I’ve always been interested in appraising level design for various reasons:
Levels were always my favorite part o’ video games & level design was the part o’ game development that interested me the most.
It’s not focused on as much by most reviewers as what seems to me much mo’ shallow elements o’ a game, such as story or aesthetics ( ne’er mind the fact that the average video game praised for its story comes nowhere close to the storytelling quality o’ great literature, while literature can’t come close to doing what well-designed levels can ).
A lot o’ the work I find online is, not to poison the well to make my own pitiful work look good, not good. I don’t mean that they have bad opinions — that their conclusions are “wrong” — but that they don’t bother to go into detail on the “why” — the most important part. Most just say their favorite or least favorite levels & leave it @ that; others give shallow reasons like “too hard / too easy”.
The problem is, whenever I try to make some grand series appraising every level o’ a game, I can ne’er finish it. Mainly ’cause, honestly, most levels in every game aren’t worth writing ’bout. ¿What’s there to say ’bout that 2nd tank level in Super Mario Bros 3.?
Thus, I’m cadging a chip from some random YouTuber & just writing ’bout particular levels worth writing ’bout, ’cept with words ’stead o’… words o’er video, ’cause video-editing is ’bout as palatable as having my wisdom teeth yanked out. Technically, I already did that with my hyperbolic article ’bout that terrible level, C-3 o’ Lost Levels, eons ago. So let’s balance that out with a good level.
Super Mario Bros. 3 – World 6-5
I’ll start by defending an oft-criticized level. World 6-5 is that infamous cave level wherein you have to get a Raccoon Leaf ( if you don’t already have 1 ), grab a Koopa shell, & fly up into an alcove & throw the shell to kill some Nipper Plants blocking the way to the pipe to the end o’ the level. This is 1 o’ those levels that’s “bad” ’cause it’s challenging. Worse: it’s not challenging in the typical “keep trying pixel-perfect jump till you robotically learn it through muscle memory”, but a puzzle that requires creative thought.
But it’s 1 that’s perfectly fair & intuitive. Once you find out the level wraps round, you know there’s an alternate way to win. There’s also a high chance that just before it loops, you’ll get a Raccoon Leaf; if not, there’s ’nother respawning ?-block with a Raccoon Leaf just after where the pipe drops you off @ the start o’ the cave. The game has consistently taught you that you can reach different areas by flying; ¿why shouldn’t it finally expect you to have to fly to beat a level by now? Eventually, flying round, you’ll find the alcove with that tantalizing other pipe, blocked by Nipper Plants. Whether you already realize you can’t attack them with your tail from ’bove or learn it the hard way, you’ll ’ventually run out o’ options up here & ’ventually have to go back down to search for mo’ answers, & ’ventually you’ll notice that conspicuous lone Koopa in a sea o’ Buster Beetles.
Despite this level’s challenge, it’s nice ’nough to ne&rs
Actually, e’en the many Buster Beetles & the weirdly special throwable bricks they toss @ you work well. In addition to providing many ways for them to make you lose your Raccoon Leaf, challenging you to defend 1 o’ the keys to victory, they focus the level on the issue o’ throwing, which hints to you that throwing something @ the Nipper Plants is the answer. You may e’en try flying up with a throw block & fail, — or maybe succeed: I’ve ne’er tried, actually — only to later stumble ’pon the lone Koopa.
Despite this level’s challenge, it’s nice ’nough to ne’er completely screw you out o’ it — ’less you die, ’course: @ the end o’ the main path there’s a perpetually-respawning ?-block with a Raccoon Leaf before a pipe that leads back to the start. So e’en if you get hit & lose a Raccoon Leaf, you can always get ’nother. Koopa shells, ’course, also respawn ’pon entering & exiting a pipe, in case you accidentally kill the only Koopa.
I think this level shows a prototype for Super Mario World’s generally superior puzzle-based level design. It feels right up there with the kind o’ memorable puzzles like Yoshi-jumping under the goal post o’ “Cheese Bridge Area” or bringing a Yoshi to the end o’ “Valley of Bowser 4” so you can lick the key through the solid blocks. But it also has Super Mario Bros. 3’s brevity & focus, whereas Super Mario World levels sometimes had a tendency to be o’erly long & have jarring, unfocused, irrelevant extra parts — you know, those side rooms that don’t fit, like that pointless coin snake in “Donut Ghost House”, that P-balloon cave section in the underwater level, “Donut Secret 1”, or that outside section with the single flying Hammer Bro in the otherwise underground level, “Chocolate Secret”. Thus, this level combines the best elements o’ Super Mario Bros. 3 & Super Mario World’s level design.
It can also be rather fast-paced if you know what you’re doing. E’en if you start small, you can pop in the pipe near the beginning to grab a Mushroom, & then grab a Raccoon Leaf in the ?-block in the cave. Then just dodge all the enemies to the Koopa & fly up to win. Super Mario World, & some levels in Super Mario Bros. 3, infamously had a tendency to have ploddingly slow levels, as Sonic ads relished pointing out, ’specially Super Mario World’s puzzle levels. The fact that the aforementioned puzzles from World required you to get to the end o’ relatively long levels a 2nd time to get the 2nd exit doesn’t help. I almost mentioned the secret exit to “Valley of Bowser 2”, with its subtle clue that you can stay on the edge o’ 1 o’ the rising blocks you’re s’posed to be running from to reach a secret area ’bove the room… but that exit requires you to go through a direly long & slow autoscroll section, which should ne’er be encouraged. That this level was able to have a creative puzzle without needing to bog down the player’s momentum makes it deserve extra puntos.
If this level has anything you could call a flaw, it’s that, other than the graphics, it doesn’t truly fit the icy theme o’ its world. I guess the throw bricks look kind o’ icy… but these have appeared since World 3, & they don’t make sense as ice blocks. ¿What ’bout ice makes it mo’ susceptible to being picked up & thrown? & if they’re s’posed to be ice, ¿why aren’t they affected by fire when other ice blocks are?
But that’s the most anal-retentive o’ complaints, & there’s something to be recommended in a li’l mid-world variety. It’s not as if this level is jarringly contradictory to the ice theme; it’s just theme-neutral & could fit in any world.
I probably mentioned it already in my big article comparing Super Mario Bros. 3 & Super Mario World, but I consider World 6, ’long with 7, to be the high point o’ Super Mario Bros. 3’s level design, with tricky, clever block arrangements, so it does fit in that way. A’least it fits better than the 2 underground water levels in this world ( whose existence admittedly undermines my “high point” point before ).