Good Goomba (November 2021)

If I could ask Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, Toshihiko Nakago, or Kazuaki Morita about any one single thing, it would be: Goomba.

I do not know if these four original developers of Super Mario Bros. have thought about the Goomba’s origin much in these last 35 years, but it has been consuming me over the last month. I believe that the Goomba is an unappreciated piece of genius. Beneath that ugly mug is a perfect germ of game design, one that takes Mario’s core act of jumping and gives it playful purpose. Most of us are so accustomed to having Goomba around that we take for granted how rare it is that a game element elegantly and completely satisfies its mechanical premise. This adversary did not come from the sky like water, it was created by human hands. The pixels were drawn on graph paper, the behavior was coded in 6502 Assembly, and the planning for those elements was probably argued over late dinners surrounded by cigarette smoke. There were jumping games before Super Mario Bros., but jumping over pits can only provide so much satisfaction. When the first Goomba was squashed, that was when the “platformer” genre became immortal.

How is Goomba

The Goomba is a simple creature. It is a squishy triangle with boots that walks back and forth, turning when it hits a wall and falling if there is no floor beneath. If Mario jumps on it, it is destroyed. If it touches Mario from the side, then Mario is damaged. That’s it! But from that simple recipe, a thousand gameplay scenarios can be created. A Goomba walking straight towards you, a pair of Goombas walking together, a Goomba blocking an entrance, a Goomba walking down a stairway, one Goomba coming from the left and one from the right, and on and on. 

Each of these scenarios are dependably fun because the simplest set-up with the Goomba still encapsulates the best core gameplay loop of a platformer: Jump and land on something, or risk damage.

Consider the player’s actions. You hit the jump button, launching Mario into the air. This is exciting, but meaningless unless there are consequences. Gravity begins pulling Mario down. In a second, you’ll return to the ground. Within this time, there is a natural challenge. You can maneuver airborne Mario left and right. With a target, there is something to aim for before Mario hits the ground. If there is a pit, you could try to move beyond it. This is exciting for a time, but a pit is static, and once the motion is learned it demands no variation. A moving target is more exciting. Some target that is not in the same place when you land as it was when you began the jump. But that movement should be predictable, otherwise the challenge is unfair. Landing on this target should be rewarding — increasing a score is good, but it can be more consequential. Missing this target should bring the risk of getting hurt, but not absolutely. And landing on it should eliminate it, removing that risk and solidly impacting the game world. Like a bullseye in darts, the best result should also risk the most fallout. Here is the Goomba’s perfection. Jump and land on a moving target to destroy it, and if you miss, it might walk into you and hurt you. Play it safe and jump over and away from it, or take the risk and try to land atop it. On an empty screen, just Mario and Goomba, this single challenge is fun. Watch out, this little guy is coming at you! Try to land on him and squish it, but be careful not to miss, or it might hurt you! This gives the jump purpose, and therefore gives Mario life.

Everyone is Goomba

The other enemies in Mario expand this basic premise. Koopa is a Goomba, except that it is taller and therefore harder to land on and easier to touch from the side. Jumping on it also produces a new object (the shell) which has its own heightened risk/reward behaviors. Paratroopa is a Koopa that jumps, making it a much more complicated target to predict and land on. Bullet Bills are Goombas who move very quickly and disrespect gravity. Thanks to decompiled source code, we know that Goomba is not the first enemy on the data table (his binary address is %000110, since I know you are all curious). For that and other reasons I am certain Goomba was not the first enemy created for Super Mario Bros., but there is a reason it is the first enemy the player encounters. At its mechanical core, Super Mario Bros. is about Mario vs Goomba, and everything else just supports and expands upon that.

In the 35+ years since it was released, no side-scrolling platformer has had an adversary that bests Super Mario Bros.’ Goomba. There are many phenomenal enemies in Mega Man and Castlevania who challenge the specific novelties of those game characters, but the gun and the whip are additions which build atop Mario’s base. All other platformers feature jumping, but they are not about jumping. That is because jumping is solved. The Goomba perfected the challenge, and made “jump on enemy to eliminate” so common it has become water. To surpass Goomba would be to invent a new state of matter.

We Live After Goomba

Goomba does not fare as well in 3D. It is harder to judge Mario’s movement through the air across three axes, making it much more challenging to precisely land on as small a surface as in 2D. Consequently, almost every single 3D Mario game has given Mario a punch or kick to knock back enemies from the side. In Super Mario Galaxy shaking the Wiimote makes Mario spin around and knock Goombas upside-down. The spin ensures that the direction Mario is facing is unimportant, and the upside-down Goomba makes it temporarily harmless so the player can try to jump on it without taking damage if they miss. These are new ways to dispose of Goomba, since the original way cannot be the most fun way when the camera is even slightly overhead.

The 3D games more heavily feature new basic enemies which challenge whatever the unique novelty of the game is. My favorite is Mario Sunshine’s Swoopin’ Stus, which will spawn from ink splatters and slowly crawl towards Mario before making a tiny leap which, upon landing, pops the Stu and spreads more ink. They incentivize the player to quickly blast away ink with water so that they stop spawning, and their slow encroachment pressures the player to not take too long when they lock in place to aim the water sprayer. They also provide a satisfying target to hit with water, and the ink they leave behind becomes a dynamic target as well. Is Swoopin’ Stu better than Goomba though? Not a chance. (Sorry to this youtube channel). Goombas are able to provide different, increasingly complex challenges based on the level layout. Swoopin’ Stus unfortunately are the same no matter where they are placed. Mario Galaxy has to resort to creating dozens of different enemies to provide variety. Super Mario Bros. just has a bunch of Goombas and things pretending not to be variations of Goombas.

Since I realized Goomba can’t be beat, I became obsessed with figuring out how it came to be. There were several platforming games before Super Mario Bros., after all, and a few of them even starred Mario. How did the iterations by Miyamoto and others eventually coalesce?

We Lived Before Goomba

Donkey Kong (1981)

The Donkey Kong arcade game is widely credited as the first game to involve jumping over gaps and obstacles. Donkey Kong rolls barrels and other impediments down stages, and Jump Man has to leap over them while making his way up. The player is jumping over things, establishing the basic precedent of not wanting to touch dynamic objects, though not yet requiring the player to land on top of things aside from a handful of moving platforms. It did introduce the world to the thrill of perfectly timing a jump to dodge something, but without air control the jump is too rigid to challenge airborne precision.

Pitfall! (1982)

Pitfall! released on the Atari 2600 the next year, and brought with it the introduction of sequential lateral screens, but more importantly it featured enemy hazards that the player needed to land on precisely. Alligator mouths open and close on a timer, demanding that the player wait until there is a chance to land on top of their shut snouts. However, the objects that need to be landed on top of are all fixed in place, and the moving objects need to be universally avoided.

Mario Bros. (1983)

Another year ahead, Mario Bros. came to arcades, and established a prototypical Koopa. The enemies in Mario Bros. cannot be jumped on top of, but by jumping and hitting the floor beneath them they are temporarily flipped over, and then can be eliminated by touching them. This demands precise jumping, but it is for hitting them from beneath rather than above. The player is jumping at enemies, but the process for eliminating them is convoluted for the sake of fun. (And I still think it is mega fun, especially with two players!) 

Remakes of this game from after Super Mario Bros. release had to change the enemies to Spinies — turtles with spikes on their shells — to signal to new players that the now expected system of jumping on top of them will not work in this game. This is evidence of just how natural the elegant design of the Goomba has become in retrospect.

This game is also why I am confident that Koopa was designed before Goomba. In fact, in an interview with Eurogamer for the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., Miyamoto revealed that a Koopa originally appeared at the beginning of 1-1, but it was too complicated for the first enemy. “That’s why we created the Goomba,” Miyamoto explains, “If it was a turtle, we couldn’t really just jump on it and defeat it.” They had found a system they liked with flipping the Koopa and kicking it, but it took more time to hone the gameplay discovery down into its purest form.

Pac-Land (1984)

Pac-Land came out in the year between Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. and has been explicitly acknowledged by Miyamoto as an inspiration for Mario’s first side-scrolling adventure. Pac-Land is a platformer that brings some of the features of Pac-Man to the emerging platformer genre. Specifically, enemies must be avoided until a power pellet is grabbed, and then Pac-Man is able to touch enemies to eliminate them. This combines several of the elements seen in the earlier titles: Moving enemies must be avoided, they have a state change where the player does want to touch them, and the enemies continue moving around even when the player wants to touch them. This demands more dynamic precision than the previous titles, which is afforded by it’s biggest innovation: the player can control Pac-Man a bit while in the air. This allows for a common scenario where the player, after grabbing a power pellet that turns the enemies into vulnerable ghosts, jumps at an enemy with the intent to touch it and eliminate it, but misses and is then touched by the enemy a moment later when its vulnerable state ends. A player, wishing that they had successfully landed on the enemy to hit them in that chance moment, is just a step away from Mario’s gameplay experience of enemies that are hazardous to touch unless they are jumped atop.

All these steps taken together, it is easy to see how the gameplay for Koopa and then Goomba entered the imagination of the Super Mario Bros. team. But it is also worth seeing how this evolution took four years of multiple unrelated teams exploring the genre.

Unbeatable Goomba

The Goomba’s design has persisted beyond its predecessors, despite a truly weird visual, because the functional foundation is so solid. Taken as just a visual devoid of gameplay context, the Goomba is a bizarre sight. Why would a mushroom have feet? Why does it have a face? Nothing about it seems sensible. But because the form follows the function, each element supports the gameplay. It is a mushroom because mushrooms are triangular and squishy, making them perfect targets for something to try and stomp on with a boot. It has feet because it moves around. It has a face so that you can see an unfriendly disposition, helping create the expectation that it will hurt you. While the gameplay design is elegant, this visual design is anything but. Each element is a disconnected solution to a different problem, resulting in something visually ugly and weird. Yet there is Goomba, printed on Uniqlo.

I can occasionally be glib about my profession because art direction and music seem to leave stronger impressions on people than game design. When ranking the priorities of game elements, I try to humble myself with reminders that the department I work in reasonably comes in at third on a list of priorities. Goombas make me feel differently though. If people care about art direction most of all then I have no idea why Mario is so popular. Certainly more people must like Zelda games, with their mysterious lore, cool visual designs, and unforgettable music, yet reality tells us that Mario outsells every single other franchise on Nintendo’s platforms. The only explanation I have is that Goombas work. The relationship between the player and an interesting challenge can create a bond that elevates everything else. Perhaps no one will ever best the Goomba, but to all the game designers out there, it is worth trying!

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