design, games

Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 3

smbasheader Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 3

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.

smb3piranhas Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 3

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:

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design, games

Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 2

smbasheader Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 2

In my previous post, I took a look at the various level designs lessons gleaned from Super Mario Bros. 3′s first world. A lot of them naturally dealt with introductory tutorials, but I wanted to take a slightly different approach with this article.

Super Mario All Stars 3 chomp Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 2

The elegant introduction of new mechanics is still present throughout SMB 3. In this example, the first appearance of a Chain Chomp is marked by two columns that indicate its range and allow the player to safely observe its behaviour.

SMB 3 is filled with great levels, so I decided to pick out a bunch of clever, fun or simply unique moments from the game that originated with its architecture. I skipped over a lot of possible examples trying to keep the list down to 30, but I think I came up with a good collection that complements the original post.

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design, games

Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 1

smbasheader 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.

smb3title Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 1

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:

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games

Jedi Knight Bits

jedi knight header Jedi Knight Bits

Jedi Knight came out just a year after the original Quake, and was already showing its age upon release. Its development team was wise enough to include support for hardware acceleration and mouse-look controls (complete with a neat if archaic calibration of the axes that allowed for some very sensitive camera movement), but the low- poly count was much harder to mask.

jk 2010 01 23 00 49 16 15 Jedi Knight Bits

Guarded by a force field -- with a rather obvious power source -- this area leads into a twisting maze of vents that all have a different idea of where the gravity source is located. Confusing, but fun.

Jedi Knight still received very positive reviews, though, and rightfully so. It wasn’t perfect, and hasn’t aged particularly well, but I had a blast with it.

Here are some of the points that stuck out upon replaying it:

— The level design in Jedi Knight is fantastic, and probably its biggest strength. Of course level design was a bit of a different beast back then: areas tended to be much larger with fewer scripted events, the player had an inventory of keys and other usable items that facilitated environmental traversal, platforming puzzles were quite common (although usually disliked), movement was much, much quicker, etc.

Within that framework, though, the levels were a treat.

Despite the game’s low-poly count, its geometry was quite complex and varied. Textures were often repeated, but new ones trickled in periodically and every map had its own unique motif. The player was also constantly operating large-scale machinery that dynamically changed the landscape.

It all made for a nice combination of action, exploration and some occasional head-scratching. The only complaint I had with the levels were the large, industrial looking doors that were virtually indistinguishable from walls. Since these had to be opened with a button press, there were too many instances where the player could easily get stuck simply due to dodgy visuals.

jk 2010 01 03 16 00 34 701 Jedi Knight Bits

It's actually not as dangerous as it looks, and you can bet there's a secret room underneath...

— In-between level cinematics consisted of live-action actors superimposed over CG backdrops. They were rather silly and pretty low-budget, but did a decent job of conveying the story while showcasing certain visuals that were not possible to render within the game engine.

— The player was able to carry 10 weapons at any one time, and many of them shared the same ammo source. The limited ammo made becoming a Jedi and obtaining a lightsaber all the more rewarding. Visually speaking the lightsaber wasn’t anything fantastic, but it had unlimited power and the added advantage of lighting up dark areas and deflecting smaller enemy shots.

— Jedi powers were earned as the player progressed through the game, and they could be focused on neutral abilities, the light path, or the dark side. The powers themselves were a nice addition to both the singleplayer and the multiplayer, and were sometimes necessary to progress through a level (or at least take a short cut).

Force Pull was a particularly fun one as it allowed you to snatch weapons out of the enemies’ hands or grab healing items from far away.

jk 2010 01 21 18 41 24 85 Jedi Knight Bits

It's possible to blow up those barrels from this location, but due to wonky ray-tracing so common in older FPS games, my shots hit the wall.

— All the enemies responded to basic in-world physics, even after death, which made for some cool effects like a dead body sliding along the current of a pipeline.

— A lot of the audio was taken straight from the Star Wars movies, including the iconic sound effects and the famous scores by John Williams. These greatly enhanced the atmosphere and helped Jedi Knight stand out from other FPS titles of the era.

jk 2010 01 18 17 28 33 15 Jedi Knight Bits

A TIE/sa Bomber hounding the player mid-way through the game.

— The way the game’s secret rooms were placed was quite clever as they followed a pattern that went against the common funneling/guiding techniques of level design, e.g., a small nook embedded into the wall just above the entrance to a room was very easy to miss if the player ran right in without looking up and behind.

Enemies were often utilized to help the player spot these locations as they would often be placed in seemingly inaccessible locations, but with enough sleuthing, the player could always discover a way to reach his foes. A tally at the end of each level also informed the player as to whether he missed any secrets.

The impetus to discover the secret areas was very good as well. Not only did these locations often contain health, armour and ammo, but finding all the secrets in a level rewarded the player with extra force powers.


Jedi Knight is available for cheap on Steam, although everyone should keep in mind that it’s a very lazy port/re-release. None of the GUI elements have been updated for higher resolutions, the title screen and in-game cinematics must be viewed in a windowed mode, and the game doesn’t come with its original music. There’s a fix for that, but make sure to check out the forums first to get a better idea if it’s worth your money.

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art, games

Secret of Evermore Bits

SoEheader Secret of Evermore Bits

Secret of Evermore came out close to the end of the SNES era and was the first and only game to be developed by Squaresoft USA. It tried to piggy-back on the relative success of Secret of Mana, retaining that game’s ring-menu system and part of its title, but it was not well received by the fans. The main reason for this is that it wasn’t Secret of Mana 2.

SoEsplash Secret of Evermore Bits

The defeat of the iconic Thraxx, one of the earlier bosses in the game.

Anime was really taking off at the time, but SoE had its own aesthetic style. Its setting also had nothing to do with Mana, and the two games played quite a bit differently. Adding insult to injury, various magazines previewed Seiken Densetsu 3, the real sequel to SoM, and hinted at the game not coming out in the West because of SoE.

Despite all the fan outrage, though, Evermore was a quality game and I personally prefer it to Mana.
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