Level hub in Super Mario World for SNES.
Level hubs are bad. Well, they’re usually bad anyways. If there’s no compelling reason for one to exist, it shouldn’t exist. Level hubs are the worlds you explore to find the actual levels. In a level, you have fun, progress the story and game, are taught new mechanics, and are tested on those mechanics. In the hub, you look for a level. Why? Menus work better than explorable hubs.
The Mario series has an interesting history with hubs. At first, there was no level hub at all. Finishing one level sent you on your way to the next. Super Mario Bros. 3 let you pick your level from the hub. You didn’t really explore. You couldn’t jump. You weren’t really in control of Mario, but you could pick your next level. There were multiple paths of levels, and sometimes things could block your path. Because you’d need to see the paths between levels and try to get to (or away from) the enemies blocking you, the level hub was important. Super Mario World was similar; it had multiple paths you could take. Levels that had multiple exits that would lead to different levels were clearly marked on the map. The hub also organized the levels and provided context. Again, the map had a purpose. Importantly, these hubs were not difficult to navigate and didn’t add a significant amount of time between levels.
Super Mario 64 changed all that. Peach’s castle was the level hub, and in it you controlled Mario the same way you would in any level. Certain paintings in the castle allowed you to enter levels through them. In this way, the game rewarded (and required) exploration of the castle. Was this good? I loved Super Mario 64 when it came out, and I’m still quite fond of it. It’s hard to decide whether this was a bad decision. There are a few things that Nintendo did to keep the hub from being terrible. First, the game mechanics functioned the same way. If you enjoyed controlling Mario in a level, at least you could potentially get the same enjoyment out of the hub. I enjoyed controlling Mario and remember playing in the castle itself. Second, most levels weren’t hidden. You could clearly see where a level was based on the doors, and the doors were even marked, letting you know how many stars you needed to unlock it. Third, after obtaining a star, Mario would come back out of the painting, standing right in front of it. This is great because the majority of the time you need to go right back into the same painting for another star. Of course, that also emphasizes a problem. If I’m usually going to jump right back into the painting, why even take me out of it in the first place? I’m going to go ahead and declare the hub bad. My best guess is that at the time it was new and interesting to have an explorable hub world, and it made Mario’s adventure seem grand. We were still at a time where all video game urban legends weren’t immediately debunked by the Internet, which made the hub feel like a mysterious place worth exploring. We were also new to 3D platformers; the hub gave gamers a chance to get used to controlling Mario, and the developers must not have thought of making the courtyard a one-time introductory level. Hindsight is 20-20. The hub is bad.
Nintendo thought we still needed hubs in Super Mario Galaxy. It’s practically amazing how terrible the hub is in that game. Not only was it a waste of time when what you really wanted to do was get to a level, but it was also confusing and hard to navigate. Things got a lot better in Super Mario Galaxy 2. The level select screen is very close to that of Super Mario Bros. 3. It has multiple worlds consisting of different levels, this time called galaxies, and a star select screen after that like the one found in Super Mario 64 or the first Galaxy. However, it seemed Nintendo couldn’t shake the terrible idea all the way. Perhaps young gamers like a non-threatening place to play as Mario. I don’t really believe that to be a worthy reason, but I can only assume that Nintendo has some sort of logic, however flawed. Whatever the reason, there is still a spaceship that Mario uses. After beating a level, Mario once again appears on his ship. What is there to do on the ship? There are plenty of NPCs with whom to speak, but there is little incentive to do so. Yes, there are times where there’s a reward, but this could be awarded to the player in a better way (such as the mini-game at the end of levels in Super Mario Bros. 3). In actuality, every time I get back to Mario’s ship, I run forward for a second to jump onto the button that brings up the level select map. Why put me on the boring spaceship hub if what I want to do every time is get back to playing Mario? And no Nintendo, that’s not an invitation to put more crap on the spaceship next time. It’s a request that you list what we want to do in your game and take out everything that isn’t on that list. Putting me back on the ship just to make me jump on the button is pretty similar to putting me in front of a painting just to make me jump back into it.
Nintendo’s not the only offender. Sonic Adventure had an awful hub world that was incredibly time-consuming. Finding a level shouldn’t take a long time. Despite the bad hub, I did finish Sonic Adventure. I wasn’t as angry at hub worlds back then, and I had a lot more time on my hands. However, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to play it again. Luckily, it seemed Sega had learned. In Sonic Adventure 2 it was much easier to find levels, and in Sonic Heroes it did away with all hubs and went back to stages and acts. Fantastic! While Sonic Heroes was buggy, I greatly appreciated how they mapped out the game. There were a lot of faults with the Sonic series at that time, but Sega learned from their mistakes. And then there was Sonic the Hedgehog (2006). What were they thinking? The hub world was back in full force, and it was absolutely terrible. It was the first game I purchased for PS3, and it was a big mistake. I never have picked it back up again after my first day with it. Sonic Unleashed on 360 was a lot more fun, but still suffered from the bad hub world. Trying to figure out where the next level was got so bad that I gave up. While I haven’t yet, I plan on trying it on Wii because that version, or so I hear, doesn’t have the hub. (If any game developers are reading this, note that I’m giving up better graphics and achievements for playability.)
Blue mission marker in Grand Theft Auto III for Steam.
How about open-world games? Well, Grand Theft Auto does it very well, but it’s not really the same. Finding missions take place in a city that, for now, let’s call the hub. The missions take place in the exact same city. It’s seamless. Because the levels exist as part of the hub, I wouldn’t really call it a hub. There are fun things to do in the city, making it a part of the game proper. Of course, you can skip the city a bit and take a taxi to any mission on your map. And how do you pick your destination? With a menu. Infamous and Infamous 2’s cities are much like GTA’s. They contain levels, which make them like hubs, but they’re alive and fun. No More Heroes looks similar but is actually very different. There’s a city in which you can drive, but none of the actual game takes place in the city. This makes NMH’s city a hub, and a terrible one at that. Whether this was good design or not is debatable because Suda 51 has made the argument that this was a critique of open-world games. If he’s critiquing Grand Theft Auto though, then my previous statements about GTA would stand as my counter-argument.
Level select in Cut the Rope for iPhone.
Many iPhone games use a grid to represent levels. Level select screens have multiple pages, and each page has a grid of levels that each have three objectives or stars. Of course, far less than every game use this system, but I see a level select screen similar to this often enough to feel it’s work mentioning. This isn’t a hub, and this is close to what I’m advocating. However, you can’t deny that this looks very dry. In fact, I say we look once again at Nintendo. Quite often they get it exactly right. They don’t use multiple pages; they use multiple worlds, such as the different islands in Super Mario World. Instead of stars representing levels, arranged in a grid, Super Mario World featured dots set up to reflect the world they represented. You could maneuver through the hub quickly and effectively, yet it still conveyed the idea behind that set of levels. It looked fun, but most importantly, let you get back to the actual fun quickly.
There can be reasons to include a hub or world map, but it needs to be done properly. It should be unobtrusive and add to the game.
Thank you, Super Mario World, for getting it right.