Quest Design Analysis - Mario vs Armored Core
There are days when a man must open his eyes and choose to punch the old gods in the face. There are days which demand violence. Today is that day. Today we compare and contrast quest design structures in Mario vs Armored Core! LET’S GOOOOOOOOO!!!!!
So first off, why are we doing this? Aside from lingering insanity, Armored Core and Mario represent two styles of linear quest design. Mario levels progress in a straight line from left to right, or from a starting point in 3D to an end point in 3D, in all cases you are assigned (or stumble into) a task, complete the task, and get a reward. Armored Core is similar. You are sent a set of tasks and their associated reward, you choose one, and it’s left to you to accomplish that goal, whatever it is. The difference in genre is the point here, because I am abstracting my brain away from mechanics, characters, themes, etc. and focusing purely on the quest design structures. By doing this with such wildly different games, I ensure the focus stays where it should be.
Let’s break these games down into chunks and walk through each, shall we? Choose Your Adventure
Mario “quests” are presented as levels. You approach the painting, dive in, and choose which quest you want to undertake in that particular region of the game. Alternatively, you have a world map or just an open world. In all cases, you choose a space to explore and the quest or quests available are based on what is physically present within that region. In Mario 64 this is a discrete choice you make upon entering a level, in Mario 3 it’s similar, though the presentation is very different, and in Bowser’s Fury you engage with a quest simply by interacting with items lying around in space, much more fluidly than either of the previous examples.
In Armored Core you get email offers from companies, and the interface displays these by showing you which part of the city map you wish to engage with. Choosing an offer presents its rewards and a description of the quest. This is analogous to when choosing a level in Mario 64, and you dive into a painting to choose which part of the castle map you wish to engage with. In Armored Core, you choose the quest reward at the same time as the location. In both titles you are choosing a location and a reward before appearing in another space to actually undertake the selected quest.
With that connection established, we can expand. Bowser’s Fury is also a quest-based Mario title, but its quests are presented as you explore the world. Going to an island functions the same as jumping into a painting, except that everything exists in the same space without division. Where in Mario64 you choose which quest to undertake before even entering the space, Bowser’s Fury has all its quests simply exist in the world for you to discover, with a few exceptions that trigger based on your actions. You can imagine, based on this comparison, how Armored Core’s quests could be adapted to an open world. Wandering an open space in your mech, finding events and actions to participate in, and engaging with those in a more free-flowing manner than was possible in the past. This method looses the narrative delivery in the form of emails, however, and that must be addressed, or could be argued to prevent a “true” Armored Core from ever being an open world game, I’m not here to have that particular argument today.
As another point of comparison, Mario 3 presents its levels as a world map. You explore a map going from one space to the next in a fairly linear progression from start to finish. You could present Armored Core in much the same way, presenting its missions as nodes on a map that you dive into once chosen. Doing this would change nothing other than the email interface of the game, as the game already shows you a map and allows you to choose missions based on region. If we wanted to give Armored Core a Mario 3 style world map, all that’s required is to adjust the presentation of that one screen, the core features otherwise can remain the same.
So by looking at these aspects, we can learn a few things. Mario quests are presented as static nodes in some form of overworld, while Armored Core presents these through a representation of a computer terminal. Mario intends their quests to feel exploratory, while Armored Core intends theirs to feel like missions you must complete without asking questions. These narrative differences cause different choices to be made in the presentation, but overall the actions taken remain similar. In both games you are dropped into a small space and must find something, reach something, or otherwise interact with something before you are given your reward. Of course, all games can be said to require only that you “find something, reach something, or otherwise interact with something” that is a very vague sentence, so let’s look at some specifics. Let’s see what, exactly, these two game series want you to do while engaging with a quest.
Let’s take a look at those action verbs.
Quests in Mario tend to be collection-based. You have to find the star, the sun, the moon, or some other object which is hidden behind some object or task. However, the task you must complete to collect the reward varies quite a bit. In Mario64 Nintendo established the formula they've used ever since, and we see quests that break down into 5 different types. You have stars which are rewarded as a result of the following: Exploration, Boss Fights, solving Puzzles, experimenting with New Mechanics, or basic Skill Tests. Exploration stars are about reaching a new location, often as the first star in a level, so that you can get an understanding for the space before being tasked with any more specific interactions. Boss Fights come in many forms, but always demand completing combat in a specific setting of some kind, usually with a unique enemy. Puzzles reveal a hidden star in mundane places, such as climbing to the top of 4 specific poles, or shooting yourself in a cannon to break a brick wall. New Mechanics are introductory quests which allow you to experiment with things like the flying cap or metal mario transformation. Skill Tests are jumping or timing challenges that test your ability to manipulate Mario in particular ways, usually involving reaching the end of a difficult gauntlet. Skill tests can test the player’s speed, such as in the foot races, their jumping ability, such as in nearly every star in Rainbow Ride, or their precision/timing, such as by having them stomp on a pole to free a chain chomp. Skill tests are, predictably, the most common star type in the game.
Quests in Mario 3 tend to be simpler, you must only move from left to right and reach the end of the level. Every “quest” in that game is the same, and the challenge comes in the obstacles of the level preventing you from doing that.
Quests in Bowser’s Fury are similar to Mario64 in terms of genre, though there are some additions such as delivering a key to a cage, or forcing Bowser to blast open particular walls.
Quests in Armored Core tend to all be skill tests. There’s no need for exploration-focused rewards because the fantasy is that you are a military contractor just following orders. That said, there are a few instances where you can explore a level for hidden rewards, or even entirely new quests. While Mario had a focus on Puzzle quests, Armored Core leaves its puzzles for optional unlocks of new items. There are no New Mechanic quests because the mechanics in Armored Core focus on mastery, and introducing a Metal Mario equivalent would ruin that pacing. Boss Fights and Skill Tests in Armored Core are, however, much more varied than in Mario. There are quests to defend a space from invasion, to chase down a fast enemy before a timer runs out, to reach a difficult space, to reach a difficult space before a timer, or to do so with a boss on the way. Armored Core even has an entire Arena section of the game that is nothing but a gauntlet of boss fights in every possible flavor. The game even combines these things, the boss fights in the main game tend to be Arena combatants you’ll fight in that context as well. Armored Core uses quite a lot of layering like this, expanding its skill tests through combinations, putting a boss fight between a timed sequence, or adding in a restriction on the amount of damage you can take just for that added spice.
Those familiar with the kishotenketsu design philosophy will note that Mario also layers its mechanics, but that type of interaction is much more common in 2D Mario titles, usually those without quest design in the same way as the 3D titles I’ve been referencing so far. Still, there’s a pretty clear connection in the design philosophy of how Armored Core expands its quests alongside player skill, and how Mario does it in those games. You can imagine how a 3D Mario title could start layering in skill tests on top of each other to create a much more “hardcore” experience, perhaps you’d have to race Koopa The Quick while also dodging enemies or beating bosses or whatever. In fact, I'd bet some of that is already present, just less obviously than it is in 2D, because of the difference in difficulty ramping for a 3D platformer.
So once again we have a number of lessons we can take from this. Let’s start by listing out the types of interaction each of these games turns into a quest
Go To A Location
Collect An Item
Kill A Monster
Win A Race
And in Mario you can get the following modifiers on the above
While Carrying An Item (which drops if you take a hit)
Within A Time Limit
Complete Task X Number of Times (such as collecting 8 red coins or killing 4 enemies)
Go To A Location
Collect An Item
Kill A Monster
Win A Race (though usually this is about killing a target before they escape)
Defend A Target
And in Armored Core you can get the following modifiers
While Taking Less Than X Damage
Within A Time Limit
Complete Task X Number of Times (such as killing all targets, or defending many areas)
Looking at the above you may note that Armored Core has more bullet points, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those games have more quest variation, because I have combined quite a lot of the depth Mario games tend to use. For example “Collect An Item” in Mario could involve putting on a Metal cap or a Flying Cape, transforming the game into something entirely different where in Armored Core that only ever means “go here, stand on this, come back”.
It’s also worth pointing out, explicitly, that the lists of possible quest actions in both of these game series are mostly identical. Both games demand you go to locations, collect items, kill boss monsters, etc. Despite the differences in genre, the quest design interactions remain largely the same. This tells us something about the fundamentals of quest design, and is highly useful going forward, because knowing this we can start to test other genres as well, and see how often these specific goals are present, and how we can start to compare something like Bowser’s Fury to something even less related, like World of Warcraft (no, I will not be making that comparison today. The old gods can only take so much face punching).
Let’s move on to the final part of the quest!
Rewarding Your Players
Quests need rewards, right? Mario and Armored Core have wildly different approaches to this concept, as I’m sure anyone who has played both can attest.
Mario games reward the player by effectively just checking off an item in a long checklist. You have collected 1 of 120 stars, collect the rest to complete the game. Mario doesn’t always have a discrete number of rewards, nor does it always require all of them to complete the game, but a consistent theme in those games is that you must complete a number of tasks before unlocking a final boss and beating the game.
Armored Core games reward the player with more options. You get new parts or money to buy new parts, and as you progress you improve your mech and therefore your ability to acquire more parts by completing new quests. Every quest in Armored Core improves your numerical advantage, making you a more powerful combatant, more capable of handling the ever-more-difficult enemies the games throw at you.
Putting It All Together
So what have we learned? Well, these games show a wide contrast of skill-focused, linear quest design. Both task you with overcoming difficult challenges and modify those challenges over time to cater towards increasing player ability. Both expand their quest offerings by layering simple concepts on top of one another.
Specifically what I think is valuable here is the comparison in types of skill test between two very different genres. Most Mario quests are simply “Go To Location” and we still see that same quest type in Armored Core fairly often. Most Armored Core quests are “Kill A Monster” and we see that same goal present in Mario all the time, if presented a little differently. What I wasn’t expecting was to see all the other quest goals that these two games share. I mean honestly, I couldn’t have picked two more different titles, yet almost all of the quest goals are shared between them both. In fact, the “Defend A Target” quest that is not shared could very easily be adapted into a Mario game if Nintendo wanted. You can imagine a horde of goombas climbing up a hill and you have to shoot fire flower bolts at them or something, right? It’d be an odd choice for a Mario quest, but I could see a one-off use of this in a shipped title, if there was a level where it made thematic sense.
Incidentally, while writing this article I also played a number of other Giant Mech games, stuff like Zone of the Enders, Robotech Battlecry, Zoids: Battle Legends, etc. and they all share similar quest interactions with Armored Core. I also looked at several other game types, MMOs, farming sims, etc. and these same cores are present in the majority of those quests as well. In fact, the same can be said of literature and film, these same quest goals of “go to a location”, “collect an item”, and “kill a monster” could be used to recreate everything from Lord of the Rings to The Illiad to Legally Blond.
Knowing that so many stories are based in relatively simple actions gives us a point of comparison to use while choosing our systems to build into a game. While the impulse is to adapt action movies like Looper or The Matrix into first-person action titles focused on gunplay, if we look at the quest design of those films, the protagonist’s quest is almost always just “Go To A Location” and the gunplay is a side effect of the desire to move into a space, not something actually required by the story. Similarly, classic epics task the hero with “Retrieve The Golden Idol” and the monsters are simply placed along the path to that idol, not a required part of the quest itself. Yet games so often put the Golden Idol into the item drop pool for the giant monster, thus demanding the player kills the beast that should have been an optional hazard.
Mario and Armored Core both show us a way of presenting the player with exactly the information they need to choose a quest. They tell you to go and kill the monster, and they acknowledge that most quests aren’t about that violence specifically. Many of Armored Core quests can and should be completed by rushing through to the target as quickly as possible, ignoring or circumventing combat as often as you can, as any sensible person would do in real life, but I think you’ll find that it’s impractical to do a pacifist run of the game, just as it would be impractical to expect the plot of Looper or The Matrix to advance without the violence. Still, we as quest designers have to be aware of the difference in focus. We have to acknowledge that it’s not the role of the quest to demand the violence, it’s the role of the enemies to demand to be dealt with.
And that’s all for me today. I can’t wait to read all the angry comments! Thanks for your time!