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Monday, October 14, 2013

Map Screens — Lost The Way

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - You won't find a new continent, either.

Back many years ago, there was a dude named Christopher Columbus. He went off the map and rediscovered the Americas. His story isn't important to this article, however. What IS important? That map screens in platformers, popularized by Super Mario Bros. 3, are either done terribly or done well, depending on how implemented. This article will examine the following Nintendo (and one CAPCOM) games:
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Kirby's Adventure
  • Donkey Kong Country 3
  • Kirby & The Amazing Mirror
  • Mega Man Zero
  • New Super Mario Bros.
  • Donkey Kong Country Returns
  • Paper Mario: Sticker Star
The basic tenets of this article are as follows:
  1. Map screens are not just level selection screens, but must have an element of choice and interactivity to them.
  2. Non-linearity in and of itself is not a good thing, and linearity in and of itself is not a bad thing.
  3. If characters are fun to control, then literal map screens take away from the experience. 
  4. Skipping levels is a bad thing and is the level designer admitting that their levels aren't worth playing.
With those tenets in mind, let's see if you can see where I'm going with this.

You can maneuver around certain levels and entire worlds with certain items.
Super Mario Bros. 3, and also New Super Mario Bros., allow you to not only skip levels, but also skip entire worlds, all while lamely moving your plumb-scum around the map like a board game. And in this case, it's a bored game, because roaming Hammer Brothers don't add anything. "Hey, you can skip 10 levels, but you GOTTA face these Hammer Bros.! Yeah, we'd rather have you do that." In fact, in New Super Mario Bros., you're actually FORCED to skip worlds, to the confusion of many.
World 3 and World 4? Forget about 'em! We'll pretend it's REPLAY VALUE!

Meanwhile, the other standard of Nintendo platformers, from the Kirby franchise, takes a completely different approach. Depending on the Kirby game, it's not just one level after another, but there is an overworld in-between. Kirby's Adventure had several doors to levels and functioned much the same way that the Super Mario Bros. 3 map did: Levels are closed off to you until you beat the previous level, and beating some levels gave you access to minigame houses.

Beating level 1 gives you access to level 2 and the crane game minigame.

However, as you can see from the screenshot above, Kirby's Adventure did NOT do it in the same map style that Super Mario Bros. 3 did. Kirby has the same controls in the levels as he does in the overworld. That's the right way to do things. That means the designers have confidence in how Kirby moves around. This is literally expanded on by Kirby & The Amazing Mirror, where the overworld is expanded massively. There are PUZZLES in this overworld. Things to accomplish. All with the same movement system as the levels. Because games that are fun to play and fluid to control are better off.

There are several different areas of this.
Full credit obviously to KindarSpirit, from GameFAQs.

Mega Man Zero has a completely useless hub world because all of its mission selection takes place in one room and there is nothing to do outside of that room. But it's fun to move around anyway. Not that the overworld is a good design decision in that game or anything, but it's the most fluid platformer (character-movement-wise) game I can think of.

So what about games that do have an overworld map screen like Super Mario Bros. 3 that are done well? Look at Donkey Kong Country Returns and Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Donkey Kong Country Returns in particular had this remarkable overworld mechanic in the Factory world. You hit red switches across the different levels to activate a rocket. It makes you wonder what's going to happen as you continue playing through the world. It gives additional motivation, hype, and excitement. The levels you play actually interact with the overworld and it changes and they're connected. That's a great feeling. You can skip levels in Returns, but that's your own loss and also not as a result of map manipulation. You can go back and play them very easily.

As for Sticker Star, for all the shit we give it, the non-linear overworld map was really awesome. You could basically go to any world you wanted (besides the final) without beating the world boss of any previous world. “But it's an RPG! You'll get crushed by the difficult enemies!” No, not really. (It's also not an RPG.) It's not that Sticker Star is easy, but the game finds a way to scale its difficulty accordingly no matter what Mario's level is. ...It helps that the game doesn't have levels or stats besides HP and sticker book size. The stickers you find in each world are powerful enough to fight the bad guys in that world, and you probably won't have enough stickers left over to stomp on the worlds before if you're skipping ahead. It works really well, and I highly recommend if you're unfortunate enough to own a copy of the game to play it non-linearly. Since there is no story, there is no canon suffering.

Meanwhile, Donkey Kong Country 3 had free movement (you had different vehicles you could board to get places) on its overworld map that had a degree of non-linearity. As with everything else from that game, it wasn't fun. No one cares about helping the Brother Bears. Traveling empty space without it being highly interactive or relaxing is a waste of time.

“Hold on Ludwig, your whole point throughout this article is that certain overworld map styles make you feel good! What kind of overarching game design principle is there to get from that?”

Besides, “what's fun is fun”, you can get these principles:
  1. If you're going to have non-linearity, provide incentives to make the player go back to complete what they missed. These incentives must be extrinsic (intrinsic being the fun of the level design) because if you believed the intrinsic value of your level design is good enough, you wouldn't have people skip over it. Examples of extrinsic rewards are 100%-completion goodies. If the level you want people to skip is too hard, you didn't do a good job scaffolding. If it's boring, well, there you go. If you want to pretend you're giving players a “choice” and “freedom” by letting them pick divergent paths, just know your medium is a platformer and your consumer had enough choice and freedom buying your product to begin with. Artificial psychic utility of non-linearity in platformers is a waste of budget, a fake sense of replay value, and leads to lazy level design because people won't *have* to even see your level.
  2. Momentum-based platformers are all the rage these days. Whether it's momentum or not, just the act of controlling your character should be fun. If it's not fun, then it's probably slow. If it's slow, it can still be cool, cute, or eye-appealing. You're hiding things by making overworld maps just a selection screen. If you're doing it to save the player time between point to point, consider not having any overworld at all. “But how do you get to replay levels for fun?” Selection screen from the main menu. No baggage of an overworld between levels leads to a fantastic seamless montage of game design that we haven't seen in a while. In other words, selection screens are okay if they're intended and marketed as selection screens, not overworld maps.
  3. Empty space is a waste of programming and also the player's time. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess may boast of a massive overworld, but it's empty and not filling.
  4. Elegant presentation is pointless (“Super Mario Bros. 3 is more elegant than Super Mario Bros. because of the map!”) if you don't consistently do clever things with it.

Some games work better with overworld maps. Others don't. Don't make the mistake of having incompatible choices because you think you have to follow what's an “industry standard.”

And the speedrunners can handle not having your levels be skipped. Compare Yoshi's Island to Yoshi's Story for the effect forcing the skipping of levels has.

Christopher Columbus didn't have to worry about any of this stuff back in this day. He just took a map by Tingle and set sail. Speaking of Tingle, why haven't you picked up The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD yet? Ludwig recommends it. It's actually fun to go through the ocean in that game.

Empty space is also a problem with many open-world games. In some instances, it's procedurally-generated.


  1. Well, looks like my images and videos died between publishing and now. ...Oh well.

  2. I've finally played Kirby Amazing Mirror. I stand by what I said here.


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