I’ve talked about this before years ago, but one of my favorite game designs is the first Super Mario Bros., specifically the game’s first stage World 1-1. It’s an example of flawless game design that has inspired many game designers since. It’s a wonderful use of intuitive game design.
Mario begins on the screen’s far left. The player could try and move farther left, but the game won’t allow the player to do so. It’s showing the player that Mario must go right. Sure, the buttons are limited, but Mario can only move and jump, and the controls are easy to understand without ever reading the game’s manual. Soon, Mario encounters a Goomba (a mushroom-shaped enemy). Since Mario can only jump and the player gets caught in a corridor where they must interact with the Goomba, they find that Goombas can be defeated by jumping on them. This informs the player of Mario’s skillset and his enemies’ weakness.
A question mark box flashes ahead, begging to be pressed. When pressed, a mushroom emerges. New players won’t know if the mushroom’s good or bad, but the game’s design makes it almost impossible to miss it. The mushroom turns out to be a powerup.
There’s even a moment where a seemingly random jump would result in finding a hidden 1UP mushroom (or extra life mushroom) and since it looks like the previous powerup mushroom, players are informed to grab it. A field study showed that most people who had never played Super Mario Bros. before found the 1UP mushroom. That’s because of its placement in the world; the first 1UP mushroom’s placement is just before a hole in the floor that players must jump over. It takes a little intuition to learn this game.
Speaking of jumping over something, the first occurrence of a piranha plant, a polka-dot Venus flytrap enemy, is also strategically placed. With its mouth and fangs pointed up, players are informed to avoid them, but if a plant like that can go up a pipe, Mario can go down a pipe and that’s exactly what Mario can do there. It’s an excellent way of revealing a game’s secrets.
The rest of the level continues in a similar fashion, non-verbally teaching the game. When gamers say that they want intuitive game design or controls, they want something like Super Mario Bros. World 1-1. It’s still one of the best game designs.
Don’t believe me? When Hirokazu Yasuhara designed 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog, he stated that he tried to recreate Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 with every level. That’s high praise from Nintendo’s greatest competitor at the time. What are your favorite elements of classic or modern video games? If you disagree with my choice in World 1-1, feel free to jump on my Goomba head. That might hurt. Instead, leave me an angry comment.