The Daily Mario, Day 2: Salvation Through Iteration

The Daily Mario, Day 2: Salvation Through Iteration

Design; test; fail; revise; test; fail; revise some more.

Yesterday, I shared with the world my dreadful first attempt at creating a level in Super Mario Maker. I tried to make it fair, reasonable, and interesting... and I failed.

But as a writer and an illustrator, I know better than to be discouraged by a disastrous first draft. Revisions are the key to any successful creative endeavor, and sometimes you come up with the bones of an interesting idea but drape it in hideous flesh that just needs a bit of cosmetic surgery to make it tolerable. (In fact, this strained metaphor is a great example of a bad first draft that could be worthwhile with some fine-tuning.) Rather than make a new stage every day, I'm most likely going to alternate between creation and refinement. I don't know how many people are interested in seeing me revisit these levels several times on a daily basis, but we'll find out, eh? Today, I've done a little of both: Refinement and invention. Let's start by looking at the stage I made yesterday and how some fine tweaks have greatly improved its design.

I began by taking reader Kirinn's suggestion to make this an "underground" stage. It's just a skin, but it does seem to suit the level better.

In terms of more substantial revisions, I revamped the first area considerably while trying to retain its essence. The lower route now looks like more of a route, with a more clearance between the lower platforms and the ceiling, and an obvious Question block to say, "Hey, come hit this." If you kick the lower turtle, he'll still break blocks, but in such a way that you can still make the jumps to the pipe easily enough. Overall, I tried to make the arrangement of the bricks down there look just a little intimidating in order to encourage people to consider forging a path up above. (The spring in the Question block is also meant to make players consider doubling back.)

A few out-of-reach coins at the top of the screen emphasize the presence of something interesting up there, hinting at the presence of a Mushroom off-screen. And finally, I reworked the narrow upper alternate passage to the pipe; this configuration still involves kicking a Koopa in order to clear away blocks, but now Super Mario no longer has to do a ducking slide off a ledge in order to reach the pipe. Instead, the Koopa shell (when kicked to the right) will clear away some blocks that allow you to duck-slide to an alcove where you can stand and make the leap to the side pretty easily. And I removed the Piranha Plant from the pipe, so there's no "gotcha!" while trying to clear that dangerous gap.

Overall, I think this turned out pretty nicely. I would tweak a few small details — I'd probably get rid of the rightmost brick the Koopa shell needs to clear away in the alcove so that you're not forced to make a squatting jump if you accidentally kick the shell to the left — but on the whole this has worked out to be a dense, compact set of tasks that as one commenter put it channels the spirit of Super Mario World. There's a pretty straightforward path ahead to the rest of the level if you go low, but exploration yields both coins and a Mushroom, and you won't be punished for making the effort.

The pipe ladder also underwent some tweaks. I added a few Goombas to the ground for variety, while changing the position of the pipes to be require careful jumps while keeping the platforms close enough together that you don't have to worry about Piranha Plants triggering only after you commit to a jump. The coins also describe the path you need to take upward, both a cue and an incentive.

The biggest changes are above, though, with the addition of a small two-block arrangement transforming the fourth pipe from active platform to piece of scenery — you no longer need to worry about dealing with the Piranha Plant in that pipe, as it's now simply there to create a visual stair-step arrangement. The additional of a safe platform gives Mario a small breather before making a difficult jump to the final rung of the pipe ladder, which now sits in a horizontal configuration. The nature of the challenge changes here, as the plant inside can now emerge in a different direction than the ones before, so a piece of "neutral" ground gives you a perch from which to take it in before committing to the jump.

The area up top hasn't changed too much. Some extra bricks above turn it into another self-contained alcove, and I added some obvious Question blocks to encourage players to take this side path despite the introduction of a Koopa Troopa in a cramped space — always a dangerous combination in a Mario game.

Big changes here. The Koopas no longer patrol single-block platforms, and a high wall prevents players from simply leaping to the flag (or, more likely, taking a blind leap into a pit). Blind jumps are a hallmark of poor design, so I'm trying to avoid those whenever possible. The coins mark the placement of platforms, and the line of coins in the lower-center portion of the screen cue you to where you should fall... though you can also scroll the screen down more slowly by hopping on the platform in the bottom-right corner.

The Koopas patrolling here were previously just annoying hazards, but the new platform configuration makes them valuable. You can kick the top Koopa to the right and it'll clear out the other two turtles. If you kick any of the turtles to the left, however, it'll rebound from the pipe and slide across the narrow gaps as a reminder that you can safely run across single-space holes in the floor instead of having to leap over them. The final floor column before the wider pit is now two spaces wide, so if you do elect to run you'll have enough space to safely come to a halt.

And finally, you can make a running leap to the flagpole and earn a few hundred feeble points... or you can figure out how to get up to the top of the pole. That involves braving the Koopa Paratroopa below and hitting a tricky Question block to reveal another spring — reprising the spring from the beginning of the stage. This part's still a little inelegant; the spring on the block at the upper right is completely pointless and gives away the trick, which is already tipped off by the fact that there was a spring in a Question block at the beginning of the stage. A better choice here would be to bring the brick stair-steps down one more block and do away with the free-floating block and spring altogether. The spring isn't necessary to reach the top of the flagpole; there's enough free space above that Mario can easily make a running leap and hit the top.

Your reward for coming up to check out this last hidden area is a spring block that lets you leap up to hit an unseen block with a 1UP Mushroom in it. No, 1UP Mushrooms weren't in the Day 1 tool set. I cheated a little. Once I unlock invisible bricks, the spring that leads to the 1UP will be hidden as a legitimate secret. Anyway, from here you can make a mighty leap to the flag and complete the level, the end.

Aside from a few minor details that need refinement, the second draft of this stage is vastly improved over the first, despite the lack of major changes. The difference between poor level design and solid, it seems, is in the details. This isn't a world-class Mario stage, but with a few small improvements I wouldn't be ashamed to share it. Too bad the review copies of this game self-destruct once the retail version arrives.

Day Two

After getting a better sense of what works and what doesn't with these tools, I embarked on my second stage design. This time around, a new set of tools appeared, most of which I used — Spinies, moving platforms, Fire Flowers, and more.

Watch: A quick runthrough of the improved older level and the initial construction of a new one.

After the dark 'n gloomy design of the revamped first stage, I set out to make a level that would work better in the daylight palette. Not sure if I pulled it off successfully, but it's the thought that counts... right? Coinciding with this level design attempt was my discovery that level length isn't fixed and doesn't have to be as short as it originally appeared; you can drag a slider to increase the length of a stage considerably. So... I did.

For this stage, I took advantage of the fact that you can set the starting point of a level as high as you like. I placed Mario's starting point high on the upper screen, with the aim of the stage being to work your way down to the goal.

After my experiences with the first stage, and after watching videos of others' creations, I've come to appreciate just how difficult it is to exercise self-restraint while making stages. Everyone wants to skip World 1-1 through 6-4 and jump ahead to the tricky end- and post-game sections. I'm actually more interested in creating a series of levels that steady escalate in complexity, and that means not going crazy. So, this level begins simply, with a single Goomba patrolling between two small block formations.

The Paratroopa patrols this alcove. You can run beneath him or leap over him to collect the coins, but the Goomba advancing through a narrow passage encourages you to stomp and kick the Koopa instead.

Poor design here. Unless you kick and chase the Koopa shell, these Goombas clog up the narrow passage for entirely too long and slow the game to a halt. Either the passage needs to be shorter, or there should be just the one Goomba. Or both.

This level see me trying for some classic SBM arrangements without directly copying the old games. Something about this layout feels a little off, though... is it too wide? Too pointless to have bricks that can be shattered by a Koopa shell surrounded by blocks that can't?

The Koopa patrolling next to the freestanding Piranha Plant just begs you to kick the shell at the plant... which will then strike a brick that hides a Fire Flower. The Fire Flower is helpful in the second half of the stage, though this little gimmick would probably work better if I'd included a second instance of a power-up hidden in a brick that can only be kicked to activate it.

This pipe spews Spinies, an unfriendlier version of a pipe earlier in the stage that spawns Goombas. The Fire Flower comes in handy here, although you can also bypass the infinite Spinies by going over and above. Like the hidden Fire Flower block, this is an OK idea that would work better with one more iteration further into the stage. The best Mario levels tend to have one or two elements that appear multiple times in ever more complex situations, and I suspect this stage would feel more cohesive with a little of that going on.

The single floating blocks at the upper right here were meant to be part of an alternate passage over the Spiny pipe, but it doesn't quite work. Where the Goombas in the early portion of the stage cause the level flow to slow down too much, here the flow lets you skip past the Spinies with ease. This is definitely an area that needs work — the overall pacing of the stage.

The moving platform here is a bit misplaced — it should be lower — but the idea is to give you a way down to the base of the stage without making a blind jump. There's no danger in blind jumps here, admittedly, as this stage has no open pits until the very end and there are no enemies here, but I still don't like the idea of making people jump into the void on faith.

Another set of narrow passages, which also don't work nearly as well as I'd hoped. This is a case of working within the limitations of the game physics; Mario's fireball bounces too high to take out the bad guys in the low corridors (something you can do in many Mario games). And the enemy-free upper passage is just lousy design; you can't actually jump up high enough to reach it.

So you need to advance by doing this, which is... no. Meanwhile, the formerly harmless Spinies continue piling up in the area you've already bypassed. This screen is heartbreaking.

And finally, at the last moment, I suddenly remembered my desire to make this more of a back-to-basics stage and included a classic Paratroopa bounding down the staircase to the flag.

I got a 1UP, but I don't feel like I really earned it.

So, in summary: The first stage improved considerably with a second draft. This new stage isn't nearly as poor the first time through as yesterday's level, but it still suffers from some egregious flaws that demand change. The middle portions of the stage need to be reworked considerably to (1) simplify their design, (2) offer more progressive repeated instances of key design elements, and (3) either make those narrow passages work or get rid of them altogether.

Tomorrow: The underwater tool set opens up, so we'll see if I can make a good underwater stage! (My guess is "not likely.")

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