More STTB

I’ve had an opportunity to play more of Super Talking Time Bros. recently, and I’ve nearly completed World 5. My thoughts can be summed up as follows:

  1. The level designs are much better in the later worlds.
  2. I was totally right about the hidden stars.
  3. Although the foundation was solid, more testing probably wouldn’t have hurt.

Conveniently, three items is enough to write a blog post about, so let’s take those bad boys in the order that they appear…

1. The level designs are much better in the later worlds.

This is unsurprising, I’d argue. The idea behind STTB was to produce a reasonable facsimile of a real Mario game, and real Mario games are typically pretty boring and straightforward in the first few worlds. STTB follows that trend, and most of its early levels are standard run-to-the-right affairs. The later levels shake things up with more difficult and complicated courses — nothing romhacky, of course, but enough to test the thumbs. It’s really rather impressive how organic the difficulty curve is given that the submission process wasn’t really optimized for it.

2. I was totally right about the hidden stars.

Namely, there’s too many. Most of the hidden stars are barely hidden, requiring almost no searching at all, and mainly exist to force you to run a level again. There are a couple of good ones in there, but not that many. If it were me, I’d focus on making a really strong single star and only add more if you’ve got a really good idea for hiding it. Just sticking an extra star down some random pipe, as far too many levels do, doesn’t really increase the fun factor.

If we are going to add lots of hidden stars, I want them to be useful to me. All the stars in STTB are interchangeable — the best-hidden star in the game is just as valuable as the first one you collect. If I’m turning the levels upside down for stars, I want a steady stream of rewards, not just the satisfaction that I found everything and an extra world at the end. Again, I point to Mario World, where unlocking the secret exits opens up alternate routes and shortcuts through the game. I’m not sure how well this can be implemented given the hub system we were using, but I do want a reason to collect stars besides just having them.

3. Although the foundation was solid, more testing probably wouldn’t have hurt.

This feels really nitpicky, but I think we were hurt by adding new levels right up until the publish date. I think it would have been a good idea to halt submissions of new levels and then spend a month or two playing the levels over and over and making minor changes. The levels as-is are filled with kind of annoying little gaffes — nothing game-ruining, but a mediocre power-up placement here, one too many enemies there, a slightly-too-precise platforming sequence to top it off. Fixing these would have required minor edits rather than severe overhauls, and I think we suffered from “good enough” syndrome, where if there weren’t any glaring problems with a level, we declared it “good enough” and put it in the game as-is. Getting a level to the point where it’s workable at all is hard enough, so it’s hard to tell people “Your level is mostly fine, but it would be great if you tinkered with platform heights and widths here and here”.

“Good enough” isn’t really good enough, though. A lack of flaws doesn’t make a level flawless. We want the levels to be as good as we can possibly make them, not just “not bad”.

I was going to write about this at a later point, but what the hell, I’ll mention it now: If we ever do a sequel, I’m going to suggest swiping Retro Studios’ grading system from when they were building Donkey Kong Country Returns. Basically, what Retro did was have everyone working on the game give each level a grade. Anyone who had a level that was less than the max grade continued tweaking it until they had a game full of levels that everyone on the team liked. One of the directors mentioned in the Iwata Asks about the game that, initially, World 6 was the favorite world of the testers… but after everyone spent time improving their levels, World 6 actually tested the worst. That’s what we should be shooting for, I think — consistent excellence throughout.

STTB has been earning some praise, primarily because most Mario fangames are so bad. I want to build a game that’s good on its own merits, not just in comparison to its putrid peers.

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