Press Start : How World 1-1 Taught Us Everything

Piping Hot!... I'll see myself out.

Moving along (pun!) to the next section, it’s the pipe area ™. Now I am aware that this part looks like nothing to most people, but this is actually the Socratic Form of a game design element known as the Rule of Threes. This is of course different than the comedic concept of a similar name, which has a different topic, methodology and required number of grizzly bears.

In game design the Rule of Threes ties into the Mastery Loop. Basically it says to create the most basic version of the idea, and then start modifying how it is implemented. It requires however, a basic understanding of what is expected. So that first thing with the Goomba forces the player how to jump on pain of death. Now with that whole, “Press A to not die” thing out of the way the player gets to explore some of the limits of the what jump does.

To start let’s look at that first pipe. It doesn’t move, and it won’t kill you which is always good news. since we know that the player knows how jump works, they learn now that they can stand on pipes. Easy, which is the point.

That second pipe teaches us something new – pipes can be taller. That pipe is exactly too tall for a player to tap the jump button. In SMB Mario will jump higher if the button is held, and this pipe teaches that point. Once they get there they encounter something strange; a Goomba is patrolling the area below them. A first time player will look at the Goomba and observe that it too interacts with the pipes like Mario does. In addition, the next pipe is even taller still.

Going back to the Rule of Three, we’re past the easiest implementation of the mechanic (jumping – natch) and experienced the starting slope of the Difficulty Curve. Now the player stands at the beginning of part 2, and needs to use the skill they’ve just used in  a new way, and with a new obstacle. Namely, that Goomba. At this point, the player has already encountered a Goomba, and a pipe, and now they need to combine the solutions of them both.

Of course, adding up that math : tall pipe + hold A to high jump + Goomba = somewhat complex dexterity problem. It wouldn’t surprise anybody if this was where lots of fresh new NES owners got wasted for the 2nd time. Unless of course they managed to continue and get to the 3rd Section.

Scroll back up and have another look. There are 2 Goombas now, surrounded by tall pipes. Imagine for a moment that this is the first time, and that you hadn’t spent years laying the pine to these guys. This would border on frightening. So frightening in fact that this section, right there, is the most difficult part of the entire level and the natural progression of the Rule of Threes. It’s difficult because it is timed. The addition of enemies shortens the time that any part of the ground is okay to stand as they do their little Goomba patrol. It also adds complexity to players that intend to defeat them via stomping, since it is fully possible that you with get nixed by the survivor if you screw it up.

Now it is important to ask the question, knowing all of that, as to why put the hardest part of the level in the first 3rd?

It's because I like Luigi and I secretly hate you.
It’s because I like Luigi and I secretly hate you.

The answer is because Super Mario Bros isn’t about getting killed all the fuggin’ time. I mean, it’s going to happen constantly, and when it’s the least convenient for you – like those Fast and the Furious “films” but that’s not the raison d’etre of SMB. You’re actually supposed to have fun and explore. More proof is right here:

Spoiler Alert! There a 1up mushroom hidden there.
Spoiler Alert! There a 1up mushroom hidden there.

Right after that there’s a hidden mushroom that you may or may not hit the first time. But it’s there. Also, that pipe to the left goes to a secret underground area. Think back to childhood, and the first time you went in that pipe. Can you remember how blown your goddamn mind was? The sudden knowledge that there was more to this game, so much more. Suddenly everything looks like it might contain some eldritch horror and/or candy. It’s here, after completing the first of the many instances of the Rule of Three in this game, SMB invites you to go exploring. It tells the player, “You basically know how the game functions. Now go outside and play.”

At least, once you get past that hole in the ground. This is a bit of a dirty trick. “Go play” the game says, “Just not down there. Down there is bad.” But it’s okay, since death means nothing in the Well of Souls that is the Mushroom Kingdom, and you get another shot at that last set of pipes and Goombas. That first Super Mushroom may have taught you that not everything will kill you, but don’t be stupid.

There's a cheap joke about "holes" here that I refuse to make.
There’s a cheap joke about “holes” here that I refuse to make.

This is one of those examples of exploration. For the first time the game give you the choice of pathways. It asks whether or not the player would rather jump across another one of those treacherous pits, or if the player would rather climb up onto the top of this weird looking pile, and try that other jump. The thing is that there is some modest psychology at work here. Even though it isn’t real, the implication is that the top pathway is somehow more dangerous than the bottom because of how high it is. Mario is immune to fall damage and yet probably something close to 99% of the people that arrive here for the first time went low. In either case it’s a false choice, but the implication is that the next time you play the game could be different.

What’s also clever about it, is that this is the hidden secret Second in another 3 Set. That gap, both the doom fall of death on the bottom and the precarious looking (but ultimately harmless) leap of faith up top are the same size and are both marginally larger than the first one.

You can ignore me. I hope to one day grow up and be something witty, but today is not that day.
If you went in that earlier pipe you probably never saw this. You missed out.

This next section is sort of strange and looks different to players of different skill sets. Starting players are going to see that there are 3 Goombas coming their way, panic and probably die. Then they get to experience the checkpoint system in SMB. Also for them, that pyramid shaped object in the middle looks really tough. The chances are good that they ignore it completely. If they don’t the platforming required to get that top Question Mark box requires jumping to single tiles using a held jump. It’s pretty advanced. In fact you don’t see this move as a requirement for another 3 worlds (give or take).  The newb player might also learn the hard lesson about smashing bricks. It’s cool, it’s super fun and it makes that awesome noise. It can however screw you. If you smash that lone brick, then it is basically impossible to get those coins.

For advanced players, they grab that Super Star, rock out to that sweet music, and apply the wrecking to those toad-fools. (I am so sorry for that pun.)

This image brought to you by the letters R ,G,B and the number 56.

This section completes the 2nd Rule of 3 in this level – the one about bottomless pits. Here though it’s mixed with another 3 Set that teaches you about jumping. First, let’s look at those bricks. They’re weird. Like, really strange. This is the first time the player has seen them, and they don’t look friendly at all. In the first instance, it’s a basic jumping thing. Those bushes on the bottom imply that that you’re not supposed to go down there since it’s full of weeds. If you fail, then it’s no biggie. That second one is a pain in the ass. It’s a bottomless pit +. It implies that the fall to your death is longer than normal. But, that jump is only 2 tiles wide. The one from before (the 2nd in the Pit Set) is actually wider. This one has more complications and the designers know it. Ever wonder why that first stair case in the 2nd group is wider at the top? It’s so you can get a better start and time your jump better. The 3rd in the Set of the Pit Set is actually about teaching the player timing and the acceleration for Mario. It’s rather clever.

Finally, that pipe is where you’d come out if you went in the original pipe way back at the start. In front of you is the last of the Rule of 3 for the platform jumping. Here the player has the option of trying to squish a Goomba in close confines, or jumping from one platform up to another. If you go back and look, there is no point in this level where a jump across uneven platforms is required. It could be argued that it’s not needed here either, but it’s a lot easier than the Goomba Tunnel of Love.

You did it! We did it.

Once you managed all of that, flag pole and maybe fireworks. Jump up, score some meaningless points and finish up. I like to imagine when Mario goes into the castle he blows up the bathroom, but I am a child sometimes.

Anyway, that’s that. World 1-1 is the perfect level in gaming. Maybe not because it is the most fun, or the most exciting, but from a design standpoint, there is 2000+ words that could be written (and have) about it. It is quite possibly, a masterpiece. While talking with the programmers, Iwata-san had this to say about it, 30+ years after it was released:

“Everyone was a beginner when it came to Super Mario, so you designed the game with a particular awareness that this sort of player should become familiar with the way things worked in this world and become absorbed in it in a natural way.”

I think it worked. We may have absorbed it so well that it’s a part of who we are as gamers. Ask anybody who’d played Super Mario Bros. when it first came out and ask them to close their eyes and imagine World 1-1. Then watch them smile.

Eric Carr

Occasionally has mad notions, and more often than not runs with them. Welcome to one of those.

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