I’m a sucker for level design and design patterns, so when I came across this article (and paper) called “Level Design Patterns in 2D games”, I had to read it! Unfortunately it’s a bit wordy, so I thought I’d summarise it and throw in a bunch of pictures! Enjoy!

It’s taken a surprising amount of effort to gather these examples. If you know of any please let me know so I can add more!

Guidance

Guide the player through the path they need to take.

  1. Level shape

    Super Mario Bros. Super Meat Boy
    Super Mario Bros. stairs to flagpole Super Meat Boy hills
  2. Collectibles (a.k.a. breadcrumbing)

    Donkey Kong Country 2 Granny Smith
    Donkey Kong Country 2 bananas Granny Smith apples
  3. Enemies

    Super Mario Bros. 3 Sonic 3
    Super Mario Bros. 3 flying shells Sonic 3 monkey and collectible on tree
  4. Environmental cues

    The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Pokemon
    The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past bombable walls Pokemon hidden items in conspicuous rocks

Safe Zone

Give the players a place safe from hazards so they can stop and think.

Contra The Legend of Zelda
Contra energy zone flames The Legend of Zelda safe doorways in dungeons

Foreshadowing

Partially introduce something new to the player, only to fully reveal it later. This can serve to teach the player, or encourage exploration.

  1. New hazard that’s out of reach

    Bare Knuckle III Golden Axe
    Bare Knuckle III boss in boat Golden Axe bad brothers
  2. New enemy that foreshadows a boss

    Megaman Contra
    Megaman enemy using Cutman weaponMegaman Cutman boss fight Contra bugger before boss
  3. New objects / obstacles that cannot be used until later, to encourage exploration.

    Chrono Trigger Pokemon
    Chrono Trigger sealed chests Pokemon tree

Layering

Combining multiple objects to create new experiences, like a harder challenge.

  1. Multiples of the same object

    Raiden 2 Streets of Rage 3
    Raiden 2 multiple enemies
  2. Different objects

    Jackal Super Mario World
    Jackal level 5 boss Super Mario World Banzai Bill and Goombas

Branching

Giving the player different choices.

  1. Branching with no restrictions - gives the feeling of exploration

    Binding of Isaac: Rebirth Final Fantasy IV
    Binding of Isaac: Rebirth branching map Final Fantasy IV airship
  2. Conditional branching - stimulates curiosity and may require backtracking

    Super Metroid The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
    Super Metroid coloured doors The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past locked doors
  3. Risk-reward branches - encourages players to invest more time in the game by rewarding skill

    Excitebike Sonic 3
    Excitebike branching paths Sonic 3 extra life

Pace Breaking

Dramatically changing the pacing of the game - higher or lower tension.

  1. Introduce difficulty (e.g. bosses) to increase tension

    Lifeforce 1943
    Lifeforce first boss 1943 boss
  2. Decrease tension to let players enjoy other parts of the game, or learn a new mechanic

    Mappy Street Fighter 2
    Mappy bonus round Street Fighter 2 car
  3. Decrease tension to set up for a more dramatic increase later (e.g. just before a boss fight)

    Megaman 2 Chrono Trigger
    Megaman 2 boss corridor Chrono Trigger Magus's Lair
  4. Controlling tension through level design

    Jackal Gradius 2
    Jackal lasers Gradius 2 flares