Recently, I’ve been trying to look at games through more of a designer lens. In order to improve my design abilities, I think it’s important to look at games as a designer. This means thinking about the choices that were made while designing the game, the levels, and the systems, as well as trying to understand what an average user would experience in your position.

That being said, I finally started Super Mario Odyssey last weekend. I know, I’m late to the party. If you’ve ever played it, you already know that it’s great. But I wanted to talk about some of the things that I think the average gamer might not have noticed, but are really fantastic design elements or layers of polish. These are things that even independent developers on a tight budget can do in their games, so I think they’re important to talk about.

The first two involve the level design, and the clarity with which the player is directed through the level. Firstly, players can always see where they need to go without looking at a map, and yet don’t feel forced to follow a path because of the opportunity for exploration. The thing is, the opportunity for exploration is very carefully given to you. When the game wants you to go somewhere and not step out of line, it shows you clearly. In the below image, this is the part right before encountering a boss. Behind Mario is a ton of open space to be explored, and in front is a clear goal without distractions or options:

The game strikes a nice balance of making you feel like you can explore and wander off and discover things on your own, while still giving you a very linear path to follow, similar to how Ocarina of Time on N64 felt.

The second level design point is that the game doesn’t just aimlessly add places to explore in the levels. I’ve seen some games where it seems like the mentality was “the level looks too much like a boring square, let’s add some nooks and crannies”… and it’s awful.

In Odyssey, every time you explore a place you haven’t seen before,
you get rewarded.

These rewards can be seeing cool stuff, finding things you’ll interact with later, finding a Power Moon, or finding a mini-game (which leads to a Power Moon, as shown below).

Another game that did this really, really well was the new (2016) DOOM game. The level design was obviously quite a bit more complex than in Mario, but it trained the player well in the same way. It gave the player options to explore that were somewhat hidden, but once the player had decided “okay, I’m going to check this out” it always gave a reward. In the image below, let’s say the pink arrow is the story / linear path, the green path would be shown with some hints or a semi-broken door, and the player would explore.

This trained the player to look for hidden things and secrets (apart from the game obviously telling you that there are “secrets” in the levels), and so when a player felt that there was a hidden path, they would explore it.

This is where DOOM and Mario both do magic; you never have the disappointing experience of “Oh, I was sure there would be something here” or “Why can’t I do that? I expected it would lead me somewhere”. Those feelings are bad for design because they break the immersion by breaking the rules that the designer had created previously for the universe / game / level. Both games reward your exploration and you don’t even feel like exploring in the places where the game doesn’t want you to explore, because it directs you through those places well.

The next main point I wanted to talk about was the purchasing system for outfits. In Mario Odyssey, you can purchase things from a shop at the beginning of the kingdom you’re in. There are two currencies, the regular coins and one that is specific to the kingdom.

Some of the options in there include Power Moons, but also include custom outfits or souvenirs from the region which you keep with you on your ship as you travel throughout the game. This is super, super cool. Character customization stuff is always cool, and seeing it in Mario is certainly unexpected, but that’s not what I find so interesting about this game design choice. What I find interesting is that

The game rewards you based on the effort you’ve put in, leaving you feeling more accomplished than simply having “beaten a level”.

This ability to purchase allows you to choose your reward, choose what you value in the game, and creates a feeling of a collection challenge. Some people like to try to finish everything in a game (they’re called completionists). I’m not one of them, but, with this new feature I really want to go back and get all of the kingdom-specific currency in order to buy all of the cool things in the region. As it stands, I moved forward but made sure I had at least one physical souvenir from each kingdom and that I unlocked all of the outfits; that left me feeling satisfied and accomplished, much more so than simply “you beat the level”… which is easy enough in most Mario games.

As far as polish goes, there were a couple of things I noticed in the first couple of hours of gameplay. Personally, I love it when games throw me off and react to something that I do when I don’t expect it.

When you encounter this sphinx (it makes more sense in the desert level, even though it’s kind of Mexican themed and there are ancient Egyptian style ruins and a sphinx…), it asks you a “riddle” to pass. I tried climbing on it to get somewhere at one point, and your magical hat says to you “Er, Mario? You’re not a hat.” There are a few minor things like this that I found really great.

Another one I noticed was that when you move into 2D mode with Mario wearing an outfit, he keeps the outfit on and they made a pixel art version of this. It’s somewhat logical, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it just defaulted to the regular Mario… I was pleasantly surprised. Surely there are many other little things like this, but I really appreciate that extra effort that the developers made.

That’s all for this time, I just wanted to jot down some of my ideas and hopefully some other game designers can read this and get inspired by some of the choices made by the Nintendo team. And if you haven’t played it, I highly suggest it… I’ll be getting back to it as soon as I can!