Common wisdom in video game design says that you can’t make death cheap. While you never want the player to quit in frustration, you also want to make them think. If death lacks consequences, players feel no tension. So a bullet wound or bottomless pit usually leads to a reload or level restart.
And then along comes a game like Super Mario Odyssey, where getting mauled by a Tyrannosaurus only loses you 10 coins, which you can go back and recover 30 seconds later. What gives with that?
The Glory of Cheap Death
In a sandbox game filled with hard-to-find secrets, making death a minor inconvenience encourages risk-taking and adventure. I found this out thanks to my stubborn nature when chided by my wife. Irritated by her warnings for me to be careful, I deliberately jumped off a ledge to prove how little I cared about dying.
The leap brought me not to my doom as expected, but rather to a hidden level that Mario can apparently only reach by jumping off a cliff like a moron. Needless to say, I felt quite vindicated by my recklessness. Admittedly, I felt less vindicated when I blew 100 coins jumping off ledges later on.
Regardless, the lesson was noted. Death = cheap, potential rewards for taking apparently suicidal behavior = significant. Later on, when I saw a whirlpool of quicksand, my wife wondered if there was anything at the bottom. Ignoring years of ingrained video game reflex, I let the quicksand take me…right to another secret level.
A Look Back at the Beginning
While I have Super Mario Odyssey on my Switch, I also have the original Super Mario Brothers on my 3DS. Needless to say, Mario games have changed greatly over the course of three decades. Yes, both games have secret levels. But death is far from cheap in the 1985 game.
Super Mario Brothers had no save points and power-ups than any of its sequels. Most kids in the 1980s who beat the game did so by virtue of glitches like the infinite 1-up trick. Those who didn’t know the trick were usually stuck with single-digit lives and a “Game Over” screen well before World 8.
The original Super Mario Brothers was possible too hard. Without the aid of glitches, it’s very possible that most kids playing the NES would have grown up believing that the Princess is always in another castle. So how did we go from the game that created the idea of Nintendo Hard to Super Mario Odyssey?
Welcome to Minus World
Like I said, Super Mario Brothers did have some secrets areas. Most of those involved going down a random pipe and picking up a few coins. But glitches in those days did more than just give extra lives. Sometimes they brought you to a whole new world.
Players could access Minus World by using a glitch that let them pass through an end-of-level barrier, leading them to a messed up Warp Zone that would bring them to world -1. It was pretty cool to find a secret that even the designers didn’t catch until the game’s release.
Going to Minus World meant you were doomed. It couldn’t be beaten, and the lack of save points meant you were stuck until you ran out of your lives. But kids still entered it. If you’re not going to win the game anyway, might as well at least take advantage of the secret level.
Changing the Goalposts
Old games were a treasure trove of secret levels that only existed because of a glitch. Finding them became a mini-game in and of itself, and later games eventually started including them by design. By Super Mario Brothers 3, you needed to check out the Nintendo Power magazine to find all the secrets.
Of course, anybody who wanted to explore the game and still have a chance of beating Bowser in the end needed more lives than what the original offered. Later games added more power-ups and bonuses, although it probably wasn’t until Super Mario 64 that you could easily win without ever seeing a “Game Over” screen.
Nowadays, the existence of save points and the expanded amount of space in a game have changed the goalposts when it comes to play style. Mario games are no longer about rushing through to save the princess but are instead about replaying levels until you’ve unlocked all their secrets. The glitches have become the gameplay.
You can buzz through the main story of Super Mario Odyssey in a couple of afternoons, but doing so would leave you wondering if it was really worth $60. On the other hand, you can easily spend 60 hours chasing down all the power moons, trying out all the outfits, and jumping down every pit.
The game designers want you to play that way – they wouldn’t make death so cheap if they didn’t. It’s also more fun to play like that, because you feel a sense of accomplishment every time you find a new secret. Too bad poor Princess Peach has to wait so much longer for her rescue, though.