The level creator is a siren song for many gamers. You don’t need to have any skill in level design or an aptitude for the creation tools, but you can waste hours placing enemies, scrolling through tile sets, and moving blocks left and right then back again until they’re arranged just so. Level creators ask the question, “What does the game of your dreams look like?” Now, 30 years after the original NES game, we have our answers: thousands of Super Mario Bros. players have spent millions of hours making Mario levels that look like total shit. Mario games are defined by their exacting quality and polish. Super Mario Maker is not a game about making Mario levels.
Bad design isn’t always always without value. On the contrary, Mario Maker is an amazing tool. Much like listening to someone describe their dreams, the Mario Maker experience is a fragmented mess, a spectrum ranging from incoherently bizarre to mind-numbingly banal. It’s easy to focus on the latter. I’ve played levels that were clearly the first attempt of a 10-year-old who didn’t appear to have much enthusiasm to begin with. I’ve played levels designed to be as hard as possible without being remotely fair—slogs of unpredictable traps and random deaths. I’ve played levels built around obvious, tiresome gimmicks. Many levels are simply broken, with obstacles much harder or easier than they should be, shortcuts that shouldn’t work, and elaborate contraptions that don’t function as intended.
The breadth of terrible levels, as well as the depths of quality to which they sink, has inspired at least one Washington Post article flagellating the game for “quickly collapsing into a scratch sheet of horrible ideas and levels you’ll regret having played. It’s a tool for the mass production of cultural refuse, single-use distractions that fail to replicate the spirit of the original.” Try and imagine how bad some of these levels must be to inspire these feelings. How pointless, how senselessly cruel must a level be to be “intensely dispiriting?” This writer isn’t wrong; a lot of levels are inarguably awful. But to focus on this awfulness misses the point.
Mario Maker is not a toolset to make Mario levels any more than Pictionary is a game about creating fine art. Mario Maker enables players to express themselves in a medium previously unavailable, with all the good and bad that entails. Nintendo has gone to great lengths to ensure that levels follow some fundamental rules. Mario progresses left to right, levels are built with tiles the size of a standard brick, goombas can be stomped, shells can be kicked—the basic grammar of Mario games remains unchanged. Beyond that, players can do whatever they want.
The end result is a parade of levels that, while mostly terrible by Nintendo standards, allows people to take “running and jumping” to all its expressive highs and lows. Many creators work within the framework of other Mario games, either emulating or subverting those conventions. Other creators try to simulate other genres entirely, making levels that resemble Metroid-style exploration games or bullet-hell schmups. Some levels are sophisticated setups to an end-of-level punchline; others are crude gags. I’ve played multiple levels celebrating the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros.’ release. Many levels are obviously designed by young children, products of the inscrutable logic of the prepubescent. I’ve seen one level called “My dad made this” and another called “I wish my son enjoyed Mario.” I played one level titled “Enjoy,” a brief level with no challenges or other features except the word “LIFE’S TOO SHORT” spelled in coins.
The level that has left the deepest impression on me is a nasty creation called “Torture Bowsers 2.” In Torture Bowsers 2, three Bowsers are suspended in cages above Mario. Next to the Bowsers are three spiny helmets, one of Mario Maker’s new features. When Mario equips a spiny helmet, he’s able to damage enemies above him. The Bowsers, rendered harmless, are too big to escape, but a small hole allows Mario to stick his head in. The goal of this level is therefore to poke the Bowsers until they die or, I guess, until you get bored. There are no other obstacles or objectives, only a goalpost that ends the level.
As a work of level design, Torture Bowsers 2 is a little (if I can use the word) sophisticated. The shape and position of the level elements imply an objective without blatantly leading the player. The level is pruned to its bare necessities, no longer than it needs to be, with no extraneous decoration. And the nearby goalpost means you can beat the level at any time, whether you want to see it to “completion” (killing all three Bowsers?) or whether you want to quit the moment you grow tired of slowly murdering giant turtles.
But as a Mario level, Torture Bowsers 2 is garbage. It’s ugly and puerile and unfun. The title implies a Torture Bowsers 1, which could only be worse. It is exactly the kind of “cultural refuse” described above. But what Nintendo understands, and what cynics don’t, is that people express themselves in many ways, and for all the beautiful expression there is also ugliness and anger and all of the negative things in life. Humans do not normally spend their days crafting flawless works of art. We share our thoughts and feelings as they tumble out, and Mario Maker would be a poor creative tool if it tried to corral player expression into a prescriptive formula. It is exciting to consider that, at any point, I can explore levels that are, yes, sometimes mean and ugly, but also far more singular and personal than anything Nintendo will ever make.
For me, the fun and challenge of Mario Maker is creating levels that feel something like “real” Mario levels, even though that’s impossible. My levels don’t feel quite like something Nintendo would make, their shapes bending towards my own particular tastes. Mario Maker encourages this: the course creator encourages unprecedented combinations of enemies and abilities. Where Nintendo would put one goomba, the average Mario Maker creator will place five giant winged goombas that explode into fireworks. Making conventional levels requires a light touch and deliberate restraint, easier said than done when Mario Maker offers so many toys to play with. Inevitably, I succumb to the impulse to make something bigger, meaner, funnier, or otherwise stranger than Nintendo would. I’m eager to share it and see if anybody out there reacts to my weird little level. Like the coins say, life’s too short.
Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag. In the spirit of Mario Maker, here are some of his own levels. Enjoy!
Ghost Ghastle: 372E-0000-0096-F9E2
Piggyboo Rides: 2534-0000-0077-B289
Bridge Out: E2C7-0000-0057-FD60