Super Mario Odyssey And Clever Puzzle Design

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I only realized that I had accidentally played Super Mario Odyssey for five straight hours yesterday when I collected a moon and realized that the date stamp which appears when you do so had incremented by one. The game is truly charming and fun, but one thing it does amazingly is the way it handles puzzles.

You see, the thing Odyssey does that I love is that it takes time very early on to set up a consistent language of puzzles, one which the player quickly learns fluency in. For all of its amazingly unique enemies, levels, and mechanics, the game uses surprisingly few actual puzzle mechanics. Generally speaking, most of them can be batched into the following types of puzzles:

  • some sort of acrobatic or platforming challenge
  • getting to a specific place within a predetermined amount of time
  • collecting a set of things
  • bring a thing to a person who wants it

These are hardly revolutionary puzzle designs, but the variety comes from these base modes being mixed and matched. Some puzzles are just one of these elements, such as those where you have to collect 5 Moon badges in order to unlock the real Moon, which is thoroughly a puzzle of the third kind. Others are a blend, like the musical notes where you have to collect every note in a certain amount of time, which is a blend of the second and third puzzle types.

Then in comes the captures. In case you missed the memo, Mario Odyssey‘s hallmark mechanic is ability of Mario to throw his hat onto enemies (so long as they don’t have a hat on their own) in order to possess them, like some sort of couture ghost. When you capture a character in this sense, you gain access to a new set of moves. Bullet Bills can fly through the air. Chargin’ Chucks can charge forward, smashing obstacles. Hammer Bros can toss hammers.

The thing that makes these captures really jive well with the puzzle structure is that, while captures are definitely necessary to solve certain puzzles, the extent of the puzzle is very rarely “just be thing X and you win”. Instead, when you perform a capture, you’ll still be performing those same core puzzle types, just with a different bend.

Take the Gushens, for example. These fish-like enemies are surrounded by a ball of water, and can use jets of water to hurl themselves forward or upwards, but only have a limited supply of water to do this with. They need to touch a body of water to replenish themselves, or they’ll run out. The obvious puzzle to build with these guys is “hit this thing with water to unlock it”, but that’s not the norm. Instead, Gushens are usually at the center of challenges that are extremely reminiscent of regular platforming challenges. The difference is, instead of the challenge coming from the timing of moves, it instead moves to conserving water and ensuring you can make it from one body of water to the next. Same puzzle type, different focus.

Another great thing Odyssey will do is give you the same or similar puzzles with different captures as the focus, changing the way you have to approach it. For instance, one level early in the game has you racing down a roadway on a scooter, requiring you to get to the end before the timer expires and the roadway disappears. In the postgame, you’re presented with the same challenge, but with a twist: there’s no scooter, you gotta hoof it. What was once a challenge of controlling the slightly unwieldy scooter is now one of trying to maximize your on-foot movement to reach the speed you need.

The benefit of this common language of puzzles relates to the open-world design of Super Mario Odyssey. Some of these levels are big, or at least they feel really big for a Mario game. On top of that, many of the levels change over time, either with the addition of new characters, structural changes, or sometimes massive state changes (the Sand Kingdom early in the game transitions from frozen-over to a hot desert over the course of the time you spend there). These levels are all full of assorted puzzles and challenges, too, some have as many as 80 Moons to collect.

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There are two ways this could have gone hilariously wrong. Were these puzzles all just “lock and key” puzzles, where it was just a matter of bringing the right thing to a puzzle spot in order to solve it, repeating that task 999 times would have been really boring really fast. On the flip side, if each of these puzzles were hypercustomized with their own special solutions, having up to 80 of them side by side, with the components required for their selection all intermingled, would have been mentally overwhelming. Imagine 80 Myst puzzles, all within the same city block, with their solution components all spread about. Blech.

Instead, Odyssey finds this great middle ground. By teaching players the lingua franca of the game’s puzzles, the game is free to scatter all of these puzzle components around the game’s levels with reckless abandon, knowing that when a player comes across a solution component, like an enemy to capture, they’ll know the sorts of puzzles they’ll be able to solve with it, and when the player encounters a puzzle, they’ll know what they need to do or get to solve it.

Take the humble Goomba for example, throwaway enemy since Super Mario Bros. When the player encounters a Goomba, they know exactly the kinds of puzzles Goombas are good at solving. Goombas don’t slide on ice, making them ideal for getting across frozen platformers. Goombas can stack on top of each other, allowing them to either reach really high platforms or activate switches requiring a certain amount of Goombas to activate. Goombas can also be used to woo Lady Goombas, which always yields a Moon.

Thus, whenever a player encounters Goombas, they know to be on the lookout for puzzles of these nature in the vicinity. The reverse also holds true: when the player finds a high platform with nothing around it, a Goomba switch, or a Lady Goomba, they know they need to hunt down some Goombas.

As the player runs around a level of Super Mario Odyssey, they’ll be seeing and trying to remember a lot of significant details around the world. Instead of having a pile of disparate elements bouncing around in their head which the player is constantly trying to fit together in a logical way, like an old school adventure game, Odyssey makes it so the player always has some prototype in their head of how to solve a puzzle, instead of randomly trying to fit puzzle pieces together, which is a much more satisfying way to fill a world with puzzles, and to make the player feel smart for putting them together.

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