You don’t appreciate how many different kinds of Mario levels there are until you try to make one of your own. Super Mario Maker 2 had only been running on my Switch for about fifteen minutes, unfettered latitude to design the greatest Super Mario Bros title ever made at my fingertips, and I could already feel my brain beginning to collapse in on itself.
Super Mario Maker 2 is less a Nintendo game in the traditional sense and more of a gamified creative software suite in the vein of Mario Paint. It allows the user to create, test and distribute Super Mario Bros levels of their own, and to play levels created by others. The art design of every major Super Mario Bros game from the NES original, through the SNES era and all the way through to New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe, are all represented. You can make your levels look, sound and feel exactly like your classic faves. Super Mario Maker 2 introduces a new style into the mix with the Super Mario 3D World template adding fresh traversal options for Cat Mario.
For players who, like me, are dipping their toe into the Mario Maker series for the first time, the array of options it presents may seem overwhelming at first. Thankfully, Nintendo has gone to great pains to include deep tutorialisation. Every facet of creating your own courses is explored in clear terms anyone of any age group can understand. It’s also very patient, allowing the player to toy with each lesson as long as they like until they’ve got it down.
My first level was what I assume many players will begin with: an approximation of the venerable, familiar World 1-1 from the original Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 is considered a masterpiece among game design educators. Its express purpose is to teach the player how Super Mario Bros works without ever stating that this is what’s happening. Thus, for someone about to design their own Mario level, it seemed like a good place to start. I did my best to recreate it from memory — basic jumping puzzles, hidden coin boxes, a warp pipe to an underground room and some strategically placed goombas to mess with player rhythms.
The interface for building each level is kept simple. Assets are arranged in a series of boxes along the top of the screen, each one labelled with a picture of what it creates. Need coins? Tap the coin box, and then tap or swipe anywhere on your level to place them. You can find expanded assets — like villains — within radial dials. Again, just drag and drop. Control-wise, I found the Switch Pro Controller and Joy Cons were useable but a bit clunky. It’s clear that, like the original, Super Mario Maker 2 was built with touch controls in mind. Thus, my strong recommendation is that you design your levels in Handheld mode before testing or showing them off in TV mode. Everything is suddenly much easier — you can draw long swooping arcs of coins, build terrain more efficiently, and quickly reposition Mario to test particular parts. The one drawback to designing on the touchscreen is that the asset boxes don’t scale in size. This means that, while they’ll be fine for kids and their small fingers, grown-ups may occasionally struggle to be accurate. Pro tip for parents: Round yourself up a rubber-tipped stylus. It makes a huge difference, and it won’t scratch the screen.
Anyway, before long I had pieced together my own version of the beloved World 1-1. I sat back admired my work … and then I started to expand on it.
The beauty of Super Mario Maker 2 is that if you can imagine it in a Mario Bros game, then no idea is too big, crazy, or complex. I could see the options stretching out in front of me. What would I do next? A spooky funhouse level with multiple doors that actively tries to mess with the player? A smooth and graceful platformer built for four player speedrunning? A whole level of nothing but lakitus pegging hammers at you as you flee in terror? I couldn’t decide, so I backed out of the builder mode and moved over to Story.
Yes, Super Mario Maker 2 comes with a fully fledged story mode. When Undodog, the character made for helping you delete your last placed items, accidentally destroys Princess Peach’s castle, it’s up to Mario and a few especially crafty Toad contractors to rebuild. Story mode presents you with a series of courses that grow in complexity as you progress. Completing courses nets you gold coins which can be spent to rebuild and upgrade different wings of the castle.
Story mode’s purpose is twofold — first, and most importantly, it helps generate player inspiration. It lets you look at other people’s levels and see firsthand what can be accomplished with this toolset. You’ll come away from it fired out of a creativity cannon and I urge you to check it out. Second, it is comprised of the very best courses created by players of the Wii U original, spanning every genre, era and global region. It’s a fantastic community spotlight and one I’m glad Nintendo included.
Armed with some fresh ideas, you’ll be back into the course builder mode in no time. And if your ideas are too big for one person to manage, you can always invite a friend to help you out. Super Mario Maker 2 introduces two player, couch co-op course building. Split the two Joy Cons between you and you’re on your way. I’m blown away by how effective it is, from concept to implementation. An addition that will lead to some truly wild course designs as competing ideas collide. The only downside as I see it comes back to the aforementioned control issues — if you found the Pro Controller hard to grapple with, the Joy Con won’t be much easier. If you can get your head around it, co-op building is revelatory.
From there, it’s on to the internet. You can log onto a giant online library of content created and shared by other players. Test their levels, see what they’ve made with the same tools and then try them for yourself. It is a vast, endless process of collaboration and iteration.
Super Mario Maker 2 is the kind of toolset you wished for as a kid, drawing ideas for Mario levels on scratch paper. It rarely tells you no and actively encourages the kind of out of the box thinking that has allowed the Super Mario Bros series to remain fresh and relevant for over 30 years. A must own.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Smart, effective toolset; Deep tutorialisation; Great community tools
Lowlights: Control methods beyond the touchscreen may frustrate
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Available: 28 June 2019
Review conducted on Nintendo Switch with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.