The Daily Mario, Day 3: Sea-nanigans

The Daily Mario, Day 3: Sea-nanigans

Can an amateur designer achieve the impossible: Create a fun underwater level design?

So it's come to this. A water level. Let's be honest here, real talk between friends: Water levels suck. They're just never any fun. It's weird, because Mario's aquatic physics were based on Balloon Fight, and I love Balloon Fight. But just add water to make Mario intensely not-fun.

I do not have the design chops to make a brilliant water level, because no one can do the impossible. Instead, I decided to try and make the least irritating water level possible. I kept it short and simple, which — I hope — should be sufficient to make it relatively painless for others.

I kind of envision the three stages I've made so far as belonging to a single world, and the common thread that binds them is the back-and-forth nature of the design. There's been a sort of S-curve to every layout so far, and this third stage maintains that theme. This makes for some relatively tight underwater passages as the two screens have been divided up into three layers, but I've kept things much less complex here in deference to the frustrating nature of Mario's swimming physics. A few people have called me out for not doing more with pits. Truth is, I don't really like pits as a design mechanic, so don't expect to see many in this stage, either. This level begins with a Question block...

...which contains a Mystery Mushroom that transforms Mario into a random character (unlocked either through playing premade stages or tapping Amiibo to your Game Pad). These don't have a material impact on gameplay besides allowing Mario to soak up an extra hit — if an enemy touches you while you're wearing an Amiibo suit, the suit falls off and you go back to being tiny Mario.

There is a purpose to this Mystery Mushroom's placement, however, besides giving you an extra hit before taking on an underwater gauntlet. Sadly, the effects of the mushroom are randomized, so there's no way to guarantee you'll end up the Wii Fit Trainer.

Beyond the Mystery Mushroom block it's all fairly straightforward — some lazy Cheep-Cheeps, and a few coins to grab (which also double as a visual cue that you need to swim above the coral columns; they're not just background decoration). At the top of the screen, a couple of Goombas will stir into action as you swim below, but they can't reach you. There is, however, a single Goomba below that can potentially harm you.

Past the pipe you'll find a Fire Flower (and, not pictured, a set of coins hanging just above the open pit). Fire Flowers are always good to have underwater, but collecting a Fire Flower replaces your current Amiibo suit with a Fire Mario sprite. So the Mystery Mushroom is there to force you to make a trade-off — do you stick with the novel aesthetic upgrade, or do you go with the offensive power? I took care to make the level challenging but manageable without fire (and it probably errs on the side of being too easy when you do have it), so either option is valid.

The first pipe in the level is just a plain ol' pipe. The next one you encounters has a Piranha Plant in it. Shortly after that, there's a pair of spikes to swim around.

The further you go, the closer together the plants and spikes appear, creating an obstacle course. Still, I was careful to include only passive threats here: The spikes are motionless, and the plants only emerge from pipes at fixed intervals.

I've always found Bloopers to be annoying, so I only added a single one to this stage; it lurks at the upper left corner and is only a concern if you go after the Question blocks below it.

The one "gotcha!" for the level: A Piranha Plant that pops out of a Question block. It's harmless, of course — you'd really have to go out of your way to bump into it. I like the idea of weird things popping out of Question blocks, though, and this seems like a nice, harmless way to introduce it. Plus, it fits thematically, showing up in between a gauntlet of Piranha Plants.

Speaking of which, the final leg of the stage is designed to be the most difficult, though still fairly unalarming if you've picked up a Fire Flower. Piranha Plants emerge from every third pipe along the ceiling, with a few others showing up along the way from the pipes below.

The final stretch brings the spikes into a new configuration — a narrow opening that Mario has to swim through. It's not difficult; it simply requires a steady hand. A line of coins serves as your incentive to paddle forward through the small aperture. Beyond the spikes, however, a few final enemies wait for you....

...with a swimming Goomba darting into a pursuit as you approach the final spike-lined opening before the flag.

Watch: A runthrough of this latest stage — two different ways.

You may have noticed much less criticism of this stage than in previous days, and that's because I think this layout is much stronger than first drafts of the last two levels. I don't see any glaring flaws or badly designed areas that need an overhaul. It's a short and fairly straightforward level, and I think it works for several reasons:

  1. It uses only a limited set of elements. While Super Mario Maker has been expanding its palette of tools each day, the kitchen-sink approach rarely makes for good design. I basically stuck to three hazards — spikes, Piranha Plants, and Goombas — with a handful of mostly harmless Cheep-Cheeps and a Blooper providing a dash of variety. I could have included an underwater Lakitu or Bullet Bills (Torpedo Teds, I guess?), but they would have felt tacked-on.
  2. It builds on those limited elements slowly, with deliberate iteration. I took great care to introduce each stage element individually in a low-threat context before presenting them in more complex ways, usually in combination with one another.
  3. It's pretty much a cakewalk with a Fire Flower, but the stage offers a valid reason not to grab that power-up. You can choose a more difficult approach without feeling like you're artificially restricting yourself.

I might fine-tune the placement of certain elements, but overall I'm pretty happy with how this stage turned out. Not coincidentally, I suspect, this was the first time I set about creating a level with deliberate purpose and with a determination to stick strictly to the principles I hold as good design. And it worked, I'd say. This would be a totally respectable stage to take on in, say, World 2 of a Mario game.

Tomorrow: The Castle toolset debuts.

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