With the resurgence of the hardcore platformer in Indie Circles and the move of hardcore action games like Dark Souls towards Triple-AAA spaces it seems as if death is back for good. So let’s take a look back at how it died in Nintendo series in the first place

It’s not a new thought in game criticism that restriction breeds innovation while boundlessness breeds unfocused mediocrity. While that sentiment is normally only applied to actual hardware – graphical power, image resolution, development tools – the actual length of the iteration cycle of the hardware generation in question is just as much a restriction. Not having fresh new hardware that magically can handle simply making everything bigger, better and more HD almost naturally forces game experiments.

The Gameboy had a shelf life of 14 years. Even if you count the only marginally smaller color version (which had some exclusive titles and modes) and the smaller editions down the line as separate versions – that is a long time studios were dealing with the same console:

  • Super Mario Land was published in Japan in April 1989
  • Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins was published in Japan in October 1992
  • Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land was published in Japan in January 1994
  • Wario Land 2 was published in North Amerika in March 1998 (Japan as far as I can tell only got the Gameboy Color-Version in October)

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That is not to say that the Gameboy did not have strong hardware limitations. The small resolution, cartridge size and power got developers to gravitate almost naturally towards platformers, and the golden age of JRPGs on the SNES obviously had no chance of making it onto handheld at this stage. The life system, read: the usage of limited attempts at playing a level to increase challenge, made its way to the handhelds mainly out of historical reasons, swapping over from the arcades and home consoles, but the prevalence of regenerating health in modern day shooters should teach us to never discount the power of a shared communication context between game designer and player. Who can tell at which point extra lives stopped being a common context with an established audience and became a framework Nintendo taught new audiences in their own right? The reality is that most, if not all, games were tied up with the concept of lives as defined by the arcades, even when they had no profit on a design scale from being that way. It’s difficult to say, for example, exactly how something like Plok, a SNES-platformer about a character that can detach his limbs to attack enemies or solve puzzles, occasionally temporarily losing said limbs and dealing with the consequences, profited from having a life system. The SNES is littered with properties like that – games that have an interesting hook but stick to emulated coin-insert mechanics anyway.

This is the game 12-year old me bought instead of Mario Allstars. In my nostalgia memories the art style looked less like Toejam and Earl

There is absolutely nothing in the world that is more overanalyzed than Mario Levels, even before Mario Maker trained its complete audience in rudimentary build design and main Mario Bros game design history. The classic formula of introducing a mechanism and then doing a silent tutorial by having the level build upon slowly escalating usages of said mechanism is almost an old hat by now. Super Mario Land 2 is an early example of the idea: the six golden coins literally denote six zones, all with their own mechanic to iterate upon within that zone and their own themes for the current zone (for example: having a low gravity zone on the moon). The life system is still firmly in place, as is the classic game timer in the bottom. If there is one takeaway from any analysis of life and death mechanics in platformers, it is that limited lives and timers for level completition discourage players from exploration. Alternate zones and hidden secrets in classic Mario for the most part were limited, small extra rooms containing 1ups or coins translating to 1ups if collected enough. The reward for going out of one’s way was an advantage in the game progression itself, which made trying extra jumps or trying to get all the coins in a level hardly worthwhile. Why, after all, risk your level progress for 1/100th of an extra chance at playing the level?

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Super Mario Land 3 - Wario Land was the first experiment in establishing a genuine reason for exploring to the player. About 3/5th of all the levels either contain a hidden ending, leading to a branch in the progression on the world map, or a hidden treasure. These were not warp zones or pipes like in earlier Mario games, but genuine new Zones that were only accessible after finding hidden doors and alternate pathways. There is a complete 6-level continent with a boss that the player can miss in his initial play through. Which brings us to lesson two, the challenge death in platformers represents can be replaced as long as the player is presented with an equally interesting alternative. The keys in Wario Land are one of the best game design elements of the Gameboy era, and it almost seems unfair that they don’t get the same analysis love as the Mushrooms or the hidden blocks. For those that have yet to play it, consider the following scenario: you are playing through the first levels of a linear platformer, dealing with the thread of spear-carrying pirates und shelled hermit crabs on a beachhead, as you spot, near the end of the level, the exit already in reach, a question-block. You have 5 lives and the clock on the bottom informs you that you have 370 seconds left. You hit it, only to discover the game spawning a giant key, exactly the size of most of the enemies you meet in the game. You pick it up and notice it occupies the same space as Mario carrying a turtle shell, and completely prevents you from using any abilities that aren’t jump or throw the key in front of you. Its hefty and unwieldy and you guess that it belongs to a giant treasure. Do you a) Exit the level, save in the knowledge that you lost no lives and made it out in time or b) furiously backtrack with the key in hand, hoping to find the door or treasure it could fit? In that moment the challenge of death is supplanted by the challenge of exploration. Wario Land might still contain a life system, but the necessity already started to wane.

There is another lesson here that can be found in the first Wario Land, which requires a spoiler of the ending. Wario, who had been introduced as a weirdo negative of Mario in Six Golden Coins, spends the game chasing after a gang of pirates and their treasure, a giant statue of the Princess. After defeating them and their pet genie, Mario swoops in with a helicopter and steals the statue, leaving Wario penniless. (If you think that is weird, consider the intro of Wario Land 3: Wario is flying in his WW2-Plane when the engine stalls and he crashes next to a cave in a forest. The cave contains a mystical music box that sucks Wario inside and forces him to replace the current god of the music pocket dimension) Now depending on how much you went out of your way to get the hidden treasures you end up with Wario asking the genie for either a birdhouse, wooden shed, mansion, castle or world in exchange for these. The players’ exploration always need to be rewarded, or the player will refrain from taking challenges in the future or think badly about the game.

It should come as no surprise that Wario Land 2 took the idea of not having lives even further. When hit by an opponent, Wario now gets thrown into the opposite direction, leaking coins all over the floor on his way. Coins, in turn, are the currency needed to interface with the game’s hidden secret, mini-games hidden in the stage and at the end of every level. Those mini-games give access to the games hidden ending, a hardcore stage reminiscent of the romhax that would become an integral part of Mario lore decades later. You can use optional exploration as a difficulty curve. The players that feel like thoroughly mastering the level will search for hidden treasure, while novices will be happy just to get through. Trying to get all the secrets will train your players through repetition.

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Wario Land 2 does not simply punish players by stealing secrets or progress towards secrets (in the form of coins) from them. Rather it realizes one of the simplest truths of a life system: Forcing a player to replay a section after death is essentially a time punishment for failing the obstacle. The player gets thrown back to the title or level selection screen, has to start the level again, bad games make him listen to all the unskippable cut scenes again. So the game devised a mechanic that essentially delays your progress every time you get hit, and even manages to make it way more comical than the generic shrinking Mario does. Wario gets stung by Bees, his giant head floating him to an area that takes him a long time to get down from. Hammers turn him into a spring, making him jump upwards. Giant stones flatten Wario to a cartoon circle and make him float around in the wind. A lot of the puzzles even make use of the fail states, hiding secrets in areas only accessible after the player got hit. Boss Fights remain interesting and tricky because the bosses emit status events that kick Wario out of the fight, making him redo it and come back for more. Hidden Endings and large optional areas ensure a proper payoff, and a large map actually informs players of the content they missed, encouraging them to try and see more of your game.

The ways Nintendo are willing to make Wario look silly are both hilarious and a nice contrast to the Mickey Mouse-Status Mario reached in the meantime

Now it should be noted that death in games, or rather designs involving death states mostly feature a greater level of challenge towards the player. Not by any inherent qualities, but rather by the way games that are designed as quarter bait (or some successor of that mentality) tend to sprinkle their levels with chains of hard to avoid failure states. If you encourage exploration as opposed to speed you will lose level density and rhythm. It’s hard to imagine the feeling of flow a game like Rayman Legends/Origins has, or the challenge sweet spot of Shovel Knight, or even the Party Multiplayer of New Super Mario Bros, in a game about discovery.

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After all the praise for Wario Land 2 the obvious question is why aren’t all games using such a system. Why are we actually returning to permanent progression punishments like in roguelikes or death spamming games like Super Meat Boy or Hell Yeah? The answer is in an unlikely place. Phil Fish, controversial internet projection space and designer of the game Fez (another property that focuses much more on giving platforming new hooks instead of classic values) got widely trounced for his remark that modern Japanese games, and one cannot help but look to Nintendo every time Japan is mentioned, “just suck”. Ironically, with regards to some of the sequels Nintendo has put out in recent years, or rather aspects of them, he has hit the nail on the head. Recent games like Yoshi’s Wooly World, Yoshi’s New Island or the likes have experimented with removing more of the challenge or punishment from games. Yoshi, for example, after a few failed jumps gets gifted a power up that removes all challenge from the section. And while a lot of think pieces have already weighted in on this topic, especially under the ever-so-popular low-hanging fruit of “should Dark Souls have an easy mode”, the lesson is if you remove too much challenge you will alienate a large part of your player base. Platforming skills are somewhat transitive and other games will already train a large part of your customer base to get gud.

An aspect that should not be forgotten is that Wario Land (at least Part 1 & 2) manage to completely get away with not spelling out a lot of tutorials. The failure states, like Zombie Warrio, who can’t jump and falls through floors until he finds a light source, are never explicitly shown, or slowly escalated like in Mario games. Tutorials are a way of short-term disabling the consequences of contact with a new mechanic or opponent. If there is no strong penalty for failing the new challenge players can be send directly into it. A failure state that only brings the player to the start of the challenge again can completely replace any safe zone.

Wario Land itself managed to slowly implode in an almost ironical way over the course of Wario Land 3 and Wario Land 4. The game design hook for the third part was to depower Wario, and split each level into four different exits, their viability determined by which powers the player already managed to recover. At the same time the game removed the coin counter from the game, opting instead to hide 8 big coins across the stage. Discoverability, they gambled, would come naturally from the level layout anyway, and the challenge would solely in finding a point to advance. After every power up the game however did not manage to evade showing you exactly which levels were affected by this change, since it failed at organically getting the player to make mental lists of hidden obstacles. The sheer number of hidden points affected by progress left players frustrated even after the game showed them where to go. It also showed extensive tutorial movies for some reason, but left the boss fights organic. In retrospect the game is a bizarre jigsaw puzzle, like a Metroidvania somebody cut in tiny pieces. Your decision on whether or not players can die in the game does not mean that all the other game design lessons don’t matter. If the game is confusing or unchallenging or uninteresting, it simply does not matter what you do.