I remember playing the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES. Six year old me was delighted by the bright colors, the neat challenges, and the whole newness of it all. To the shock of no one, a young child playing his first video game wasn’t very good at it. I’d constantly play, getting a little further each time until I ran into one level that I just couldn’t beat.
And that was it.
SMB’s approach to difficulty was static and linear. The game gave the player no options to modulate the challenge (static) and forced the player to face each challenge in a specific order (warp pipes excluded). This mean that, when players faced a level they couldn’t surmount, it was game over. The rest of the game’s content was locked behind a challenge the player would never beat. SMB had nothing left for them.
Some games still operate to this way and to good effect. Plenty of players love to test their mettle against a seemingly impossible challenge until they finally figure it out. The challenge is the point rather than the obstacle to fun. Other games use linear modeling to lay out sequential story beats or achieve a particular thematic progression. It’s worth noting that these games generally have lower difficulty curves to ensure most players can get to the end.
Both styles have their virtues, but neither fits the Mario games particularly well. Mario is historically family friendly making the hardcore approach contrary to the fun and accessible ethos of the series. Alternatively, dumbing down the challenge would rob Mario of its entire reason for being. More than any other series on the market, Mario sets its focus on pure fun through game mechanics. The fun comes from figuring out a puzzle, executing a tough jump, or beating a boss. Making the puzzle easier, the jump shorter, or the boss slower reduces the feeling of accomplishment. The challenge for Nintendo is always trying to include enough difficulty to make the player feel like they’ve overcome a real hurdle, but not to the point where it becomes frustrating or simplistic. Given the wide variety of player skills, this seemed like an impossible task.
At least, until Super Mario Odyssey.
The genius of SMO’s difficulty is that it effectively allows the player to set the difficulty by choosing which challenges they want to face. Players must collect a certain amount of “Power Moons” on each level, but which Power Moons are largely left up to them. SMO’s level contain a plethora of levels to complete ranging from the dead simple (butt stomp this hill) to the fiendishly complex (jump from rotating platform to rotating platform while dodging enemies). Low skill players can pick up the simple Power Moons while their more skilled counterparts can grab the more challenging ones. Even better, the hard levels can get even harder by putting additional collectables in even harder to reach places giving the more committed players something to reach for. One game can meet all needs without sacrificing any part of their audience.
And that is the true genius of SMO. Nintendo has finally figured out how to appeal to a broader audience without alienating another chunk. As an added bonus, SMO is now a game that can grow with its players giving new challenges that 9 year old me or his 12 year old successor would have loved. Well done.