After playing the first five minutes of a wealth of 16-bit platformers they all start to feel a little bit samey. The side-scroller format is pretty limited in its breadth of expression, but as a result a well made platformer can be a pretty effective experience. The games start to feel like interactive sheet music or language; the challenges are similar to those of sight reading. Your first task is to decipher the intent of the design by reading it and then, with plenty of room for improvisation, execute it.
Platformers are just rhythm games with a little more space to back up and more ways to recover from a mistake. The rest is just a matter of reading and negotiating an idiom. In the same way sheet music notation has evolved from imprecise and arcane methods of timekeeping and notation, platformers have refined down to a few nearly universal symbols of danger, desired outcome, and hints to overcome challenges.
The Super Mario series of games is arguably the most influential in defining a platformer idiom; you’d likely be hard pressed to find anyone making a platformer that doesn’t cite its designs as important influences. One of the reasons, I believe, for this, is the chance to iterate the design over 3 decades now. The language has slowly built into a series of nearly universal heiroglyphs. Pipes, tubes and pots can take you elsewhere. Distinct blocks offer reward. Frowny faces indicate enemies. It’s interesting to go back and play the earlier Mario games because the first level or two operate as a demonstration of the new grammatical elements of the game. Super Mario World is no different. In some 20 screens nearly every new concept you need to get by in the game world is demonstrated. If you’ve somehow managed to miss the previous iterations, this gives plenty of time to catch up.
Most of the games in the series don’t stop at mere introduction, either. The learning curve for Mario World is constant, combining existing elements into new concepts. The game, when played, can be read as a narrative or an instruction manual. It’s a sort of learning machine that can read in text like this:
turtles without shells retain mobility, diagonal planes are common, pits are fatal, diagonal pipes go nowhere, bullets come in larger varieties, plants can fly from pipes, some enemies take two hits, spin jumping is more shallow but more fatal, additional power ups can be stored, 50% progress is marked, shells can be fired omnidirectionally, fire works the same, beware the football players, congratulations!
And every level works like this, the grammar becoming less crude and more refined to create more complex sentences like “Upon eating red shells, Yoshi can spit fire.” This implies high level knowledge of the game and that you have already completed and learned other actions.
It’s possible that every game boils down to this, a simple how-to dialogue between player and machine until, when the player has achieved some competence, they can explore and make the game sing in the way the designers intended.