Koopa Shell Deception

-Greg Livingston

Deception is entertaining. I love a good plot twist, and that has its roots in deception: you’re set up to expect one plot event, but another happens. When you teach someone to expect one thing and give them another thing, that’s deception. Heck, deception is what makes Beethoven and those Romantic composers such a blast. Listeners had been taught to expect music that followed Classical rules, and the Romantics took advantage of that expectation and defied the rules.

Deception is a key part of games, too, but I find it hard to see most times. The deception employed in Super Mario Bros. has a lot of clarity to it, and that lends to the game’s personality.

Before I get to the main topic at hand, I’d like to go over one of the more interesting bits about scoring in Super Mario Bros., using world 3-1 as an example. As you can see here, Mario’s about to jump on a koopa.

You can kick it to send it into other enemies. The shell moves pretty fast, so you have to run after it at full speed.

As you hit more enemies, you earn more points per kill.

The score is up to 4000 here. The score maxes out at 8000, and after that,

the shell hits a block and hurtles back towards Mario.

I know this game far better than I ought to, and you can tell it by this last screenshot. I knew that the shell was going to bounce back at me right after it scored a 1-up, so I jumped in advance. That’s because this moment scarred me as a child and left me with muscle memory to handle one particular scenario in an NES game from 1985.

But no, think about it. After you kick the turtle shell, you’re chasing after it at top speed. It’s all you can do to keep the darned thing onscreen. If it despawns, you’ve lost your chance at a 1-up. Heck, even beyond that, it’s just a really neat trick to pull off. So you’ve got the motivation to run blindly after the shell.

What does Super Mario Bros. do now that it’s convinced you to run after this shell? Why, it bounces that shell right back at you. While it’s certainly possible to dodge the shell on reflexes alone, it’s much harder when Mario is sprinting forward as fast as he can.

The game sets you up with an expectation. You’ve got a string of enemies, all lined up to get taken out by the shell. You plan to just follow along and see how many bad guys the shell runs over. That’s where the deception comes in: you never expect the shell to run YOU over. Or, to put it another way, when the shell reverses directions, your expectations are reversed.

The game does give you another chance at a 1-up towards the opening of 8-1, though.

This time, you might remember that the shell bounced after you earned a 1-up.

So, you’ll be prepared to jump as soon as you get the free life.

Well, it wouldn’t be deception if you knew what to expect.

Like I said, games employ deception often enough, but they don’t usually have the guts to ruin your day like Super Mario Bros. does. And hey, it lends Super Mario Bros. character, but I don’t know if I like my day being ruined.

…Most of the time.