The concert in Super Mario Odyssey’s New Donk City is a celebration of one of videogame’s most influential series, sung by Pauline, the damsel-in-distress-turned-mayor from Donkey Kong. With the city freed from Bowser’s clutches, the festivities showcase Mario as he enters a warp pipe, transforms from 3D polygonal model into 2D sprite, and runs through a steel-beamed obstacle course packed with coins and lava pits, and ends with a barrel filled course thrown by the cranky ape. This homage pays tribute to Mario’s amazing history, and shows how Odyssey combines decades of level design techniques to create unique courses in living worlds.
Super Mario Bros. set the standard for platformers by building interesting obstacle courses using new screen scrolling techniques that followed the player as they ran and jumped all the way to the goal pole finish line. The adventure to save Princess Peach from Bowser was filled with secret paths and new areas to explore, making the journey feel mysterious. Worlds were divided into three levels that started on an overworld before moving below ground and ending in one of Bowser’s castles guarded by a boss. Levels changed up their courses by adding new enemies, obstacles, and environments, moving from flat plains to the tops of mushroom forests and underwater.
One of SMB’s great features was its run button which added speed and momentum to Mario’s moves. It let him move faster, jump further, skid when turning. Mechanic modifiers allow advanced play for those comfortable moving at regular speeds and can be combined with any button on the controller. Mario’s jump to 3D in Super Mario 64 changed the series in more ways than being able to move freely, it also multiplied the number of jumps. By holding Z on the Nintendo 64 controller then jumping, Mario could backflip from a standstill, ground pound in the air, and long jump while running. SM64 also let Mario triple jump, wall jump, and side flip, expanding Mario’s maneuverability which allowed the levels to be more complex.
While SMB’s goal pole was a sensible conclusion for a two-dimensional obstacle course, three-dimensional games don’t have an explicit end point, so Super Mario 64 had to take a different approach. The power stars are a great choice, each a reward for completing individual challenges placed all over the map. Bob-omb Battlefied, SM64’s first course, has ones for butt stomping the post the Chain Chomp is tethered to, for shooting to an island suspended in the sky. 3D maps need to be open but laid out in a way that directs the player. Loading into that first level drops you at the foot of a path that stretches all the way to the boss at the top of the mountain in the distance. This main path gives you a full route through the map and past most of its stars.
Odyssey’s hat mechanic increases Mario’s moveset, giving him a ranged attack and advanced jumps. Cappy is the latest in a long line of items that shake up Mario’s core gameplay: Super Mario 3’s many suits had new options like flying and swimming and Super Mario World’s cape brought skill-based aerial acrobatics and the versatile ridable Yoshi; Super Mario Sunshine’s water jetpack F.L.U.D.D. gave the plumber a firehose, rockets, and a hover, while Super Mario Galaxy’s bee, Boo, and half a dozen other suits varied the gameplay. Odyssey took this to a new level by letting you possess many enemies to gain their abilities.
Increasing tech let the games fine tune their level geometry to change up the variety in a matter of seconds. By Galaxy, Mario levels could flex the size of their main paths and dynamically move the camera to reframe the action, which comes in handy in its brilliant space levels that wrap and swerve, defying gravity itself. Galaxy’s coursing was directed on a scale not seen since World, but it wasn’t until Super Mario 3D Land that open-world sensibilities were applied to a 2D world, harmonizing them.
Mario’s level design has developed progressively since Donkey Kong. SMB’s warp pipes created branching paths that gave explorers extra coins, items, and 1-Ups, and the 3D titles condensed it into a single place. Odyssey expands on these ideas in its awesome worlds, gradually making their maps bigger but making them easier to navigate by using a classic item as a fast travel point: the humble goal pole. Similar to what 3D Land did by merging 2-and-3D, Odyssey applied 2D’s flat planes to its 3D world to move the player from one point to the next, often transforming Mario into his old 8-bit sprite for some classic side-scrolling action, all to collect power moons to reach Bowser and once again save Peach.
Three dimensional maps like the fossil-strewn Cascade Kingdom are containers with a main path that branches out with side activities. Each path places interesting objects like Cascade’s chain chomps and sleeping Rex in various combinations and exciting orders. This creates an internal movement flow. Level flow moves the player like water or electricity- along the path of least resistance, which is usually the level’s main route. Super Mario Odyssey excels at giving you different paths that lead to interesting challenges, requiring ingenuity to discover and skill to complete.
A game world can be laid out in any way imaginable. Flat open areas are great for roaming enemies that chase when you get near; narrow cliffs are diabolical terrain to dodge shooting enemies. Both scenarios are great for moving you in specific directions. All routes should end by giving players something to do, whether perform an acrobatic feat, fight an enemy, or find a secret. Maps need different types of terrains and fun features like hills, lakes, cliffs, or buildings that connect back to central areas. The happy feeling you have after reaching a new place can quickly turn to resentment when the reward for getting there is a long run back.
But activities are just the reward at the path’s end; platformers are about what you do on your way there. Interesting activities need to be connected by interesting roads, kept interesting by different obstacles that change up the pacing. Some places narrow and some gain height. Level designers control this flow, direct players to important or interesting places by strategically placing blockades. A flat road is boring but a hilly curved road with enemies and pits is exciting. But changing flow changes a player’s momentum, and their enjoyment.
There needs to be a balance between the size of a character and the world they’re in, if for no other reason than tall people hit their heads on doorways more than short people. Cramped quarters are, well, cramped. More objects in an area means more edges for players to smack into. Platformers are benefited by giving players some room for imprecision like grazing the sides of objects instead of flatly hitting them. Giving Mario a round collision model rather than a squared one allows him to run into the side of an object and be smoothly guided past it. This allows players to jam through an area without being knocked down every few seconds, important for being able to move fluidly with the level’s internal flow.
The 3D Mario games have expertly learned to flex the size of their locations even inside the same level. Odyssey easily moves you between big areas and small, long and short. You can be in a wooded area one moment then a cave the next. The camera and level design need to coordinate well to make the transition work, not just so the player can see what they’re doing but to reframe an area’s scenario: you can make an area so thin that it becomes two dimensional then move the camera to turn it into an impromptu sidescroller. In this way, Mario Odyssey can smoothly transition from 3D to 2D then back.
While Mario’s level flow directs you down a main route, the world’s side paths branch out around the map. Straying off the main path in worlds like the Wooded Kingdom often leads to shortcuts, puts you behind buildings, and reveals warp pipes with unique content. The maps are tightly structured worlds whose every element was placed there for a reason.
Coins in Super Mario Bros. were a way of filling levels with small challenges that awarded players an additional life if they collected a hundred, and occasionally indicated hidden areas. Coins became less important when players could save their games, and so was repurposed to earn a power star in every level. Coin bloat only made them less valuable as the series continued, but Odyssey brilliantly made them useful again. The player could buy souvenirs from shops in every level to highlight their travels and give them new clothes to jam around in. This economy was balanced by making players buy a new life upon death, keeping them cautious even when they were freewheeling around. The coins now gave Mario personality and let players dress up in dozens of different fashion styles.
Exploring each map reveals its character but what’s truly amazing is how well they all develop over time. Every world has three phases that change its layout, each triggered by completing the challenge at the end of its main route. By the time you have fully opened a world, the main route has often tripled in length and become a sprawling location with dozens of activities. The challenges at the end of each act present the player with different feats and the entire sequence ends in the level’s largest event, often an exciting boss fight.
Boss fights challenge a player’s skill with a game’s mechanics. Since platformers are about fluidly controlling bodies in motion, SMB’s bosses act as goalie for a target, smaller than the regular goal poals, but the scenarios became more complicated by removing chunks of floor and changing the boss’s attack patterns. Later Marios turned the boss itself into a mobile target that must be hit three times and get more aggressive after each. 64 changed this by making you spin the thumbstick to throw Bowser at distant bombs, testing your depth perception and timing, both important skills in platformers. Later 3D games reused the three phase fights, and by Odyssey, Mario bosses became about challenging player agility by navigating arenas filled with dangerous attacks.
Great games build on their ideas throughout and find creative ways of applying the mechanics. Odyssey’s last world finds the plumber rushing to stop Peach and Bowser’s wedding on the moon, an environment with less gravity for bigger, slower jumps. After dodging attacks in a fast-paced boxing match against Bowser, the level around Mario and Peach starts to rumble and shake. So Mario does what he had learned to do: he tosses Cappy onto his old foe and uses the turtleliondragon’s immense strength and powerful fire breath to tear open a path and jump to safety as the world crumbles all around. The sequence captures how Mario has excelled at taking on new forms throughout his career, and Super Mario Odyssey shows his long path from famous two-dimensional milestone to three-dimensional icon.
DEVELOPER: Nintendo EPD
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.