Super Mario Maker and the Difficulty of Great Course Design

Super Mario Maker allows fans to make their own stages, highlighting Nintendo's design brilliance and how difficult course-building is...

It was difficult to hold back a minor ripple of cynicism when Super Mario Maker was given 2015 as its release date. In the place of such wonderful games as Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy, and Super Mario 3D World, Nintendo decided it wanted to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its biggest franchise with… a construction kit? Wouldn’t that be like celebrating, say, 75 years of The Beatles by releasing an official ringtone? Isn’t it a bit like Nintendo throwing a load of components in a box and saying, “Here you go. You want a Super Mario anniversary game? Build one yourself…”

Super Mario Maker is, it turns out, a far more fitting tribute to Nintendo’s leaping mascot than we’d initially expected. Not only is it so much more than a mere level editor, but it also gives us a fresh appreciation of the Mario series’ nuanced design.

This may also be the best showcase yet for the Wii U’s GamePad. Nintendo’s bulky bit of tech has had a few criticisms leveled at it over its near three-year lifespan, but here, suddenly, its usefulness snaps into focus. Its touchscreen integrates beautifully with Super Mario Makers stripped-back, elegant set of tools, allowing you to drag and drop the bite-sized blocks which make up a Super Mario stage – the Goombas, the brick-built platforms, those familiar green warp pipes. As delightful as LittleBigPlanet was, creating stages with a PlayStation joypad felt like putting a jigsaw together while wearing oven gloves – doable, but not exactly what you’d call pleasurable.

In Super Mario Maker, building levels feels as natural as doodling on a notepad. You can literally draw level components onto the screen with the stylus or the tip of your finger. Items interact with one another in a way that is both logical and ingenious. When you drag a pair of wings to a Goomba, it will fly around when you test your level out. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t even need explanation – you simply work it out for yourself as you drag things around. 

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Other icons allow you to change the look of your level design with similar ease. A click of a button allows you to switch between the visual styles of Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros U. You can also choose between six course styles that come with their own blocks and characters for you to play with: there’s the standard overworld, underground, underwater, and castle styles from Super Mario Bros, the airships from Super Mario Bros 3, and the trap-laden ghost houses from Super Mario World. Certain aspects of the game – such as Mario’s ability to wall-jump – will come and go based on which style you choose, but otherwise, switching between these styles and course types is logical and easy to get to grips with.

The point of Super Mario Maker is not only to create levels, of course, but also to share them. It’s here that Nintendo has employed a cunning trick: you can’t upload a course to the web until you’ve completed it yourself. It’s a cunning way of weeding out level designs that are either time-wastingly intricate or simply impossible to complete.Iit turns every user not just into a designer, but also a play-tester.

Tinkering with Super Mario Makers tools and dipping in and out of our own work-in-progress, it becomes more obvious than ever just how ingenious the level designs in the Super Mario series really are. Every element in, say, Super Mario Bros 3 has been given careful consideration, each platform and enemy placed just so. The courses in everything from 1985’s Super Mario to Super Mario 3D Landhave been designed in such a way as to stretch a player’s skills, but not quite to breaking point. There are moments of frustration, sure, but seldom a sense that the games’ designers are trying to be deliberately cruel or outright sadistic. (The obvious exception to this is the startlingly tough Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels, otherwise known as Japan’s version of Super Mario Bros 2 – a game originally rejected by Nintendo of America for being simply too punishing for US markets.) 

It’s easy to design courses in Super Mario Maker, but how do you create a level that is ingenious, absorbing, logically laid out, and laced with just the right level of challenge? It’s a question we’ve struggled with in our time with the experience so far, and inevitably, one that has been answered by other users with varying degrees of success.

Hunt through the Super Mario courses already created – arranged in tabs that show featured level designs, those ranked by star ratings and ones recently added – and you’ll find level designs that run the gamut from the astonishingly inventive to the thoroughly annoying. Some of the stages that simply play themselves – aptly dubbed “Don’t Move” courses – are breathtaking in their intricacy, like those clockwork automata that craftsmen used to make. We can only imagine the time it took to create the self-playing stage we discovered, where Mario is bounced and flung around a sprawling course, transforming into various Animal Crossing characters as he does so. Or the New Super Mario Bros U-themed level where Mario’s shuttled through a disco light-encrusted web of deadly blades and piranha plants.

It has to be said that there’s only so many of these you can stomach in one sitting, however, and they ultimately exist to emphasize the ingenuity of the designer more than player amusement. So too are some of the more extreme levels that actually give players something to do – take, for example, this ghost house-themed feat of design, dubbed Pit of Panga: P Break by its creator. Again, we can admire the precision of the design and its creator’s superhuman ability to navigate it, but is it a stage we’d want to spend more than a few minutes trying to complete? Its level of difficulty is, even by the standards of The Lost Levels, highly intimidating.

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According to Kotaku, the above course’s creator, PangaeaPanga, also created a course called Bomb Voyage – a level so tough that it took 11,000 attempts by various players before one of them finally managed to make it through to the end. What Nintendo appears to have inadvertently created is a new form of virtual arm-wrestling, where Super Marios most skilled and hardcore players explore the limit of each other’s abilities.

This, perhaps, is the one flaw we can find in Super Mario Maker. In highlighting its own brilliance as a designer of platform games, it’s also shown us the difference between a level design that is clever and taxing and one that is actually fun to play. Anyone can play Super Mario Maker, but not everyone can create something that is truly on a par with the best that, say, the original Super Mario World has to offer.

Takashi Tezuka, who’s been involved in the design of the Super Mario franchise from its inception 25 years ago, recently touched on the topic of his Maker’s tough level designs in an interview with Edge magazine.

“There is a tendency for the courses people make to be a little harder than they think they are,” Tezuka said. “The creator already knows the design, where they have placed their traps, and the best route to take. So it would generally be easier for them to play through than someone trying it for the first time. As a result, the course ends up being more difficult than the creator meant it to be.”

It’s interesting to see a problem, which plagued games in the very early days of the medium, suddenly rearing its head again in the 21st century. Back in the early 80s, when games were still commonly made by one or two programmers, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter a game that was exceptionally difficult – or, in the case of the early version of seminal platformer Jet Set Willy, impossible to complete due to a game-breaking bug. Nintendo has been smart enough to sidestep that latter problem, but there’s little it can do about the level designs that assault the player with waves of enemies or a bewildering network of single-block platforms and springboards. 

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That Nintendo appears to hand-pick the cream of user-generated level designs for its Featured tab certainly helps matters, and it’s these you’ll end up encountering in the 100 Mario Challenge – a mode where you have to clear a set number of courses within 100 lives. That you’re even offered 100 lives is probably enough to tell you how tough this challenge is.

What Super Mario Maker needs, we’d argue, is a menu system that better allows us to sort through the dozens of creations in search of something truly fun and inspiring. Those creations do exist, but finding something tailored to our skills and tastes takes a fair amount of sifting, even with the star rating’s system already in place. A menu system that allows us to sort through levels by difficulty level, theme, or other categories could make finding the courses we’d most like to play much easier, and could easily be added to Super Mario Maker in a future update.

It must be said that, even with all the hunting around for the best user-generated designs, Super Mario Maker remains a superb piece of interactive design. Simply making and testing your own courses is an unexpectedly absorbing pastime in itself, and the fact remains that, when you do stumble on a great user-designed stage, the results can be dazzling. A course inspired by Metroid – which we found thanks to YouTube – is little short of a delight.

In the past, Nintendo has jealously guarded its Super Mario property, knowing full well that its designers know better than anyone how a Mario course should look and feel. Super Mario Maker is, therefore, a bold step for Nintendo: a set of tools that attempts to make game designers out of its fans. Super Mario‘s 25th anniversary sees the series at its most interactive and bravely experimental.