Maps have long been a steady feature in video games. Some are purely for navigation and monitoring progress, while others have unique functions and quirks.

    When most people think of video game maps the obvious ones spring to mind – the classic ‘etch-a-sketch’ automaps in Doom, Grand Theft Auto’s GPS, and Zelda’s pixel overworlds.

    But which ones had us lingering on the map screen a little longer?

    Super Mario World (SNES, 1990)

    Super Mario World‘s map stitches levels together in a cutesy RPG-style layout that looks a bit like a cool kid’s birthday cake.

    Super Mario World

    Made popular by games like Zelda, the hub-style overworld moved beyond the linear gameplay of the 80s, paving the way for more open exploration. Super Mario World features hidden levels – Valley of Bowser, Star World and the Special Zone – accessible only via secret portals in other levels, and opening up new paths when completed. The map even changes from a summer theme to fall on completion of the ‘Funky’ level, altering the colour scheme to a nice autumnal hue. Suddenly maps were becoming dynamic and not just a way to get from A to B.

    Commander Keen 4: Secret of the Oracle (MS-DOS, 1990)

    Much like Super Mario WorldCommander Keen 4 features a top-down map of the Shadowlands in which Keen enters and conquers various levels, sometimes unlocking access to new ones. But unlike Mario, Keen isn’t restricted to set pathways and is free to zip around the map. The different zones consist of everyday trees, lakes and mountains – basically resembling a rudimentary, comic-style Google Earth.

    Commander Keen 4

    The map has some really neat features – such as the entrance to Miragia, a dome that periodically disappears and reappears (as in a ‘mirage’), and can only be entered when it’s visible. Some areas require special access – the Three-Tooth Lake allows Keen to swim to three island levels but not before he acquires the wetsuit from Miragia.

    Commander Keen Miragia level

    Most interestingly, there’s a seemingly inaccessible level on the map, Pyramid of the Forbidden, which is surrounded by hedges. This is a secret level that can only be accessed via the Pyramid of the Moons by doing something clever with some inchworms. But if Keen exits back to the map without completing this level, he will be stranded in the hedged area. Enter at your peril!

    The map in Keen is small, but far from uneventful. id Software relished in the novelty of in-game extras (such as the option to play Paddle War on Keen’s digital watch) and the map is a great example of that.

    ToeJam & Earl (Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, 1991)

    ToeJam and Earl map

    The map in ToeJam & Earl is pretty useful for finding the elevator to the next level and those all-important ship pieces to escape planet Earth. The top-down view is basically a zoomed-out version of the game itself; as our alien pals cover more land, more of the map opens up. Then there are those ringing telephones – find one, and a chunk of map will be revealed. I’ve never quite understood the logic behind that, but in a game like this, well, there likely isn’t any.

    If ToeJam or Earl loses their footing and falls off the edge, they literally land on the level below. The map is therefore quite fundamental for island hopping and knowing where those large expanses lie. Those fancy Icarus wings will only get you so far, and you need to know you’re flying to an island and not about to plummet into oblivion.

    In a game that’s effectively a dungeon crawler, the map is essential for tracking how far you’ve wandered and if you need to do an about-turn. Get lost and it can take a while to get back to safety – one minute you’re wandering around feeling groovy, the next you’re desperately trying to flee a giant hamster, psycho shopping lady and tomato-wielding chickens, all of whom have descended on you at once.

    Needless to say, not a lot makes sense in this game, so the map brings a bit of order to the chaos.

    Monkey Island 1 and 2 (various platforms, 1990-1991)

    I couldn’t write a map list without mentioning the Monkey Island series. Maps are an integral part of Monkey lore – whether for navigating, puzzle-solving or delivering a bit of classic LucasArts humour.

    The map in The Secret of Monkey Island is for navigating around Meleé, but it’s also interactive, with a mini Guybrush tracing the journey from one location to another. Like the previous games, the map progresses with the gameplay – new locations and labels are added as and when the player discovers them. In Monkey Island some puzzle chains are even kickstarted via the map – mini Guybrush must cross paths with wandering pirates to initiate insult-sword-fighting; and later follow the storekeeper to the Sword Master’s house.

    The Secret of Monkey Island map

    Maps come into play even more so in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, where one of the main objectives is to find the four map pieces marking the legendary treasure of Big Whoop. Cue some extremely imaginative puzzles to obtain, lose, and re-obtain those pieces. Maps are at the very core of the gameplay here, as Guybrush simultaneously uses a map to navigate, and searches for the missing map pieces. At one point a lost piece is seen floating above the main navigation map – how very meta.

    But the most entertaining use of a map has to be on board the Jolly Rasta. Clicking on an unmarked area will elicit the following response from Captain Dread: ‘We can’t go there mon. That’s the Forbidden Triangle!’ Try it again, and: ‘We can’t go there, mon. That’s the Forbidden Square!’ Repeat ad nauseum, for a total of 26 variations that only increase in absurdity. ‘We can’t go there, mon. That’s the Forbidden Oblate Spheroid!’ ‘We can’t go there, mon. That’s the Elliptic Hyperboloid!’

    I took the liberty of recording all the responses.

    It’s natural that the Monkey Island games feature maps so prominently, but it’s the way they are incorporated into the gameplay that make them stand out. They are so much more than just a guide to get around the islands.

    All these early games took a minor feature of video gaming that until now was nothing more than a reference point, and made it a key part of the experience. Even to the extent that you can now you can buy T-shirts, mugs and cushions featuring the Monkey Island map pieces, or this amazing ‘world map’ print of the Mario landscape.

    It seems like there’s so much scope to make in-game maps more interesting. As these 90s games have shown, the map screen can provide perfect respite from puzzle-solving and chasing enemies, and need not be a droll departure from the game. Maps can be fun, interactive and beautiful – like the digital equivalent of those feelies you used to get in boxed games. And they make a great desktop background.

    Katie Parsons
    Kate is an avid retrogamer, language nerd and self-confessed X-phile. She likes to ramble on about these things and more.

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