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Analyzing Super Mario’s level and tutorial design

I love watching Conan O’Brien’s ‘Clueless Gamer’ series. The lovable talk-show host plays the role of video game troglodyte to perfection as he ribs on the needlessly complex pretentiousness of many best-selling games. He rolls his eyes through long cutscenes, chuckles at often juvenile storylines, and hilariously struggles with the game controls. And he kind of has a point.

Although not a problem for gaming enthusiasts, the litany of games with high production values, sequels-to-prequels, and story-heavy RPGs are difficult for casual gamers to just pick up and play. The tutorials comprise of walls of text or entire levels that teach you the button combinations and timing needed to conquer that dungeon or find that lost city. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But it’s just not conducive to casual play.

In this post, we’ll look at a level that serves as a game tutorial with understated brilliance: Level 1–1 in Super Mario Bros. This game is from a time where console wars and Let’s Plays were definitely not part of everyday life. It thus had to be very easy to pick up and play while also being challenging and hard to master. Super Mario Bros. walked that tightrope with elan.

Without further ado, letsa go…

The Opening Screen

As soon as you start the game, this is what you see:

Pretty standard stuff, right?

While it seems quite simple, a deeper look reveals the beads of design sweat poured into this screen:

Firstly, the opening screen is devoid of any danger, allowing the player to experiment with Mario’s basic controls and get a feel of what the game is about. This is far removed from, say, the Uncharted games where Nathan Drake usually starts the game hanging from a derailed train, battling pirates on boats, or in bar fights. Awesome as these games are, there’s something calming about starting the game simply and allowing players the freedom to mess around.

Secondly, the screen positions Mario on the left with lots of empty space on the right. These design choices help create an affordance and subtly tell the player to move right.

Note: Affordance refers to the possibility of an action on an object or the environment. For example, a sidewalk presents the affordance of standing, walking, and running.

The fact that Mario stays on the center of the screen for the rest of the game makes his opening positioning on the left even more pronounced.

Mario stays in the center of the screen for most of the game…
…except in the opening screen

It should also be noted that video game budgets weren’t the bottomless pits they are now, and the common elements used for both the bushes and the clouds speaks to Nintendo’s resourcefulness.

Boxes and Goombas

As Mario plows forward, he is greeted by things both intriguing and intimidating:

Once again, there’s much more going on beneath the surface. The properties assigned to each element help differentiate friend from foe in the player’s mind:

Let’s look at the box first. It’s stationery and suspended in the air, piquing curiosity rather than raising haunches. It’s also glowing and emblazoned with a huge question mark. These are signifiers that scream: interact with me, I have a surprise for you. And since the player has already used the left and right touch pad controls, the next logical control to use is the up button to make Mario jump into the box and reveal a coin.

Note: Signifiers are signals that communicate the methods of interaction possible with an object or the environment. In a way, affordances are assumptions (stemming both from our past experiences and the object’s design) of what interactions are possible, and signifiers are explicit clues that either validate, invalidate, or enhance those assumptions. From the sidewalk example, a sign reading ‘No Running’ is a signifier indicating that the sidewalk is only for standing and walking.

Signifiers are also majorly at play when we look at the Goomba. Unlike the stationery box, the Goomba is traveling towards the player. Unlike the glowing question mark that generates curiosity, the Goomba has an angry face that marks it as a potential threat. And just like with the box, the most obvious mode of interaction to vanquish the Goomba is to jump on it.

And if the player doesn’t get this, runs into the Goomba, and dies: not much of a problem. The game is restarted to a point just a few screens before, and this time the player is wiser about the course of action. This short cycle of engagement allows the player to learn the basic controls quickly without inducing frustration.

And don’t get me wrong, Mario can be a frustrating game at times. But the player has already learned the basic mechanics by that time. It’s as if the game is saying: okay, now that you know what I’m about, show me what you can do. It’s a frustration that makes the player more eager to beat the game, as opposed to making the player rage quit.

The joy and inevitability of mushrooms

Once the Goomba has been dispensed with and the player knows what to do with boxes, the game delivers its next surprise:

Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto said that he chose a ‘suspicious mushroom’ to make Mario bigger as he thought it was a symbol that would be globally understood. While the signifiers here are a bit more muddled, there are still enough teaching points for the player to imbibe.

First, unlike the Goomba that moved towards the player, the mushroom goes right, perhaps giving the impression of getting away from the player and automatically making it more attractive.

Second, it falls down from the platform, teaching the player that gravity affects some objects (like Mario and the mushroom) and doesn’t affect others (the boxes and platforms).

Third, it hits the green pipe and comes towards Mario, an early lesson in how objects interact with each other in this world. If the player learns this quickly, he/she won’t be surprised to see enemy patrols bookended by pipes later on in the level.

This is an early lesson…
…to teach this

Now, as the mushroom comes towards Mario, the players have two choices, right? Either read the signifiers and run into the mushroom, or give into distrust and jump over the mushroom. But no, the game only gives the illusion of choice here. Whatever the player’s feelings about the mushroom, Mario will run into it. If the player tries to jump over the mushroom, Mario will still bounce off the underside of the platforms and fall into the mushroom. Every single time.

If Mario tries to jump over the mushroom…
…he will fail

And once Mario falls into the mushroom and becomes bigger, the player knows for sure that these particular mushrooms are friends, not foes. The level design here makes up for the questionable signifiers and ensures that players get the benefit of mushrooms and experience the joy of powering up.

Teaching through safe training

The last point we’ll look at in this post is how Super Mario Bros. teaches players its mechanics by first having them practice it in a safe environment before upping the ante. This is a recurring trend in many levels, and indeed many future Mario games.

For example, there’s a series of pipes of increasing length in the first level. This section teaches the player that holding the jump button for longer makes Mario jump higher. And if the player takes time to learn this, fine. There’s solid ground between the three pipes instead of the gaping ravines that follow. There’s minimal punishment for taking time in learning the controls.

Teaching Mario how to jump higher

Almost immediately afterwards, there are two pyramid-like objects that Mario has to jump over. If the player fails, there’s solid ground between the objects and the exercise can be repeated. Once the player learns this skill, the two pyramid-like objects are repeated, but this time with a pit in between them. Failure will be costlier now, and that’s okay. The rules are on the table and skills are being tested now. That’s what makes the game fun but not frustrating.

Learn here…
…before applying it here

There’s so much more to learn from each Mario level, but this post is already prohibitively long so I’ll end it here. Let me know if I’ve gotten anything wrong (I’m learning too, after all) and share any other examples of great game tutorials that you can think of!

References (for some screenshots as well as content ideas):

Extra Credits: