Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 3

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For my second SMB 3 post, I took a look at worlds 2 through 8 and picked out 30 stages that exemplified clever level design. World 8 is the last standard zone in the game, but I decided to write one more article detailing SMB 3’s hubs.

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The unique piranha nodes lead to stages filled with venus fly traps and an end-level treasure.

Hubs are an old videogame trope, but in SMB 3 they are much more involved than in previous incarnations.

Each hub in the game has its own visual theme and unique layout, e.g., World 7 is a scrolling archipelago, while World 8 comprises multiple skull-filled maps. These areas are not only littered with standard level nodes, but also contain unique stage-icons such as quicksand pits, tanks, and piranha plants. Offsetting these challenges are shops and sporadic minigames that provide bonus rewards.

All these elements — and plenty of additional ones — turn the overworlds into individual mini-levels that are also connected to the main gameplay stages. Here are 10 examples of how that’s done:

Read the rest of this entry »

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L.A. Noire’s Interrogation System

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Throughout L.A. Noire the player investigates crimes largely by questioning suspects, witnesses, and medical/forensics experts.

The advance facial animations are used to gauge a rough accuracy of the given testimonies, and, combined with the pre-existing knowledge of the crime and the player’s own intuition (often boiling down to simple prejudices, which I’m sure someone else is already writing a post about) the player chooses a response.

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L.A. Noire does a great job of setting the mood.

This is done with a half-circle of shortcut buttons: truth at the top, doubt on the middle-left, and lie at the bottom. Truth assumes the interviewee’s story is correct; lie confronts them about its validity, often requring the player to present a piece of evidence that contradicts their statement; and doubt hovers somewhere in between the two.

Mass Effect used a similar streamlined dialogue system with its spoked-wheel interface. BioWare wanted a very cinematic feel for the game, including its dialogues, so this made perfect sense.

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The Mass Effect wheel was a pretty elegant solution to a dialogue interface.

The player didn’t need to read through a long list of possible responses, scroll down to his preferred one, then listen to his character speak it back word-for-word. Instead, the desired option could be selected instantly based on a keyword or a short blurb. The locations of these often followed a simple pattern, and a few extra choices were included to allow the player “good” and “evil” reactions.

Some people were not satisfied with this approach as they found that Commander Shepard would periodically say things they did not expect. I never had this problem, but maybe that’s because I assumed Shepard was a pre-existing template I was occasionally steering with my own preferences.

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Albeit a bit more clunky, the dialogue tree worked well in Dragon Age.

BioWare’s other game at the time was Dragon Age, and it used a more traditional dialogue-tree system. This also made perfect sense as the game placed greater emphasis on creating a player avatar and defining him/her through interactions with other characters. Such an approach required much more granularity in the dialogue options, e.g., “What heirloom?” might have been OK as a single choice in Mass Effect, but in Dragon Age it had to be split up into multiple, well-defined choices:

  • How long has this heirloom been in the family?
  • What is its history?
  • Who was the heirloom’s last caretaker?
  • Do you think it’s wise to worry about such things while we’re in the middle of a war?
  • I’m sorry for your loss, but we have to move on…
  • We’ll get it back even if it means going to the ends of the world!
  • We’ve all lost our favourite trinkets at some point; get over it.
  • If we come across it, you’ll be the first to know!

And so on.

Of course L.A. Noire stars a strictly defined character, so on the surface it seems more suited to a simplified Mass Effect system than a complex Dragon Age one. However, its dialogue scenes are not casual, open-ended conversations.

They’re interrogations.

These interrogations require detailed information, observation, and a bit of luck to properly resolve. There’s no back-tracking or second guessing, and navigating the system with the vague options of truth, doubt and lie can be a bit frustrating.

For example, if Detective Cole is interviewing the wife of a murder suspect and she tells him that the murder weapon isn’t hers, that might be the absolute truth. After all, the firearm is registered to her husband, and the gun-store clerk confirmed his identity.

If I select “truth,” though, it might permanently close off that topic of conversation. Since the gun is a pivotal clue to the case, I want to get all the information about it that I can.

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He seems like he’s holding on to some extra information, but I’m afraid of pushing him as it might result in Cole leaning across the table and repeatedly punching him in the face.

There’s always the “doubt” option, as in I doubt she’s telling the full story, but I have no idea how Detective Cole will react to it. He might console her with a soft tone and ask her if there’s anything else she can remember that might help the police prove her husband’s innocence. On the other hand, he might start screaming at her about obstruction of justice and how her sleaze-bag of a hubby will never survive prison.

It’s impossible to tell what the player character will do, but that could be remedied with more detailed conversation options (and perhaps more conversation options in general). As things stand, I’ve repeatedly found myself taking the wrong conversational turn not because my assumptions about the case were incorrect, but because I failed to properly convey them to the game.

Now this might seem like a major complaint, and although it’s significant, it doesn’t ruin the experience. The interrogations don’t always have to be successfully resolved, and a few sparse hints aid their traversal.

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Take it easy, Cole! All you’ve got on the case is circumstantial evidence!

I also commend the developers for sticking to their guns. There are no extra HUD meters that break the suspension of disbelief, and the dialogue sequences largely rely on the script, the actors’ performances, and the technology behind them. The results are quite immersive, and actually much more intense than the checkpoint-rich action sequences.

I just think the game would’ve benefit from more information to accompany the delicate and often volatile interrogations.

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Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath Bits

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Stranger’s Wrath is 1st person/3rd person hybrid that’s something of a cult classic.

The game takes place in a Western-themed Oddworld filled with crass chickens and weird monstrosities that skew closer to the cute than the Lovecraftian. The protagonist’s goal is to travel from one hub to another capturing bad guys and collecting the bounty on their heads. The money is used to upgrade Stranger’s arsenal and eventually treat his mysterious ailment.

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The game contains a handful of some very impressive CG cutscenes.

Now the parts that make it stand out:

— Stranger’s only weapon is a double-crossbow that uses live ammo. This is the game’s definining feature, with each live ammo-critter behaving in an amusing and distinct fashion. The variety of the ammo requires Stranger to frequently change his load-out, but unfortunately there are no shortcut keys to do this.

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The ammo-selection pop-up pauses the game, but it's still a bit of a chore as switching the load-out happens quite frequently.

— The Chippunk ammo is loud and obnoxious, making enemies abandon their posts just to shut it up. This is a major gameplay element as it allows the player to lure enemies into various ambush scenarios: tall grasses where Stranger is hiding, underneath heavy machinery that can be used to squash them, back-alleys littered with the ravenous Fuzzles, or even deep waters where drowning is all too easy.

All these elements are quite satisfying and make Stranger feel like a real hunter stalking his prey.

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Chippunks and Bolamites are the perfect combo for luring enemies into hiding spots.

Bolamites and various other ammo types allow Stranger to stun his enemies and bring them in alive. This results in larger bounty prizes, but it’s often much more difficult than simply killing everything in sight.

— The Zappflies are the only unlimited-ammo critter in the game, and they can used to activate machinery and stun other critters or enemies.

The interesting thing about Zappflies is that they can be charged up for a more powerful attack à la Mega Man’s Mega Buster. Unlike Mega Man, though, Stranger’s Wrath doesn’t require the player to hold down a button to perform the charge. Instead, the critters automatically charge up in Stranger’s crossbow as long as he is not actively firing them.

— Boss battles can get a little repetitive, but they contain a few neat mechanics such as picking away enemies while hiding underneath a roof from their mortar attacks, or using Zappflies to short-circuit a power generator in order to climb a previously electrified cable and reach the boss.

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Capturing enemies sucks them into a portable gadget, with the live targets comically scrambling away.

— Stranger is quite agile and can climb ropes and shimmy across ropeways. An extra “grab” button exists that allows Stranger to snap to these props, making it much easier to use them (especially while in mid-air).

— If Stranger starts running in 3rd person mode, he’ll eventually lean forward and begin using all four of his limbs. The animation for this is quite good the speed increase allows the player to quickly cover large distances.

While in this sprinting mode Stranger can also smash through enemies and obstacles, but the bumpy terrain makes it all too easy to lose steam and be forced back into a walk.

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The poor Grubbs are rather concerned with Stranger's presence.

— Sliding down chutes is great fun, and it builds up speed that’s retained when Stranger exists the slide. This allows him to travel down the chute, jump off of its end point, soar through the air, and finally hit the ground running on all fours. Very satisfying.

— Optional sidequests appear while travelling from hub to hub, giving the player a chance to earn some extra “moolah.” These are presented in a typically humourous Oddworld fashion, e.g., scurrying natives scream about how they hope “the demon” (Stranger) doesn’t climb their roofs and steal their idol, and when he does, they complain that it’s no fair and he should leave now that he took their stuff.

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Stranger's Wrath is slated to get an HD update, but the original is still quite pretty.

— Speaking to townspeople is required to initiate some missions, but this does not always result in a cutscene. Instead, the NPCs simply begin talking but control is not fully taken from the player; it’s still possible to move the camera around and sometimes even walk away.

— If Stranger tries to talk with no one around, he ends up doing a quick monologue that gives clues to the current mission.

— The player can attack NPC’s and get some extra money from them, but doing this too often makes the townspeople rush indoors while the guards start shooting at Stranger. This only lasts a little while, though, and eventually the NPC’s reemerge declaring something humourous like “It’s boring sitting inside all day, so we’re gonna come out now. You just behave yourself, you hear!”

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Rampage World Tour Bits

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I have a soft spot for titles from before the dawn of well defined videogame genres. I also love games with lots of environmental interaction, and Rampage World Tour delivers on both accounts.

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It begins!

Originally an arcade hit in the 80’s, Rampage World Tour is an updated sequel that stars a cast of giant, B-horror type monsters as they go on their titular rampage. The monsters are actually human, mutated while working for Scumlabs, and they exact vengeance by completely obliterating numerous cities that house the naughty conglomerate.

The levels are presented in a side view, and loop around at the edges. The maps are pretty small, but there’s a boatload of them — some with unique landmarks — and they don’t take long to complete. The goal of each stage is to destroy as many buildings as possible before the whole area succumbs to a massive bomb strike (presumably to keep the arcade players from loitering around).

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Pesky cars are easily dispatched with a single punt.

The controls are very stiff, but each monster has the ability to jump, punch and kick. Combined with directional input, this allows the player to strike in numerous directions, pick up and eat people, kick at various objects on the ground, perform leaping attacks, and quickly hover by tapping the jump button.

Climbing buildings is done by pressing up while standing next to one of their sides. Once attached, the player can scale walls and attack with punches and kicks. Punches break windows, grab and eat humans, and interact with various objects that are randomly revealed once the windows are broken. Kicking gradually damages the entire floor, bouncing it in and out of the building itself. Unlike punching, it can also destroy walls and leave only a couple of girders holding up the structure. Finally, if the players scales up to the rooftops, he can punch or jump on them repeatedly to destroy the buildings one story at a time.

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You have to watch what you punch...

Revealing and using what’s behind the windows is a major gameplay element, but it’s hard to be too deliberate with it as the player is constantly assaulted by policemen, helicopters, tanks, robots, jetpack soliders, tanks, etc. Combined with the floaty movement and stiff controls, it takes a lot of fun out of the game.

Still, all the various little interactions breathe a lot of magic into the experience, so I’ll focus on enumerating those:

  • People scream and fall out of buildings as you attack them.
  • Squat structures possess bouncy domes, allowing the player to use them as trampolines and hit floating objects for extra points.
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  • Broken windows can reveal electronic appliances that shock the monster if touched. The same goes for electric signs that hang on the sides of buildings and prevent the player from freely scaling the wall.
  • If bathrooms are attacked, they often spray the monster with water, knocking it off of the building and damaging it as it falls.
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Just hiding away in some water.

  • Unveiled candles can be used to light the whole building on fire, quickly destroying it without any extra input from the player.
  • The “More Power” collectible drastically increases the monster’s strength, allowing it to smash entire floors with a single attack and take down buildings in just two or three hits. Extremely satisfying.
  • “Tourist Traps” are background locations that contain hordes of humans. These can be smashed and their crowds eaten repeatedly to replenish health.
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A helpfully labeled health recharge.

  • The wreckages of buildings often contain loose wiring, fiery debris, or dusty clouds. If touched, these elements can electrocute the monster, light it on fire, or make it cough incessantly.
  • The monsters can eat all sorts of humourous objects, including graveyard skeletons and old boots. Most of these make the monster throw up, damaging it in the process, but it’s actually kind of fun to experiment with what should and shouldn’t be consumed.
  • It’s possible to jump onto and ride some of the larger enemy vehicles.
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The upgraded monster can make short work of any building.

  • Toxic waste transforms the monster into a flying behemoth for the duration of the level. This upgraded creature can spit fire, and although it can’t climb buildings, it can quickly smash them when it hovers in front of the structures.
  • Each monster has a unique allergy that’s triggered when a specific animal is eaten: dogs for George, birds for Lizzy, and cats for Ralph. Triggering an allergy causes the monster to sneeze and take down an entire building in one go.
  • Window-flags can be hit to cycle through various countries, each one changing the next queued level. A similar mechanic is implemented with billboards that auto-cycle through ads — the next level changes based on which ad was on when the billboard was destroyed.
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The bonus stages are a little...surreal.

  • When a monster’s health reaches zero, it turns into a naked human that slowly creeps off-screen. When multiple players are in the game, not only can they fight each other, but they can also pick up and eat the killed comrade (this would definitely be an achievement in a current-day version of the game)!

All these loving touches don’t make Rampage World Tour a great game, but they’re definitely enough to make it a quick and fun distraction.

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The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon

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Videogames are filled with conversations. These range from simple barks to deep and varied dialogue trees, but they’re fairly prevalent regardless of implementation.

And it makes sense, too. People like stories, and stories are built on characters.

Despite this fairly natural desire for dialogue, games used to be pretty devoid of conversations. This struck me as particularly odd in RPGs where groups of people set out on a quest to save the world. After all, one would assume the journey would foster some banter and comradery.

Cutscenes eventually filled the void, but it took a while for another mechanism to catch on: letting the player manually choose to speak to his followers.

Planescape: Torment was one of the first titles to do this, and its discussions on the Circle of Zerthimon remain one of my favourite examples of player-initiated dialogue.


“No wonder my back hurts; there’s a damn novel written there.”

Planescape: Torment opens up with its scarred protagonist, The Nameless One (TNO), waking up in a morgue. A talking skull quickly floats by initiating a conversation.

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The “cant” is a bit alienating at first, but it adds another layer of immersion to the setting.

We soon find out that Planescape: Torment is not afraid of being verbose. Dialogue is plentiful and it’s buffeted by descriptions, creating entire paragraphs that read like a novel. The Planescape cant — 19th Century British slang — adds further colour to the text.

Morte, the talking skull, informs us that TNO is effectively immortal as he resurrects each time he dies. The caveat is that he risks losing his memories whenever this happens, which is exactly how the game begins.

A Meeting at the Smoldering Corpse Bar

“Here? This is the Smoldering Corpse, though the person smoldering ain’t dead yet.”

TNO’s only clues to his past are rather vague; all he knows is that he’s missing a journal and should seek out a man named Pharod.

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A motley crew at the aptly named Smoldering Corpse bar.

Sigil is a wondrous city, but in some ways it’s not that much different from a typical fantasy hub. To get a few quick answers, the easiest solution is to visit the local tavern.

The gruesome Smoldering Corpse bar is filled with all sorts of interesting characters, one of whom is noted to be observing TNO. His name is Dak’kon, and he’s a withered old githzerai who wields a shimmering glaive.

Talking to Dak’kon reveals that his weapon, a karach, is shaped and sharpened by his mind. The karach represents a zerth, a follower of Zerthimon, but Dak’kon’s blade is somewhat degraded due to a spiritual crisis. The githzerai dwell in the ethereal world of Limbo, forging their surroundings from clear thought, so this is a fairly significant issue.

Unfortunately Dak’kon cannot answer TNO’s immediate questions, but when the conversation ends, he offers to accompany us on our journey.

Getting to Know Dak’kon

“This is his gallery. He says that he *knows* you as his canvas. He shows respect to your strength with his admiration.” Dak’kon is silent for a moment. “Then he insults you by giving you his pity.”

The initial conversation options with Dak’kon are limited, but talking to other githzerai in his presence reveals more about him. We pick up on the fact that Dak’kon’s sullen disposition is a result of what’s seen as a terrible disgrace by his people.

What’s more, Dak’kon is purposefully hiding things from us.

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Fell’s grotesque backstage gallery consists of TNO’s moulted skin.

In the Weeping Stone Catacombs, TNO comes across a severed arm that once belonged to his previous incarnation. The arm can be taken to Fell’s parlour to ask the Dabus about the tattoos that adorn it. If Dak’kon is chosen to translate Fell’s rebus dialogue, TNO can detect that the seemingly honourable gith is actually lying.

When confronted, Dak’kon states that he will not say any more in the parlour. The issue can be pursued later on, at which point we discover that Dak’kon has actually traveled with one of TNO’s previous incarnations. This revelation leads to the rather unique Xachariah subquest that sheds more light on TNO’s own past.

Learning the Circle

“*Know* that I am not a teacher in this, but *know* that I can serve as a guide.”

When TNO asks Dak’kon about his magic — the ‘Art’ — the gith replies that he does not know how it manifests itself in humans. However, if TNO were able to use it, he could learn more of it from Dak’kon.

This is achieved by completing Mebbeth’s sidequests and becoming a mage. While a mage, TNO can study under Dak’kon, and also switch classes by talking to him.

“To learn, you must *know* the People. To *know* the People, you must *know* the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon.”

The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon is a device composed of a series of interlocking stone carvings. It’s a clockwork bible of sorts that Dak’kon carries with him wherever he goes.

Examining the Circle as a mage opens up a dialog box. Each level of the Circle tells a different tale of the githzerai race, its genesis, mass enslavement, and eventual rebellion. It reveals the rise of Zerthimon and the eons of suffering him and his people endured. The Circle teaches how the zerth came to learn and master themselves, and how enslavement became their greatest anathema.

“Endure. In enduring, grow strong.”

The full transcript of the Circle’s teachings can be found here, although it doesn’t contain Dak’kon’s and TNO’s commentaries.

Reading and learning the Circle comes across as a ritual; TNO must unlock each layer himself — as shown by Dak’kon — and talk to the gith after each session to discuss it. If TNO’s wisdom statistic is high enough, the proper lesson can be gleaned. This rewards the party with some experience, and a unique spell disk for TNO that magically slides out of the artifact without diminishing its weight or content.

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Discussing the Circle in front of the Tomb for the Planes, it’s finally revealed what plagues Dak’kon with doubt: he fears that Zerthimon was just a puppet of his enemies.

This pattern goes on for six lessons until it’s revealed that Dak’kon himself does not *know* the full Circle.

Teaching the Circle

“You performed a great service for me. In so doing, you enslaved me.”

With with the sixth layer, both TNO and Dak’kon receive a new spell. To unlock the seventh and eighth layers, TNO’s intelligence must be high enough to work the mechanism, and his wisdom high enough to understand the lessons themselves.

This is a nice transition of student-to-teacher, and ultimately rewards Dak’kon with some permanent stat increases. These in turn affect the karach blade, empowering it with each increment.

The lessons of the Circle also lead to the truth behind Dak’kon’s and TNO’s past.

The ruthless “practical” incarnation originally found Dak’kon close to death in the world of Limbo. He desired the karach blade, so he ensnared the gith in a devious trap. By constructing the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon and speaking of its lessons, he showed Dak’kon a glimmer of hope to his spiritual ailment. In exchange, Dak’kon promised to follow TNO until his death, effectively becoming bound to the immortal for all time.

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Although purely text-based, this was one of the most moving moments I had ever experienced in a videogame.

This enslavement constituted the greatest sacrilege for the zerth, yet it was the only salve for Dak’kon’s moribund soul. By completing the Circle, we finally brought him the resolution he so desperately craved.


“*Know* that there is now nothing left that I may surrender except my life.”

Although still bound to TNO, completing the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon allowed us to strengthen Dak’kon’s body, mind and spirit.

The process also facilitated character development and character progression. It was meaty, and deep, and unfolded gradually as the game progressed. It sparked numerous discussion that are still ongoing to this day, and it’s held up as a prime example of what made Planescape: Torment such a compelling title.

And it was all for a completely optional character.

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