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Redesigning Mario Odyssey's final level


Warning: You're going to see me write about Super Mario Odyssey's final level a lot. If you prefer to tackle it without knowing anything, stay away from this. 

Everybody knows I'm kind of a "big deal" when it comes to level design. My Mario Maker campaign in 2016 led to my account reaching an incredible total of 7 medals out of a maximum of 10. Then, this year, I participated in Ludum Dare 39 and my team's game got a blistering score of 3.66/5 overall. Clearly, I know more than industry veterans when it comes to making enjoyable games. That's why I'm going to offer constructive improvements that could have made the final level of Mario Odyssey more enjoyable since I had very little fun playing it.

This blog will never reach Nintendo, and that's okay. Because someday you might make a game, and maybe then you'll think about this blog, and then you'll make the game according to my design philosophy, and then it'll be like I got off my ass and made a full game???

What is Super Mario Odyssey?

It's a platformer, duh. But beyond that, there are three concepts surprisingly at odds with Super Mario Odyssey's design. Is it a linearly structured game? Each level has its own self-contained story, and the only way you can progress in the overall game is by playing the newest level you have unlocked. Is it an N64-style collectathon? After all, collectibles are aplenty and Mario has a ton of moves at his disposal that were missing from Galaxy onwards. Is it Crash: Mind over Mutants nonsense that makes you control enemies and NPCs with very limited movesets to progress and oh my god this fishing minigame as Lakitu is so bad who made this they managed to make fishing unfun.

The part that I like the most of Odyssey, as you can probably tell, is the collectathon bit. So the best part of the game to my eyes? That's the part between when you beat the final boss and when you start the optional final world. Every level becomes just as valuable to your overall progress, so you don't feel bad for staying in the world you feel like playing around in. The game finally drops the mandatory tutorials that appeared every time you switched levels. And thankfully, since Mario's moveset is so versatile, you're able to skip using the mind-control mechanic at times which is always super satisfying. That's what Mario Odyssey is all about, to me.

That, and dick jokes.

But judging from the final two worlds of Mario Odyssey, the game desires to leave a final impression that is far, far away from this basic concept. The Dark Side of the Moon is a linear boss rush of the rabbit bosses you have already fought previously. And The Darker Side of the Moon, well... It's a linear level that is nearly entirely made out of mind-control mechanics. This very last level felt boring at the best of times to me, for reasons we'll get to a little further down. For now, we'll just stick to these two bullet points:

  • Darker Side feels like a string of individually shallow sections.
  • Darker Side doesn't feel like a test of the skills you naturally acquire when playing Super Mario Odyssey.

What is my goal with this final level redesign?

These changes would mainly aim to bring back the spirit of exploring and collecting to Mario Odyssey's final send-off. My intent is also to build a more cohesive whole that features fewer but more meaningful sections. and limit the amount of waiting around that plagues Darker Side as it currently is. All while respecting the decision to focus on the possession mechanic.

A recap of how Darker Side works:

Let's go over the entirety of the level. Within a single life, you're tasked with the following:

  1. Complete (or just move past) an optional possessed goomba section where you face off against a top hat enemy.
  2. Move between vertical bars that sink into the lava with your weight, into a section of horizontal bars that sink into the lava periodically.
  3. Long jump between moving platforms in lava.
  4. Possess a Podoboo and do a repeat of the Luncheon Kingdom by jumping from one hole of the floor to the next until you reach a cannon.
  5. Possess an Uproot and climb up, then climb down a short vertical section with moving platforms and a lot of Burrbos.
  6. As Mario, get through a short 2.5D section with suspended freezing water periodically coming down from the ceiling.
  7. Possess a Yoshi and use its peculiar wall jumps to rise to an upper section while dodging fuzzies.
  8. Stay on one of these slow auto-moving platforms from the Wooded Kingdom and just kind of do nothing.
  9. Use motion controls to possess an upside-down strawman and avoid a spooky-looking platforming over lava section.
  10. Possess Glydon and use him to glide over a lengthy bottomless pit, avoiding Urban Stingbies along the way.
  11. Possess forks to fling Mario across the lava.
  12. Stay on a slow auto-moving platform, defeating infinitely respawning Burrbos while making sure not to hit the shockwave generator on your platform.
  13. Possess a Pokio and fling yourself between fast-moving platforms over a bottomless pit.
  14. Defeat Donkey Kong in a 2D section.
  15. Possess Bowser and do a final action-platformer rush towards the end of the level.

Listed like this, the amount of stuff to do in a single life may seem scary, but the average section will only last you 20-30 seconds before you're thrown into a different gameplay type. Even the gliding section only takes about 30 seconds, and let me tell you those seconds feel like forever. The notable exceptions would be the automatically moving platforms, which take roughly a minute to reach their destination.

This is what I mean by the first main criticism I have towards Darker Side. It feels like a collection of extremely short sections rather than a cohesive whole. Each section stops just before you can get in the groove, the level's rather sizeable length simply a result of the sheer amount of different control schemes used. Not a lot of the level seems to naturally connect either. Why is there a single section of upside-down freezing water in the middle of a lava level? Why are you on a grassy auto-moving platform in the lava section instead of the cavern section? Why are you forced to dump the old possessed targets yourself on static platforms instead it being done organically? Why are you awarded a heart just after a power-up that refills the entirety of your health, with no way of hurting yourself in-between?

While there are a lot of different control schemes in this level, there is also a surprising amount of repeated mechanics that are missing from this finale.

  • No note collection timed challenge.
  • No key and lock timed challenge.
  • No "find the five thingies that combine into a larger thingie" section.
  • No high-speed section. This could have been possible with fire flowers, Jaxis and motorcycles without having to add any new elements.
  • No incentive to take your time to look around. You end up often staying in place, but the only reason to do so is to wait for a moving platform.

As such, it barely feels like it comes from the same game as the other worlds. Sure, there are linear possession challenges in Odyssey, but those are limited to a couple per creature over the entirety of the game, and even then there was always a second moon off the beaten path. Darker Side is the first time I ever used Glydon in a dangerous environment, and I already had 500 out of the maximum of 800-something moons collected by that point. There's a lot that could be done to make it feel more like a natural extension of the skills you acquire through the game.

The changes:

Let's start with an overall change before I get into the structures that would make up the level's design. Nearly everything in Super Mario Odyssey is designed in pairs. Challenge rooms always have two moons inside, one obvious and the other less so. Minigames can be played for rewards twice each. The non-rabbit bosses are fought twice as well. It's like poetry, it rhymes.

Except for Darker Side. There's no duality to it at all, which is strange. Especially since Galaxy 2's Grandmaster Galaxy had to be beaten twice, once without getting hit. Why not do something similar here? My idea is as follows: Darker Side would have a dual-world mechanic, not unlike The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. There's a switch at the beginning of the level, just after the pipe. Throwing Cappy at the switch allows you to switch between Darker Side and "Darkest Side". The main difference is that everything kills you in one hit in Darkest Side. Why would you play in the dark world, then? Captain Toad would explain it to you; there are a couple of switches through the level in Darkest Side. Those unlock "nice things" back in the regular level, which turn out to be checkpoints at positions equivalent to the switches you flipped.

"Checkpoints? In my final level? What are you, a casul?"

Hear me out. If you can reach a significant amount of the level while playing on a one-hit-kill difficulty without any checkpoints, doesn't this mean that this part isn't challenging to you anymore and you should be able to skip the stuff you mastered? And for the people who prefer to play with a maximum of 6 health but no checkpoints, that's also an option if you ignore Darkest Side. Doesn't this duality concept stick to the world design of Odyssey more, while allowing the player to customize their experience how they prefer?

Alright, now for the specific tweaks:

a) The goomba tower part? I'd keep it. I think it's a good fit for the beginning of the level. The average player first attempts to defeat the enemy by stacking goombas and gets reward with a max health powerup. Then, they realize it's faster to jump on top of it from the highest platform. Finally, once the player is used to the level, they'll realize a higher max health is functionally useless so they'll start skipping it. It's a nice bit of level design that evolves with the player. This part loses its appeal in our Darkest World, however... So I'd reward the player with a stupid amount of coins for beating it.

b) The vertical bar part not only stays but is longer. Instead of switching to the swinging horizontal bars, the concept goes the distance with this side-scrolling part, with spikes that force you to time your wall jumps. The goal is to make the player spend less time waiting while feeling like they've mastered a specific skill more.

c) The Podoboo part takes longer and its design is nonlinear. That is the first large-scale difference I'd make. The current concept of jumping between holes in the floor has been done multiple times already despite causing terrible camera glitches. This part is switched to a more vertical mountain made nearly entirely out of lava. Five key pieces are placed all around, and the rotating spiked bars return from the current level to pose a threat. This would bring back the feeling of exploration of the main game, but wouldn't take too long either so repeated playthroughs wouldn't be a pain. Once you collect all five, the cannon that blasts you to the next part of the level opens.

(At this point, if you got here through Darkest Side, you get to unlock a checkpoint in Darker Side!)

d) Both the Uproot and upside-down freezing water parts are scrapped. The former for being slow and easy, the latter for having both these qualities but also being a cold section in the very middle of a lava level. Instead, as soon as you take a few steps beyond the landing point, the rock under you starts to crumble. Time to run, the floor is sinking! It would be the perfect opportunity to use the fire flower mechanic as you're dashing past obstacles and holes in the ground. The opposite of a level that currently asks you to wait around a lot, this part aims to bring back a common mechanic in the core game that tests your reflexes. It's placed fairly early in the level, so dying because you touched the lava and are now unable to keep up with the stage wouldn't feel frustrating to the player... Especially if they respawn at a checkpoint.

e) This leads you straight to the forks in the lava, your saving grace. You jump off the sinking platform towards them and save yourself by possessing one. You're safe-ish, now. You can breathe. This flinging section was pretty satisfying to me but is still quite short in the current game. I'd make it last longer by having Mario flick himself at a fork sticking out of a vertical wall of lava, at which point he has to start climbing by flicking himself from fork to fork. Eventually, you reach a stone platform, but the wall is not yet conquered! The Pokio section is moved here as well. I think it could be a neat transition between these two very similar possession targets. I feel like Pokio's a bit out of place as it currently is in Super Mario Odyssey. Its part easily leads to Mario falling to his death for a one-hit kill despite being very far into the level. It also didn't make much sense to me to separate two gameplay mechanics that are so similar, which is why they'd both be in succession here. Added benefit: You could still save yourself by possessing a fork as you're falling!

f) There's a lone pipe on top of the wall. You enter it and begin the cavern section. There's an additional checkpoint you can unlock here if you managed to reach this part in Darkest Side. Pat yourself on the back! We've had a decent amount of fast-paced sections so far in our modified level, so I feel like the automatically moving platform with the shockwave generator has its place now. Handling this large amount of enemies can be pretty hectic, and the length of section feels just right for what I'm going for. A section this challenging has to be placed just after the switch to make sense with the Darkest Side, otherwise, the player would feel cheated out of a reward.

g) There's a large vertical tunnel in the floor where the Pokio section used to be since we already did that way earlier. Let yourself drop waaaaaay down while grabbing coins on the way, and then you reach the final section of the game. At the bottom of this tunnel, there's a round arena with... the 2D DK battle! I would change one thing about it, and that would be making the camera rotate with the player. I didn't know I had control over the camera when I first fought this boss, so the controls switching under me pissed me off to no end. By making the camera follow the player, the problem is solved!

h) But wait, when you defeat DK in 2D he doesn't just disappear! Instead, he falls into a huge 2D pipe and exits, in 3D, in the flat arena above! Same concept as in 2D, you exit from your own pipe, avoid his barrels and jump under him a couple of times. It wouldn't be trying to be difficult, as it's the last part of the level, but a neat twist on something you've already played instead. Once you defeat DK for good, a lightning pole appears, which you can possess to exit the moon's crater while making the "thank you" letters vertically. Booyah, now you don't have to reach the level's exit with some lame-ass pipe!

Yes, you're reading correctly, I'd get rid of the possessed Bowser part. It works very well during the main game's ending, but in Darker Side it just felt tacked on because they could. Having to spend a lot of time barely progressing because you have to keep attacking both sides of bowser in a 2.5D section sucks, and you don't even get to capture the big B-dog! You just sort of appear as him after going through a painting. Very disappointing.

While players aren't meant to get through the entirety of the Darkest Side, I think it would be neat to reward the pro players that can do all that without being hit. Something like a Paper Mario cameo at the end could be nice! Goombella could be there to give the player the flat cap, giving him a flatter model when equipped. Like in Smash Bros! And then you could hit the final switch to return to the Darker Side for your triple moons.

The final result:

It's not much of a looker, but I summed up the sections in both the actual Darker Side and the one I came up with here. If you've played Super Mario Odyssey's finale, do you agree with these changes?

Last blog, satire. This blog, criticism. Next blog, positivity? 

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About TheBlondeBassone of us since 11:32 PM on 12.03.2015

Everything's going to be okay. Take a deep breath, you got this.