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Game Design Essentials: 20 Mysterious Games


January 14, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 21 Next
 

Games That Emphasize Finding Secrets

1. Super Mario Bros. 3

The white blocks

Developed by Nintendo

Designed by Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka

Reason for inclusion:

In addition to the usual secrets that come just from being a Super Mario game, the third game in the series has some amazingly obscure things to find. If it weren't for Nintendo of America's own player's guides from the time we would probably have never found the Magic Note Blocks, treasure ships or white mushroom houses, let alone the special properties of white background blocks and how they could be utilized to find a Warp Whistle.

The game:

The Super Mario Bros. games make searching for secret power-ups and passages into a play mechanic itself, and SMB3 had probably the most deviously hidden ones of them all. Looking for invisible blocks has always been part of the Super Mario Bros. games, and there's an unavoidable aspect of trial and error to doing it. But for obscure secret areas, Super Mario Bros. 3 takes the proverbial cake.

It's well-known to fans of the game that some of the rectangular, decorative blocks, which can be stood upon as platforms, have special properties. They come in several colors, but only the white ones are in any way unusual. If the player stands on a white block for several seconds holding the control pad down, he will "fall behind" the block. The NES then uses a sprite priority feature to make Mario appear to be behind the background. The player will stay back there maybe eight seconds, invisible if he's standing by any of the background hills or such. There is no clue in the game that this will happen. It is pure mischievousness on the part of the designer.

This is pretty random by itself. While behind the scenery, the player passes by enemies, making him effectively invulnerable -- but since in all the levels of Super Mario Bros. 3 there only a handful of white blocks to be found, this function rarely enters into strategy. And yet, this secret function is required to obtain one of the game's three Warp Whistles.

Because doing it allows the player to warp ahead levels, its function is analogous to running at the top of the screen in the original Super Mario Bros. (ably discussed by Jeremy Penner in Gamer's Quarter #7.) But its significance is greater. By taking a nearly universally-ignored aspect of platform gaming, the color of a type of generic background element, and attaching significance to it, the designers imbued the whole game world with far more mystique than it would otherwise have. There is only one important white block in the game, found in the very first world, and no other random background element carries special significance; all the others are designed to be clearly read by the player, from pipes to note blocks to donut lifts.

Yet the white block trick implies that there is a lot more to the world than what is visible. It demonstrates mysterious properties that only an expert could know. It was knowledge of prime importance on early '90's school yards. It carries with it the whiff of magic. Thus, this one trick lends weight to the whole game. The fact that everyone knew the trick within months of the game's release doesn't prove it to be ineffective -- rather, it proves it worked. As Dr. Strangelove remarked, the whole point is lost if you keep it a secret.

Design lesson:

In a way, it's the ultimate dumb trick. There is really no way to know ducking for several seconds on a certain spot in 1-3 will lead to one of the game's most valuable treasures. But the hint is there, and the trick is known. And although it's only one trick in a game with many, it's obscure enough that it makes the player wonder about the entire rest of the game.

 


Article Start Previous Page 2 of 21 Next

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