Developer Review: Super Mario 3D Land

This is the first entry in a planned series of game reviews from the perspective of a game developer. The review will focus on technical aspects of the game, as well as game-play mechanics. The goal is to provide insight into what works and what doesn’t, in order to make better choices in our own game development.


Audio

As is the case with just about every Mario game, the audio is very pleasant on the ears. What this game does very well is the use of audio cues to enhance the player’s immersion. You will hear a neat sound effect for any interaction that takes place. There is a sound effect for almost anything that happens, such as when you run through some bushes, or start to slide down a wall. These let the player know that the event is significant in some way. This subconsciously guides and teaches the player about the rules of the game. Detailed audio cues are a great way to let the player teach himself about the game world.

Graphics

Considering the hardware that this game runs on, the graphics are surprisingly nice. The use of shadows on important objects like Mario, blocks, and enemies help show height above the ground. The occasional light-map adds additional aesthetic appeal to the world. There is a very generous use of particle systems. These are used all over the place to strengthen significant game-play events and to provide more subconscious guidance. Aesthetics play a role in keeping the player immersed, as well as pressing them forward. If the visuals are pleasant and continuously vary, the player will be interested in seeing what’s next.

Gameplay

At its core, this game is a blend of two types of platformers: the traditional 2D side scrolling (ex. Super Mario World), and the newer 3D type (ex. Super Mario 64). This is a genius blend. What’s great about the original 2D games are the simplicity of the controls. You can move left and right, duck, and jump. That’s about it. The 3D games add an additional dimension, and because the view is free to move around, you need two sets of controls: one to change the view, and one to move (which itself is totally dependent on the camera angle). This game takes the best of both worlds.

A clever camera system allows you to play the game with the precision and simplicity of a 2D platformer, while retaining the large number of new gameplay possibilities that 3D introduces, all without having to manage a camera.

The level design is extremely well done. That said, some people think that the game is too easy. I totally disagree. I feel that the game is very well paced. A level can be completed in just a few minutes, which allows for quick pick-up-and-play. The levels gradually get harder, and after completing all the original worlds, you get to play through again at a much harder level of difficulty.

There are collectibles in each level that are satisfying to find. People love collecting things, and this is the basis for many video games. Some games do this poorly by making them too easy to acquire, having too many, or not giving the collectibles any value. In order to get the player to want to collect the things in your world, you must show them that they are valuable. In this game, the main collectible item (star coins) are used to open new levels, therefor making them very valuable.

Goal Hierarchy

This game makes very good use of what I’ll call a goal hierarchy. Lot’s of things in nature can be viewed hierarchically, and to people it is a universally attractive concept even if the person is not consciously aware of it. At the top of the goal hierarchy, you have to the primary mission, the root of it all, the reason you’re doing everything else. At the bottom, you have the minute details and actions of every step required to reach the top. Here it is applied to Mario:

In Mario, you’re primary goal is to save the princess. It’s what you want to happen by the end of the game. But, in order to save her, you need to beat all 8 worlds. In order to beat each world, you need to beat each of its 8 levels. In order to beat each level, you need to first reach the checkpoint, then the flag. In order to reach the checkpoint, you need to get over that hill. In order to climb the hill, you must first kill the enemies on it. In order to kill each enemy, you need to jump and move right to position Mario correctly.

As you can see from that example, the goals get more and more precise as we go down the tree. How does this apply to Mario being a good game? They have a very balanced, clear tree. Further more, the higher levels of the tree are always visible to the player. What I mean by that is, the player is always shown whats coming up. You’re shown in the beginning that the princess has been captured and that you need to rescue her. You’re then shown a tab for each of the 8 worlds. Then in each world you have an overview of the levels. In each level you can clearly see (by way of the camera) what is coming up. If the player can’t see the upper levels of the tree, he will have little motivation to continue. By balanced I mean that the number of branches at each level is reasonable. There are 8 worlds, 8 levels, and each level can be completed in a few minutes. The player feels not underwhelmed, nor overwhelmed, with things he needs to do to save the princess.

The goal hierarchy is one model for pushing the player forward, without making the player feel forced. He can see what is up ahead all the way to the end goal, with the unknown being the details of the journey, which he cannot see. It’s the unknown that inspires the player to keep playing.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the game did most things right, and very little wrong, for reasons detailed above. But, just to recap:d

  • Great audio and visual cues that help to guide and teach the player about the world
  • Camera system allows for complex 3D gameplay mechanics with simple controls
  • Varied levels make every minute interesting
  • Collectibles are fun to find and are given legitimate value
  • Good use of goal hierarchy to keep the player interested

I hope this will be of help to you. The principals that make a great game are universal, and relate back to human psychology. However, it’s good to see practical examples and good implementations of these principals. It was certainly helpful for me to write this, as it forced me to analyze aspects of the game and relate it to what we like as gamers.

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