Game/Level Design Breakdown: Super Mario Bros

This is the first post where I plan to over analyse a game to death. I’ll probably say some ridiculous stuff that will later make me go back and mock my past self, but that’s the beauty of learning.

I have always been a big fan of the Mario games. My first game ever was Super Mario World on the SNES, and I’ve played most games on the series since (only missing out on the 2 most recent “New Super Mario Bros” ones.

This September, Nintendo is releasing Super Mario Maker, which is basically a giant Mario level editor with online capabilities, so the best thing ever.

In the interest of improving my level design skill and preparing myself both for making my games and levels in SMM, I decided to breakdown the level design on some Mario levels.

I also ended up talking about some more general elements of the game design, such as the powerups and camera positioning,

Level 1-1 of the first Super Mario Bros is probably the most studied level in game history. There are literally dozens of breakdowns detailing how it essentially works as a wordless tutorial for players. Even Shigeru “Mario, Zelda, DK and Pikmin” Miyamoto himself detailed some of that thinking, more recently on the Nintendo E3 event.

Other than that, my personal favorite is the analysis made by ExtraCredits . I might repeat some of that they say in the video, but I’m trying to go deeper in my overanalyzing.  I’ll also go through the whole stage and comment on some more general areas of the game’s design.

Still, screw it, let’s do this. The universe would probably implode or something if I started with 1-2 anyway…

(actually I almost did just that but changed my mind after writing half of 1-2. Oh well…)

The very first screen

1The game begins with Mario facing right on a completely plain area. This gives players time to get their bearings, make a cup of coffee and test the controls. The screen also makes it perfectly clear, without using a single word, that the player is supposed to move to the right. Even if someone does decide to fight the system and go left, there’s an invisible wall blocking the way.

Bear in mind that this was a time when most videogame common knowledge we have today simply didn’t exist. The same way all shooters nowadays have extremely similar controls and are all the same damn game, how Mario works is pretty much known by anyone now.

This was the first one, so it has to create the rules.

Still, times change.

The first image is an screenshot from the Wii U game NES Remix, as reported here. The second is a screenshot from Super Mario Maker








Game Design clearly changes and evolves over the years, but I can’t help but think these are the most unnecessary arrows ever( particularly in the case of NEX remix, I don’t know if you can make Mario Maker stages that move left, but even that is pushing it a little).

I can’t help but think that the decision of putting those arrows must have come from playtesting. NEX Remix in particular is a game that has timed challenges, frequently only a few seconds long. Perhaps someone completely unfamiliar with the first SMB playing it could be momentarily confused as to what to do, so the arrow works as a more immediate way of telling players what to do.

Anyway, back to the game.

The First Goomba


After the player learns to move right, the first enemy on the game appears. A goomba.

The goomba is clearly an enemy, as it moves directly towards the player and has a frowning face. Touching the goomba immediately kills Mario at this point, which means the player cannot get past this point without learning how to jump, probably by experimenting with the few buttons the NES had left, other than the directionals.

In case the player gets killed by the goomba, the game immediately sends Mario back to the beggining of the level, maybe by summoning a clone from the underworld. Failure in this case is not a big deal, and only a few seconds are lost.

That first question-mark block is also important. As is the goomba’s case, it’s design is immediately related to it’s function: you want to know what happens when you hit this. The whole goomba-block setup can have the following results:

  • The player jumps over the goomba, ensuring they know how to jump.
  • The player tries to jump over the goomba but hits the block instead, learning you get a coin out of that. The block’s positioning, however, cuts the jump short and the goomba touches Mario, ensuring King Koopa wins the war.
  • The player tries to hit the block or jump over the goomba, and hits the goomba on the way down. This way, both the fact that blocks yield stuff and enemies can be killed by jumping on top of them are known

As you can see, any result of this situation ends with the player learning something new, or dying a horrible death, of course.

Still with me? Good, because after all this, we’re finally, FINALLY… 10 seconds into the level. I warned you.

The First Mushroom


Shortly after the first goomba, the player finds a second question block. After the first one had a coin, it’s only natural to jump on the second one (hooray for greed!). The result is a mushroom.

Now, what is going on inside the head of a completely mario-less player when he jumps on a block that yields a moving mushroom, shortly after the passes through an enemy that is basically an evil mushroom with exactly the same shape? This:



And that is why this short section is, indeed, a trap, but a trap designed to make the player touch the mushroom.

The mushroom follows this path:



Not only is the mushroom on a non-deadly collision course with Mario, the line of blocks also makes it harder for the up to this point almost completely new player to jump over the mushroom correctly. The result?



When Mario turns into Super Mario, he can break brick blocks when jumping underneath them and survive an additional hit, with the drawback of being easier to hit. It’s a simple drawback, but that’s quite noticeable in a game where you take, at most, 2 hits to die.

A little side note about the line of blocks: when you hit a block underneath a mushroom, depending on the angle, there’s a chance the mushroom will bounce back and go the other way:



And that is precisely why Mario has absolutely no freaking reason whatsoever to hit that brick block on the middle. If it was a question block, players might try to hit it right after the first one, possibly bouncing the mushroom away and, in turn, living through their whole lives thinking the red mushrooms in Mario are enemies. That would be a sad life.

So now the player knows how to move,jump, kill enemies and get mushrooms. The detail on how Super Mario works is unknown up to this point, but it’ll be known as soon as the player makes one tiny little mistake, losing that shiny powerup instantly. Classic games were cruel.

The next part of our undercover tutorial is…

The Pipes



The next challenge is a sequence of 4 pipes, each slightly taller than the last. This forces the player to learn that pressing the jump button for more time will make Mario jump higher. Again, it’s something pretty basic nowadays, but even if we’re talking 2015, it’s not a good idea to always assume your player know the basic language of the game. Sometimes, definitely, but not in this case.

The pipes also have Goombas between them, in a way that allows the player to stand and watch how they change directions while standing in complete safety.

First, there’s a goomba bouncing between walls:



Then, two goombas bouncing between walls and, new knowledge, each other:


As these goombas come immediately after the first mushroom, the player is allowed to make a mistake and still survive, further lowering the risk of experimentation here.

After this little crash course on how-goombas-work, the player already knows almost everything about how the game works, not to mention a few potential kills under Mario’s belt and (in case the pipe goombas have been killed without incident) a powerup.

A little digression: post-damage invincibility

If Mario is Super of Fire Mario and gets hit by an enemy, he turns back into small Mario, but what then? Something that has become a staple in many games is a brief period of invincibility after getting damaged, usually expressed by the character blinking in and out of existence like some kind of ghost.

In this game, Mario is invincible for about 4 seconds after being hit. That gives the player plenty of time to register the damage and mentally regroup before continuing. The lack of this brief invincibility is actually a reason many NES games felt so ridiculously unfair: when getting hit twice kills you, it’s generally not a good idea to allow the player to get combo-ed to death in miliseconds. That’s just frustrating.

And there’s also this:


Not only is the invincibility time pretty generous, but Mario is actually immune to damage if he’s still in contact with an enemy after it ends. That basically ensures the player will get to a safe spot before being able to get damaged once again, keeping frustration to a minimum.

Finally, Mario keeps his momentum when hit, in other words, if the player is hit while moving, or jumping, the jump itself is not affected. This keeps the game from suffering from a common problem at the time where flying enemies might destroy families and make you go insane by completely killing your momentum in the air.

I’m looking at you, Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man.

Of course, airborne enemies are much rarer in Mario, so that’s not as much of a problem. Still, all those little details that happen when Mario gets hit ensure the flow of gameplay is barely affected. The punishment for getting damaged is simply losing the powerup, not losing the jump, getting hit again, losing your dog, or anything like that.

The first Pit


No, not that one. This one:


This really short pit is the first “real” death-causing obstacle in the game, other than that first tutorial-goomba. It’s short and comes just after a long flat space, ensuring the player has plenty of time to prepare and gather speed. It can also be easily jumped without using the B-button to run (remember, we don’t know how to run yet).

Of course, we’re still learning, so there’s a little invisible help for those who would just miss the jump and die:12


This block is invisible until hit and drops the first extra-life of the game. It also serves as a barrier for when the player is running and is almost guaranteed to miss the jump.

The Goombas and the Bridge


The next challenge consists of two goombas charging at Mario, with blocks forming a bridge over a second, longer pit. There’s also another question mark block, with a second powerup inside. This can possibly lead to the player learning a few new skills. Yes,  more of them:

  • Hitting enemies from below blocks can kill them
  • Hitting a question block as Super Mario yields a Fire Flower

On The Fire Flower, Running and Player Skill


The Fire Flower turns Mario orange and enables him to shoot fireballs. The game does not explain at any point how to do that, with Mario’s new color pallete the only indication something changed. Assuming no one read the manual, maybe the  designers considered that the change was enough to indicate to the player that it might be a good time to test the buttons once again.

In case the player already knows how to run, shooting fireballs is mapped to the same button (B), which not only makes the whole game easier to control, but also makes it easier for players to discover the new skill.

It should be noted that, other than slightly killing the forward momentum when running, the fire flower has no drawbacks when compared to the Super Mushroom. 

Still, having it on hand considerably changes the way of approaching enemies: instead of jumping on them,  Mario can face them head on, blazing through their burning carcasses. A higher skilled player is more likely to have the fire flower AND to run through the game, so the button configuration works in favor of that.

Here’s some anecdotal evidence: a few times during my life,  I’ve watched people new or not used to Mario start playing it, specially on New Super Mario Bros games. Those people almost never even try running, even when they are aware of the possibility. Feeling secure enough to run in Mario is something that comes with experience.

What also comes with experience in Mario? Getting and surviving with the Fire Flower.

The “B” button is, therefore, the button that really unleashes the power of Mario. When players are playing well, they tend to get the flower, which means they use the B button, which makes Mario speed up a little, slowly getting them used to the feel of piloting a plumber at high speeds over mushrooms and turtles.

It’s not only the fire flower, either. Other second-level powerups in Mario games usually allow Mario to run straight through his enemies. For example: the Racoon Leaf from Mario 3, the Cape from Mario World, the Penguin Suit from New Super Mario Bros Wii. 2D Mario is a momentum-based game, and it’s most powerful powerups are those that allow the player to keep their speed through obstacles and enemies.

The Plains of Fire

From this point on, the stage gets a few more open plain areas, with a few enemies. Those who have the fire flower can mostly just blaze through, which allows more experienced players to just get this stage over with so they can reach 1-2 and the first warp zone.

For the newbies, though:



The second, and almost last, new type of enemy in the game is the koopa:


What’s interesting about the Koopa is that he’s mostly unkillable without the fire flower: jumping on one of those just makes them retreat into their shells, which can then be kicked to damage other enemies…or Mario himself.

This is not a problem for now, though: the immediate area of this first Koopa is open, so there’s no way the player can be hit by the kicked shell, this keeps the frustration at a minimum.

If the player immediately runs after the shell, however, two things happen:

  • A big line of goombas is defeated
  • The shell bounces off a wall, potentially hitting the player.

In this place, running, an action taken only my more experienced players, can yield increased reward AND increased risk.

The Power Star


Hidden in a block more or less close to that first koopa is the game’s first star, which grants Mario temporary invincibility. It’s pretty straightforward: happy music, shining plumber, super-saiyan-like powers. This plays into what I said about powerups: the star lets Mario run through his enemies really fast, more than any other powerup.

Another little detail: when the power is about to run out, Mario’s blinking slows down. About 2 seconds before it ends, the music stops. That way the player cannot be taken by surprise by the end of the invincibility period.

The Final Challenge



The final challenge of the level is a pit surrounded by blocks arranged more or less like a slope. It’s definitely harder than the ones before, as the player needs to play into Mario’s capacity for keeping momentum to cover the gap.

This higher difficulty is precisely why this pit comes right after this thing:


This contraption is the point where this level is the most explicit in it’s tutorials. It’s just a bunch of blocks, there is no risk involved here. Once the player clears this, the real challenge ahead is easy.

Also note that the one with the “real” danger has one more block in level with the higher one, which makes it actually easier than the training one:



The End

After a few more Goombas and Pipes, which are, at this point, second nature for the player, we reach the flagpole:



As the previous obstacle told us, it’s not exactly trivial to keep momentum while climbing those slopes/stairs in this game, so the flagpole works as a challenge to jump as far and high as possible. It’s a neat way of finishing the stage.

By the end of the very first level, the player knows every skill needed to advance. If not, a few playthroughs with slightly more experience will teach more advanced stuff like running. Which leads us to:

The first level is designed to be played multiple times.

Learning every basic Mario skill, or at least being confortable with using them all, might be a little overwhelming at first. Specially running. That’s why the level (and the game) is built in such a way that it can be cleared differently with different skill levels.

The warp zone is the skill ceiling. I avoided mentioning this, but one of the early pipes in the stage has a shortcut to the end. Bar external help, that is something that can only be found by playing the level many many times.

Remember that we’re in a era where games cannot save yet. Every single time the game is booted, it starts back in this very first level.

Next time

I’ve already written about half of an analysis for 1-2. After that, I think I’ll branch out to other games. I’m thinking Mega Man or Zelda. Maybe Super Mario World.

I’ll also make a video version of this, for those who prefer that.

Thanks for reading!




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