I love game design. Breaking down and understanding what goes into every part of a game really interests me. That is one of the reasons why the Dream series of articles exists. It gives me, as well as fans, a reason to look into Sakurai’s game design philosophy and apply it to ourselves. When it comes to game design consistency is a very important factor. If the various aspects of a game do not mesh then you are likely to end up with a poor or confusing gaming experience. Super Smash Bros. is no exception to this even with its mountain of content. Today I wanted to take a look at the design of one of Smash’s core concepts: the Stages.
Starting with Smash 64 makes a lot of sense. As technology has evolved so has the scope of what developers can do in a game and the stages are the biggest example of this. Each game in the series has had a different take on the stage design while still sticking to the core design choices made in this game. Also, as the first game in the series Smash 64 needed to accommodate the fact that no one had played a Smash Bros. game before. This and the hardware limitations of the Nintendo 64 meant that a lot of stages needed to be both simple yet unique in some way.
There are three stage types in Smash 64. I will name these types “Floating,” “Island,” and “Walk-Off,” and use examples to show what each of these types entails. For now, just keep these types in your mind as I start with how Sakurai eased players into Smash using the design of his stages.
When you start up Super Smash Bros. for the first time you are likely to do one of three things. One, jump straight into the game’s Classic mode; two, jump into multiplayer and start with the first stage; and three, jump into multiplayer and pick a stage from your favourite series. As the last one is very subjective it is certainly hard to account for unless you want every stage to be the same but with the other two options, we can see Sakurai utilising his design skills to help ease the player in. Let’s start with the second option first and take a look at Peach’s Castle, the first of the Mario stages.
So what can we understand from just looking at this stage? Well first off the stage is a floating stage. Next, it is mostly symmetrical. While the bridge isn’t completely straight everything else is equally spread apart. The stage has two moving parts, the stone platform and the bumper, that are slow and easy to read. They are also on the top and bottom of the map rather than the centre where most players start.
Beginning with that central platform, players have a platform they can fall through and one they cannot. There is a lot of space just to fight on. This creates a safe space for players to fight and practice which is a common trend of a lot of stages in this game. Next are the moving aspects and starting with the bottom platform new players are shown that the stage layout can change. This particular one is not as drastic (and in reality, none of the stages actually take full advantage of this) and easy to understand. It moves so slow that players won’t be caught off guard and end up without a safe spot underneath them. Next, let’s look at the Bumper at the top which actually exists to help players. The bumper provides a save to players who are being tossed around and might be KOed straight above, as hitting it will send them back down or off to an angle, but never enough to kill. The same can be said for the two slopes on either side that can catch players being knocked off on the left and right.
Overall this stage is designed with beginning players in mind, but it is not too easy. There is a balance which reflects the nature of Mario as a series and character. The series is designed to be a starting point for beginners without being so easy that it can get boring. Now let’s look at the other option from before: Classic Mode. The first level in this is Hyrule Castle from The Legend of Zelda and is an even easier stage for beginners.
Once again, what is the first thing you notice about this stage? Firstly that it isn’t a floating stage but actually an Island stage. Next is it’s sheer size. Hyrule Castle is the biggest stage in the whole game and this is done both for design and thematic reasons. In terms of design, this is to ease players in. The stage is made up of one really large central platform, with a different variety in height on either side. There are floating platforms in the centre which go up to a height where most characters will need their full range of recovery to reach. It even has a mini indoor area on the right so players can get used to that kind of layout (one that, again, is not used much in this game).
The stage could be compared to the likes of a jungle gym for new players. There is a tonne of space to practice in and understand how the controls work. It even has a hazard with the tornado and it isn’t over-bearing. It is small, doesn’t KO at low health, is not there constantly and easily avoidable. Classic mode itself also enforces the idea of this being the perfect training stage as depending on the difficulty Link won’t move at all until the player does. The period of time Link waits varies for each difficulty but in Easy and Very Easy Link won’t move at all until the player hits him. This is done to allow players to get used to a game and genre they would never have played before.
Finally, we have the thematic reason for the stage’s layout. More than any other series in Super Smash Bros. 64, Zelda is known for its focus on exploration and freedom. It was the core thing that made it stand-out from Mario. So naturally, the stage is large and allows players to freely explore it all and fight in a variety of different layouts. This same feeling is expanded on in its successor, Melee’s Temple.
The thematic idea behind stages also helped to influence its design. These vary from series to series with Mario’s being minor and Zelda’s being major so I think it is also important to look at other stages that take this thematic approach as well. The best one for this is the Kirby stage, Dream Land, whose simple design reflects Sakurai’s philosophy on Kirbyism.
Kirby as a series was designed with simple gameplay in mind so it makes sense that his stage has the simplest layout of all. It has that one central platform in the centre and then three evenly placed platforms above the level. That is all it has. The stage is instantly recognisable and easy to understand, just like Kirby. There is one Hazard with Whispy Woods but his wind has an incredibly minor effect on the player and can’t even knock you off the stage. It is likely there to give the stage more charm and stand out from the generic Battlefield stage, which it almost certainly influenced. It reflects the simple nature of Kirby.
This simplicity can also be seen in Yoshi’s Island. Yoshi is often used in the Mario series as the beginner character and Yoshi’s Story is a fairly tame game so the stage mimics that. It has a layout reminiscent of Dream Land but at various angles; after all, Yoshi is more challenging than Kirby. Perhaps another good way to show the thematic decisions of Smash 64’s stage design is to look at the complete opposite of Kirby with Donkey Kong.
Donkey Kong is known for being a brutally hard, reaction based, platformer. This is a far cry from Kirby’s simple and easy philosophy. So, Donkey Kong’s stage, Kongo Jungle (spelt “Congo Jungle” at the time), reflects this. The layout is similar to a lot of the others with various floating platforms above a central one. It even has moving platforms. One thing makes this stage stand out though: the Barrel Cannon below the stage. It can only be seen when the stage zooms out, leaving it as a surprise. Falling into this cannon can also turn the tide of battle. In most other stages being that low-down is a guaranteed death but the Cannon provides a way for players to unexpectedly recover. However, you are not guaranteed as the Barrel moves and has the chance to fire you off-screen. It requires the same kind of skill, timing and precision as the Donkey Kong Country games themselves.
I have two more stages to talk about, both of which share the trend of being really unique and more difficult than any of the other stages in Super Smash Bros. The first of these is Saffron City, the Pokémon stage. As I said early on in this article, Peach’s Castle has the chance of being the first stage players chose to fight on as it is the first on the stage list. By that logic, Saffron City – which is at the end of the list – could be one of the last stages chosen. It may be for this reason that the layout of the stage is unique compared to the other starting stages. Or it may be a coincidence seeing as the order of the starting stages are based on the year they came out.
The first thing to note is that the stage is an Island stage, much like Hyrule Castle. However, unlike other stages, the main central platform is actually broken up into three individual platforms which vary in height. These central pitfalls are dangerous to new players and you can be thrown against the inside walls and end up toppling to your death. Saffron City also has the most complicated layout of any stage as it utilises almost every design choice. It has slanted platforms, platforms that move, and platforms that you can fall through. Lastly, it has a central hazard that is not only hard to predict, like the Barrel Cannon, but can also damage or even KO you. Hazards that can KO you are a common theme found in the stages that best represent the harder games in Smash, like the Lava on Metroid’s Planet Zebes or the Arwings on Star Fox’s Sector Z. Thematically, Pokémon isn’t an extremely hard game but as the only JRPG represented here it is a complicated one. So overall, it’s position on the selection screen and the original context of the game have come together to create a very unique but challenging level for those who have learnt how Smash works and are looking for a challenge.
But Saffron City is not the last stage players will fight on.
No, that honor goes to the second Mario stage and the only unlockable stage in Smash 64: Mushroom Kingdom.
The Super Mario Bros. level is unique compared to every other stage, possibly because Sakurai did not make it directly and instead it was his (future) wife. The layout is not too complex but it is not something we have seen before in Smash 64; it is our first and only ‘Walk-Off’ stage. There is only one pitfall in the centre which means that plays can easily KO themselves by sticking too close to either side of the screen. This changes up how you might otherwise play Super Smash Bros. and the various other elements of the stage emphasise this. You have the only other ‘inside’ area on the left-hand side of the stage that is large and goes off the screen. You have moving platforms that only move when you stand on them and they run the risk of falling if you stay on them too long (like the clouds in Yoshi’s Story). The stage has TWO separate hazards with a Piranha Plant that appears randomly from the pipes and the POW block which actively hits everything touching the ground in the stage. Finally, there are the Warp Pipes themselves which introduce a unique mechanic that allows players to warp from one side of the stage to the other, but they run the risk of being dropped off in the middle of the bottomless pit.
Overall, despite its simple outward appearance, there is a lot of unusual traits going on here. However, this also fits in with Sakurai’s philosophy. With the four unlockable characters in Super Smash Bros. 64, Sakurai stated that he could go a little crazier and more out there with his picks. The reason behind this being that only those who mastered Smash would ever see them, so they wouldn’t overwhelm new players. Mushroom Kingdom, as the only unlockable stage, fits this criteria completely. It is unique, difficult, and clearly meant for those who have mastered Smash, hence why you unlock it by beating Classic Mode with the original eight characters.