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What Old Issues of Nintendo Power Can Teach Us About Level Design

In this post, I discuss memories of one of my favorite magazines and how they have influenced my outlook on level design.

I love having to explain what gaming was like in the early days to my younger relatives and the kids I used to swim coach.  “Back in my day”, I often begin, “we used to have to BLOW IN OUR GAMES FOR AN HOUR to get them to work!  If the Nintendo didn’t feel like letting you play that day you didn’t get to!  And we loved it!”  This, the novelty of the D-Pad, and tinny sound of 8-bit music are lost on a lot of these young gamers.  Another great loss is the influence of one of the greatest magazines known to mankind. 

I am of course referring to Nintendo Power

nintendo power issue 1

Now you're playing with Power... 

Sure, NP is still around these days, but it’s not nearly the same.  Unfortunately the proliferation of online forums and gaming tip sites like GameFAQs has all but destroyed the need for a monthly publication for tips and tricks.  Nintendo Power today is a magazine based on giving previews, game reviews, and various pieces of Nintendo Wii and DS related news. 

Not that this is bad content; it’s actually very good.  However, in an age where we couldn’t hop online to find out how to beat games like Contra or Mega Man 2, the maps and advice from Nintendo’s panel of expert Counselors was like printed gold.  The magazine was also a lot of fun, featuring artwork from the games you often didn’t see in other places.  NP also had an incredibly handy tool for gamers in the form of game maps.  These maps showed players the layouts of levels and gave them helpful advice on certain difficult areas by marking that place with an arrow, number, bubble, etc., then giving a the player information on that spot in a separate text bubble, often featuring an amusing name (this tradition continues on many of the walkthroughs on Sometime during architecture school, I realized that this could be a good metaphor for the design of experientially interesting buildings, one that I keep in mind when designing levels or helping my students design levels today. 

  Mario 3 strategy guide

An example of a Nintendo Power map

These maps are models for level designers in two very good ways.  The first is the very simple way in which they show players and designers looking at the magazine what the layouts of various levels are like.  In this way, the designs of good game levels from years past are accessible to modern designers.  While playing is obviously better than seeing the levels in a magazine, the printed maps can become good visual aids for design instructors.  Imagine a database of good precedent examples from various games:  how does the spatial layout of a dungeon form The Legend of Zelda:  A Link to the Past teach us to create tense battle experiences?  How does the map of a level from Super Mario Bros. 3 help us entice the player to explore a space?  We can sit and enjoy these things from a macro scale without having to worry about having to solve in-game objectives or beat time limits. 

The second, and perhaps most important, is those previously mentioned useful text bubbles that marked out where difficult areas are.  I like to think of them as “Nintendo Power Moments.”  Basically, an Nintendo Power Moment is any area in a video game level map that has a unique player experience placed in such a way that IF it were to be covered in a 80’s or 90’s era game magazine, the creators of the magazine would point them out.  This can and should involve item locations, boss fights, level obstacles, or enemies placed in specifically designed areas.  Here are some ideas for doing this:

Megaman 9 maps carries on many of Nintendo Power's traditions

Item locations:  To me, the items that are the most fun to get are those that are given as rewards.  Ninety percent of the time that includes placing important treasures after boss fights or enemy encounters.  However, that does not always need to be the case.  Great experiential moments (Nintendo Power Moments) can help give emphasis to items that are simply placed off the beaten path.  When designing levels, I try to emphasize item locations or tell some sort of story with them.  This way, a mundane item such as a health pack can be exciting.  For example, in a game where you may be hunting down keys in a temple of some sort, the keys should be given special architectural details such as alcoves cut out of walls, arches, statues, or domes.  I’m a big believer in level design’s power to make rewards more rewarding by celebrating them architecturally.  In the case of the health pack, which would seem pretty silly in a treasure chest under a stone archway, you can place objects to tell a story.  Let’s say a health pack is on a table in an underground bunker level…pretty standard.  Now, let’s place the 3D models of some spent ammo cartridges, a cigarette in an ashtray, a puddle of blood, and some alien footprints disappearing into a locked or blocked doorway.  Now, even though the player is only able to use the health pack in this scene, but seeing that one of his companions was preparing to fight off the alien attackers, got ambushed, and we get to benefit from his leftover supplies can add to the narrative tension of a scene. 

safe room

Item locations with embedded narrative elements

Level obstacles:  The goal of the designer should be to create a fun combination of level obstacles and enemy encounters.  It is important to note that not all obstacles in a level need to be NP Moments; you can’t overload the player with difficult jumps and pitfalls; but a few here and there can be a lot of fun.  People still remember the gap in Super Mario Bros. where Mario must traverse a pit by landing on a one-block-wide ledge from a run, then jump quickly enough to make it to the opposite side.  Similarly in Mega Man 2, the “impossible jump” in Wily’s Castle was so well remembered that a “Howard and Nester” comic strip in NP discussed it.  The key with these is pacing; throw in some typical or smaller obstacles, then every once in a while throw some larger ones in.  The smaller ones can (and often should) include enemies so the encounter can be a little more fun, but the big obstacles should be difficult enough on their own. 

Megaman 2 comic

Nester shows off his Mega Man 2 skills

Boss fights and enemy encounters:  These pretty much go hand in hand because they are more or less the same thing…with a few unique aspects.  Whether an encounter with regular enemies or a large boss monster occurs in a space, the level geometry should be designed to enhance the enemy encounter by counteracting or highlighting the mechanics of those enemies.  It’s one thing to encounter an enemy soldier in a bland hallway, but taking the same soldier and putting him in a warehouse with stacks of boxes can dramatically change how you fight them.  The levels in Left 4 Dead are great for this, especially since the game only really features six enemy creatures but tons of ways to encounter each one.  Zombies can be shot from above, encountered in a bottleneck, stop you from advancing out of tunnels, chase you, surround you, come from seemingly no-where or be “like shooting fish in a barrel.”  It would be easy to see the Nintendo Power maps for such levels highlighting strategies on where to get the best defensive positions for hoards or Tanks, depending on where the Director places them. 

  tank in a house

Fighting the Tank in a house is vastly different from fighting him in an open area

A special word needs to be said again about boss encounters.  Like normal enemies, the level where these monsters attack should be unique to their own movement mechanics.  The catch is that the boss enemy should be itself intelligently designed to be unique.  Therefore, the level where you encounter it should be unique.  More often than not, “high ground gives you an advantage” is a cop out, unless being on the level with the monster has particular risks and the boss can take you down near them.  The really big element of boss battles is the feeling of the space they occupy.  Fighting a giant monster in a square room with little but a floor and wall texture is boring.  An epic boss fight needs to be just that…EPIC.  In these areas, even if the boss is a small character that provides more of a duel-style fight, the level designer should think like a medieval church architect.  In a magazine, the boss room should be easy to distinguish when looking at the level map, and again, the way the level design responds to the enemy’s own moveset should help create the appropriate Nintendo Power Moment that requires the player/reader’s attention. 

  MGS3 final boss

With the stealth mechanics of Metal Gear games, level mechanics can occasionally play heavily into boss battles like this one against "The Boss"

Graphically, these ideas can help student level designers present their level design ideas.  Setting up a level design map on a presentation poster as though it were a page in a tip magazine can be an excellent way to display your design ideas.  The “tip bubbles” on the page can give insight into the designer’s logic for creating their specific moments of gameplay.  Overall, the video game magazines of yesteryear still have a lot to teach us about our own video game designs, even years after we memorized the Konami Code from “Classified Information.”    

classified information #1

Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start

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