The Mario devs at Nintendo know and understand that games can be played in many different ways by many different people. So what kinds of players are there, and how would they approach a Super Mario game?
There are the highly skilled players who can zoom through the majority of the game, and will truly relish the hard levels later on. There are the mid-level players who have the ability to get through the majority of the game, if given enough time to practice the hard bits. There are casuals who will only ever play until they get stuck, and have no hope or desire to try the more challenging parts of the game. There are people who want to find and do everything a game has to offer, and there are those who will zoom straight to the ending. Some will never load up the game again after seeing end credits, while others will play through again and again and again.
Since the very early days, Nintendo has been trying their hardest to make their Super Mario releases friendly and accessible to all player types: Super Mario Bros 1 for NES famously contains hidden Warp Zones that let players skip ahead.
The Warp Zone actually has many applications – it allows lesser-skilled players to skip past worlds they have trouble with. It allows expert players to avoid playing through the same beginning levels every time they play. It allows all players to pick and choose which world they feel like playing today, for practice or for fun. This feature is surprisingly friendly for such an old game, and it shows that Nintendo were thinking of player accessibility from the very beginning. The hidden Warp Zone also serves as a great reward for clever exploration and experimentation, which is something Nintendo loves to encourage with their Mario games.
Super Mario Bros 3 for NES also has a Warp Zone, and benefits in the same way as its predecessor, but it also attempts to indulge the different types of players in its own way. The game has lots of hard levels for the skilled players to enjoy, but it was also the first Mario game to include a wide assortment of items and powerups that can allow different types of players to go through the game in their own way: The iconic Raccoon Suit allows players to fly over pits and traps if they’re careful enough to avoid taking damage, and you can even stock up on Raccoon Leafs and Fire Flowers to use before entering levels as you see fit. Additionally, you can find and use items that let you skip over some levels entirely. Some players would of course want to play through every level anyway, but this design gives a more novice player the chance to skip things if they want to.
Many people would be quick to label SMB3 as a “hard” game, yet I actually doubt that there are all that many players who are truly incapable of reaching the ending if given enough time, in part due to all the helping hands the game provides.
Super Mario World for Super NES had an overall lower difficulty than the previous games, and its two new powerups are even more helpful in aiding the player: Yoshi and the Cape. With the new ability to revisit old levels, the player could essentially grab these powerups at any time between levels whenever they felt like it. Additionally, there were hidden Switch Palaces that would make the game easier as a reward for discovering them.
The game was much more accessible to novice players as a result of all this, yet they didn’t forget about the other audiences either – Nintendo was very clever in designing SMW to never require the use of these helpful additions, meaning that a player seeking a challenge can voluntarily forego the use of Yoshi or the Switch Palaces if they so desired. Many levels also had hidden alternate exits that required more skill or ingenuity to reach, and many of these alternate paths led to more difficult hidden levels as a reward for the player’s skill and experimentation. There were also the hidden Star World and Special World, both containing extra-challenging levels, all of which was likely to be bypassed entirely by the more casual player.
Super Mario World is a fan favourite, and often considered one of the best side-scrolling platformers ever made, even to this day. The Cape powerup and Yoshi are the most fondly remembered parts of the game, likely due to how much freedom they give to the player in being able to play the way they want to play.
Super Mario 64’s revolutionary open-ended structure allowed for a lot of freedom in regards to how the player can play. The player always has a free choice in which Stars they want to go for within each level – if one proves to be too difficult, they can try other ones and come back later. This meant that it wasn’t too challenging to obtain the 70 Stars required to reach the final Bowser fight, since you were given so many options. Additionally, the two most difficult levels, Tick Tock Clock and Rainbow Ride, were positioned in the hubworld in the same location as the entrance to the final boss, indicating their status as optional challenges, only there for those who really want the challenge of completing everything the game has to offer.
The most important aspect of SM64, however, was the way the levels were set up and how they complemented Mario’s moves. The missions contained in each level were open-ended, yet guided, allowing for a very large degree of experimentation and the ability for the player to create their own path to the goals. This is largely due to Mario’s extensive moveset of jumps, triple jumps, long jumps, backflips, sideflips, walljumps, air dives, ground pounds and mid-air kicks that allow for an extremely high degree of control in Mario’s movements. For instance, clever use of Mario’s moves allows for a Wet-Dry World mission with the name “Shocking Arrow Lifts!” to be completed without ever stepping foot on the level’s arrow lifts. Yet at the same time, the name of the mission also acts a guide for the less experienced, less experimental player, showing them where to go. This technique was utilised with almost every mission in the game, allowing for skilled players to make up their own rules, yet unskilled players could still go through the game at their own pace, rarely ever getting completely stumped at how to progress.
It’s actually kind of astounding how perfect Super Mario 64 gets it. The freedom to forge your own path is just so satisfying. In Big Boo’s Haunt, you don’t have to wait for the stairs to appear to reach the second floor if you don’t want to; a clever wall jump can get you up. In the Princess’s Secret Slide, a player can come to the realisation that it’s actually faster to jump off the edge and land on a lower part of the track. In Whomp’s Fortress, there are all sorts of methods to reach the high floating platforms – use the cannon, ride the owl, knock over the plank – it’s all your choice to use whatever method you find the best for you, and it’s great. Every type of player can find something to enjoy in this game by playing the way they want to. And this is the essence of what makes Mario so fun and captivating for such a wide variety of audiences.
Nintendo went in a more casual direction with their Wii and Wii U games – the New Super Mario Bros series introduced an annoying “Super Guide” system where the game would just straight-up offer to beat the level for you if you failed too many times. I personally think that the Super Guide is a bit of a heavy-handed and somewhat unpleasant method of catering to all skill levels, but it can be ignored. The game itself still adhered to Nintendo’s philosophy of providing many options for everyone to use.
But now we finally arrive at the Switch. There’s a new Mario around, and I will definitely say that Super Mario Odyssey has the most perfect realisation of this accessible-to-all ideal I’ve ever seen in a 3D platformer.
Super Mario Odyssey’s levels, environments and challenges are designed with the idea that anyone can play and have fun in their own way, skilled or novice alike. Super Mario Odyssey goes back to the SM64-style of player freedom – there are many, many Power Moons hidden around each level, and it’s up to the player’s ingenuity and experimentation to figure out how to get them all. Some are obvious, some are hidden, some are tricky, and it’s up to the player to decide which ones they want to go for, which direction look in, and how they want to go about it.
Mario has one important new tool in his moveset this time around – Cappy, the hat that Mario can throw in front of him. Mario can throw Cappy forward, have him spin in place, and then use him as a platform. This can even be done in midair to give Mario’s jumping ability a good boost in both height and distance. The advanced moves Mario can pull off are actually surprisingly simple to execute, yet what makes it interesting is how the player can cleverly use these moves to get to the Moons in unconventional ways.
The other thing Cappy does is allow Mario to take over the bodies of various enemies and creatures, using their unique traits to move around. Inhabiting a Bullet Bill allows Mario to fly over huge gaps. Taking over an Uproot allows Mario to stretch to really high ledges. Becoming a Cheep Cheep lets Mario swim quickly underwater, etc. etc. etc. – there are many different capturable enemies, and they’re all fun to mess around with.
It’s very tempting for a game with transformations or alternate playable characters to force the player to use them all the time – Yoshi’s Island, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Banjo-Kazooie – these are all games that force the player to transform in some way in order to get through certain major parts of the game. But Super Mario Odyssey instead lets the player decide when they want to use Cappy’s abilities for the majority of the game’s Moons. Here’s a nice example: in the Sand Kingdom, there’s a Power Moon on a leaning pillar that’s a bit too far to jump to. The novice player will be more than happy to go to the nearest Bill Blaster, capture a Bullet Bill and fly all the way across. Yet the expert player may realise that performing a triple jump into a Cappy dive will do the trick just fine from where they stand. Both of these solutions evoke a feeling of “Aha! I solved it!” to the respective player, and that’s what makes this design so special. – the same scenario somehow pulls double duty at satisfying all types of players, purely due to the versatility Mario’s moves providing a multitude of solutions to the same scenario.
The design of subtly encouraging problem-solving and critical thinking also comes into play during the game’s many mini challenge courses. Each one is an obstacle course with a Moon at the end serving as the goal. But what a player may not realise at first is that each and every mini challenge also contains one hidden extra Moon as well. An astute player will at some point notice that every course seems to house an extra Moon and will from then on always look for two Moons every time. By this trend being so consistent, it subtly engages players with the unspoken promise of a hidden secret, and because it’s true every time, the player is always rewarded for their curiosity.
Nintendo must be proud of what they’ve made here, because I’ve noticed that certain parts of Super Mario Odyssey subtly try to encourage the more casual players into delving deeper into the game than they might normally feel like doing: After beating the end boss, a new level is unlocked and a huge amount of new Moons are placed around each previous level, encouraging repeat exploration and making players want to stick around even after the ending. Each level contains Koopa races that encourage the player to experiment more with Mario’s abilities in order to reach a finish line quickly, and then after that, a harder version of the race that practically requires having a good grasp of Mario’s skills. There are pieces of “hint artwork” you can find that show a snapshot of a specific location in the game where a Moon is hidden, encouraging players to stop for a moment and remember level layouts and appearances. All of this has the effect of encouraging players of all skill levels to actually pay a bit more attention to what they’re looking at and use a bit of critical thinking, which I think makes for an excellent and very engaging game.
Nintendo want Mario games to be enjoyable and satisfying to everyone. This philosophy has been with the Super Mario series from the very beginning, and Super Mario Odyssey is the best realisation of this philosophy I’ve encountered.
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