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Making Levels With the Super Mario World Method: Skill Themes, Part 2

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This post is part of a series called The "Super Mario World Method" for Level Design.
The Super Mario World Method: Understanding Skill Themes

This is the fourth in a series of articles that explain how to use the design methods that Nintendo created in the making of Super Mario World, and how you can use them in your own level designs. If you haven't read the earlier articles, you should, or else this article won't make sense.  

In the previous article, I wrote about how most of Super Mario World's levels fit into one of four skill themes, and I gave examples of the moving targets and periodic enemies skill themes. In this article, I'm going to look at the final two skill themes: the preservation of momentum theme and the intercepts theme.  

Although I found these skill themes in Super Mario World, they actually appear in other games too, so the examples I'm about to give are still useful in contemporary game design. Plus, there's Mario Maker, which I use to build my examples, and that's more than enough reason to understand skill themes. Isn't it?

The Preservation of Momentum Theme

The first skill theme I want to explore is the preservation of momentum theme. If you recall from the last article, all the skill themes in Super Mario World take place in either the action or platforming genre, and in either the timing or speed skill style.

The diagram of skills in Super Mario-style games

The preservation of momentum theme lies at the intersection of platforming and speed. The basic idea of this theme is that it forces the player to keep Mario's momentum up for long stretches of time and space. This can be done in several ways, and we'll see a few of those ways in the level I've made. The intercepts theme, on the other hand, is the complement of the preservation of momentum theme, and leans more toward the action genre.  

As I explained in the first article in this series, an intercept is any object or enemy which interferes with a jump that Mario is already making. That is, intercepts do not cause jumps—they only modify jumps. The intercepts theme is all about throwing a variety of different obstacles into the path of jumps that Mario has to take. We'll see several examples of that in my level too.

The original design idea which gave rise to the preservation of momentum theme was the falling platform. Because Mario can only spend a second or two on the platform before it descends into an abyss, he has to keep moving across the platform the entire time. If he stops, he can lose the momentum he needs to get to the next platform.  

A shot of momentum in Super Mario World

Challenges in the preservation of momentum theme tend to be wider than in other themes because Mario has to run through them at a high speed. This doesn't make these challenges harder, necessarily; they're just more spaced out.  

Preservation of momentum challenges start as simply as the challenge you see above, which is the standard challenge for my level. Let's take a look at some evolutions of this.

Evolutions of Momentum

What I've done here is to add some Wing Koopas to patrol the space between the platforms. This is a very simple evolution that borrows from the complementary theme by adding intercepts. The Wing Koopas aren't the cause of Mario's jump—the falling platform is the cause—but they do modify the jump he is already taking.

The second evolution modifies the previous challenge by replacing the Wing Koopas with Boos. Like the Wing Koopas, the Boos aren’t the cause of the jumps. The real challenge for Mario is jumping through the platforms that fall away. Failing a jump results in death, while touching a Boo results in non-fatal damage. Unlike the Wing Koopas, however, the Boos will follow Mario around, making the jumps even more difficult. 

Being chased by enemies making jumping more difficult

To mitigate this chasing behavior a little bit, I have changed the middle platform so that it does not fall. It’s very common in Super Mario World for the evolution of one part of a challenge to involve the de-evolution of another part. The goal of an evolution is higher difficulty through qualitative change, but the emphasis is on qualitative change (at least in Mario games) rather than absolute difficulty. So I've softened part of the second evolution to emphasize the change rather than the difficulty.

The next section of the level presents a different way of forcing the player to keep moving. The Super Star power-up gives Mario invincibility, but only for a limited time. Several levels in Super Mario World use the star as a means for getting through otherwise very difficult gauntlets of enemies at a high speed. This is what I aimed to do in this section of my level. The star is placed in an obvious block so that the player won’t miss it.

Proceeding through a difficult area with a Super Star

The first section makes it obvious that the star is in play to allow the player to cross the otherwise damaging floor. This section is also relatively open, meaning the player can just plow through the spikes without any other difficulties, if Mario is under the effects of the star. The evolution to this challenge will make the next section less passable as the timer on the star runs down.

The challenge in the next section of the level

There's no danger in this evolution of Mario taking damage as long as he has the star; the purpose of this section is merely to slow him down. If Mario reaches the end of the challenge here without the star, he's essentially guaranteed to take damage from the enemies that occupy his landing spot. If the player can get him through there quickly, Mario will be fine, and will actually gain several 1-ups. 

The third challenge actually reverses the need for the star. If the player manages to make it to this spot with the star, they may face a problem. 

Facing Winged Koopas with no Super Star

Because the pit is so wide, the player once again needs to bounce off the head of a Wing Koopa in order to make it across. If Mario still has the star powerup, he actually can't bounce off the Koopa because the star powerup changes the way that collisions with enemies work. 

There are two interesting things about this challenge. This is an inversion—instead of needing the star to preserve Mario's momentum, the player needs the star to go away before attempting the jump, so that Mario can bounce and keep going when he hits the Koopa’s head. Inversions (total reversals of a standard challenge) are a common tool in the designer's toolkit and appear often in Super Mario World—and many other games too. But also, this challenge is clearly about preserving momentum, by bouncing off the heads of the Koopas.

The Intercepts Theme

For the next section, this level switches to the intercepts theme. There have been many intercepts present in the level so far, but always in the context of the preservation of momentum—Mario always had to keep moving forward. Speed is still essential in the intercepts theme, but that speed is often in quickness of the player’s reflexes rather than Mario’s forward run.  

The intercepts theme often requires Mario to run or air-dodge backwards to avoid some oncoming object. The most idiosyncratic aspect of the intercepts theme, however, is the layering of various kinds of intercepts. The first challenge is fairly easy, starting at the level of a standard challenge.

The first challenge in the intercepts theme

The cannon in the middle fires Bullet Bills at a regular rate. Although regularity is the hallmark of a periodic enemy, the bullet bills aren’t localized to a single jump, as a periodic enemy would be. Instead, they intercept every jump on this tier of the section. The first evolution of this idea, meanwhile, is simple: I just add Wing Koopas.

Adding Winged Koopas for difficulty

Now we have two intercepts modifying Mario’s jump path. Likewise, the final evolution is similar in structure, but different in content.

Three enemies in total for the evolution of difficulty

The evolution here is in exchanging the Wing Koopas for Boos again, and there is also an expansion in the number of cannons on the middle platform. 

You could call this a repetitive move, but one of the important aesthetics of Mario-style game design is not putting too many elements in a level. I could have thrown in 12 different enemies, but the CCST structure depends upon the same design ideas appearing throughout a level to maintain consistency. Small iterations preserve the newness and challenge of a level while at the same making sure that all the basic ideas are familiar to the player.

Back to the Preservation of Momentum

The final section of the level returns to the preservation of momentum theme using the last important method for the preservation of momentum in Super Mario World: the inability to stop. 

In Super Mario World, this was achieved through icy floors. Super Mario Maker doesn’t have as robust a set of tools for doing this, but it makes up for that by accomplishing something similar in conveyor belts. The essential idea is preserved. Mario is going to keep moving whether the player wants him to or not.

Perpetual Motion

Across the course of several layers of conveyor belts, I simply added new kinds of intercepts and other dangers like the Grinder. The final challenge has both cannons and a winged Dry Bones who throws bones.

A saw bullets and Dry Bones

What I've done here is to combine the preservation of momentum elements with the intercepts elements to create a climactic peak in the level's complexity and difficulty. The conveyor belt provides the momentum challenge, while the different kinds of intercepts make that momentum dangerous.

And then for the last section of the level I created a simple gauntlet where Mario has to run across some more conveyor belts beneath some Boos. The danger here is pretty minimal, but with the enhanced momentum the action can still feel exciting and fun. 

Enemies along with forced momentrum
Jumping across Winged Koopas after having forced momentum

I didn’t really turn this last section into a proper part of a cadence. Instead what I wanted to do was set up a “reward by fun” section. The idea behind this is to break the tension in a level by giving the player an easy, flashy task. 

My level wasn’t that tense, because I’m only trying to teach game design techniques, but this section replicates the structure of the reward by fun. Fleeing the ghosts is actually quite easy, even with the occasional backwards motion of some of the belts. The last jump is also quite easy, as the final belt is reversed and the “platform” of Koopas is quite wide.

Conclusion

That covers all the skill themes in Super Mario World, but it's not the end of the story. Although most of the levels in Super Mario World fit into one of the four skill themes, there are quite a few levels in the game which do not fit into any of them. 

If you want to know more, you should check out the book I wrote about the game. There are many other skill themes in other games, and many other cadence structures too. In the next article, we're going to take a look at some of those games and how they interpret the CCST structure.

Until then, good luck making your levels!

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