Goomba corpses have littered the Mushroom Kingdom for decades. The poor things are usually on their way to work or school when they meet their demise. They barely even put up a fight, just keep on walking into Mario's cruel squish-zone. What if they weren't such mindless goons?

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Jacob Minkoff, lead designer on the new action-adventure game The Last of Us, is exploring technology that might ensure such a future isn't as far off as we think. In a recent interview with CVG, he describes one of the highlights of his latest game's design. It got me thinking about how comparably unique Nintendo's design has become for the action-adventure genre.

Jacob Minkoff said:
When you push the punch button, it fires a bunch of rays around the game world, and says 'What's nearby?' Oh, there's a wall nearby. Or there's a desk nearby. So if you press the punch button and make contact, it will smash this guy against the wall... for instance, maybe he'll throw a punch and succeed, and the guy hits the wall, or fail and hit his hand against the wall, and go 'Ow!' We have this library of dozens and dozens of animations streaming off the disc at all times based on what's happening in the environment.

It sounds like his team has primarily focused their gameplay design on AI (artificial intelligence). Basically they're giving something non-human—in this case, characters in a video game—human-like reactions and intelligence.

Compare this to what I call the Mario design, which places level makeup as its priority. Back in the 80s and 90s, this style was the standard. With each level, Nintendo's designers present a sandbox, an elaborate jungle gym to traverse and play in. The challenge comes primarily from the levels rather than your interactions with enemy AI. In Mario design, enemies aren't very intelligent. They usually stand or walk around on a defined path until you're within proximity. At that time they may angrily dart for your face (almost like a bee). In fact, most enemies in Mario games resemble insects. Jumping on a Goomba satisfyingly feels like you're squashing a juicy cockroach. Watch out for those poisonous bugs (touch fuzzy, get dizzy). So it fits that they're not very smart. Mario design encourages a much more playful feeling more akin to swatting pesky bugs than morbidly extinguishing fellow humans.

Now I'm not saying one method is better than the other. They're just different. I think there is and always will be room for both. Also, I recognize the world is not completely black and white. In fact, many action-adventure games contain a healthy blending and balance between the two styles. The Assassin's Creed series has playful level design but also advanced AI. Maybe the "pure" styles are even the minority nowadays.

To facilitate the fact that the challenge comes primarily from the environment, the Mario style of design has traditionally broken up the environment into levels. Meanwhile, the other style has opted to create more of an experience, masking the idea of levels to appear more seamless (this logically correlates with the idea that when making the characters more human, you likewise try to make the whole experience more life-like).

I would call Nintendo's style more traditional simply for the fact that it's been around since the dawn of video games (shooting waves of dumb alien invaders). The Last of Us features design that grew recently, achievable only because of our advances in technology. It's a style of design that we are seeing pursued more often in the industry (Nintendo also has a few games that fit this mold including Metroid Prime). Protagonists and antagonists are becoming smarter, adapting to our decisions. Is it too far-fetched to imagine a future when Mario's enemies, in much the same way as the player character in The Last of Us, start shooting out rays to poll their surroundings, and deftly dodge a well-timed hop seamlessly?

I won't lie. I fear the day when a Goomba learns to fight back.