The Mezunian

Die Positivität ist das Opium des Volkes, aber der Spott ist das Opium der Verrückten

Great Stages: World 4-3 ( & 6-3 ) o’ Super Mario Bros.

What stands out most is that, despite this game taking place in the Mushroom Kingdom & having plenty o’ mushrooms in ?-blocks, the terrain is rarely composed o’ mushrooms, but more oft those contradictory blocks that are a mix o’ natural cracked rock & unnatural perfect square shape ( or grass, if playing Super Mario All-Stars ). Having much mo’ red & yellow & a li’l less brown & green certainly makes the level feel mo’ colorful than most other daytime levels, ’specially in All-Stars with the mushroom platforms in the background.

But graphics aside, this level’s arrangement o’ elements seem mo’ modern than most other levels in this game. Other than the green hill levels ( World 1-3 probably being the most well-known example ), most o’ this game’s levels are flat land with a few walls & holes here & there. But e’en most o’ those levels are just a horizontal line o’ hills going from left to right, with slight variances in height, such as the other level with prominent weight pulleys, World 6-3, or merely use multilayered hills to create proto-Sonic alternate routes, like World 1-3, 5-3 ( which is just a clone o’ 1-3 ), & 3-3. But World 4-3 uses multilayered mushroom towers not as a means for alternate routes, but as a challenge itself. Just after the 2nd mushroom, you see a mushroom tower @ just the right height to stymie you. It grants alternate routes, but unlike the other levels, the alternate routes aren’t arbitrary, but have different challenges: if you go below the mushroom tower, you have to jump low ’nough not to bonk your head on it, but high ’nough to make it to the next platform under it; to go ’bove the tower, you must run & jump high ’nough to reach it.

& in this level, the red Koopa is, for once, a greater hindrance than the green Koopas, as you have to time jumps so that you don’t run into them during their patrol back & forth o’er the mushroom. Thanks to the timing & placement o’ the red Koopas on the 2nd mushroom, the jump to it will leave li’l space & time to jump o’er them before they reach you ( which is very tricky to pull off in Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, thanks to its much smaller screen, allowing e’en less reaction time ).

& then there’s the weight pulleys, an early version o’ a “level gimmick” that makes this level feel like a proto Super Mario World level, which used just ’bout every type o’ moving blocks or platform you could think o’. Their key strength is how much control they give you. The most obvious way is that they let you move them up & down all o’er; but the subtle version o’ this strength is how they don’t force you to slow down, a problem with many level gimmicks in games. If you know what you’re doing & have the maneuverability to do so, you can pass pulleys onto the rest o’ the level without stopping.

I also like the way the mushroom block is positioned on the edge o’ a mushroom platform with a thin platform just below. It’s the 1st time the game truly threatens you with destroying your mushroom before you can get it. Compare this with 4-1’s 1st mushroom position: it has a much larger plot o’ land to move before falling into a pit, & the Spinys offer a greater obstacle than gravity. The lower mushroom platform softens the challenge, which fits this level’s placement difficulty just after the middle o’ the game.

The ending is 1 o’ the few without the iconic staircase, replaced by a platform moving up & down. This does not make reaching the flagpole harder in the slightest, but it does make reaching the top o’ the flagpole a bit harder, & makes doing so while getting 6 fireworks much harder, which those gaming for the score medal in Super Mario Bros. Deluxe’s challenge mode will know all too well.

’Mong the pulley levels, this is the weakest ending, with 3-3’s pulley @ the end with the end closer to the flagpole lower down the best. A platform moving up & down doesn’t have much to do with this level, which only has 2 other vertical floating platforms, thrown in the middle so that they’re easy to forget ’bout. 6-3 focuses much mo’ on these types o’ platforms & ends with a series o’ vertical platforms leading to a hill seen in almost every other world’s 3rd level, just wintry white. I think 4-3 should’ve had a series o’ mushroom hills leading to the flagpole while 6-3 should’ve ended with a vertically rising & falling platform, but with a gap ’tween the platform & the flagpole to add some actual challenge ( since we’re moving 2 worlds later, after all ).

Honorable Mentions

In fact, 6-3 is a strong competitor to 4-3 — perhaps e’en better, looking @ it with fresher eyes. Its wintry white & gray blocks o’er a black background is arguably rarer than 4-3’s red mushrooms, since they also appear in the warp zone in 4-2 ( though you can’t see both in the same playthrough ), though you do see this same palette in every castle level, just with a different tileset.

Sadly, this level loses this special color scheme in the Super Mario All-Stars, whose Super Mario Bros. remake otherwise had superior graphics & music — though inferior gameplay, thanks to errors the programmers made with the brick-breaking physics, ’less you use the brick-fix rom hack. Why they didn’t make snowy graphics for the hill tileset like they did for evening levels that weren’t e’en wintry-looking in the original, like 3-1, I have no idea. Super Mario Bros. seems to be a game destined to be plagued by imperfect remakes.

It also arguably has a mix o’ mo’ exotic elements, replacing common red Koopas with a few red springs & Bullet Bills. Howe’er, the red Koopas allow for mo’ fine-tuned jumping challenges, while the Bullet Bills just come in @ random places, which can make certain circumstances outright unfair, rather than clever. The use o’ the spring is well done: the 1st is just for bonus coins & a higher vantage point, which you can still reach with careful jumping without it, while the 2nd is, save for some particular expert maneuvering, mandatory to reach the next platform high ’bove. They don’t do much else with this element, which, quite frankly, is only meaningful as a challenge in how janky timing jumps off it can be.

6-3’s mushroom block is e’en better than 4-3’s, & fits its moving platforms theme well. It is positioned just under a horizontally moving platform, upping the challenge from 4-3’s mushroom by making it much easier to make the mushroom fall into the pit without a safety platform below to give an extra chance.

Like 4-3, you can race through the whole level without stopping if you know what you’re doing. Like Sonic games later on, if you keep to the top the level goes smoothly, but if you let yourself fall to the bottom, you can run into tricky jumps, such as those wherein the weight pulleys are so high that they’re hard or impossible to reach, but are still low ’nough to threaten to bonk you as you try to jump under them & interrupt your jump.

I’m also quite partial to 6-2, though it’s definitely a 3rd to 4-3 & 6-3. It’s a rather long long full o’ tricky arrangements o’ pipes with Piranha Plants — usually only emphasized in underground levels. This makes this probably the greenest level in the game.

Level that emphasizes Piranha Plants all o’er the place shows every other enemy in that level ’stead.

Piranha Plants are the most common enemy in the game ( yes, they are mo’ common than Goombas ), making this level feel less fresh than the 4-3 & 6-3 with their rarer weight pulleys, & Piranha Plants, who are slow & easily-telegraph their moves are not nearly as tricky. Worse, if you don’t have a fire flower, they can easily delay you, ’specially in this level.

Still, this is definitely the most interesting Piranha Plant level, which calls to mind the clever arrangements found in Lost Levels levels like 5-1, 7-1, A-1, & C-1.

I also like the nighttime twist on the coin heaven, with a slightly trickier arrangement o’ cloud blocks, making it harder to collect all coins — though this coin heaven appears in 3-1 1st.

I also like the way the ending staircase adds both a hopping Paratroopa & a Piranha Plant.

Posted in Great Stages, Video Games

Great Stages: World 6-5 o’ Super Mario Bros. 3

Introduction

I’ve always been interested in appraising level design for various reasons:

  1. Levels were always my favorite part o’ video games & level design was the part o’ game development that interested me the most.

  2. 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 ).

  3. 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

Map courtesy o’ KingKuros @ The Video Game Atlas.

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.

This Koopa lived a cruelly monotonous existence ’fore Luigi took him out o’ his misery.

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 ).

Swimming while taking pictures is bad for your health.

Posted in Great Stages, Video Games