In many areas of Nintendo’s crowd-pleasing Super Mario Odyssey, there’s a main goal and a side goal that provides the same amount of reward but presents a greater challenge. It’s my favorite design aspect of the game.
It’s a simple but wonderful thing, and I’ve come to think of it as Nintendo’s designers operating under a rule of twos. That’s surely not the technical term, but it works for me and contrasts with the obsession I’ve seen Nintendo and other game designers have with a rule of threes.
The threes thing usually involves boss battles, including those in Odyssey. A typical three-part boss battle gives the player an easy hit the first time, so the player can learn the boss’ vulnerability. After that, the boss can attack harder in what is now a challenge for the player to score a couple more hits. It’s a good system for establishing escalating difficulty, if one that’s cliche.
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The twos thing is more about rewarding exploration and curiosity, and works like this. I go into a sub-area in any of Odyssey’s many kingdoms with the ostensible goal of jumping and hat-throwing my way toward a prize moon.
Here I am doing that with Mario in a sub-area in the game’s Luncheon Kingdom:
But I also know, having encountered it enough in the game, that if I’m in a sub-area that has a moon in it, there probably is a second moon hidden just off the main path.
Here I am in that same Luncheon Kingdom spot, exploring a suspicious tower right near the sub-area’s entrance.
Odyssey is far from the first game to include optional side-treasure. Nor is it even one to telegraph that it has such things to offer. Some of Nintendo’s own best games have done this over the years. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on 3DS, for example, tucked an optional item in each of its dungeons in the land of Lorule. Super Mario World, way back on the Super Nintendo, indicated that any level marked with a red dot on its world map would have a second, secret exit.
All of Odyssey is designed to provoke a player’s curiosity and reward them when they start poking around, but there’s something additionally satisfying when the constant buzz of suspicion that leads a player to poke around is supported by the subtle establishment of the promise that there’ll always be a second moon. In the many sub-areas I’ve explored in the game, I haven’t seen this hinted promise broken. I love it.