Mario is a video game icon not only because he’s a plucky and affable dude, but because he’s the face behind some of the best platformers of all time. Nintendo has carefully guided his adventures for decades, but something happened in 2015: It gave players the keys to design and share stages in Wii U’s Super Mario Maker, and the Mario we thought we knew took on a whole new light. He was no longer a laidback high-jumping hero; Mario became a hardened speed demon, a death-defying daredevil forced into unruly gauntlets crafted by evil geniuses who know his every hop, skip, and jump like the back of their hand.
With the Wii U and 3DS versions of Mario Maker abandoned by Nintendo at this point, Super Mario Maker 2 on Switch brings us back to that heady time from years past. The game itself is largely familiar, though the more you play and create, the more you notice all of the little additions tucked inside and appreciate how they elevate the potential for creativity in new ways. Mario Maker 2 is a robust level creation tool and a fantastic open-ended platformer that will no doubt spur a new era of competition among players and creators alike. But so far, it’s amazing what the right players can do when given the tools to craft Mario’s world.
The intuitive drag-and-drop system is back–you don’t, however, have the luxury of a built-in Switch stylus, so consider buying or devising one before getting into the game as using your finger alone can cause you to occasionally misplace objects. You can create while your Switch is docked, though ultimately that should be a last resort considering how quickly you can place objects in handheld mode, even with the lack of stylus. Picking and placing ingredients for your level, or painting wide swaths of land, is a quick and painless process, and there are intuitive means of copying, pasting, and undoing your work as needed. You are once again given access to the components of games including Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U, along with their numerous enemies, objects, and mechanisms. You select a game theme and work within that toolset, but you can easily switch to another one on the fly and retain most of your work–only occasional elements aren’t transferable.
The big exception is the newly included set based on Super Mario 3D World, which can only be used in isolation. Lest you mistake the “3D” aspect to suggest you’re breaking free from side-scrolling Mario, you aren’t–you’re just given access to unique elements from that game, such as the never-not-strange Cat Mario power-up. Far from being the only notable addition, the sum total of which are too numerous to list here, the Cat Mario suit is up there with the ability to make slopes, craft custom scrolling for stages, and set level-clear conditions as one of the most impactful additions to the Mario Maker formula. But of course, even the smallest variable can have a huge ripple effect in the hands of the right person. Time will tell what seemingly average element gets twisted into a diabolical weapon in the hands of the craftiest creators.
For new creators, there’s the chance of becoming overwhelmed with the number of options available at the start, but that’s where Yamamura’s Dojo comes in. Yamamura is a pigeon, but a very wise and insightful pigeon at that. If you need help wrapping your head around the basic concepts that go into conceiving and creating a level, Yamamura’s your bird. His catalog of 45 lessons (divided into Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced sets) walk you through everything from laying tracts of land and placing Goombas to the more philosophical side of level creation, even navigating the meta side of being a creator unleashing their work for others to judge.
These lessons will help get a novice creator up to speed, and the fact that there’s nothing holding back knowledgeable designers from the start was a smart move by Nintendo, too. The pool of creators has thus far made some truly impressive stages that utilize Mario Maker 2’s robust toolset well. The overall level of logic inherent to a Mario game remains largely the same–no digging under the hood to rewrite traditional cause-and-effect rules, for example–but the spirit of Mario Maker 2 comes alive when familiar elements are combined by masterful players, often in ways that Nintendo would never employ in a traditional Mario game.
So far, that unexpected creativity often manifests itself in oddball stages packed with an unreasonable number of enemies, diabolical platforming tests that demand superhuman reflexes, or clever contraptions that move Mario and key items around an environment with calculated chain reactions. Not every stage is a winner, but because the fundamental controls and elements of the world are tried-and-true, it’s rare that you run into a custom stage worth getting upset about. Ultimately, dozens (soon to be hundreds, if not thousands) of alternative stages are seconds away, a convenience that’s easy to take for granted. It’s not an understatement to say that the speed at which you can browse, download, and play levels are key factors that make exploring Mario Maker 2 so easy and enjoyable.
Discoverability plays a part in what levels you find, and beyond basic lists such as popular, new, and trending courses, there’s a detailed search function that lets you narrow stage selection by attributes like theme and difficulty. You can also sort by tags that indicate the type of stage at hand, be it an auto-scrolling level or puzzle-centric challenge. After playing, you can leave feedback on the level for other players to consider–a simple but meaningful chance to contribute to the community and learn from your peers. This is all to say that Mario Maker 2’s online stage selection is both organized and catered to the wider player base. You don’t have to involve yourself in every aspect of it if you just want to play a bunch of random Mario levels, but it’s great to see that you can become deeply involved with your fellow makers if you desire.
One of the hotly contested elements pre-launch was online multiplayer, which comes in both co-op and competitive forms. Nintendo’s initial plans to limit these modes to random matchmaking drew the ire of some fans who quite reasonably expected to be able to play with their friends. Nintendo has since made it clear that feature will come, just not in time for launch. As it stands, the lag present in most multiplayer sessions (where matchmaking happens automatically) ruins the experience. Mario, and especially Mario Maker levels, are geared around precision platforming. When you can’t rely on the movement of your character or your controller inputs, you might as well not be playing at all. If anything stains Super Mario Maker 2, it’s the current state of online multiplayer.
On a more positive note, the other major addition to Mario Maker 2 is a proper story mode, a campaign of 100 Nintendo-made levels. The story is typical Mario fare set in an overworld with NPCs and a few fun surprises, taking things a few steps further than The Super Mario Challenge from the 3DS Mario Maker. It’s not an amazing addition in light of the countless levels coming from other players, but it’s an enjoyable alternative if you prefer a more coordinated campaign. There’s the slight missed opportunity to give you creative tools as a means of solving purpose-built puzzles, to give you that hands-on learning in a practical scenario, but they are given to you as options to overcome stages that you repeatedly fail. It’s not as if there’s a drought of custom stages online, even before release, though Nintendo’s batch of stages are nice to have if you want to dig into stages handmade by the developers themselves.
The Mario series is worth all the admiration it gets, and Super Mario Maker 2 is an excellent tool for picking it apart by pushing its enemies, mechanisms, and Mario, to their limit. I’ve yet to make a stage of my own that I think is worthy of sending out to other players, but I’m committed to getting there. Whether exploring the full potential of a single element or throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, I’ve got the itch to join the creator’s club. Mario Maker 2 makes the learning process intuitive and enjoyable. Most importantly, it’s enabled designers amateur and professional alike to share their creativity with the world. The community is off to a great start, and thankfully, the fun has only just begun.