Do you remember that there was something special about the way the old Sonic and Mario games ended their levels and bossfights? Something that made you feel good, feel satisfied – and that seems almost forgotten today…
Let’s find out what it is, why it works and what we can learn from it!
There was once a time when some brave games used sort of a pattern at their level endings. Sonic always spins the Dr-Eggman-signboard at the end of each level to turn it into a Sonic-signboard. Mario always jumps at a flagpole – trying to hit it as height as possible to gain more points. After each bossfight we love to see him use explosives to blow away the bosses castle. Those moments feel great. We’ve all grown up with this little gimmics so they seem to be nothing special to us – but don’t underestimate their power! When I look at nowadays games they seem to miss something – and I think Mario can tell us what it is.
It’s my level!
In most sidescrollers at the end of each level one just walkes out of the screen and this is it. So you actually know that you are at the end of a level when the screen doesn’t scroll any more and you can walk out. The most obvious function of Marios flag and Sonics boards is to indicate the end of a level. As soon as you see Sonics signboard or Marios flag, jump/spin it and the level is done – and ending a level this way is far more active than just walking out. Next it gives us reward – when you spin the board or touch the flag at a height point, you are rewarded with points or items. The heigher you grab the flag the more points you get, even extra lives are possible. In some Sonic versions the board lifts up in the air when you spin it an you can jump at it it when it returns to the ground to let it go up again and every single hit will give you extra points. This can be quite a challenge. Speaking of it reaching Marios flag at great height is also challenging. Quite often one has to solve a small puzzle, hit a switch or find the right platform to get up height. Of course one could just walk by the flag or simply spin Sonics board once, but those small minigames with the puzzles and board-jumping are often fun and give a motivating reward afterwards. The reason this minigamish features work is that they are optional! If you were forced do a stupid minigame at the end of each level it could get annoying very fast.
The most important function Marios and Sonics level endings is a symbolic one: By lowering the enemy flag with Mario or turning the Eggman-board into a Sonic board the game says “This is YOUR level now”. You’ve beaten all the enemies and made your way to the end where there is still the sign of the previous evil “owner” that sais “This level belongs to Dr Eggman or one of Koopers relatives!” – and you remove the flag or turn the board and now it says “This level is mine!”. Doesn’t that feel far more comfortable than just walking out of the screen like in other games? Just walking out makes you feel like “well, I’ve walked through a level punching random guys and maybe there are still some enemies left that hurt innocent people” – whereas turning Eggmans face into a Sonic face makes you feel like you’ve “cleared an area” and every evil one is destroyed (even if you’ve left some enemies alive) and the cute animals are save now.
So there are at least the following important functions of Marios flag and Sonics signboard:
- Indicate the end of a level – more clearly than just walking out of the screen
- Active level ending – do something instead of just walking out
- Challenge and fun
- Symbolic “ownership” of the level – the area is now save
Let me just mention that Mario and Sonic are not the only ones who used such a mechanism. There are some other examples that also work great, but in my opinion Mario and Sonic did it best. I just don’t want to leave unmentioned Donkey Kong Country 2 because it did a great job: At the end of each level you can jump at a ring-the-bell with bonus-items on top. You need a lot of jump force and good timing for this and it is really fun and kept sticking in my mind until today. Unfortunately they dropped this for DKC 3 – for whatever reason.
Who is the boss?
The magic continues when Sonic and Mario are fighting the level bosses, but here I think that Sonic got the upper hand. After Mario defeated a boss in the castle the castle is blown up. This is cool so far, BUT the player doesn’t do it by himself. He just watches a short animation. Sonic instead (at least in some games) rescues little animals that Dr Eggman imprisoned in a giant metal can – which is far more peaceful than blowing up a castle but it’s OK too. The can has a switch on top you have to jump at and the cute animals will be free. It’s just a simple switch you have to jump at but you do it by yourself – and it feels great! I bet it felt a thousand times better if one had to jump at a switch to let Mario blow up a castle.
Make your game better
Let’s try to sum up what we’ve learned from Mario and Sonic and how it can help us to create better games that stick in mind.
It is a good thing if a player knows when a level ends. When walking past a random area or opening a random door initiates a level change the player could be confused and – whats even more unwanted – maybe the player felt like “being on a run” and was really into the action of the game when the unexpected level change appears. This abrupt deceleration of action can be very frustrating and you have to completely “win” the player again at the next level and build up all the action again. Whereas when a player sees something that symbolizes a level change he is prepared for it to happen and knows what comes next. So the player can use the situation to take a little breath and jump back in at the next level. The switches you have to activate at the end of each Doom or Duke Nukem 3d level may be a good example here.
When you plan to let a player do a quick minigame at the end of each level like the hold-board-in-the-air or ring-a-bell make sure it is optional! The players shouldn’t need to participate in the game or get a specific result in order to succeed. When the player doesn’t hit the bell he should also be able to leave the level.
Whenever there is an action a player CAN perform, let him do it by himself! When the game character uses a switch to blow up something let the player activate the switch and don’t make him watch an animation where the character performs the action. I’ll never get over the frustration I felt after winning the bossfight in Mirros Edge agains the “mysterious assassin” in order to unmask him/her – and then being forced to watch a cartoon animation that showed, how the character continued fighting and unmasked the opponent afterwards. So I not only missed to unmask the opponent – I didn’t even beat him/her, because this was also done by the cartoongirl from the animation.
I don’t want to say that we have to invent a minigamelike-level-exit for every single game – this would for sure be annoying. And there are a lot of games out there that wouldn’t work with such a mechanism. But just don’t underestimate the importance of proper level endings. When you think a little about a good way to end your levels this can add a lot to your game.
Disclaimer: I’m sorry to have mixed up such a lot of different Mario and Sonic games and described unsorted features that were part of not all of them and did such a mess. I just picked out the ones that I thought will made my points clear and work the best. I didn’t want to mention every single version of all level endings for each game version, like e.g. the Game Boy Mario Land 2 where you can hit a bell height up in the air in order to get a bonusgame afterwards or that the flagpole from Mario suddenly turned into a football goal in later Mario games. When you realize any mistakes please tell me and I’ll change the corresponding parts