Visual Language in Super Mario Bros Level Endings

May 29, 2011

Every level of Super Mario Bros (1985) on the Nintendo Entertainment System ended with either a tall flagpole or a battle with Bowser over a bridge.

Super Mario Bros has 32 levels – 8 worlds, each with 4 areas. The 4th area is always a castle that ends by getting past Bowser.

Level endings: the top left is Level 1-1, the top right is Level 1-4, the bottom left is Level 8-1, and the bottom right is Level 8-4. Open the full per-pixel image.

I stitched these excerpts together from Ian Albert’s maps. Note that all water and dungeon levels end above ground, in a common section Albert placed under his Misc section.

Flagpole Scoring

On all flag levels, the player gets more points for touching the pole higher when crossing. 5,000 points are awarded for the very top, 2,000 for even a little below that, awarding only 100 for crossing at the very bottom. To help the player reach the top, nearly all levels end with a stair step structure. Additionally, these structures (with only a couple of exception) are built to disallowed second chances. The areas were shaped to prevent Mario from climbing back up after a failed jump. If air control is used to back away from the flag mid-jump, in these cases the best the player can do is 800 points (running jump), while a standing jump will only earn 400, since Mario jumps higher when running at full speed.

Visual Language and Expectations

The function of these stairs, in connection to the flagpole scoring, creates a visual language that the player learns to interpret. When the player sees steps coming on screen, rising from the ground to the top (Super Mario Bros does not scroll vertically), it’s a hint from the level designer that the end of the stage is near.

By establishing this visual language, the player can also be teased a bit. When the level includes a partial stair pattern mid-level, that implies the the stage may almost be over. Taking just a few more steps exposes a pit or some other violation of the pattern, letting hopes back down, but as shown in Levels 5-1, 5-2, and 5-3, those inconsistencies become mixed into the end steps, complicating the player’s ability to rely on knowledge of the end pattern. That complication translates to more false positives and false negatives in the remainder of the game.

This pattern also instills an expectation of safety. Since most of the stairs have no enemies on them, this makes it even more dangerous when that pattern is occasionally broken by putting enemies on the steps.

Notice too the misleading clues during play about which castle will be the real, final one. Level 6-3 has a uniquely colored castle, presented at the end of the second night world… after which still another daytime level is presented. The game then breaks the 2-day, 1-night pattern, ending on a second day chapter in a row without the night to follow.

Nothing in the game reveals the player’s overall progress toward completion, either as a percentage or by exposing the total number of worlds in the game (ex. “area 3 of 8”). Unlike a book, it’s impossible to size up how much of the game’s content remains (as by seeing how many pages are left), and unlike a film or TV show there was (and still is) no convention for a videogame’s length. This suggested that no matter which area the player loses in, practicing to make it just a tiny bit further might complete the game.

This deliberate uncertainty creates more excitement about reaching a new castle – due to thinking it might really be the last one – and added genuine surprise to seeing Toad each time in place of Princess Toadstool. Until, of course, the player finally finds Princess Toadstool, by which time the player has been conditioned to expect to see Toad – making the reward for finishing one final surprise.

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