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The Super Mario World Method: Understanding Skill Themes

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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: Using Evolutions and Expansions
Making Levels With the Super Mario World Method: Skill Themes, Part 2

This is the third tutorial in a series I have been writing about how to apply the design lessons of Super Mario World to your own Super Mario Maker levels. In the previous two parts, I focused on how to organize the gameplay elements of your Mario Maker courses at the challenge (small) and cadence (medium) levels of content. If you haven't read those articles, you really should, because this article leans heavily upon terms defined and explained there. 

In this tutorial I'm going to talk about the highest meaningful level of content, the skill theme. Skill themes are collections of levels which require the same player skills to beat. Understanding skill themes as they existed in Super Mario World can help you to create reliable plans for your own levels, in Super Mario Maker or your own games. 

My Example

I've created (and annotated) an example Super Mario Maker level that moves back and forth between two skill themes: "moving targets" and "periodic enemies". Take a look:

The level code is F7E5 0000 0125 6EF3 if you want to try it yourself.

In order to fully understand skill themes, we first need to dive briefly into the history of video game design...

A Brief History of Video Game Design

The history of video game design breaks down into three eras: the arcade era, the composite era, and the set piece era. I've written about this extensively, but only the first two eras are relevant to our understanding of Mario-style game design. 

In the arcade era, video games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man or Galaga derived all of their gameplay from just a couple of variables. These games grew more difficult when enemies got faster, became more numerous, or fired more often. These are all quantitative expansions, which I spoke about in the previous two articles. 

Qualitative evolutions didn’t take on their modern form until Shigeru Miyamoto invented the composite game. A composite game combines two existing genres, allowing the player to use the mechanics of one genre to solve the problems of another genre. 

The first real composite game, Super Mario Bros, is a composite of the action and platformer genres. It illustrates the composite design principle perfectly: the player can solve action game problems (defeating enemies) by using platformer mechanics (jumping).

Mario is a composite of the platformer and action genresMario is a composite of the platformer and action genresMario is a composite of the platformer and action genres
The Super Mario Bros games are composites of the action and platformer genres.

That’s not all a composite game does, though. A true composite game will bounce back and forth between its two composited genres to keep the gameplay feeling fresh. This back-and-forth motion produces a type of ongoing player focus that I call composite flow.

So How Does This Translate to Level Design?

Okay, that was a lot of theory, but I’m going to illustrate composite design and what it means in Mario Maker. The good news is that the theory of composite games actually makes it easier to figure out what to put into your Mario levels, if you understand the theory correctly. 

Mario games are made up of the action and platformer genres. Every level in a Mario game is going to focus either on platformer content or action content. Accordingly, one of the first steps a designer takes when making a level is to decide on the level’s genre focus. That’s a decision you can make before you even start your level! 

If you were designing platformers in 1986, you’d be done preparing already. Of course, games have advanced a lot since then, so you also have to take into account the next big development that Mario games introduced: skill set isolation

Starting with Super Mario World, the designers deliberately targeted different skill sets when making levels. That is, they wanted to make it so levels in the same genre could feel different. Thus, Super Mario World isolates two different skill sets: timing and speed. Either skill set will match up with either genre of gameplay. 

We can see what this looks like on a grid:

Grid of genre vs skill set in Super Mario WorldGrid of genre vs skill set in Super Mario WorldGrid of genre vs skill set in Super Mario World

Each combination of genre and skill set results in a very different type of level. These level types belong to the highest level of organization in the "challenge, cadence, skill-theme" (CCST) framework: skill themes. A skill theme is just a collection of levels which are based on the same genre and skill set. 

In this tutorial, I'll demonstrate two skill themes: the "moving targets" skill theme, and the "periodic enemies" skill theme. Don’t worry about the definition of those themes; I'll show you exactly what I mean.

Applying History to Mario Maker

The first skill theme I’d like to show you is the "moving targets" skill theme. One might call this the "moving platforms" theme, because it focuses on platformer mechanics and making precisely-timed jumps to them. I use the term “targets” instead, because in actual Mario games, the platforms don’t always look like platforms. Sometimes the moving targets are walls, barrels or enemies; the term “targets” catches all of those things. 

An example of the moving targets skill themeAn example of the moving targets skill themeAn example of the moving targets skill theme
An example of the "moving targets" skill theme.

The "periodic enemies" skill theme focuses on moving enemies instead of moving platforms. Instead of having to guide Mario across platforms which move in regular loops, the player has to guide Mario past enemies that move in regular loops. 

A loop doesn't necessarily mean a circle; any enemy that moves in a set space at a set speed and with a set pattern is periodic. The key is that it's really easy to predict where the enemy is going to be, and when, the same way the player would predict the location of a moving platform. 

This is definitely more action-oriented and less platform-oriented, however. In the periodic enemies theme, the danger isn't in falling from a bad jump; the danger is in colliding with an enemy. Indeed, many of Super Mario World's "periodic enemies" levels feature very little jumping at all.

An example of the periodic enemies skill themeAn example of the periodic enemies skill themeAn example of the periodic enemies skill theme
An example of the "periodic enemies" skill theme.

In my level, as in most of the castles and fortresses of Super Mario World, the player is actually doing more running than jumping. Sure, there are jumps, but the periodic enemies theme is all about running at the right time. This does involve some waiting. 

It's possible to blow past the Thwomps and Grinders you see above at full speed, but it's quite hard, and that's the point. If the player simply waits for the right moment, getting past all those obstacles is easy. It's all about timing and finesse rather than speed and reflexes.

The key to working in the periodic enemies theme is mixing and matching the heterogeneous periods of different enemies. Essentially, you want to get several different types of bad guys moving around in one space. Here's an example:

A more complex example of the periodic enemies themeA more complex example of the periodic enemies themeA more complex example of the periodic enemies theme
A more complex example of the "periodic enemies" theme.

The period of the flame jet and the period of the tracked Grinder are totally different (that is, they’re dangerous at different times), and so the player has to internalize the timing for both of those enemies to figure out the window for a safe jump. It's not a demanding jump in terms of thumb-skills, but it does require precise timing.

Next, the crossover ends and the level returns to the moving targets theme. If you, as a level designer, want to stick to Nintendo-style orthodoxy, this is an important step. There are numerous levels which have extensive crossover material in Super Mario World (and other Mario games), but only a small few of them end in a skill theme other than the one they started in. Returning to the moving targets theme, the level continues with a further evolution upon the idea of separation from the platform.

Separation from the platformSeparation from the platformSeparation from the platform

The player is only really moving between platforms here, not unlike the way he or she would in the Super Mario World levels Cheese Bridge or Way Cool. This section is a little shorter, and Super Mario Maker doesn’t allow me to build all the crazy shapes and involutions you see in tracked platforms in Super Mario World. Still, this section makes the player concentrate on the timing of two moving platforms instead of just one, which is the kind of evolution you would expect.

After this, I combine the two skill themes together for the final challenge. Here we have strong elements of both moving targets and periodic enemies:

Moving targets and periodic enemiesMoving targets and periodic enemiesMoving targets and periodic enemies

The player has to detach from the moving platform and pass through two periodic-enemy traps to get back to it. The layout more or less explains itself. I configured the rotation of the flame traps so that the player can get through them if he or she waits just a second at each one. All it takes is two properly timed runs and the player should be in position to drop onto the platform as it passes under the lowest row of blocks.

A Brief Recap

That should give you a good idea about the use of skill themes. The skill themes discussed above are not the only ones in platformers—they’re not even the only skill themes in Super Mario World! The next article will explore two more skill themes, and there are many more in games beyond the Nintendo library. 

Here are some of the lessons we can learn from Super Mario World about how to use skill themes:

  • Many classic video games were designed as composites of two or more genres.
  • Moving back and forth between genres from one level to the next can keep the levels in your game feeling fresh—but the game should never abandon either of its genres totally.
  • In addition to moving between genres, a game can move between skill sets like timing vs. speed, or puzzle-solving vs. combat.
  • Most levels in Super Mario World exist as a part of a skill theme: they stick with one genre focus and one skill set.
  • When a level in the style of Super Mario World does shift between skill themes, it usually shifts in genre but not in skill sets. Platform levels detour into action segments, but timing levels don’t usually switch over to speed.

Good luck making your levels!

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