Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 1

I recently decided to play through the All-Stars version of SMB 3 without using any Warp Whistles.


SMB 3's playful title screen has Mario & Luigi messing around with a bunch of enemies and powerups. The sequence is fun to watch, but it also serves as a great preview of numerous game mechanics.

I suspect that the majority of people who replay the game are familiar with the secret and use it to skip to the last world. This also means zooming past a plethora of well designed levels. It’s been my habit as well, but this time I resolved to experience SMB 3 in its entirety.

A lot of small, geometric stages later, here’s an overview of what I found to be the most notable points in the first world:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Videogames are filled with transitions: loading new levels, initiating scripted sequences, obtaining special powerups, etc. These are often accompanied by the familiar wipes, fades and cuts of the film industry.

The effects themselves mask pit-stops necessary for resource (re)allocation. The segmentation also creates a natural variety and lets developers work on separate parts of the game that are only later stitched together.

In short, these transitions are functional. However, they are not smooth.

segue, n.

  1. A quick and uninterrupted change to the player’s avatar or surroundings that often facilitates new gameplay.

The above definition is rather nebulous, but it’s based on a simple concept: a smooth flow keeps the player immersed. Segues do this by removing the awkward parts of transitions that break immersion, namely disorientation and helplessness.

Some of GTA IV's more hyperbolic praises were attributed to its seamless world and the ability to carjack any vehicle...

Disorientation can take place quite easily as the camera cuts to a different point of view, or a different scene entirely. All of a sudden the player is expected to parse the change — to keep up with the fast-forwarding presentation — while filling in the gaps. Humans are quite good at this, but it’s a somewhat taxing effort that’s easy to get wrong.

Helplessness is strictly rooted in ignoring player input. Videogames are inherently interactive, and taking away control to show a transition strips the player of engagement. Plus, it’s never fun to wait on a loading screen.

Of course many videogames are quite abstract, but for the most part the medium tries to simulate various facets of the real world. There are no “bumpy” transitions in everyday life — aside from maybe losing consciousness — so it makes sense to limit them in videogames as well. That’s not always possible, but if the choice is there, it should be an easy one to make.

...while Fable 3's most common criticism seems to be its anything-but-smooth hand-shaking minigame.

As hardware, technical design, and production methodologies have advanced, so has our ability to implement segues. Vehicle sections now take place in the same maps as on-foot action, level geometry gets dynamically streamed in, scripted sequences play out as the player explores the environment, etc. These are almost universally praised as they make for some very memorable moments, but smooth transitions have been around for a long while.

Here are just a few of my favourite examples:

1). Spy Hunter’s Boat Segments

Spy Hunter was famous for giving players the ability to drive into the back of a moving truck. This was done at full speed without any camera wipes, but it wasn’t even the game’s greatest segue. No, that honour goes to the car-to-boat segments.

These had the player race through a dockside garage only to emerge in a different vehicle without slowing down for a second. It wasn’t the most realistic transition, but like many moments in Spy Hunter, it perfectly emulated the craziness of action-movie sequences.

2). Metroid’s Morph Ball

The Morph Ball has been a staple of the Metroid series since the inaugural title, and has always been an excellent example a segue.

Turning Samus into a diminutive sphere is effortless and presents the player with an all new moveset. The morph ball’s abilities also grant the player new options for combat and exploration, and switching between the two modes is quick and easy (even in the somewhat underrated 3D sequels).

3). Lost Odyssey’s Intro

Lost Odyssey’s FMV opening depicts a dark and epic battle. As the presumed hero fights his way through the ranks of bizarrely armed soldiers, there’s a brief pause in the action. The camera pans around, and a menu pops up! All of a sudden the player is in the game, and it’s waiting for his input!

There’s a slight hitch here, but it’s barely noticeable and makes for a fantastic intro. Sadly, the rest of Lost Odyssey is a veritable catalogue of awkward segues.

What are some of your favourite examples of smooth (or bumpy) transitions?

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Design Roundup #5


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The Magical World of Final Fantasy IV

Every couple of years I find myself replaying Final Fantasy IV. Part of the reason is a steady stream of remakes coupled with a bit of nostalgia, but an even bigger part is that FF IV is actually a really good game.

Like many RPGs, FF IV is an abstraction of a fantasy world. Its planet is peppered with just a few notable locations, and each of its kingdoms comprises only a handful of houses. Beyond these somewhat awkward limitations, though, the setting is structured in a very interesting way.

It begins!

The feudal world is pretty standard, but it’s also infused with numerous traces of human religion and mythology. The summoned monsters include deities from Norse, Greek, Hindu and Arabic legends, and there’s even a couple of weapons made famous for being wielded by Arthurian and Japanese heroes. None of these elements are logically tied together, but they represent iconic touchstones of many cultures, ensuring that most people who play FF IV will find aspects of it that are familiar yet mysterious.

The game’s own original mythos also revolve around crystals and the moon, both of which contain a plethora of mystical associations. While all these elements might not make for the most original setting, they do create an aura of magic and intrigue that’s more universal than the series’ later focus on hyper stylized aspects of Japanese pop culture.

FF IV proved popular enough to warrant a a few small sequels -- a rare occurrence for the series.

FF IV’s world does not change based on the player’s choices, but its storyline fuels numerous large-scale events: Leviathan attacks and sinks a ship, dwarf tanks battle an invading force, the Giant of Babel wrecks havoc on the planet’s surface, etc. A further sense of life is added to the overworld through various modes of transportation: yellow and black chocobos, the hovercraft, and three different types of airships.

On a smaller-scale, the towns are filled with their own personal touches. The citizens of Agart ponder the legends of their subterranean ancestors while bomb shards are scattered throughout the ruined village of Mist. The towns are populated by a sparse cast of supporting characters, but each locations has its own distinct layout and overall feel. Many are also associated with individual dungeons and offer unique items for sale, promising exotic upgrades just around the corner.

Aside from facilitating a varied pace and providing background depth, towns also help to make the setting come to life. By physically travelling from one location to another, the player discovers the layout of the world and how to orient himself within it. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a much more immersive approach than a linear series of videogame levels. Simply put, the cohesiveness of the world anchors the player and helps to suspend his disbelief.

Finding hidden treasures in towns and dungeons is always fun.

The dungeons are also varied, but they don’t rely on dubious one-time gameplay gimmicks common to current day JRGPs, e.g., sneaking into a guarded compound. Since the game’s story dictates which characters are in the party at any given time, the treasures in each area are also conveniently synced with the player’s troops.

In addition, the dungeons contain lots of secret passages and some unique attributes — e.g., the damaging tiles leading to Feymarch that require Float to be cast on the whole party, or the Lodestone Cavern where wielding metal equipment brings instant death — but the greatest variety comes through in the battles.

And FF IV has a great battle system.

Rubicant, the gentlemanly boss, heals the entire party before entering combat.

Each character’s profession is reflected in combat, bringing together story and gameplay. Kain the Dragoon utilizes massive aerial attacks, black and white mages cast offensive and defensive spells respectively, Edward the bard-prince strums along songs of dubious usefulness, etc.

These abilities come into play against a variety of enemies, all of whom are imbued with a certain sense of personality. Some foes are resistant to magical elements, others counter physical attacks, and a few even inflict punishing status effects (like the swamp hag surrounded by giant frogs that cast toad at the end every turn, morphing the party into a group of feeble amphibians).

The Delta Sisters do a great job of teaching the player about the Reflect spell and how to use it to launch powerful attacks against other reflect-protected enemies.

Since the story dictates the party’s makeup, the player is often forced to switch up his tactics. A single fighter with 3 mages must keep them all in the back row so they can safely launch their powerful spells, while 3 fighters and a single mage have to preserve MP for healing or make more liberal use of Osmose/MP restoring items. The items are also great as they represent a steady stream of collectibles that are actually useful in combat. They give each character something to do even when they’re facing a foe that’s immune to their innate abilities, providing some extra options for what would otherwise be boring battle scenarios.

The combat encounters are never puzzles with a single solution. The player can simply gain enough levels to overpower the enemy, but he can also utilize various strategies that might prove effective, e.g., the undead are extremely weak to phoenix downs/elixirs/healing magic, but they’re also susceptible to fire and can be dispatched with simple physical attacks. Of course daring players can simply choose to run away from standard encounters and only fight the bosses, but it’s a bit tricky to pull off.

A pretty obvious spoiler: you end up going to the moon!

The internal logic of all the items, spells and abilities is quite consistent and gives depth to the world, but it also shines through in other areas of the game. My favourite example of this is how often spells are cast outside of combat (especially considering the abstract nature of the battles and how separate they are from the rest of the game): Palom and Porom use the petrifying “Break” to turn into statues and save the party from a deadly trap, Rydia melts a blockade of ice once she gets past her traumatic aversion to fire spells, the citizens of Mysidia exact revenge on the protagonist by turning him into a pig and other “polymorph” critters, etc.

FF IV is a relatively simple RPG by today’s standards, but its overall structure still holds up. In fact, I prefer its setup to most current entires in the genre, but if you want to (re)check it out, I’d first recommend reading up on the various version differences. Whichever one you choose, though, you’ll get a nice little world to explore.

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Yakuza 2 Bits

After hearing all the internet-hype Yakuza, I decided to check out the second game in the series. I was actually quite surprised at how similar it was to Shenmue (considering that title’s commercial failure), but the modern-day setting seems to have helped it achieve success in Japan.

Here are the notable bits for the North American release:

— Gameplay-wise, Yakuza 2 feels very much like a Final Fight (or in Sega’s case, a Streets of Rage) RPG. Levels are gained, weapons break after a few uses, and combat takes place on a separate screen.

Although there's plenty of loading, the pedestrian-packed environments are quite impressive for a PS2 title.

— The storyline of the Yakuza series has received quite a bit of praise, but it’s more of an over-the-top soap opera than a serious drama. The cast has a penchant for betrayal, characters never seem to die permanently, pro-wrestler types toss around grenades, and ancient castles transform into crime-lord fortresses.

— Unlike the first game, there is no dubbing and whole experience is subtitled. Probably for the better, too.

— The combat is fast and brutal, and filled with interactive components. The player can pick up just about anything not nailed to the ground, and the stuff he can’t pick up can often be used to execute custom moves (e.g., smashing an opponent into curbs, bike racks, etc.)

The combat in Yakuza 2 is very enjoyable, although the random encounters can get tiresome. There's also no good reason for why every lowly street punk feels compelled to challenges a high-up Yakuza!

— Combat scenarios are not the only events that can happen while randomly exploring the city — side quests and even main storyline points are often initiated in this fashion.

— Leveling up is split into three categories, each one representing a linear path. Every step on a path quickly increases in cost, which does a pretty good job at balancing the player’s abilities while providing some customization options. The upgrades are not just statistical in nature either, granting all new moves to the player, e.g., the ability to drag around and attack downed a opponent.

— Somewhat predictably, firearms are relegated to the role of pesky spit-wad shooters, never posing any real threat and quickly running out of ammo without the ability to actually reload them.

Well, at least one character acknowledges the power of guns.

— The game’s minimap is crucial to figuring out which buildings can be entered, with new areas lighting up as the narrative gives reasons to visit them. The full map is a bit of a pain to get too, though, and has a clunky interface that doesn’t showcase any of the landmarks. This proves particularly irksome in Kamurocho, which is quite a bit bigger than the relatively compact (and probably more suitable to the gameplay) Sotenbori.

— Completing side quests can have the added benefit of combat bonuses in specific areas (in addition to the regular rewards of finishing the quest itself). This is done through a quick-time event at the beginning of a battle; the people that the player has helped in the past will toss in weapons, initiating a cinematic event that usually ends with the defeat of one of the enemies.

— Throughout the game, AI partners will join and follow the player. During battles, they’ll freely engage the enemies and periodically hold them up, setting up special tag-team moves. What’s most interesting here is that they usually won’t finish off the enemies themselves, making sure that the player always feels like the hero.

Tag-teaming opponents is quite satisfying, and your partners always let you perform the finishing blow.

— After a certain amount of enemies are defeat, optional “encounter” bosses appear in the city.

— If the game is left idling for an extended period of time, the camera zooms in on the protagonist who lights up a cigarette and ponders his current quest. Although a small touch, this is a nice way of reminding the player of his goals without breaking the suspension of disbelief.

— All boss battles are infused with special cinematic moments. These are initiated after a certain amount of damage has been dealt, and have the player rapidly tapping a button to power up his “super meter” to unleash a special attack.

— The underground coliseum contains even more twists on the combat system. Its battles are 3-fight tournaments filled with special modifiers — e.g., electrified fences, boxing-only duels, etc. — and unique enemies not encountered anywhere else in the game.

The various minigames can be quite fun, but I almost quit the game when its main story required me to mess around with a UFO catcher.

— The game world is filled with the various shops and nightlife attractions, each one providing various goods and services often accompanied by a minigame. What’s really neat about them is that they’re all interconnected and tied into various side quests. Even the ridiculously expensive brand-name purses come in handy when you need to increase the morale of your club’s hostesses!

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