Super Mario Odyssey – Let’s talk optional difficulty

How about them Mario games

Super Mario Odyssey came out on Friday, so naturally I binge played it through the weekend. I completed the game’s main story as well as a sizable chunk of the post-game content. Now, I’ve played every single main series Mario game, and Odyssey immediately placed itself at the top of my rankings; I’d put it at around the same level as Super Mario 64. I could gush for a long time about this game, but that’s not really the point of this blog, is it?

By the way, if you haven’t already bought Mario Odyssey, you can get it here:


In today’s post, I want to extract  an important aspect of Mario games — appealing to a wide audience. Every game designer should have a target audience in mind when they are creating a game. However, making sure your game is equally fun for the full range of players can be a daunting task. Let’s take a look at some of Mario’s finest games for examples on how to do this right.

Before we get started, I want to mention that I will NOT spoil any main content from Super Mario Odyssey, including story points, levels, or characters. The game is new and I want people to experience it on their own.

will however spoil how many moons are required to beat the game, as well as the total number of moons. If you don’t want this spoiled, I recommend you stop reading. I will also spoil one specific optional platforming segment from later in the game

A simple main course

Unsurprisingly, the newest 3D installment of the Super Mario franchise was released to rave reviews. Many are naming it top contender for Game of the Year. High praise aside, what is the most common thing people write as a flaw? Many players believe the game is too easy. As a longtime player, I can agree that the base game is significantly easier than previous installments. Those who have played through Mario games before will likely find themselves blazing through Odyssey.

Here’s something to think about though. The vast majority of today’s longtime Mario fans were young when Super Mario 64 was released back in 1996. 21 years have passed since then. Many of those saying Odyssey is too easy were kids when Mario 64 came out.

Nintendo wants to continue to appeal to the same age range today as they did back with Super Mario 64: children who will continue to love the series as they get older. However, they also want to appeal to gamers who have been around since the beginning of Mario’s legacy. It’s a tricky balancing act to maintain. So, how can Nintendo craft a game that appeals to all generations and skill levels.

The difficulty floor

The formula is simple:

The main storyline should be easy enough for the least experienced player in the core demographic to complete.

This is called the “difficulty floor”. Games like Mario have a very low difficulty floor.

“Core demographic” is kind of a key term here as well. A game’s demographic refers to the age and skill range of people the developers want to appeal to, as well as other factors.

For example, Cuphead’s core demographic is NOT players new to platformers. Cuphead primarily appeals to seasoned 2D platformer veterans who want a challenge. The developers were looking for players that grew up with Mega Man and Contra, not young kids who are new to gaming. With this in mind, Cuphead can afford to have a significantly higher difficulty floor.

the difficulty floor is why the main story’s moons in Odyssey are so easy to obtain.

Thankfully, the main story is only a fraction of the game’s content

A challenging dessert

Alright, we’re entering some minor spoiler territory, be warned.

In order to beat Super Mario Odyssey, the player must obtain a minimum of 124 moons. However, there are 836 moons in the game. That’s 712 optional moons! That’s a lot of side and post-game content. One thing that you will find is that the 124 base moons are NOT difficult to obtain. The player finds many by just strolling around. Boss fights hand them out in packs of three.

There are also many moons that are quite difficult to obtain. Here’s a specific example. One moon places Mario in a room with invisible walkways. The only way to identify where the path is is to look at where poison lies on the floor. Once the player has identified the walkable floor area, they can use Cappy to mop up the poison and walk across. Finishing this grants the player a moon. Later on, the player can find themselves in the same room, but without Cappy. This introduces a new level of challenge. The player has no way of mopping up the poison, so they must make complicated jumps on invisible floors to avoid poison puddles.

This is but one of the many scenarios where the game puts the player in a difficult platforming situation.

Making difficult segments optional for players is a fantastic way of catering towards a more experienced fan base, while still keeping your game accessible for less experienced players. This gives newer players opportunities to get better at the game, because they will stumble into areas that are beyond their skill level. The player has the choice to practice until they overcome the challenge, or go back to an easier area. Giving players the ability to do either is one of the things Mario games do well.

How do other games do it?

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Many triple A games attempt to appeal to a wide demographic to maximize on possible sales. The simplest and most heavily used option is to add a difficulty setting. When I was younger, Halo: Combat Evolved was my introduction to modern first person shooters. My cousin, who showed me the game, had completed it on Legendary difficulty. I, however, could only play through it on Easy. What’s important here is that I COULD complete the game. Having a low difficulty setting made it so I could enjoy the game as a child. After I grew up, I could go back and complete Halo on harder settings.

Other games, like Fallout New Vegas, has areas that are too difficult for new players to complete. While this is partly due to the leveling system, this does encourage players to stay on the beaten path until they are confident enough to wander farther into the wasteland. Ensuring that players of all skill levels can enjoy the game is one thing that game developers can do to make their game accessible to a wider range of people.


What games do you feel handle the difficulty floor well? I’d love to see some comments!

Thank you for reading.


Check out my home page for some more sweet, sweet game design

One Comment

  1. My biggest issue with difficulty options is that they don’t really provide a qualitative difference to the experience other than tweaking the level of player forgiveness (i.e. health, damage.) Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you want an audience of varying experience levels, a strategy that works on the easiest difficulty is generally just as effective on harder difficulties.

    Difficulty adjustment that comes from qualitative gameplay differences, like the example you give where Mario has to replay a challenge without his hat powers, is much more effective because it encourages experimentation with different mechanics and alternative strategies.


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