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A great weight rests on the shoulders of the opening area of a game. Be it a level, a mission, or the first quest in a role-playing adventure, this zone, barring any opening cutscenes, marks the first time players will get to experience the world developers spent tireless months and years creating. In our current era of widely available and disposable games, that first sequence is so important because if it’s poor, the player has a million options it can substitute it for.
The first level is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the game. It’s where players learn the basics of gameplay and the early evolution of concepts they’ll experience throughout the adventure. First levels can also be deceiving. Sometimes, a game will have an opening area that is so good, so jam-packed full of interesting designs, routes, enemies, décor and more that the rest of the game fails to match its output. Like Windy Hill from Sonic: Lost World. I’m fascinated by the art and science behind level design and while my personal favorite opening area of any game is the village from Resident Evil 4, World 1-1 from Super Mario Bros. may still very well be the greatest first level ever created.
A few years ago, as Nintendo pushed Super Mario Maker out the door, Shigeru Miyamoto sat down for a video with Eurogamer and went over the creation of World 1-1. The very first part of the level tells you everything you need to know about the entire game: Mario starts off small, he can jump on enemies, jumping into question mark boxes brings reward, a mushroom can make you big, and a big Mario can destroy blocks, which as we all know are actually citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom because, hey, it was the 80s and children’s entertainment was pretty fucked up back then.
As players proceed through the level they’re introduced to pits, Fire Flowers, Stars and different types of enemies. Those more adventurous and curious are able to discover warp pipes and secret blocks that dole out 1-Up Mushrooms. That’s it. That’s everything you need to know about this game, crammed into a single level. It’s a tutorial without ever really feeling like one.
I’m not the type of person who’ll contend Super Mario Bros. is the greatest game of all time. It’s not even the best game on the NES. But, in the same way films like Metropolis and Citizen Kane are revered today, I recognize the significant contributions it made to the gaming medium. While much of its innovations have been surpassed over the past 30 years, I still have admiration for World 1-1 and everything that lone level was able to teach me about platformers.