Video games and subway maps don't seem to have much in common, but for Washington, D.C.-based graphic designer Matthew Stevenson, the connection between the two is obvious: both are ways to explore other worlds. That's why, in his art, Stevenson mashes both up. As part of his NES Subway Maps project, he transforms the maps of old-school Nintendo games like Zelda, Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, and Metroid into pastiches of the London Underground, Lisbon Subway, or Tokyo Metro.
Stevenson's first game/subway map mash-up was basically inspired by a pun. "I started with the D.C. Metro map since it was the city I was most familiar with," Stevenson says. "Metroid was one of my first NES games back in 1987 and I remember my brother and I getting seriously frustrated by the maze-like quality of the game world. Metro, Metroid: the idea practically formed itself."
After completing his D.C. Metroid map, Stevenson wanted to keep going, saying it "scratches [his] nostalgia itch" in a way that his day-job as a creative director for D.C.-based branding agency Fathom Creative does not. He's since created maps for Maniac Mansion (based on Moscow's Transit System), Dragon Warrior (based on the Lisbon Subway), The Legend of Zelda (London Underground) and Zelda II (Tokyo Transit System), and Final Fantasy (the New York City subway).
According to Stevenson, the best game maps for his art are non-linear in nature, just like subway systems. Super Mario Bros. wouldn't make a good game map because it's basically just a single line: World 1-1, World 1-2, and so on. There are no branches, no real skipping around. A game like The Legend of Zelda, though, allows a player to make all sorts of choices about where he will go, and how he will get there—just like riding a train. Stevenson creates his maps by diagramming those non-linear gameplay paths using the borrowed aesthetic, including the colors, the lines, and the typography, of real-world metro maps.
Oddly enough, Stevenson has found himself wrestling with some of the same conundrums real subway map designers face as they diagram public transportation system: how much can you abstract while still making a system seem like it connects to the already familiar?
"One of the things I learned as a designer through this series is that sometimes simplifying a visual system doesn’t necessarily make it easier to use," Stevenson says. "I found myself staring at the finished Moscow Maniac Mansion map saying to myself, 'I know it’s visually simpler, but why does it seem unfamiliar now?'" He reckons that simplifying information can sometimes throw our brains off as much as making it more complex. Whether you're trying to diagram the Metroid-filled caverns of the planet Zebes, or the Tokyo subway system, a good designer needs to find balance between the abstract and the complex.
Stevenson's NES Subway Maps are available for purchase as prints for $13.50 apiece here.