Lachlan's misadventures in games programming

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Super Mario Bros: How Nintendo taught players the mechanics without a tutorial in Worlds 1-1 to 1-3.

9/27/2011 01:55:00 am Posted by Lachlan , , 1 comment

After some excellent company watching Flying High! and MASH (the movie), as well as excellent pizza from Gary at International Pizza in Montmorency, I set my mind at playing some of Super Mario Bros on the NES... or an emulated version thereof at any rate. During which, I learnt a few things:

  1.  Don't try to take screenshots through Nestopia with filters enabled. I had the NTSC filter for some old style scaling and colour bleed, but it ended up really squashed and odd
  2. Nintendo games rightfully deserve their reputation for difficulty. But, I made it to the end of the second world without losing a single life, and to the castle in the third world before losing the game. Fun fact: I've been spoiled by the SNES 'Super Mario Bros All Stars' versions of these games. I was expecting to start at the start of the world. Second Fun Fact: You don't. Also - I think the physics are noticeably different between All Stars and the original.
  3. The first few levels are brilliant game design.
I'm going to focus on Point #2. If what you want is difficulty, look at SMB 'The Lost Levels' or Super Meat Boy - I'm not in the mood to discuss it. And not good enough at platformers to discuss it anyway.

Super Mario Bros. has no tutorial. It has never needed one. I would, of course assume that it came with a manual - but even that (as you will soon bare witness) is not even required. I will clarify that the controls were made more intuitive by the fact that the control consisted solely of a D-Pad (The plus shaped thing with arrows on it for you non-gamer sorts), a select button, a start button, an A button and a B button. Controls weren't difficult to remember or even simply figure out. But they were improved by excellent early level design.

I'm going to demonstrate to you that the game teaches you how to play it, by playing it through the first few levels (particularly just World 1), and expose to you some of the brilliance. I'd like to forewarn that tutorial means teaches you how to play the game - not how to play it well.

World 1-1

This is about the first thing the player sees. He either runs into the Goomba and dies - and learns he can't run into the Goomba, or he successfully jumps over it. He'll usually in the process hit one of the ? blocks, and see coins come out with little numbers. You see the points go up, you see coins go up, you've been rewarded and you know that ? blocks can be rewarding.
So, you move forward, and find another couple of ? blocks, and the first has a Mushroom in it! Note how the location of the pipe means that the mushroom comes back to you, and that you actually require effort to avoid the mushroom. doesn't just fall off the screen. The Mushroom makes you bigger, at you'll probably figure out that you can now break the   Bricks.

You come across more pipes. You may figure out you can go down select pipes, you may not. I don't have a copy of the manual to check whether it hinted it or not. There is no indicator - and the first pipe doesn't let you so... brilliance has its exceptions. Or, we just take it as an old fashioned secret.

More Goomba's after returning from the secret area...

There's a staircase, and the flag. The flag moves to wherever you hit the pole which provides some feedback that higher is better. And the design of the level (staircase) hints that you should try to hit the top too.

World 1-2
A hint that something is different. At least it clearly takes control of Mario from the moment the character appears on screen.

This pair of Goomba's are the first indication that you can jump on two things successively for more points. Most people will do this on their first or second playthrough and learn.

Moving forward somewhat, you get the first clear indication (if you're still lucky/skilled enough to be big) that you can destroy blocks - as you're forced to. You also get the first introduction to turtles, and their mechanic of being able to jump on their shells.
You also get a sighting that there are the things that come out of pipes at a safe enough distance to guarantee survival - and they stop coming if you come too close. It's a good way of introducing the new enemy.

The level then introduces, in a very limited quantity, the first moving platforms. These become particularly important in the next level. You can't avoid them, forcing the player to learn of their safety.

World 1-3
Very brief comments. The world introduces the new platforms gently. Players have already encountered green turtles, but not red turtles - who turn around at the edges of platforms. The game introduces this by putting a turtle that is generally almost close to the end up top very close to the end of its platform (hence making the player feel that the turtle is going to land on the player) before the player sees it turn around. Red Turtles are used extensively in the level to emphasise the gameplay mechanic.

Studios seem to have lost the art of teaching players to play the game without an overly basic, trivial tutorial - or worse uninteractive video's. I might discuss this again. But, there are exceptions.

These problems have been most successfully avoided by Valve. I can list 3 very clear examples where Valve has been able to teach players the mechanics of the game effectively without a tutorial - being Half Life 2, Portal and Team Fortress 2. The latter two are particularly notable as Valve's customer-centric tester-centric approach to game design can most clearly be seen. If you own either game, I highly recommend playing the audio commentaries to understand how the games were designed. I was going to write more about the subject, but it is late and I'm tired. I may discuss it again later.


1 comment:

  1. TL;DR: Author is a 90's kid tackling the most controversial subject in the world: a fucking tutorial scheme.