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Gotta Find 'em All: The Evolution of the Nintendo Platformer

by Devin Monnens - February 13, 2011, 9:17 pm EST
Total comments: 6

Just where did all those bananas come from?

Pick up a platformer today, and chances are you will see something similar to this: a grinning hero dashing about an obstacle course, seeking out shiny things and hidden areas. It''s a big world out there, and your job is to maneuver this little guy through it to collect all the missing stuff. You won''t be fully satisfied until you clear 100% of the game. This trend has continued so that, for the most part, you need to find even more stuff than the last game.

So just why do we collect things in platformers? Why are all those stars, trinkets, and geegaws so dang important? It wasn''t always like this. The platformer has been around at least since Donkey Kong in 1981, and since then, technological and design innovations have allowed for something far more complex than what the thirty-year-old godfather of all jumpmen started with. So just where did all those items and secrets come from? To find out, let''s look at two goals of platformers on Nintendo consoles: clearing levels and finding items.

In the early days of the platformer, Mario, Donkey Kong Jr., and the like collected items for points and power-ups. Mario collected Pauline''s discarded accessories while DK Jr. collected fruit. Mario also had a hammer to smash barrels and fireballs. The goal of these games was initially to clear the levels, and later to rack up as many points as possible, which was done by collecting items.

Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr.

With Super Mario Bros., players had a large world to explore, and it was full of secrets – bonus rooms, warp pipes, hidden blocks – and like Donkey Kong, the game''s completion did not demand finding them all, though hidden extra lives could extend play sessions. Additionally, the secrets allowed for greater replay and benefited from word of mouth: “Hey, did you find the Minus World?” You could also choose to play all the levels or warp through them. It''s hard to imagine today, but you couldn''t go backwards – that came later with Super Mario Bros. 2 – so you had to find the secrets without scrolling past them. Super Mario Bros. 3 went even further, providing an overworld map to allow you to choose which levels to play. Secret rooms were more plentiful, and there was a large variety of power-ups Mario could collect, granting him fantastic abilities such as flight.

Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3

While Super Mario Bros. 3 was in many ways the core of the modern platformer, the formula of collecting – particularly the idea of percentage of game completion –  began to solidify with Super Mario World. Key was the ability to return to a previous level. The designers realized that if they were going to allow players to replay a level, they had better give them something worth replaying it for! This carrot came in the form of secret exits where the most inquisitive and skilled players could take those bonus room-hunting skills and apply them to unlock hidden challenge levels such as the Star Road and Special World – what a cool reward! Only by completing every level and finding every single exit could a player earn a 100% by their save file. While Super Mario World did not have items to collect towards 100% completion, it did include five Dragon Coins per level, which could be collected to earn a 1-up (note: the GBA remake requires you to collect all the coins). This, in conjunction with a level you could return to, hidden exits, and a completion percentage, were the ingredients of the modern platformer.

Dragon coins in Super Mario World

This idea soon expanded. While one approach taken in the Kirby games and Wario Land series was to riddle the levels with hidden treasures, Rare''s popular platformer, Donkey Kong Country, counted bonus rooms toward completion. This is an important distinction because unlike Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country''s completion percentage was based primarily on finding secrets rather than simply clearing levels – the game was not considered mastered unless the player had poked his or her head into every nook and cranny. Its sequel, Donkey Kong Country 2, took this idea further, hiding Banana Coins that skilled players could use to unlock more challenging levels to complete. What''s more, by completing each of the challenge levels, a final boss battle was unlocked, giving players the best ending. Donkey Kong Country 3 added even more items used to help out NPCs and unlock challenge levels. Finally, with Super Mario World 2, 100% completion was based on clearing each level with all red coins, flowers, and star points – a unique combination of skill as well as exploration.

Treasure and Lost World in DKC2

Game completion evolved further with the move to 3D. In Super Mario 64, the concept of completion percentage remained in the form of stars. It is important to note, however, that while collecting was a part of Super Mario 64 in the form of 100 coins to earn a star, the items themselves had little value aside from this goal, and the stars were a badge that showed the player had cleared a particular obstacle course or found a secret. Even the hidden Yoshi on the castle roof emphasizes this: exploration is its own reward, the star a carrot to entice.

In contrast, Rare developed the idea of completion percentage in terms of finding items, bringing it to the extremes in Banjo-Kazooie. There were not only musical notes, but also Jinjos, Mumbo Tokens, honeycomb pieces, and a flurry of power-ups including eggs and feathers, stilts, and speed boots. Like Donkey Kong Country, many were also earned by completing a minigame. Rare''s subsequent platformers – Banjo-Tooie, Donkey Kong 64, and surprisingly Diddy Kong Racing – became less about exploration and more about collecting, with the idea that a player who can locate all the secrets and complete all the bonus levels has mastered the game – and the more stuff that''s in there, the longer the game. Unfortunately, this could sometimes feel more like an tedious list of things to collect rather than a means to an end: Is this a platformer or an item-collecting game?

Jinjos and the Jinjo King

More recently, the trend in Nintendo platformers has been a simplified philosophy of rewarding item collection with more gameplay rather than as a measure of mastery. Super Mario Galaxy takes this in the form of Star Bits, shiny little pieces of currency/weaponry that not only grant lives but also can be fed to the Hungry Lumas to open new worlds. The challenges for the stars take the form of mini-quests, bonus levels, and challenge modes. In contrast, New Super Mario Bros. has three Star Coins per level, which are spent to unlock new stages. Further, the Star Coins are often well-hidden or hard to reach, meaning only the most inquisitive and skilled players will unlock every level and gain the skills required to tackle the hidden challenge stages.

Star Bits in Super Mario Galaxy

A star coin in New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Donkey Kong Country Returns provides a slightly different take on the item collection the series was known for. Here, collecting is a combination of skill as well as exploration, and each is rewarded appropriately. Collecting five KONG letters grants a DK coin used to unlock a challenging Golden Temple level. The KONG letters are difficult to obtain, so it is only appropriate that completing a challenge gives you more challenges. There are also hidden jigsaw pieces used to create puzzle coins, which unlock art galleries. By peeking in every nook and cranny, you are rewarded with new things to look at.

What''s more, the game has items to help complete these challenges. Squawks lets you know in his own annoying way there is a jigsaw piece nearby – no need for a strategy guide here! You can also buy extra hearts, or better yet, a bottle of banana juice for extra HP – a real boon for a boss or Golden Temple stage. Players don''t have to purchase these items – they can, in fact, challenge themselves to beat each stage without them. They simply give opportunities for players of any skill level to accomplish the game''s goals, while still retaining the most difficult challenges for hardcore players.

Go bananas in Donkey Kong Country Returns

Over the past thirty years, exploration and item collection has evolved from simply a means of earning points and power-ups to become a direct representation of the player''s mastery over a game. These innovations have come from advances in technology and design, and their different uses have been refined over the years. When they work best, the rewards match the challenge:

- Exploring to find hidden exits and secret areas unlocks more levels to explore.

- Items that are challenging to obtain can be used to unlock even more challenges.

- Items found through exploration are used to unlock other rewards.

Items aren''t just things for the hero to collect, keys to rescue the princess or unlock the doors to new words: they are rewards for exploration and overcoming challenges. Collecting and finding secrets gives us a reason to explore the world, to run through it multiple times to find all the nooks and crannies. And the best items are those well-worth the risk.

The platformer has certainly come a long way over the past thirty years. And who knows? The next thirty is likely provide us with even more innovations and new ways of thinking about those items we collect.



MaryJaneFebruary 14, 2011

Great article! Well written, good flow, and interesting subject. Now I have to go play through Super Mario World again...

AVFebruary 14, 2011

videogames gave me OSD, this excellent article explains it.

ThomasOFebruary 14, 2011

Awesome article.

Though that screenshot of the Lost World is from DKC2, not 3.

Ian SaneFebruary 14, 2011

I think this collecting BS is a result of modern game designers not having confidence in the games they make.  They don't want to make a short game so they fill it with padding.  That's what collecting useless doodads is.

I've been playing a lot of NES lately.  Most of those games are pretty short.  If you beat them it only takes a few hours.  But I find the gameplay is so solid and fun that I want to play them again.  I play for the journey, not the destination.  A lot of games today play for the destination.  They go hog wild with the story so that's the motivation to play.  Well once that story is finished what point is there to continue playing?  Got to keep them going with filler to pad the length.

Another modern trend is that they really don't want to make games too challenging.  I think the NES era was a little too much in the other direction but today they're afraid to turn people off by making a game too difficult.  A half hour game that takes repeated attempts to complete due to a legitimate challenge creates its own game length.  A cakewalk game that's only half an hour ends up being half an hour for nearly everyone since they do it in one try.  So, again, got to pad the game with filler to keep them occupied.

If you have engaging gameplay you don't need filler.  Gameplay is not engaging if it is compromised for a story (stories are not bad, but some games provide just trivial gameplay between cutscenes) or provides so little challenge that it feels like going through the motions.  It's frustrating that a lot of games that do have engaging gameplay like Zelda and Metroid are occasionally padding their length with filler.  They don't need to do that.

I think Super Mario World is the golden standard.  It has all sorts of cool secrets to extend the length of the title but it's something that means something and contains its own reward.  Finding the secret exit to a level is engaging gameplay to begin with and then the reward is a new level.  It's something real and legitimate, not just a number on a screen.  DKC is a great game but finding all the secrets does not provide a tangible reward like a new level.  Yoshi's Island has the tangible rewards in a new level per world but the process of achieving that reward is not engaging.  You have to collect all the doodads in each level which I find to be more of a chore than anything else.  I don't enjoy the process of unlocking a new level like I enjoy it in Super Mario World.  The DKC2 and 3 also provide secret levels but the process of unlocking those levels is in itself not fun or engaging.

The moral of the story?  Videogame design is hard. ;)

For once, I agree with Ian (except about Super Mario World being the standard, I can't stand that game). I've never been a fan of collecting in platformers. I don't mind simple things, like the star coins in the New Super Mario Bros. games or the KONG letters in DKCR, but anything beyond that gets tiresome quickly.

pandaradoxFebruary 20, 2011

Ironically, I sent an email to RFN about this. Specifically, to the next "step" in this whole collecting evolution line: Trophies/Achievements.  Super Mario World did exactly what Trophies and whatnot miss.  Modern gaming has ridiculously placed value in a near pointless and arbitrary system of achievements that are suppose to suggest that a game has great replay value or challenge.  Instead of balancing items, we give a gold trophy to players who equip every item.  Instead of Supporting community play, we isolate lone-wolf tactics and boil it down to a counter for the number of kills with a stick for the sake of a trophy.  Ugh! 

Ian is right, just because Nintendo found blue oceans of casual players, doesn't mean we should baby them and let them remain as casual, unskilled players.  The moment we allow gamers of any caliber to simply coast, we rob the experience of one vital and unique aspect: Skill development.  Without that, games will continue to be viewed as a fruitless endeavor from onlookers.  It's that balance between near alienation and christening a new fan base through trials that made many of us come back for more!  When someone finally conquers Contra, they can't wait for the new challenges of the sequel.  Trophies and achievements rarely do that.  Instead, someone walks away from a blood-strewn train track with a shiny trophy for Red Dead Redemption and a sense of guilt.  People learned new ways to play with Wii Sports, they came back because of that sense of accomplishment. That is the real achievement. 

Collecting, like all game design aspects, is a ball to juggle.  No one gives a dook about the guy juggling one ball.  You need to balance it all to get a show. 

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