[Nintendad Coffeehouse] The Power of a Map

There isn’t a child on earth that doesn’t love a really good map. Just think of the promise held in a treasure map; the danger areas marked, the dotted path to take and the crucial X marking the spot. They are the foundation of so many adventures; sending intrepid explorers off on a search for forgotten fortunes. There’s always the lost corner, torn or burned away in some act of derring-do to acquire the thing, meaning some mysteries will always remain hidden.

So it’s no surprise that maps in videogames are ubiquitous, though most are just functional tools to aid with navigation rather than lovingly crafted creations in their own right. Breath of the Wild’s is the only recent example that comes to mind of a map I enjoyed studying simply for the pleasure of looking at it. The Hero’s Path feature that shows every step you’ve taken is genius, and seeing peaks, river and valleys named after Zelda lore is a cartographical delight.

The Normal Rules No Longer Apply

But let’s go back, 30 years back in fact, to Super Mario Bros. 3. I was seven when this game released, so imagine just how exciting this screen was to me when I first saw it.

Six numbered levels, a small castle, a locked door, two mushroom houses, a mystery spade, a marauding Hammer Brother and finally a larger castle surrounded by a moat with someone calling for my help. In just one screen there is so much promise of adventure. The spade and mushroom houses evoke Alice in Wonderland; the sense that the normal rules no longer apply. I can see the route to take to my goal – along with shortcuts and detours and obstacles to overcome.

I’d played the previous Mario games as a kid, but they were nothing like this. They were just a series of levels that ran from one to the next. Sure, they were wonderful games with endless secrets and warp-pipes, but I never felt the same sense of adventure when embarking on them.

World 2 transported you to a desert; my brain taking the symbols of pyramids and palm trees on the map and imagining them as real sights. Nintendo used this world to establish the principle that these maps can stretch over several screens – more to discover over the horizon. And World 3 – the watery one. How to do justice to describing the feeling you get when you scroll to the second part of the map for the first time and you see, in the far corner, a little boat, just bobbing up and down enticingly? Are you telling me I can get in that thing and sail beyond the edge of the map? I don’t know you, dear reader, but I do know that when you reached that point you immediately abandoned the main route and made a beeline for that boat – some diversions are just too impossible to ignore.

With the maps, each level can now exist as part of a bigger world, taking its place in the wider narrative of the adventure. The Angry Sun of the desert World 2 or the Boss Bass of the watery World 3 make sense as we know where in the world we are.

Now I’ve started I feel like I could write an entire book just about Super Mario Bros. 3’s maps (files idea for later). But alas, we must move on.

True Adventuring

Think of Super Mario World’s now iconic map; no longer a collection of unconnected worlds, but one massive one, packed full of details. Forests, mountains, caves, haunted houses, lakes, waterfalls, rivers, rocky hills – it is truly Tolkien in its scope, if you want it to be.

Your path lies in shadow, waiting for you to walk it and fill in the branching pathways as you find your way through to the various exits hidden in each level. A secret path in a level now transforms the map and reveals yet more secrets. As a child playing, in a pre-internet world with no wikis, you can’t help suppress a spark of excitement – have you just discovered a secret no one else in the world has found yet? A hidden path through the caves perhaps. This is true adventuring.

Creativity without Cohesion

When it comes to Mario games, Nintendo changed everything with 2015’s Wii U classic Super Mario Maker. Suddenly we were given the power to build our own levels and send them off into the world for people to play. Nothing was off limits. Whereas Nintendo’s own Mario games stick to fairly standard templates, now you could do whatever you wanted. Ghosts roaming the cloud levels? Thwomps in forests? Go for it! There were no rules.

Super Mario Maker 2 expanded the tool set and added a surprisingly large collection of pre-made single player content too. Playing through these levels, essentially a huge tutorial to give you loads of ideas about what’s possible, is great fun. You can feel the fun that Nintendo’s own level designers are having as they are free to throw whatever they want into a level. Some tiny, some huge, but none the same. It was a breath of fresh air after New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe which I found tired and formulaic. But what these levels don’t have is a map to tie them together – there’s no sense of adventure here, they are literally just levels crossed off a To-Do list.

Playing the community’s levels also creates a sense of random ideas thrown together. Because you know most people will only find your level mixed in with millions of others, you feel the need to throw all your ideas in so people can see as many of them as possible. Play several of them, even by the same creator, and there’s rarely any cohesion. Super Mario Maker 2 gave you everything you need to make the levels but lacked the tools to tie them into a grand adventure.

Building the Wider Narrative

This is why the game’s final update is such a remarkable one, giving you the power to build world maps. Brilliantly, they use the limitations inherent to a player creation tool (where full freedom would be impractical) and take the 16-bit look of Super Mario World and combine it with the simpler structure of Super Mario Bros. 3. You’re able to create eight differently themed worlds and tie them all together. You’re able to depict castles big and small, connect areas via warp pipes. Each world can host five levels making a huge 40-level adventure yours to create. An entire game.

No longer do you have to try and show how clever you are by throwing all of your ideas into one level – constantly dragging the end goal further on so you can fit more in – you can just make smaller, simpler courses for players to enjoy. You’re free to approach levels like Nintendo does; introduce an idea, develop it and then finally play with it by twisting it on its head. You can ramp up the difficulty, starting gently and easing players into your ideas, rather than expecting them to understand what you want them to do.

I’ve watched a streamer tackle one of my levels before and to me, the level creator, it seemed obvious what they had to do. But it turns out I’d failed to communicate my intention for them properly. If only I could have started them off with something simpler and then built up to it. Having a world map that holds five levels gives you the perfect canvas to really communicate one core idea over several levels, with the knowledge that players will tackle them all.

You could choose a world theme and then populate it with appropriately themed levels, jumping between different Mario eras for fun. Or, maybe take a journey through time and make World 1 8-bit, World 2 16-bit and so on. Suddenly, the power of a map allows you turn all your lovingly-crafted levels into one wider narrative.

Ben, my fellow team member over at The Cross Players (and former Nintendad writer), talked about his experience playing through my micro ‘Super Eggman64 World’ game of four levels on one of our podcasts and it made me so inspired and excited to make more for people to try out (My Maker ID is GT1-YC3-8NG if you fancy giving it a go). It really changes things when you know you have people’s attention for several stages – I would have approached level design completely differently had it been there from the start.

That’s why it’s such a shame that the ability to make maps came so late on, when most players now have moved on to other things. The time needed to make enough levels to populate an entire set of worlds is beyond my scope, so beyond my pretty basic efforts I’m reliant on finding worlds made by the community. So far, my random picking of worlds from the solar system menu of planets has yet to yield a classic adventure. I’m not giving up hope though. Somewhere out there, someone is diligently constructing a whole world – an epic adventure for me to one day explore.

Thank you to Laurie Eggleston for his submission! You can follow Laurie at @theeggman64 on Twitter and at www.thecrossplayers.com.

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