Anatomy of Super Mario: XI. Learning the ropes

If the month-and-a-half gap between Parts IX and X of The Anatomy of Super Mario gave you the impression I was procrastinating… well, it’s because I was. This first stage of Super Mario Bros. may well be the single most analyzed and written-about stage of any video game in the medium’s history. Countless critics have weighed in on it; countless games have processed and parodied it. In the face of so much history, I doubt I have the ability to add anything new to the conversation.

But, this series wouldn’t be complete without this breakdown, so bear with me. I apologize if this seems like a retread of others’ work. There’s simply nothing to be done about it.

Super Mario Bros.‘s first level had a lot riding on its shoulders. It was every player’s entry into this revolutionary new take on the concept of running and jumping. Again, it wasn’t exactly the first sidescrolling action game in this vein, but its predecessors were obscure and limited in scope, and its creators (Miyamoto and Tezuka) couldn’t assume players would have carried over knowledge from something like Smurf: Rescue From Gargamel’s Castle or B.C.’s Quest for Tires for ColecoVision, Pitfall II from the dying days of the Atari family, or Pac-Land. This game necessarily stood on its own. And so 1-1 serves as a sort of training course, with every inch of the screen demonstrating either exacting discipline or perhaps simply remarkable design instincts.


Before you even start the game, Super Mario Bros. begins teaching you. The title screen simply features the first screen of the game with the logo superimposed, and this rolls smoothly into the attract mode in which a preprogrammed Mario begins what appears to be a normal playthrough of the game.

But even if you don’t wait for the attract mode to kick in, the goals make themselves manifest immediately after you start. The game begins in an unusually low-stress fashion with Mario at the far left edge of the screen, facing right, with nothing else in sight. This calls back to Donkey Kong, which began with Mario at the bottom left of the girder course; placing his back to a proverbial wall coaxes the player to move forward.

But Super Mario takes a different tack than Donkey Kong did. The earlier game was an old-fashioned race to earn a high score within a finite amount of time, and so shortly after the first round begins Kong chucks a barrel directly at the oil drum behind Mario, causing a fireball to spill out and prod a particularly slow player forward in order to escape it. The first screen here, however, offers no dangers at all. A timer ticks down in the upper right corner, sure, but the clock for the first stage allows far more time than you could reasonably use up as you play through World 1-1. Instead, you’re given a wide-open space in which to play around with Mario’s capabilities. To get a feel for how he runs, jumps, stops. This concept would be expanded on more elaborately in Super Mario 64 with the courtyard outside the castle, but this one screen serves the same purpose while still encouraging you not to dawdle overlong… because, after all, this is an arcade-style action game, you know?

Once you move to the right far enough, you’ll cause the screen to scroll forward. At this point, you may try to backtrack, at which point you’ll discover the scrolling is “ratchet” style — it moves forward at the player’s discretion, but it won’t double back. This is a more expansive game than Mario Bros. by far, but it’s still limited. You still have a singular focus: Get to the other end of the stage before time runs out. The one-way progression allows for some tough choices and nasty tricks along the way as well. But for now, it simply keeps you on track.

Once you begin scrolling the screen ahead, you find your first few details in the world: Some floating bricks, and a small mushroom-like enemy that walks slowly toward you. Mixed in with the bricks are a number of blocks featuring flashing question marks. A Mario Bros. player should be drawn, instinctively, to act here: Punch the Question Blocks, just like they did the POW Block in the previous game. But for the newcomer, the enemy — a Goomba — provides a clue, and incentive. It’s timed to catch up to Mario right around the time the player should have guided Mario to a point right beneath the first Question Block. Like the fireball in Donkey Kong and Hadoukens in Street Fighter, the Goomba becomes a catalyst forcing the player to react. If you don’t jump the Goomba, Mario will die.

Chances are that for the first-time player, Mario will die anyway. If you don’t time the jump right, or if you smack Mario’s head against the Question Block and kill the arc of his jump, the Goomba will walk right into him. But hey, lesson learned either way, right? Punch the Question Block and a coin pops out; smoosh the Goomba by jumping on top of it and a point tally floats up. In both cases, you’re given an indication of a reward — though unlike the Goomba, the coin increments both your score and a separate coin counter, with a cash register chime to indicate some sort of greater value than mere points.


With the Goomba dead or avoided and the “hit me” essentiality of Question Blocks confirmed, the player moves on to the second portion of the block formation. The bricks do nothing but bounce when struck, but the leftmost Question Block — the first you’ll hit — yields a new prize, a Mushroom. It slides to the right along the bricks, drops to the ground, rebounds off the pipe, and slides to the left along the ground.

You can snag the mushroom at any time before it slides off the screen, but you can also screw it up. If you get overly zealous and immediately hit the lower-right Question Block, there’s a pretty good chance the upward motion of the reacting Question Block will glancingly strike the mushroom and send it bounding immediately to the left. This placement is surely not accidental; you can survive the loss of a mushroom here, so bouncing it away offers another of those Super Mario hard life lessons.

Whether or not you manage to snag the mushroom, this block formation also clues you into the fact that despite Super Mario‘s emphasis on horizontal movement through the stage it still retains some elements of Mario Bros.: To hit that upper block, you have to use the lower blocks as a platform. (Hence the genre’s name.)

If you do grab the mushroom, Mario will shift into his super form. This makes him taller, but he doesn’t run any faster. However, you may happen to discover that punching bricks now will cause them to shatter (and, according to the instruction manual, you are murdering an innocent citizen of the Mushroom Kingdom in doing so) rather than simply bouncing upward. You can also now take one hit before dying (suffering damage will cause Mario to revert to his smaller, weaker self), which you may have the occasion to learn firsthand as you move beyond the pipe into a sequence where multiple Goombas patrol between several pipes.

The first pipe is there to make you realize that jumping isn’t simply defensive; it’s essential for progress. The subsequent pipes just make things trickier to navigate and force you to pay attention to how the Goombas interact with the scenery and one another. Instead of simply passing through one another when they collide, Goombas treat one another as physically present. You can spot this with the two Goombas trapped between two pipes, walking side by side: The first will bump into the pipe, reverse course, immediately hit the Goomba next to it, reverse course again as the other Goomba changes direction, bump into the pipe one last time, and finally stomp along beside the other Goomba. It’s a small detail that happens at the single-pixel scale, but it’s an important one which demonstrates the way enemies adjust their behavior in response not only to the level design but also to one another. These comparatively complex behaviors play a huge part in later levels.


At the end of the string of pipes, World 1-1 contains not one but two secrets, both of which are very nearly mutually exclusive. The more devious of these surprises is the invisible block five spaces from the first pit. There’s no indication of this block’s presence, but if you happen to hit it, your prize will be a 1UP mushroom that extends your stock of Mario lives — the most valuable commodity in the game (100 times as valuable as a coin!). Like the normal mushroom, the 1UP variant slides forward… potentially dropping into the pit if you’re not fast enough to grab it.

Invisible blocks hold the key to many of the game’s most devious secrets, and they very much became a part of the game’s fan culture. They offered a sort of communal knowledge, wisdom passed from one player to another as a sort of induction into the inner circle of Mario literati. Of course, your first time playing the game blind, you’d never know to look for it there; instead, all you’d see is a pit, the first of the game’s deadly passive hazards.

Again, Miyamoto had supposedly been reluctant to allow Mario to survive falls from unrealistic heights, but he went ahead and added that feature to Mario Bros. anyway. The change had a liberating effect on the gameplay, so it’s hardly a surprise it was retained for Super Mario. But here we find the natural balance for Mario’s capabilities: Falling into a pit proves instantly deadly. Yes, Mario can jump from anywhere on the screen and land safely, but if you miss the ground, well, it’s just as fatal as if he had leapt two stories in the Donkey Kong days.

So, a few screens into World 1-1, Super Mario has already taught players about scrolling, jumping, platforming, the danger of enemies, the objects hidden in Question Blocks, powering up, collecting coins, invisible blocks, fatal pits, and more. And this is just the first 15 seconds of the game, and only a fraction of World 1-1. That is some information-dense design right there. And yet it feels so light and airy with that bright blue sky….

More tomorrow.

22 thoughts on “Anatomy of Super Mario: XI. Learning the ropes

  1. Does the beginning of SMB1 REALLY teach you that much, though? The very first time I played the game, I ran right into the first Goomba. I feel like the level wasn’t really as carefully designed as all these analyses claim, and people are just going back and reading all these intentional decisions into the layout just because the game is now famous. It’s like the videogame Bible Code.

    • But what happened the second time you played the level? Did you run into that Goomba again? Probably not, you either avoided the enemy by jumping on him and learning that was an option or jumping over him and onto the platform of blocks. You then maybe hit the question box above you and learned that was a possibility.

      Design is a series of meaningful choices. Miyamoto could have made 1-2 the first level or even something like 7-1, but he didn’t. That conscious choice shows the game’s design and that we have trying to teach lessons to the player for the rest of the game.

    • If you ran into a Goomba, you learned something: You gotta avoid that Goomba next time.

      Whether by design or coincidence, the placement of everything in 1-1 is perfect. I invite you to go back and play its contemporaries and compare their level design. SMB really was exquisitely crafted. I understand the impulse to be cynical, but this particular game withstands scrutiny.

  2. @Fritz

    We have a good sense through interviews with Miyamoto and his colleagues on how meticulously he designs his games, including Super Mario Bros. Jeremy is spot on. You really didn’t give any objective evidence to the contrary.

    Per your failure to see the danger in running into the goomba, it’s pretty clear that from your first time playing onward, you avoided horizontal contact with the goombas like the plague. Obviously, not everyone is perceptive enough to avoid the goombas on their first playthrough. I’d say that aspect still qualifies excellent game design.

  3. I’ve played SMB for literally as long as I can remember, so I can’t exactly pinpoint when my first time playing it was. Ah, if only I could experience it again within the context of its time…

    It’s still my favorite game in the main Mario series, besides maybe the first Galaxy (whose only flaw, to me, is the frustratingly mandatory use of the Wiimote/nunchuk combo).

    When people debate whether SM64, SMB 3, or SMB is the best game in the series – for me, it’s no question. SMB is pure and simple perfection.

  4. My impression of the mentioned murder of Mushroom Kingdom citizens is: if you smash it, it was a block of perfectly normal bricks, fired from clay or whatever, and never animate. If it looked like bricks but gives you a coin or another reward, then it was a transformed citizen of the Mushroom Kingdom, helping you in your progress.

  5. I never thought about those two goombas between the pipes as a lesson in enemy collision. That’s… really brilliant. I DO know that the second goomba would kill me a lot after rebounding off the first one. Yet ANOTHER message about the control’s nuance.

    Awesome post and spot-on analysis! These are so great; thanks Jeremy. I’m always astonished when learning new details about this game’s thoughtful design, even after so many years.

    On a side note, level 1-1 is where I realized my very first MAJOR question about video game continuity: “Why are there pipes everywhere? I thought Mario was as carpenter?!”

  6. Some of the responses here are interesting. I think the level design is obviously well planned thought out in a way to instruct and kind of push the player to find a solution. From enemy placement to progressively more difficult jumps requiring varying you jump inertia. It forces you to learn the jump mechanics of the game and from there continues to throw more challenging jumps and enemy placements throuout the game to take advantage of the unique at the time jump mechanics. On the other hand for someone who was slightly older at the time this came out, it was hardly the first foray into sides rolling with jump mechanics. Myself I personally cut my teeth on Pitfall, the smurfs, and jungle hunt. So the idea of jumping over the enemies was for most non novice game players probrably pretty obvious. Now jumping ON the enemies was probrably fairly novel (I think.) even the previous game did not use that mechanic and instead required attacking beneath enemies. I imagine anyone who didn’t watch another player or the attract mode would not obviously want to jump on the enemy thinking it would be certain death. And the level design here actually guides you (not forces mind you) to jump on enemies by the enemy placement. And I’m sure you’ll talk about this later, but it gives exellent visual cues later like spikes to inform you what you can’t jump on. And while hardly the first game with nuanced jump mechanics, like say Mappy or Circus, it certainly was the most advanced and nuanced game to date where jumping was concerned. I think the first commenters revisionist bible code claim is pretty wrong. It is well designed and thought out level design, not the only game with that attribute, and maybe not perfect, but with the high level of quality that separates most good platforming games from bad ones. And often the main flaw that bad platform games fail to copy from this game.

    • I’ve gone to great pains to reference prior work in the platformer genre (and that is why I put together this list) — I don’t want to overstate SMB’s place in history. However, make no mistake, it was a transformative work. It was so much more advanced than the likes of Pitfall, Jungle Hunt, Pac-Land, etc. that you can draw a line through the platformer genre right here. It’s like the difference between rock music before The Beatles and after.

      • I like that analogy. I couldnt agree more. Well maybe that analogy doesnt quite go far enough. I do think that SMB is derivative and at the same time transformative. If that makes any sense. But the Beatles analogy holds pretty well as Rock music was around before the Beatles but they totally transformed the musice landscape.

      • I’d totally roll with that analogy. As a classical musician by vocation, I’m more inclined to make the SMB analogy towards the works of Beethoven, who was almost single-handedly the catalyst shift between the “Classical” (Haydn, Mozart, etc.) and “Romantic” (Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc.) eras of Western art music. Neither Miyamoto and co’s work on SMB nor Beethoven’s compositions were bereft of any debt to what came before, but the things they did turned so many heads that video games and Western art music, respectively, were fundamentally changed in the years following.

        Which leads to my conclusion: Super Mario Bros. is the Beethoven’s 5th of video games. Both are considered among the greatest works of their respective mediums, brought all number of innovations to the table that, if done before, had been done rarely and with less refinement, and are familiar even to people who are not regular consumers of those mediums.

      • As a corollary, I would like to suggest that Beethoven’s 2nd for SNES is the Beethoven’s 2nd of video games.

      • All these analogies. I was thinking over this today and was wondering if SMB is the Beatles, then was Donkey Kong like Chuck Berry? And then with the Beethoven analogy, I got to thinking in 100 years from now when someone inevitably remakes a Clockwork Orange would Alex’s beloved Ludwig Van be replaced by Miyamoto and have a huge Mario poster on his wall. And pick up chicks while browsing a retro game store? And go through violence aversion therapy while being forced to watch Super Mario World? Ok my imagination is getting carried away. Anyway sure I could see the Beethoven analogy as well but it would probrably be lost on those not versed in Classical music.

  7. More thoughts on learning from mistakes:

    When that Goomba kills you, you know it killed you. The music stops, Mario turns and shrugs, and the whole screen turns black to tell you you’re still on the same world with fewer lives. There’s no “What happened? How did I die?” ambiguity. There’s one thing with angry eyebrows that touched you from the side, and it halted your whole game. Good things pause your movement briefly and play pleasing noises before letting you continue on your way. Bad things are bad, and they encourage avoidance.

    • Well, that’s probably a bit reductive — most video games do/did that. It’s the specific placement and sequence of the hazards and objects in SMB that make it so effective at being subtly instructive.

  8. The words “B.C.’s Quest for Tires” just set off a little Proust-cookie explosion in my brain. I’m gonna go roll around in YouTube videos for a while.

  9. You’re right. It’s not notable in the way that the things you put in the official Anatomy entry are, but, still, starting a single, simple enemy and no other hazards – while not at all uncommon in games of the era – does at least reinforce what most of these coments are saying about the thoughtful, purposeful design of the game. I’ve seen enough amateur game players play enough amateur-designed games to stand by what I’m trying to say, if not the exact way I said it.

    I noticed an uptick in discussion of how death and restarting should be handled in the wake of Super Meat Boy. People loved the near-instant respawning, which was perfect for a game with short, crazy-hard levels meant to appeal to longtime platformer fans. For a game meant to introduce the world to the genre, Super Mario Bros. did a superb job of explaining death. It’s quick, it’s clear, and it’s just frustrating enough to push you to try again and try harder.

  10. Could the size discrepancy between “normal” and “super” Mario, also be a nod to the visual discontinuity between small Donkey Kong Mario and large Mario Bros. Mario

  11. I once read a long time ago that the idea of the breaking blocks was that koopa had transformed the citizens of the mushroom kingdom into bricks and Mario was freeing them. Anybody else heard of this?

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