This sequel might be the most accessible game design tool ever created.
It’s hard to decide where to begin when talking about all the things I love about Super Mario Maker 2. It does nearly everything better than its already excellent predecessor, introducing some incredible new ideas, level styles, building items, and so much more – all while maintaining the charm of Mario games we know and love.
Despite enabling you to depart so radically from the core Mario style, even the most odd-ball levels still feel like they could belong to some lost Super Mario game. But Super Mario Maker 2 is so much more than just a way to live out your Miyamoto-esque design fantasies: there’s also a robust online mode to play against or with other people, a story mode that could almost stand as a full Mario game in its own right, and an abundance of content available to you before you even start making your first level. Like I said, I don’t even know where to begin.
One of most surprising new additions is Super Mario Maker 2’s story mode, which has as much depth as you’d expect from a Super Mario story: Undo Dog accidentally presses the reset button on Peach’s castle, destroying it. It’s up to Mario to make it right. To do so means beating increasingly difficult levels, which earns you coins needed to repair the castle. That’s all story mode is and that’s all it needs to be.
Essentially the story mode exists as an excuse to get you to play over 100 pre-made levels, referred to as “jobs,” most of which couldn’t exist outside the bent rules of Super Mario Maker 2. They take the classic Mario formula and use the new building elements to pull that otherwise familiar rug out from under you, with the result being hundreds of ways Super Mario Maker 2 delighted and surprised me.
I mean it when I say the story mode in Super Mario Maker 2 could be its own game.
There’s no central theme or structure to the levels – there isn’t a World 1-2 with a warp zone to World 4-1. Instead, each level stands on its own, and in spite of the barest of narratives, I found myself absolutely in love with the story mode. The levels are so wonderfully creative, each one using the many varied tools of Super Mario Maker 2’s maker mode to create something never seen before. It’s almost like a chef tasting: each artist has created a small dish, unfettered from the constraints of their nightly menus, and you’re lucky enough to sample the fruits of their creativity. Levels range from classic Mario platforming, to levels challenging your technical skills with precarious jumps and timing, to levels where you race on a series of bouncing platforms inside a Super Mario 3D World Koopa Car. A later level takes place entirely in a Koopa car, and it’s one of the most fluid, and most fun, levels in the game.
I mean it when I say the story mode in Super Mario Maker 2 could be its own game. After completing construction on the castle, which required me to beat over 100 levels, I still had five pages of “jobs” left to do. Completing the story unlocks a new option in your Maker levels, so there’s more reason to play through it other than “because it’s awesome.” Honestly, I hope there are more jobs to unlock beyond the ones I have, because I love playing them.
But this is Super Mario Maker 2 after all, not Super Mario Castle Repair Simulator. It comes as no surprise that the section dedicated to crafting your own Super Mario levels is superb. Any concerns I had about controller-based input versus the 3DS and Wii U’s touch input melted away after a short period of adjustment. I actually grew to prefer using the controller to build levels over handheld’s touch input – not because touch is bad, but because using the controller is so good. There is a gentle learning curve, one that’s easy to overcome, and once I got the hang of it, I couldn’t go back. My one complaint is that handheld mode forces you to use touch for most things, with no option to use a controller at all. Again, touch interface works great, but I’m so used to building levels with my controller in docked mode that I’d like to keep that continuity when I swap between Switch modes.
The number options here for level creation are astonishing. Across the top of the screen are 12 blocks, each with an item option for building, like bricks, power-ups, enemies and such. Hitting the magnifying glass in touch, or holding down the ‘Y’ button, brings up even more choices. Options depend on what Mario style you’re using, with the 3D World items like the cat suit not usable in the 2D game styles. There are then further, nested options buried inside many of the elements: hold down the Y button over a placed green Koopa, for example, and you can turn it into a red one, or give it wings, or both. You can also choose to the make them enormous, or have them don parachutes. Those are just the options for Koopas; most elements have additional customization options available, like setting the speed of conveyor belts, or deciding whether a floating platform will move or drop when you land on it.
The new clear conditions are great, and I played one extremely fun and challenging level where Mario wasn’t allowed to jump or even so much as leave the ground.
Some of the new options, like different angled slopes, add even more variety to your level designs. But maybe the biggest, literal game-changer comes with the new “clear conditions.” You can set exciting/simple/clever parameters that must be met in order to complete the level. For example, you can set it so players must defeat at least one Hammer Bro, or take zero hits (even when powered-up).
I haven’t seen all the clear conditions used in other people’s levels yet, but I did play an extremely fun and challenging level where Mario wasn’t allowed to jump or even so much as leave the ground. Through a clever use of environmental obstacles like seesaws, note blocks, and conveyor belts, I was forced to complete a fully realized Mario level without jumping once. EVen a bounce invalidated the run if Mario’s feet left the ground. It was part auto-Mario, part-platformer, and it was so inventive (and occasionally frustrating), I started dreaming up my own similar levels immediately after I finished. (Note: they were all bad and I deleted them.)
New switching blocks open up exciting new options for puzzle levels, and snake blocks bring a new element to the popular auto-Mario levels that eventually dominated the first game’s online community. There are also new, adjustable paths for autoscrolling levels, so you can build your very own airship armada at varying levels of altitude and set the pathway ahead of time. It’s so insanely robust and overflowing with creative options that it can occasionally seem overwhelming.
Easing that burden is maybe my favorite extra feature of Super Mario Maker 2, Yamamura’s Dojo. Yamamura is a sentient pigeon who runs a tutorial mode with the help of Nina, a human, but I feel like calling it a tutorial mode does it a real injustice. The Dojo is a game-design boot camp. Yes, there are lessons showing you the basics -how to test your levels, what to do if you mess up, and how to use the various parts and pieces – but there are also lessons on drawing inspiration for your works, giving directions to your players, and even a lesson called “Treating the Player Fairly,” where the ultimate take-away is “no one likes a troll.” Well said, Nina. Well said.
But even those are just the intermediate lessons. Advanced lessons in Yamamura’s Dojo explore more ethereal topics like pacing, effective use of clear conditions, and can even tackle philosophical game design questions like “Does the Way Forward Always Need to be Clear?”
Better still, these lessons are entirely optional. It’s up to you how much, or how little, you want to learn from some of the most creative minds in video game creation. The broader lessons on pacing and respecting the player extend beyond just Super Mario Maker 2. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re now 10 years away from game designers citing Super Mario Maker 2 and its lessons on building competent and compelling levels as the catalyst that started their careers.
Mario Maker is fundamentally about sharing and exploring levels built by other people, and the Course World section of Super Mario Maker 2 is where user-generated content lives. I liked how easy it was to browse other people’s creations, and more robust search options this time around allow you to drill down to find the exact level you want. I wanted to find a level tagged “Auto-Mario,” so I just deselected all the other tags and the search gave me what I wanted. But I could have gone to much greater lengths of specificity: if I wanted a Super Mario Bros. 3 ghost house level with an expert difficulty level created in Europe and speed-running elements, I could have found one and then sorted the results by popularity or clear rate. (Sadly, none such level existed during the review period.)
I really like Course World, and it does a good job of floating the quality levels to the top -at least during the time I played pre-launch. Playing someone else’s level, and have it be good and surprising, is a real delight. It also helps in the creative process. One of the most popular levels has a great sky castle design with a coin-collecting clear condition, and I enjoyed it so much I wanted to emulate its feel immediately. It’s just so enjoyable finding and playing other people’s levels, I would still be having a lot of fun even if I never had to build my own.