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Super Mario Nuance pt.2

The following are the level maps from Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels World 8. I wrote notes where all the nuanced challenges are. Also notice how the spacing of the platforms are generally much wider than in Super Mario Bros. Click on the images to enlarge.







What Do We Lose By Forcing Nuance?

Based on the diagrams above, you can see exactly how nuanced the challenges are in Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels. But what's the difference between SMB and SMB:LL? How does increasing the nuance of the core level design actually affect the overall experience? To answer this question we must consider trial and error. If you're less likely to be exposed to the type of challenges where a specific nuanced strategy is needed, then you're less likely to learn and master it. So if a level continually presents such challenges to the player without previously providing a safe environments for him/her to test and learn the necessary techniques (or some kind of tutorial), the main thing that nuanced level design increases is ultimately the number of trials the player will attempt.

Assuming the player doesn't get too frustrated and quit, such a nuanced focused design doesn't make the game any more challenging dexterity, adaptation, reflex, or timing wise. It only forces the player to attempt more experimenting trials in the game so he/she can develop the necessary knowledge skills. And since complexities (game rules/bits of game knowledge) are the most unique, varied, incompressible, and the most difficult part of a game to learn (store in LTM), you can see how a nuanced focused design can stagnate the entire gaming/development/learning process.

As a designer you have to ask yourself what you really want your players to experience, what you want them to learn, and how you want to test them. I'd imagine that you'd rather test the player's DKART skills. I'd even go as far as to say for most genres (especially actions games) you'd want to test how much the players knows and how they use this knowledge, not how lucky they can be blinding stabbing in the dark via trial and error to learn the knowledge as he/she goes along. 

Of course, it's up to the developers to determine what kinds of experiences to craft. For those who want to appeal to a wider range of players without "dumbing down" the overall content, it helps in some ways to keep the most nuanced challenges as an option either through secrets, alternate paths, or additional modes of difficulty. Furthermore, even if you want to push the nuance level to the max, the difference between losing most of your players and keeping everyone engaged is a matter of education. Though some puzzle games thrive on stressing the player's ability to analyze and devise spoiler like solutions, when developing other genres of games you should consider designing them to inform the player so that key pieces of information are a secret to everybody.  



To close, let's look at a game that does nuanced challenges it right. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (SMG2) green stars design is fantastic. Believe me, as a Mario/Nintendo fan I approach every game and each feature with a lot of reservation. When I first heard about SMG2's green stars I assumed they were some kind of gimmick to poorly extend the play time of the game. To my surprise, the green stars have a handful of design features that make them great.


  • Untethered Placement: Unlike the standard level stars which are generally placed at the end of each level, green stars can be just about anywhere; even directly above your head at the start of the level. The level designers don't have to worry about the player getting a truncated gameplay experience when the player grabs a green star quickly because the green star mode is only unlocked after completing the main game 100%. This prerequisite ensures that the player has experienced all of what the levels have to offer in terms of more traditional, controlled experiences. It also guarantees the player has mastered a certain level of skill. 
  • Nuanced Placement: The more emergent and dynamic the game, the more nuances there are to how the rules and interactions play out. The green stars are different from normal stars in that they generally stress a higher level of nuance beyond the level of the normal stars. Because this mode is the optional and extra "hard" mode, Nintendo didn't have to worry about alienating the player with the kind of difficulty spike inherent to nuanced challenges.
  • Sound Design: Part of the nuance of green star placement involves hiding the stars out of view. Generally SMG2 levels have a fairly consistently-controlled and somewhat limited camera (in terms of player control). This tight design allows players to focus on simply playing the game rather than fiddling with camera. At the same time this design creates many hidden areas and blind spots. Many green stars are placed so that players have to look in new places and in new ways to find them. To keep this effort from becoming a chore in trial and error, each green start emits a distinct sound. When you're close, you'll know it.

Example 1. The player must ground pound the edge of the spring to avoid hitting the ?-block, spin to adjust the air control, wall kick off the ?-block, spin again to reverse direction, and land on top of the ?-block. Then the player must back flip spin to reach the green star. Most of these techniques are not mandatory in the main game challenges. 

Example 2. After scaling the wall with Yoshi, players have to get a full swing off the flower, flutter jump to max height, and dismount Yoshi in mid air to reach the green star. Air dismounting is not necessary to complete any core challenge in the main game. Nintendo knew better then, and knows better now.

Example 3. You can clearly hear the twinkling sound as Luigi approaches the vertical bridge. If you didn't know where to look, listening for this sound and then using the first person view to look around is a great strategy. To reach the top, you must wall kick up the bridge. This is pretty surprising considering that to progress in the main game, players are encouraged to knock down the bridge using a new powerup. For the green star, players must deal with the bridge in a new way. Players never had to wall kick up any structure with sides so wide in the main game. Reaching the top of this bridge is therefore inherently more difficulty timing wise. Once you reach the top, a backflip spin will get the job done. 


Nintendo has learned a lot over the years about difficulty design. Nuanced challenges can be extremely rewarding for players if they're ready for the challenge skill wise. But isn't this really just like any kind of challenge? If nothing else, nuanced design should merely make designers more humble to the fact that learning is tricky, sometimes unpredictable, and a task that the player must do for him/herself. If more complex and nuanced learning concepts are like eurekas in that they're restricted by conceptual platforms (read more here) then as designers we have to design our games accordingly. 

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Reader Comments (11)

Good posts Richard; a compelling application/clarification on your earlier discussions about Power/Nuance.

In an earlier post, you mentioned that SMB is great partly because the designers anticipated "how gamers really play games." I agree. But what SMB: LL suggests is that they had yet to fully understand *why* players play games. In that regard, the Lost Levels seems to have been an important learning experience for Nintendo.

Crudely stated, SMB:LL seems to have been designed with the assumption that players play games for the sake of confronting and overcoming challenges. By conceiving of "the challenge" as an end-in-itself, it seemed natural to design a sequel that pushed existing nuances to the surface in order to intensify the challenge for experienced players (and consequently make it worth their while).

By SMB 3, however, Nintendo's designers seem to have realized that videogaming's main appeal depends largely on the experiences that the medium is able to produce and the feelings it is able to provoke through gameplay. Challenge is still important, but it is transformed into a means through which experiences and sensations are produced in videogames, and not the reason for their very existence.

Miyamoto has used the term kyokan (or "shared feeling") to describe his design philosophy. In the context of concepts such as difficulty and challenge, kyokan suggests that overcoming such dangers is never as important as the *feeling* we get from overcoming them. Moreover, this feeling is determined less by the difficulty of a challenge than by the context in which the challenge is presented to us. (Here, I use context to mean every other experience we've had in the game up to that point.) Does the challenge make sense within the overall game world? Have we been prepared (or educated, to use your term) to meet its demands? The way in which a game answers these questions can be the difference between a satisfying challenge and one that feels frustrating or arbitrary.

Of course, the tricky part is how to balance the need to educate players with your desire to surprise and challenge them. Some of the best games not only surprise you, but they actually allow you to surprise yourself, by leading you to overcome obstacles through the use of powers, nuances, and thought-processes in ways that you did not expect, but which nevertheless make sense due to the subtle education that the game has given you up to that point (the last green star you mention is a classic example of this).

This tension between preparedness and surprise was perfectly summarized by Miyamoto in the recent New Yorker profile about his work:

“In order for a mystery or a joke to work, we have to provide the necessary amount of information. Not too much, not too little, but the perfect balance, so that in the end people can feel, How come I didn’t realize that? The difficulty with video games, unlike movies or novels, where the authors themselves can lead the audience to the end, is that in games it’s the players who have to find their own road to the end.”

'Not too much, not too little''s somewhat humbling to realize that Miyamoto, who clearly enjoys an instinctive understanding of how videogames work, is still able to articulate this (relatively abstract) idea so eloquently to others.

And on that note, I should probably get going--you're probably busy posting another five part series that I need to catch-up to, as usual.

Seriousy man, your posting pace is crazy....when do you eat, let alone find the time to play games?!?! ;)

February 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJose

@ Jose

Well thought. Well put. Well referenced. Well done.

I'm impressed.

And I am working on a 5 part series. How did you guess? lol

I find that I can't move on very easily from any kind of experience until I reflect on it greatly. And for games in particular, after I reflect on them (usually to the point where I learn something about game design or myself) I must write something.

I'm constantly working on multiple articles. I don't post them until I thoroughly think through the concepts and gathered enough supporting evidence. Sometimes I
have to sit on a idea for over a year until the time is just right.

I may be out of "control," but I'm told this is a good thing.

February 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Just got my internet back and have been catching up on your stuff. Don'y know if you'll see this comment since the article is a bit old now, but I figure why not hmmm?

It's very interesting to look at the for lack of a better word, 'base' difficulty of each Mario game and watch as Miyamoto and his team try and figure out what the best base difficulty is. After this they tone down the difficulty for 3, and then a bit more for World, but tone it backup again for Yoshi's Island and so on.

It really shows how hard getting a good difficulty is. Especially since so many factors, like how often the player can save,and how many, if any, checkpoints there are all play a big role in it.

Out of curiosity you seem a bit harder on the Lost Levels here then back in you Measure series, is that simply because you're looking at what doesn't work as well as it could more for this article, or has your opinion of it gone down a bit?

February 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS

@ NathanS

Rest assured, I read all comments no matter how deep they are in my blog. I try to reply back to all comments as well.

I hear what you're saying about "base difficulty." I also find it interesting that you think it was increased in Yoshi's Island. hmmm.

Base difficulty is tricky. I tend to prefer player controlled or organic/variable difficulty. There are so many options nowadays and so many factors to consider, like you said. More factors include multiplayer fairness. Game length. Purchasable items that can increase your win-ability.

Back when I did the measure of Mario series, I had not beaten The Lost Levels. I believe I was at the beginning of world 7. I didn't realize that it would take me so much longer to beat the final 2 worlds.

Still, in this article, because I focus on the part of The Lost Levels that is both nuanced and the part that made my experience so hard/frustrating, it may seem like I'm going hard on this game. I looked at my rankings again, and I wouldn't change its position (I still haven't played NSMBWii solo all the way through).

I get that a lot though. When I try to explain the potential negative effects of seemingly small design decisions, people think that I hate those decisions or greatly prefer the alternative. First I try to explain design objectively. Then when things are clear, I feel like I can express my opinions.

I knew the Lost Levels was a hard game. The biggest change now is that I can explain why it's hard precisely.

February 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

In regards to your standing on LL I kind of figured it was more you trying to illustrate something, but well I'm, a curious person. Shame you haven't ben able to do a full solo run through of NSMBWii, but I'm sure your a very busy person, and I'm sort of the opposite, haven't had much of a chance to stretch it's multi-player legs.

To slightly clarify when I say 'base' difficulty I mean how hard something is if you do the absolute minimum to make it harder or easier for yourself, don't go looking for secret exits or tackling mini-games to get extra power ups.

With Yoshi's Island I think the levels themselves have challenges about equal to SMB3, and the watermelons that act as the closest thing the game has to power ups don't do much to make things easier. On the other hand the additions of check points and auto-saving after every level makes the game as whole easier then SMB3, but I still feel harder then SMW. But that's just me.

February 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS


Well clarified.

Maybe I'll run through NSMBWii solo on spring break.

February 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Once agin a little late but I just noticed something in your first reply to me, you said:

"I believe I was at the beginning of world 7. I didn't realize that it would take me so much longer to beat the final 2 worlds."

By that I think you mean worlds 8 and 9 right? Well There's more after 9, there's also Worlds: A, B, C and D. Good luck.

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS

@ NathanS

Yeah. I heard about those extra worlds. I'm not even sure how to get to them. I haven't really looked up many secrets about the game. I guess I should do that at some point.

February 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Depends on the version you're playing, the original you need to, and I am not kidding, beat the game eight times in a row!

The All Star version removed that, I believe you just need to beat World 9, not sure about the VC version.

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS

Sort of off topic, but I wouldn't actually say Super Mario Galaxy 2's Green Stars are all designed too well. Yes, many of them are in clever places, but a good three or four have been put in areas so drastically unfair that the camera itself is constantly working against you.

The one in Flipsville where you have to fall upwards into a star which is in an awkward place is a good example, it's pretty much the very definition of fake difficulty. You know the one:

Or the one in Starshine Beach which can only be seen from a place you can't reach it from. How exactly is this good design?

I get they're designed around blind spots in the camera system, but they're honestly just poorly placed if you ask me.

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCM30

@ CM30

I'm still collecting green stars right now. I lent the game to a friend, so I can't fire up the game and test things out for myself.

Thanks for providing specific examples! +2 points

Just be careful when you use terms like "fake difficulty." I haven't really heard of that one before, so it would be great if you could briefly define them as you go along.

Good comment.

September 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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