Patching Cheese Bridge

Recently my mind has been filled with level ideas. A few weeks ago the user-friendly Mario level editor Super Mario Bros. X came out, and several of my compadres at Talking Time decided to start work on a collaborative game. Years of playing Super Mario World romhacks has left me flush with ideas and with some strong opinions as to how Mario games should play, so I quickly volunteered my efforts.

I’ve finished two levels so far, but I’ve got at least ten times that many floating around in various stages of specificity in my head. What worries me, though, is that an number of these unformed ideas are what I call “concept levels”.

What’s a concept level, you ask? You might call it something completely different, but I’ve always defined the term thusly:

A concept level is any level in a game that tries to make sense, external to the game.

Any level that tries to be a real place, that’s a concept level. Any level that tries to tell a story, that’s a concept level. Any level that only works if you come in with outside knowledge… you get the idea.

These kinds of levels aren’t really all that common — in a sense they’re antithetical to quality levels. Real places don’t have spike pits and bottomless pits, they don’t swarm with deadly creatures who attack you on sight. Most things that make video game levels fun detract from the sense of story a concept level is trying to purvey. Mega Man doesn’t do it. Kirby doesn’t do it. Castlevania usually doesn’t do it. When Sonic tries it, his fans suffer for it. Zelda has made some cursory efforts in this direction, but usually doesn’t bother… and Mario, especially, has stayed far away from it, very consistently, throughout his whole career.

This is because Mario games have always emphasized the “game” aspect. Mario has a very unique and distinctive world to explore, but it ultimately derives from the obstacle-course nature of his levels. The Galaxy games are the epitome of this — they leverage the “you’re in space!” gimmick only as far as it makes for good levels, and no further. We don’t care about the tiny black holes or the lack of oxygen or the miniature planetoids any more than we cared that Cheese Bridge was the worst bridge ever or that Bowser’s castles were unlivable back in the day. They were fun levels, and that’s all that matters. Even the RPGs very explicitly take place in a video game world, and compensates for the lack of realism by having characters make self-aware observations about it.

Fangames, on the other hand, rarely observe this aspect of Mario. Romhackers love levels that have a story or “make sense,” and making an interesting one is a surefire way to earn some praise from your peers — “this game is mostly garbage, but level X, where you’re Y-ing in a Z, is really cool.” With the advent of the ability to make text that goes for longer than a message block, it’s a rare hack indeed that dispenses with the “story level”. You can get docked points for not having a story that aspires to anything more complicated than “save princess”. This never works. Even if the text in question rises above the level of “bad fanfic” (which it rarely does), it kills pace and generally doesn’t add anything to the experience.

I would say the epitome of this kind of game is Super Mario: Buried Treasure, which is a very nice-looking game with a fun Indiana Jones-style theme — but which is absolutely unplayable, with endless backtracking and fetch quests and puzzles and grilling NPCs for information and oh God my head. This isn’t what Mario’s about — he’s a video game hero. He runs and jumps and kills enemies and collects coins (which he doesn’t spend). Mario’s appeal derives directly from the appeal of the levels he’s running through, don’t you see? We don’t play Mario games to step into the shoes of a fat plumber with a big nose and a mustache, nor do we do it to examine Princess Peach’s existential angst. We do it to play a fun platformer game, and Mario has consistently represented fun platformer games.

So I kind of get worried whenever I start thinking about whether it makes sense for a level that starts off with a stone motif to change to wood halfway through. (This is a level with floating platforms, invisible blocks, and undead turtle skeletons. I’m worrying about whether the decor is realistic?) I worry whether a level you go through once, then go through a reversed version of it is too gimmicky and self-indulgent to be fun. I think I’ll just stick with sidescrolling action.

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