On Level Design: A Macro Map design and some Ecology!

Before I go on, lemme just say this is a VERY VERY fine point. If you’re making a game, this is a finer point you can pretty much ignore and be fine. But of you’re looking for polish and your game is suited for this (unlike say, Mario), then you’re good. Lemme also say that this is brought upon by Other M (Haven’t played it yet) and this thing with putting cold levels in Metroid games. Apparently people confuse metroid with ‘being about all sorts of climates’ nowadays or something. So this is a half rant/half lecture on eco systems in map design. Lets start with the history.



Alright, I won’t lie. Metroid kinda sucks dick. At the very least, it aged very bad. But still, I will say this. Within the same year, Spelunker, Super Pitfall and Metroid came out and tried out the open ended exploration thing. One of these games succeeded. Metroid is an interesting novelty as it basically drops you in a world with no aim or direction.You get the hint that you need to kill two monsters to proceed in the game early on and thats it. From there you wander around, bomb every brick and collect everything until you succeed. Then you encounter Metroids and have no idea what to do about them. Only experimentation allows you to kill them and the experimentation does not come easy due to the nature of different guns replacing each other. The game does give you two different shots at the ice beam, but anyways. What of the map?

Well Metroid is not an advanced enough game to convey an ecosystem in a significant way outside “fire sea horse is in a sea of fire”. The map layout it’s self is huge by NES standards (and interesting enough, is compressed in such a way that it generates a ‘secret’ glitch area that is like many many times greater in size than the actual game, but thats another story), but its use of rows and columns in it’s design create a map that is…. digestable. We can also see that brinstar, the ‘main’ area is the higher most area, with both Norfair, Ridley’s Hideout and Kraid’s hideout being toward the bottom of the planet. Nothing significant, but some design elements are considered. The big problem here is that Metroid is made out of ‘megablocks’ that form screen templates. Ever notice how a lot of metroid screens look exactly the same? WELL, thats how it got to be so big. Thats also why those hidden areas accidently exist (I won’t write about that anymore here, but if you’re curious, look up ‘metroid hidden areas’. The topic has been explored extensively by more knowledgeable people). After awhile everything blends together until you are truly, horribly lost.

Two notes

First one is on topic: If the screen transitions, the horizontal/vertical scrolling HAS To switch. Remember how you had those two columns in the beginning with the one screen ‘tunnel’ room between them? Well now we know why that exists.

Second one for fun: You know the good Ol’ Justin Bailey code. Well, that is not a special password. That is a RANDOMLY GENERATED PASSWORD that passes Metroid’s password checksum and is interpreted as expected. It exists sheerly through random chance. There is a special password though. NARPAS SWORD (followed by a bunch of 0s), which makes samus invincible. The name probably has nothing to do for a sword, but probably means either North American Release Password or Not A Real Password. Just a fun bit of trivia.

So what can we learn from Metroid? Not much, the game sucked. If anything we learned that people will tolerate ‘suck’ for exploration.

Metroid II: The Return of Samus

Holy Christ on a stick, this game sucks too. How did we even GET to Super Metroid? Well, probably because this was a gameboy game and for a gameboy game, this shit is pretty baller. Also we didn’t get Super Metroid yet so we didn’t know what a good Metroid was yet. So lemme start off with one fact. THE MAP DOES NOT FIT TOGETHER.



God dammit. SO you wanna talk about getting lost? The screens are so big compared to what you can see, they all look like the same fucking grayscale shit and shit doesn’t even lead up to places it should lead. It is horrible. But anyways, some neat stuff does exist in this game. I actually beat it the other day to see how well it aged. Not well, but like Metroid, it’s an interesting relic. So as Samus you explore SR388, the home planet of the metroids (Well, if you wanna be a fag, Zebes is their homeplanet as the Chozo made the Metroid to kill the X parasite on SR388! :D) to well… commit genocide. The levels are all very natural. Winding caves — it’s literally like spelunking as you drive deeper and deeper. Unlike the eventual Super Metroid idea, you don’t advance with new abilites, you advance by killing off all the metroids in a given area (to be fair, the items help you find metroids), and the ACID LAKE in the center vein structure of the map lowers. So whats cool about any of this? Well unlike Metroid, the place feels like a natural cave of sorts. Metroid either looked built and industrial or abstract (why is the ground made of bubbles? D:). Even when it did seem rocky, the straight forward nature of everything made things seem man made. Metroid II does not feel man made, in an interesting and BAD way. It damaged gameplay but it is interesting. In no other metroid do you spend as much time walking and platforming without seeing an enemy. Prime seemed to borrow a bit from this, but did it in a much more tasteful capacity. Anyways since theres no proper ‘areas’, the whole ecosystem thing is also kinda weak here. The enviroment gets more hostile as you go deeper, but you also see more and more chozo made constructions outside the statues. By the time you get to the end (which features the most idle walking), you reach what is called Phase 9 (the lava dropped 9 times), which is also called ‘The Royal Palace’, a constructed breeding ground for metroids. The tunnels feel authentic in their desire to be as inconvenient as possible. It’s rather an interesting development, even though the sacrifices made to do it are almost unforgivable. The difficulty in backtracking is a problem, but there are actually more missiles and energy tanks in the game then you can actually hold, so that softens the blow. You can see what they were going for. Also they had a huge boner for the morph ball. The spiderball sounds fun on paper, but it’s the most tedious, slow, buggy piece of shit in the world. I also have a strange suspicion that the emptiness near the end of the game is unintentional and that they literally ran out of time for the game. I can see it going either way, but the thought that the decisions were intentional interests me more.

Metroid II also features a lot of Flora and Fauna that appears in Super Metroid… which is obviously sort of weird, but hey, those Chozo are wacky bird people. Anyways clearly this is a game meant to capitalize on the feeling of exploration Metroid game, while trying to deal with the sense of being lost. The Acid lake was arbitrary but if you look how each area’s unlocks allowed access to new metroids, you can see where they got the idea for an interactive, ability driven map. Because why rely on the metroids? At the moment it was necessary, but moving on their goal became clear. Between Metroid and Metroid II you can construct the prototypical design for Super Metroid in an atmospheric and Exploratory sense. Metroid II is ultimately a failure and has probably aged worse than Metroid (which as I said, is fairly digestible). Also they decided that their map should fucking fit together.

Super Metroid

Japan isn’t a fan of Metroid. Looking at the above games though, it makes sense. But Super Metroid is one of the best designed games out there and it’s aged amazingly. It also leads into what I want to talk about. Now, I’m forgoing my favorite image of the cocktail napkin sketch of Super Metroid, for a more practical map…. but lemme link to an even LESS practical map . Yeah, thats the whole god damned game in an image. It’ll help.

So what does Super Metroid do wrong? Besides the pit with the god damned green monkey motherfuckers (etecoons — also the spinespark birds are Drachoras) where you have to walljump, not much. That part is trivial to me now, but when I was a kid it filled me with rage. The map has tons of interesting things going on. It has the organic nature of Metroid II, with a digestible structure like in Metroid 1. The map is pseudo non-linear and the lock and key mechanics are made up of acquirable moves. It uses the pillar ‘super structures’ from Metroid as a way to divide areas up neatly. Only once you get to Maridia do things get kinda confusing. Anyways, I wanna talk a bit about the Zebes ecology.

You start in Crateria, which is rocky, damp and stormy. There is very little life — some grass and moss, but very little life. The tile set is cold and it is storming outside. It implied in sources that this is actually acid rain. Upper Crateria is filled with with Acid pools, either from the first detonation of Tourian or just because thats how Zebes rolls. You re-explore the ruined Tourian and the original metroid starting location — which for the record is 2 screens short of being in perfect alignment with their positions in the original Metroid (for the record, you can practically fit the original metroid in the dead space created by the elevators and Brinstar and Norfair maintain their geographical locations from one another). As you head down you see more life — stone like mushrooms and hardened hives of small animals. You take an elevator down and BAM, life. It’s warmer down here and the acid rain doesn’t reach. Life is booming. Upper Brinstar (green and Pink Brinstar) is rolling with life and the boring ass Spore Spawn. But then you head deeper and suddenly Brinstar begins to dry out. The soil is read and there is less life. Clearly we’re closer to norfair… But hey wait, water. You pass through Maridia and things are damp again. You drop by Norfair, get highjump, and then go viisit Kraid. Kraid’s layer is kept wet from Maridia, so life is abundant again. The dried green and red glowing background imply this is a dubious balance, but is balanced enough for life.

Stuff like this exists elsewhere. Above Maridia, Crateria and the wrecked ship are wet and damp. The missile lake and entrance to the ship are clearly results of Maradia’s underground ocean. Lower Norfair, the hottest part of the planet, is at the lowest point, perhaps the core. Things aren’t perfect (the first red wall in Brinstar is next to Mardia, but a player wouldn’t ever realize it. Lower Norfair lines up with the grappling hook segment which isn’t portrayed as insanely hot (and theres water!), but generally when you look for it there are a LOT of attentions paid to the little detail. Super Metroid crafts a believable world. It makes concessions when necessary, but it knows it doesn’t have to be unyielding. The little details it puts in crafts an excellent atmosphere. You can make all sorts of assumptions too. Was the guy who died infront of Kraid’s liar a survivor of the wrecked ship? Well, maybe that was the intention, until Zero Mission explained that, but it’s still a cool touch. Probably just a some Federation Marine chump who got killed by the door.

The map in general is almost perfect. At the very least, it is the best, most interconnected map in it’s genre. Even where it has chokepoints (only one way into Norfair), the nature of things funnel you there from multiple starting points. No teleportation require and no need to break the interconnected nature of the maps.

Metroid Prime I & II

It’s been awhile so my memory is rusty, but first, lemme say this is the cause of all my grief here. WHY THE FUCK IS PHENDRANA DRIFTS NEXT TO MAGMOOR CAVERN? ARE YOU GUYS EVEN TRYING? Prime actually has a great atmosphere and wonderful ecology on the micro scale, but their maps have always been sorta bad. Sadly Prime is their best attempt. The game is great overall, and it’s slower, more pondering pace makes its map issues (you will check your map a lot. Forever) less of a concern, it does discard a lot of metroid lessons. The game, made by Retro Studios seemed to mistake Metroid for being about crazy enviroments or something. Then in II they went for the hub design which sucked dick (also light and dark world, where the dark world HURTS YOU so you can’t explore), and III is a shooter so whatever. A note about Prime from a level design standpoint thats positive — and probably the cause of this issue. Prime was made by level designers making levels out of squares — than the art team came in and made the room look great. There seemed to be a bit too much of a disconnect — or at least a lack of planning that lead to these quick, goofy location transitions. Their methodolgy was good though!

Also again, fuck Hub designs, because next we’re talking about

Metroid Fusion

Fuck you person who surely disagrees, this game sucks. Thank god Prime was good (Even if its map was weak), or else we’d be 1:4. Fusion I think got a lot of paces because handheld Metroidvania’s still sucked. The game controlled well, which is a big plus, but it has an awful map. We’re back to MII territory. THE MAPS DO NOT CONNECT. Fuck you, map designer, that shit is NOT COOL. Also the map sucked, the bosses sucked, the exposition sucked, Adam locking shit off sucked, having to go to nav rooms before trying to proceed sucked and well the whole game fucking sucks, short of the controls and the tileset used for the main space ship (it’s seriously kinda swank).

The map is divided into 5 zones. ICE ZONE, FIRE ZONE, JUNGLE ZONE, WATER ZONE AND….. Dark… Zone? Man, fuckin’ A guys. Now like with Other M’s bottle ship, I think the concept is stupid, but at least you can’t fuck up the ecology bit. The problem here is the zones are almost entirely separated from each other and you can gain and lose access to them based on the will of the plot. Can’t use your new toys to get new items, Adam doesn’t approve. The game is disjointed and the nav stations only serve to slow the game down. There is a single line of interconnectivity among the sectors, but seriously the shit is so lame. Lemme sum up my feelings on Fusion in a forum post.

“So I just did something terrible. I played through Fusion. Now, I haven’t played Fusion since it came out and with only one playthrough in 8 years, I was practically going into the game fresh. I remembered a few things. The stupid computer plot, the themed sections of the ship and a few trace ‘oh yeahs’ were about all I had going for me.

The game still sucked balls. One thing on the plus side though: Certain areas had reaaaaally nice tile sets and use of color, notably the first area. Saying that though, I could have lived without ever seeing a potted plant or vending machine in Metroid. Otherwise most of the enemies look like ridiculous cartoon characters, save for a few rebuilt enemies from SM and maybe a handful of originals. The linearity was beyond my memory, it was INSULTING. At one point the game tells me to get an item in a ROOM I’VE ALREADY BEEN IN, and then, on route to the room, traps me in a navigation room AGAIN to say “ARE YOU SURE YOU KNOW WHERE IT IS? Y/N”. The whole plot reminds me of the sort of thing I yell at Indy developers for making. It was so contrived and I didn’t feel like anything was gained by listening to Samus get wet over Adam while she rode the elevator.

Granted I think Samus introspective are potentially cool, but this game did not show how to do it. Every bit of injected plot, besides a few reveals, are just painful.

Also GOD THE BOSS FIGHTS. I mean, I admit too that SM’s bossfights leave something to be desired, but these were AWFUL, especially toward the end. My strategy in all these fights were to just pound the bosses with my insanely good missiles and take whatever damage and say ‘whatever’, only dodging the occasional high damage attack. The whole game seems to be made up of patternless bosses who’s gameplay involves ‘try and jump over the big obnoxious enemy’. This isn’t even to go on to say how hilariously ugly and nonsensical Nightmare looks .l Also Ridley suddenly bursting into ANIMU RIDLEY OOOH YEAH. zzzzzzzz

This game is amatuer hour at R&D1. They definitely didn’t have a feel for making a Metroid game. Not being a metroid game isn’t bad, but the problem is in their failed attempt to make a Metroid game they made a game that was bad overall. For example theres a few sections that take some Metroid style intuition, but they come totally out of left field. I’ve been being dragged by the nose so long that NOW, for like, ONE ROOM, I’m supposed to intuit where to go? Screw you, game.

SA-X also seems pretty dumb. Theres like, one tense moment followed by a bunch of ‘die until you learn course/trick: Repeat until success’. It’d be better if she just didn’t totally wipe the floor with you. You survive by cheesing her. You either die or you survive almost unharmed. As you hide behind an obvious wall. zzzzz

Also I thought the plot would be cooler if that was the real samus. I kept looking at her saying “Man, why don’t I look like that? I’m just a Mottled Samus, like some sort of EVO body type or something.”

Anyways to be fair the game isn’t entirely awful. It’s some okay-but-flawed action adventure game on it’s own, but it is well under the radar of quality for games I would normally play.”

Also here is something someone else describes that happened to me.

“So, Sector 5. You get the Power Bombs there! As someone who’s played Super Metroid previously, I recognize this as a Good Thing, and figure I might want to play with my new toy.

Oh, wait, this is Fusion, I have to go back to my ship now, because the computer told me to. Hm… on the way, there’s this area I can now open up with my power bombs! Screw you, Adam, I’m gonna investigate that place.

Oh wait, I can’t, there’s a grub blocking the corridor right after it, and it’s covered in adamantium plating that my weapons can’t touch. Sigh. To the ship it is, then. I save here. Adam now tells me to… go exactly where I was going to go so I can try to start up a generator. But there was a grub in the way before, I can’t get through!

Except the grub was woken up by Adam’s yammering, or something, so it’s not in the way anymore. Really, Fusion? Really?”

Metroid Zero Mission


To be fair, Zero Mission is pretty damned great. Not Super Metroid great, but great. The map interconnects nicely. It uses the memorable parts from the first Metroid well and discards the rest. It has a well internconnected map with a sensible arrangement. It doesn’t go the subtle ecological route. The map is solid, but not outstanding. We also get to find out that the wrecked ship is Ridley’s ship. Fun stuff. I dig on Zero Mission but I can’t figure much to say. It’s like a less good version of Super Metroid mixed with some unique charm from the original Metroid. It does have some goofy arbitrary bits though. Also the stealth segment is hit or miss (I liked it).

So anyways, what can we learn from all this? Well, make your maps LINE UP like a pro. But we also learned that subtle details can craft an interesting world that feels internally consistent. For example, most Castlevanias feature the clock tower to the right of the Castle Keep. Why? Because during the Final Approach, the clock tower is traditionally off to the right in the background. HoD ignores this. That doesn’t make the game. HoD and Aria get this wrong. HoD has the clock tower fundamentally in the wrong place and Aria for some reason puts the Clock Tower on the LEFT side, which is kinda goofy. Does this make or ruin a game? No, but it helps make a game feel consistent. In IWBTG the map didn’t line up (granted my task was harder and I was inexperienced. Adding filler screens to connect things would be terrible and IWBTG isn’t a real exploratory metroidvania either. Still, I think you could sketch a picture of the IWBTG world featured in the game. There is some oddities (why is thhe start of the minecart on top of a tower? D:), but generally you have the above ground (which you drop off of on either side to lower areas), the underground and a tower, all geographically located next to each other. This could be more ideal (and anything else I make will be more ideal), but this sense of structure is something I think is missing from a lot of fan games. I digress mostly because IWBTG is more about pacing, cleverness and humor than it’s poorly considered map that happened to work out.

Details push things another step forward and if you’re trying to construct a world or structure, even though gameplay comes first, things should be sensible. Towers where towers should be, catacombs UNDER the map, high places on the TOP of the map (or on the ‘outside’ of the map, like in SoTN). That sound obvious, but if you’re making a map, be absolutely sure to actually DO IT. If you wanna be awesome though, you go the extra mile like in Super Metroid and make all the area not only blend into each other, but exist in a sensible manner that reveals hints at the nature of the world it’s self.

Edit: So heres some added little stuff from people on the Talking Time Forum.

From Kishi

NARPASSWORD refers to Tohru Narihito, the guy who converted the game from the game from the FDS to the NES (which included implementing the password system, since the FDS version had saves).

From Eusis

Minor nitpick there (though is more me being baffled by Sakamoto & crew): the ship at the end of Zero Mission ISN’T the one from Super Metroid. Seems like a lost opportunity to do something like that which should fit nicely, then go “nope, that was some other ship!” Apparently you saw parts of this other ship around the same area but… gah.

Hooooo, really? Thats a pretty interesting bit of information