Recently, I started getting into Super Mario Maker 2. Yes, the game has been out for a while. Rave reviews have come out. Our very own Ben Runnings has been streaming his antics with the game, and the entire community is still going strong with plenty of player-generated Mario levels to enjoy. But this is not a review of the game, or an attempt to hit the various talking points about how the sequel iterates and improves upon it’s great (and sadly underappreciated) Wii U predecessor. No, this is to explain a curious phenomenon that seems to be happening a lot with those deep into the particulars of Super Mario Maker 2, and how it just might be Nintendo’s greatest gift to the gaming community.
When I first booted up Super Mario Maker 2, the first thing I did was jump right into the course creator, creative juices a-flowin’. I had a central gimmick in mind, a difficulty curve, and even had a theme I wanted the entire level to encompass. And after a solid five or six hours of testing, adding, and re-arranging everything, my level was complete. I felt clever, like a legitimate puzzle master and was ready to share my creation with the world, convinced that it would be a great first effort. Then the numbers came in. Almost nobody cleared the level, only one person even liked it (he’s the host of the OP Game Show, you might know him) and my enthusiasm deflated. What went wrong? Clearly nobody was actually understanding the puzzles and were just wandering into my punishing dead ends and death traps, calling my baby a troll level because their pea brains just didn’t get it.
Then after calming down a bit and consulting Super Mario Maker 2’s extensive tutorials and videos about optimal level design things started to come into focus. I didn’t telegraph this properly. The punishment here and there was too severe so early in the level. I needed more visual affordances in places X, Y, and Z to make sure crucial information was relayed properly. And above all, the play test data from the initial version of the level helped me notice that I leaned a little too hard on traps near the end rather than the environmental puzzles I was trying to make the focus.
And it was when I went back to the drawing board a shocking revelation hit me: Super Mario Maker 2 got me thinking like a level designer.
As much as the Mario Maker games have been praised for giving players access to the most iconic toy box in video game history, it’s important to note that developers giving players the keys to their creative tools isn’t exactly new. Way back in the 90s when DOOM was the most heavily circulated shareware in PC circles, there were also hundreds of player-created levels printed out on floppy discs and circulated as well. All with varying degrees of quality. Garry’s Mod lets people mess around with characters and locations from all of Valve’s Source engine games like Left 4 Dead and Half-Life. Even Media Molecule’s own Little Big Planet and Dreams hinges their entire appeal on letting players create their own special experiences and sharing them with the world.
But what makes Super Mario Maker 2 stand out from these other games is a consistent sense of tutelage and structure. If you’re making a level of DOOM where it’s just a bunch of rooms full of mini-bosses and you only give the player the starting pistol, nothing’s stopping you but there’s a very good chance no one’s going to find the level fun. Meanwhile, Super Mario Maker 2 has an entire story mode full of levels that, while not challenging to veteran players, helps show visually the structure and cadence of a well-made level. Introduce an idea, teach it, expand and twist it, then give the player one final test of the idea’s use before the end. Furthermore, the game’s extensive videos on making levels include various topics such as getting inspiration for a level, not trolling your players with unseen hazards or threats, and communicating the idea that you aren’t trying to crush those who play your level, but rather guiding them to a great experience.
All of this in order to spend potentially days on something that will take most players maybe two to three minutes tops to beat in the hope that they won’t immediately forget about it later. A stark reminder that the hundreds of people who work on the latest video games are masters of their craft and the best levels are the ones that seem easy and obvious but actually take a lot of dedicated work and effort.
Which does highlight the big secret smuggled away in Super Mario Maker 2’s cartridge: this isn’t just a way to make your own Mario levels, but a delivery system for the very Super Mario design ethos.
This doesn’t mean just playing Super Mario Maker 2 is a proper substitute of a degree from Digipen however. While the tutorials and videos about level design and design philosophy are all well made and understandable to players of all ages, their use is highly limited. Every single video is locked behind a separate menu, and you can’t pause the videos while working on a level, which makes watching the videos feel like tedious homework. Which is sad, because a lot of these secrets and tricks really helped me evaluate where I went wrong in my endeavors.
Super Mario Maker 2 has been out for well over a month, and while I haven’t made as much as I like in it, this peak behind the curtain of how the talented developers at Nintendo tackle every single new project in the plumber’s iconic franchise made me have a greater appreciation for the craft on display and how it is inspiring a new generation of players to create themselves.