We’re tracing the roots of an odd duck of a mechanic today. I say odd duck because much like a Cuccoo in the Legend of Zelda, we are looking at items and abilities that change your fall speed.
Let’s start with one of the most famous and possibly the first: the Super Leaf in Super Mario Bros 3.
In the first Super Mario Bros for the NES, Mario had access to three powerups: the Super Mushroom, the Fire Flower, and the Super Star. It wasn’t until Super Mario Bros. 3 that Mario’s inventory and repertoire began to expand.
As fun as the Frog and Tanooki Suit were, no powerup changed up the platforming formula more than the Super Leaf. Since Mario was founded on the precise ability to land leaps, any change to the trajectory would completely rewrite the rules. The Super Leaf did just that, and to prove their point, the game’s designers stuck the most powerful item in the Mushroom Kingdom, the Warp Whistle, in the first world’s fortress, accesible only via flying with a Super Leaf.
But the Super Leaf didn’t just let Mario fly, it also allowed for a slower descent. This meant that Mario could travel greater distances in the air AND have greater control of where he landed.
The Super Leaf was so influential a form of it has shown up in nearly every Super Mario iteration since then. Whether it is the Feather in Super Mario World or the Propeller Mushroom in the New Super Mario Bros series, once players became used to the benefits of the Super Leaf, it was near impossible to take it away from then.
The Super Leaf shook up Mario, but it also worked its way into most platformers. From Dixie’s spinning ponytail in Donkey Kong Country 2 and 3 to the inclusion of Kazooie in Banjo’s backpack as a way to help navigate the brave new world of 3D platformers in Rare’s gem Banjo-Kazooie (and of course, the inclusion of Laylee the bat being paired with Yooka the chameleon in Playtonic’s upcoming Yooka-Laylee is perhaps the clearest descendant of this mechanic).
One of my favorite forms of this mechanic is in the underappreciated liscensed-game Aladdin for the SNES. In the game, Aladdin could pick up a sheet and use it to sail over the tops of scimitar-weilding guards and cobras alike. Which leads to the biggest drawback about including this type of mechanic in a game. In Aladdin, and in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for a more recent example, there are certain unlockables and secrets which are only accesible if the player has the ability to extend their jump and control their fall speed. In Aladdin, certain red gems–of which ten appeared in every level–demanded the player to bounce off an enemies head and use the sheet to sail over to the gem. Similarly, DKC:TF had several K-O-N-G letters and puzzle pieces out of reach unless the player had Dixie’s pony tail at their disposal.
This causes the developers to design the game in two ways: one for when players have the powerup and one for when they are powerless. In games such as Donkey Kong or Mario, this becomes especially tricky as taking too many hits from enemies can cause the player to lose the powerup (or, in Aladdin it was randomly awarded!). These cases are frustrating and ask the player to repeatedly play through the same level just to make sure they have the right powerup at the right time.
So what can game designers learn from this? First, the devs must realize that positioning the powerup as a permanent item makes for simpler design as opposed to a temporary powerup such as Mario losing his leaf when knocked with a Koopa shell. Second, and most importantly, players love control, and when they see how much control they have over their avatar, they will fight tooth and nail to keep that power. When you introduce a mechanic or item which alters fall speed, it becomes a permanent fixture in your game design, possibly even for years to come.