelunky/Fire Emblem/RPGs, we can get an item or a powerup and take it with us throughout the whole game as long as we don't use it or lose it. Or with games like Gears of War, we can play from the beginning to the end for a 2 player cooperative challenge.
Then I think, "Wait a minute. We've had all these design elements in Super Mario Brothers on the NES!" We all know that Super Mario Brothers is a classic. And on this blog, I've written thousands of words worth of articles delving deeper and explaining exactly why this game is one of the greatest games ever made. SMB is not only the game that makes up the foundation of the language and critical theory I've developed here at Critical-Gaming, but it's the measure that I hold all games up against.
I decided to make this post (or possibly series) to highlight just how diverse, unique, and revolutionary the design of Super Mario Brothers really is. Just to clarify, here are the specifics of Mario that have parallels in the games and features I mentioned in the opening paragraph.
- Breaking bricks with the JUMP mechanic is level transformation. (Red Faction)
- Kicking Koopa shells/ JUMPing on multiple enemies for a combo attack. (Viewtiful Joe)
- Big Mario vs Small Mario and the way size changes the platforming challenges of a level. (Katamari)
- The RUN mechanic, momentum, and the flow zone. (Racing games/Mirror's Edge)
- The counterpoint and contrary motion between the level and enemy elements. (Everyday Shooter & E3)
- Warp pipe travel to skips parts of levels or whole worlds. (Star Fox 64)
- The bonus stages are well designed puzzle challenges. (Bangai-O Spirits)
- The powerups (Big Mario/Fire Flower) that can be suspended across all levels in the game. (Spelunky)
- 2 player co-op. Taking turns is still co-op. (Gears of War)
Sorry Tim. Even if you rewind time now, Mario will always be ahead of you.
I know what you're thinking... But what about a game like Braid? What does Mario have that's anything like a puzzle from Braid? My response is... How about Braid World 4: Time and Place? In this world, time is a function of Tim's horizontal position. Moving to the right advances time, and moving to the left rewinds it. In this way players are able to manipulate enemies and the environment by carefully moving around. These puzzles really become layered when elements are added that exist out side of the player's time controlling mechanics. (ie. the green glowing elements).
Technically every level in Super Mario Brothers gives the player to ability to control the time/timing of level/enemy elements using space (Mario's position) to some degree. The way the game is programmed, enemies are spawned somewhere slightly off the right side of the screen. When Mario stands still, nothing new is spawned. If Mario moves forward new enemies come into pay. Depending on how Mario moves, enemies can be spawned into the level at different rates, timings, and positions. This is not even to mention how Mario can control the timing of Bullet Bill shots and Piranha Flowers by moving close or away form the pipes/barrels.
To highlight this effect, I'm actually going to use an example from World 7-2 from Super Mario Brothers 2: The Lost Levels.
click image to enlarge
In this first section of the level the events in images 1-4 endlessly loop into themselves. The only way to escape is by traveling down the silver pipe as seen in images 4 and 8. The interesting part about this challenge is, the only way to get to the pipe is by jumping off the Parakoopa. However, if you stay on the little floating platform from image 1 until 4, the Parakoopa will not be in the correct position for Mario to make the jump easily. In this way, the constantly moving platform acts like the green glowing objects from Braid. Regardless of the relative time and positions of all the other significant gameplay elements, this platform moves at the same rate. If you let it get away from you, you might be stranded.
In order to reach the silver pipe, players must figure out a way to get to the Parakoopa earlier. The problem is, there's no way for Mario to advance the screen faster than what the platform allows and still see all the upcoming elements clearly and safely. Here's where the genius design comes in. If you go for the mushroom in image 6, you have to wait for it to come out of the block and fall down to you. If you stay on the moving platform, you can't get the Mushroom. The easy solution is to quickly hop off the platform, grab the Mushroom, and catch back up with the platform. Because of the way the Parakoopa spawn off the screen, when Mario lags behind for the Mushroom and catches back up to the platform, the relative timing of the enemy elements is shifted thus advancing time forward by controling space (ie. Mario's relative position). To recap images 1-4 is time experience one way, and 5-8 is time maniupated for the win.
So next time you're really enjoying a "next-gen" video game ask yourself this "Am I doing the Mario? And does this game even do it as well as an NES game?"