I recently purchased a Nintendo Switch to prepare for the release of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. I had played the previous incarnations of the series growing up, but mostly in college where “retro” games were popular to play again. One of the reasons I wanted to get this game was to play online with friends from college who had moved to various places. We loved playing together in college, and felt like this was our chance to play again. In order to play online, you need to purchase Nintendo Switch Online. One of the perks of purchasing this online service was a download of Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) virtual console that comes preloaded with many popular games.
Since I purchased online a few days prior to the release of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I had time to play some of the games on the NES. The first game that I chose was Super Mario Bros. 3. I had played this very sparingly during my life, but had watched plenty of videos of people playing it on YouTube and had a confidence I would perform decently in the game. I booted up the game, and did not make it past the first stage. In fact, I died relatively quickly on my first attempt and did not make it much farther on my next two either. The main reason as to why I did not make it very far was due to my desire to not search for any mushrooms and instead hold the sprint button and try and make it through the map. I pretended I was a professional speed runner who knew what they were doing. What this did make me think about, however, was feedback loops that were put into this game and how they contributed to making Super Mario Bros. 3 one of the best games on the NES.
In Designer’s Notebook: Positive Feedback , positive feedback is defined “as occurring whenever one useful achievement makes subsequent achievements easier” (Adams, 2002). In terms of how this works in Super Mario Bros. 3, the most basic example is getting a red colored mushroom. By doing so, the player is able to not only grow Mario in size making the level easier to traverse, but you also gain the ability to get hit by enemies one more time before losing a life. There are other items to collect that grant the player more positive feedback. A green mushroom will grant an extra life, a brown leaf grants Mario the ability fly, and a fire flower that grants Mario the ability to shoot flower, amongst others. All of these are attainable by even the most novice of players, ensuring that everyone has a chance of achieving the completion of a level/the game.
Another way in which Super Mario Bros. 3 provides positive feedback is more subtle than the items, but it is nonetheless effective. When this game first came out, new players did not have the same advantage as I did. They could not watch other people who grew up playing this game play through it themselves and give pointers along the way. Rather, they had to figure things out themselves. This is where I think that Super Mario Bros. 3 is great. With the first two levels of the game, World 1-1 and 1-2, respectively the player is met with some challenge. More so however, they are given an environment to try and manipulate. This achieves two things: teaching the player how Mario can interact with the game environment, but also, and ultimately more importantly, how to traverse through the game utilizing those interactions. In the first level you can use Mario to get question blocks which grant the player coins or a mushroom, you learn that Mario can jump onto enemies and kill them, and you learn that there are secrets hidden around the levels that you find if you look hard enough. In the second level, you learn that you can slide down hills to kill enemies too. These are the introductory levels without coming out and saying they are.
These skills are able to be used throughout the rest of the game, and provide a relatively subtle, but smart, way to introduce the players to the game without making them go through a tutorial to learn about the game. Super Mario Bros. 3 is not without its negative feedback loops either, or else this game would have felt too easy, like some people felt about Super Mario World. Mart Virkus, in talking about negative feedback says that it was created to not make boring because of imbalance (Virkus, 2018). For his example, he talks about the blue shell in Mario Kart and how it is used by players who are falling behind to try and give them a chance to make it back to the top position.
In Super Mario Bros. 3, the big negative feedback loop that stood out most to me was the what happened to you if you lost all of your lives. When you lost all of your lives, you were sent back to the beginning of whatever world you were currently on. For example, if you were on level 6-4 and you lost all of your lives, you go back to 6-1 and have to play through everything again. This was a way to punish the players without taking away everything they had achieved like what happened in the original Super Mario Bros. This smaller negative feedback loop ensures that players cannot just play through the game dying as many times as they want. It ensured that they were always looking for ways to get extra lives and that they were strategizing how to make it through whatever section they were struggling on. This was counterbalanced by allowing players to go and get items at toad houses and to play the in-game mini-game called match the picture which would allow you to potentially win items as well. This meant that players who were struggling could get a positive feedback loop to help them make it through those harder levels.
While this is just a brief overview of feedback loops that are present in Super Mario Bros. 3, it comes as no surprise to me that this game has remained so cherished over its 30 year existence. It was a well crafted game, and provides the player autonomy with just the right amount of guidance that it does not feel like they are receiving help at all. Hopefully more games in the future will follow this scheme as opposed to hammering in more and more positive feedback loops because we have entered the age where everyone wants something and does not want to work hard to get it.
Adams, E. (2002). Designer's Notebook: Positive Feedback. Retrieved from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/131426/designers_notebook_positive_.php
Virkus, M. (2018). How Feedback Loops Work in Game Design. Retrieved from https://arcaderage.co/2018/02/11/game-design-feedback-loops/