The Mario Way and the Link Way

August 31, 2015

I’m a big fan of Ludology, “a podcast about the why of gaming with Mike Fitzgerald and Geoff Engelstein.” In a recent episode (#108), Mike spoke with Scott Rogers, a video game designer well-known for his work on God of War, Maximo, and Pac-Man World, as well as his books on game design: Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design and Swipe This! The Guide to Touchscreen Game Design. The whole episode is worth a listen, but I was particularly fascinated by the discussion starting at 21:51. Here’s a quick transcription.

Mike: Yeah, and maybe this is a good time to talk a little bit about–because I think it’s intriguing that–I know that Nintendo has a certain way that they like to introduce new hazards or new character abilities versus the way some other companies do it, and they try to do it in a very controlled fashion. Can you talk about those different systems for a minute?

Scott: Yeah, to my study, there’s actually two systems. There’s what I call theĀ  “Mario way” and the “Link way.” The “Mario way” introduces a new ability and let’s you practice it and get really good at it. That’s part of the game-play, and then ultimately, you get to a challenge or a boss or something that allows you to use your mastery of the skill to defeat the enemies. Whereas in the Link method for introducing mechanics or more importantly abilities, they just kinda thrust it on you. One example comes to mind. In one of the–I think it’s in the Wind Waker. You get a bow and arrow, but the first time you get it is when you’re fighting a boss monster. So part of the ramping and the learning curve for the player in the boss fight is just how to use the bow and arrow and use the camera with the bow and arrow. When you eventually get good at using the bow and arrow, you realize that the boss is pretty easy, but part of that design was using the ramping of “how do I use this bow and arrow to fight this thing?” as part of the game design.

Mike: Right, so in the Mario system, usually when you get a new ability you can’t die when you’re first using it.

Scott: Oh yeah, they make it very safe.

Mike: And then you use it maybe for some very basic stuff, and then you have to use it in kinda like a more advanced way.

Scott: Yeah, they kind of show you an easy way to use it and then they start applying variations on that. The “Mario way” is very much like music to me. It’s a bit like, you know how the musical piece Peter and the Wolf keeps adding different instruments into the piece. You first have the duck and then you have the cat, and then you eventually get to the wolf, and the Mario system is really like music to me. It’s a very fascinating way to design, but I think it’s a very–it’s a system that people tend to understand immediately because as they’re playing it, they’re learning. I think that’s one of the great things about the Nintendo games is you’re always learning as you go. Even near the end of the game, you’re still learning new things.

Video game designers are like shadow educators. They have to teach hordes of new ideas and skills to players, and they have to do it in a way that never feels tedious or frustrating. Those are lofty goals that I’d love to see mimicked in the mathematics classroom. I’m not saying that classrooms need to be “gamified” (although, I’d be fine with that); I’m just saying that we could learn a lot by studying the tools and techniques that game designers have developed over the years.



I’m particularly fascinated with this distinction between the “Mario way” and the “Link way.” Just like regular level obstacles are tangibly different from boss characters, regular classroom work is also very different from exams and final projects. What exactly makes them so different? I could identify three main things.

  1. Safety: A boss character, just like a final exam, is seen as a riskier situation than regular level play. If a player dies while fighting the boss character, they must replay the entire level to get back to that same point. The boss fight is thus higher stakes than say the first obstacle you encounter in the level. Many modern games offer save points right before boss characters, thus making the sense of safety mostly a matter of perception. Even then, as Scott pointed out, many games like Mario create space within the levels for gamers to practice new skills in a way that they cannot die. Likewise, homework and regular classroom work are usually weighted less than exams, and students are allowed to consult books and work with other students on homework, whereas exams are supposed to be solely their own work.
  2. Purpose: A boss character, just like a final exam, often serves as a form of assessment for the skills you’ve acquired as you’ve played the level. In that case, regular level obstacles are intended to provide opportunities for practice before the big battle, much in the same way that homework and classroom discussions provide practice before an exam.
  3. Pivot-Point: The boss character marks a (temporary) peak in the story arc, preceding a dip in action as you pivot to a new level with new skills and new obstacles. Likewise, when you complete an exam, you move on to a new chapter with new skills and new challenges. Students have a moment to pause and catch their breath.

The “Mario way” follows all three of these conventions, but the “Link way” breaks convention 2, and to a lesser extent, convention 3. In the “Link way,” the boss fight is not exclusively about assessment. You may be asked to employ skills you’ve learned throughout the level, but you’re also introduced to a new skill, which you are not expected to have mastered. Although the boss character still marks a peak in the story arc, you will carry the bow and arrow into the next level and so there’s less of a clean pivot in skills and challenges as you transition from one scene to the next.


It seems like Scott is singing the praise of the “Mario way,” but there are certain affordances offered by the “Link way” that I find intriguing. As Scott observes, “when you eventually get good at using the bow and arrow, you realize that the boss is pretty easy.” The “Link way” can give you a sudden jolt of confidence that you might not have otherwise developed. The player expects the boss fight to be difficult. When they realize it’s actually quite easy, they feel a sudden sense of expertise and self-efficacy that the “Mario way” would not grant them.

The “Link way” also offers a less abrupt transition from one chapter into the next. You will continue to develop your skills with the bow and arrow in the next level so you’re not starting from scratch when you encounter the first challenge. There is a natural flow between the levels.

Finally, the “Link way” asks you to do something that I think is very important in the math classroom. It asks you to take old knowledge and apply it in new, unfamiliar settings in order to demonstrate mastery of your seasoned skills. Exam questions should not all be variations on homework problems; there should be at least a few questions that ask students to use their skills in unfamiliar ways. Students should not be able to get an A simply by mimicking their instructor; they must demonstrate that they understand the material well enough to solve new problems with it.

I would like to have been a fly on the wall in the Nintendo board room when they decided to introduce the bow and arrow in a boss fight. Why? What particular aspects of the bow and arrow made it appropriate to introduce in this way versus other skills that are developed in safer settings? Did the designers at Nintendo consider this? And are there certain types of players that favor the “Mario way” over the “Link way” or vica-versa? What lessons can we gleam from their differences?

I think these are questions worth answering not just for video games but also for the math classroom. Which topics or skills would benefit from being introduced in a riskier setting like on an exam? Are there certain types of students that would favor (or not favor) this type of question? What qualities do those students have? Are they qualities we’d like to see in other students, and if so, what kinds of interventions could bring those qualities out in everyone? It’s a scintillating and unexplored problem in the math ed literature.

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2 Responses to The Mario Way and the Link Way

  • Stefan
    September 24, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    Great thoughts! In my experience on both sides of the classroom, students prefer the Mario way whenever there’s a strict grading system and a 1-hour test. In grad school, though, I had the opportunity to take 4 hour and 24 hour tests and really enjoyed the chance to be creative with problems I’d never seen before–even when for some of those hard prelim questions I only managed half an answer. I still remember some of the techniques I invented for solving a problem under pressure, long after forgetting lots of memorized theorems. It is almost as though being forced to master a new skill under pressure is a crucial part of learning, one which takes you further than any amount of more traditional repetition!

    • Forest Fisher
      September 26, 2015 at 6:12 pm

      Stefan, what a wonderful surprise comment! It’s really good to hear from you.

      I was probably given more 24-hour take home tests in undergrad than in grad school, but I think you’re absolutely right; something happens with that extra time. You become locked in and determined to find a solution to problems on which you’d normally give up. I remember a combinatorics final where I stayed up all night in the library trying to solve one tricky problem. It was an enumeration problem about counting the number of ways k people could sit at m seats around a table. I still remember going to my professor’s office in the morning to turn in my work. I was tired and dishevelled with bloodshot eyes, but I felt a sense of triumph as I handed her my paper.

      One thing I’m still struggling to understand is what makes a test (or a boss character) seem riskier. For example, what makes a 24-hour take-home test different from a 24-hour homework assignment? I suppose with a test, there’s the idea that it will be worth more points and so you are supposed to be putting forth your best work. You also cannot get help from classmates, which is different from homework. Even if the test is not timed, these two things are still true.

      Most games do not time boss fights so in a way, the Link Way is probably truer to your idea of the 24-hour take home test than it is to a traditional, timed, in-class test. With the timed test, there’s an opportunity to say, “okay, I’m not going to figure this out in the next 20 minutes so I’ll just move on.” With a take-home test, you have time to get frustrated, take a break, and then return with a renewed sense of determination.

      In any case, there’s something about solving a problem under pressure that creates results you wouldn’t expect of yourself. It’s like when you encounter a new and interesting person in a dream. That person seems completely novel and foreign, but in fact, they came from your own head. Some of the solutions I’ve dreamed up under pressure seem to have come from someone else. It’s really empowering to create something that seems so foreign and yet is so familiar.

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