Oh, you’ve been playing nearly impossible kaizo levels or 20-second speedruns? Sounds great. Me, I just played a Super Mario Maker 2 level where Mario comes back from the army with PTSD.
Mario Maker is not the best storytelling medium. In fact, Nintendo goes out of its way to make it difficult to create a narrative inside your Mario levels. The only text you can enter is a 32-character title and a 75-character description that the player reads before your level loads up. You don’t have many words before your character is tossed into the near-total muteness of the level itself. Sure, players can leave dozens of Miiverse-style comments all over your level, but you the designer can’t verbally signpost anything.
Still, that hardly keeps Mario makers from trying. One of my favorite Mario Maker level types is the narrative-based design, in which the creator attempts to do what Shigeru Miyamoto did with Donkey Kong many years ago and tell a story using only pictures. Often, but not always, these narrative levels look to subvert the cheery Mario aesthetic and tell a sad or horrifying story—although it’s not truly subverting Mario Maker, as Nintendo has loaded the game up with sound and visual effects that enable exactly this, like primal screams and split-second flashy imagery meant to induce jump scares.
One of the earliest Mario Maker 2 levels I played was “Mario Joins The Army-o” (X0N-8QP-01H), in which Mario starts out inside an airplane that is bombed, forcing him to abandon ship and jump to another plane. In the latter part of the level, he jumps across tanks cleverly fashioned out of whirling blades and conveyor belts.
This was an impressively crafted level for sure, but it wasn’t what most impressed me. A few days later, the level’s creator “nabuz” followed up with “Mario Returns From The Army-o” (VTH-PWR-4BG). That level starts off with Mario dreaming about one of the tanks from the previous level. We know this because we see the tank underneath the player sprite, surrounded by a “thought bubble” made of clouds. When Mario goes down a pipe, he ends up in bed in a crudely drawn mushroom house with “ZZZ” written above it in track lines.
Exiting the house, he walks down a street lined with trees, houses, and flowers. Peaceful music plays. Suddenly, the music drops out and we hear a beating heart. You catch a glimpse of something wrong toward the top of the screen: A Rocky Wrench enemy is hiding in one of the trees. Woozy music plays. The mushroom houses start turning into tanks. Suddenly, Mario, even though he’s safe back at home, is having flashbacks of battle.
It’s a strange subject for a Mario Maker level, but it shows the versatility of the limited tool set in the editor—the pieces are there for you to put together your story, and the only question is if you can piece them together in the right way so that the player can “read” what you’re showing them.
Every time you check the “Popular Courses” tab in the game, you’re bound to run across levels that make you wish Mario Maker 2 had a tag for “Weird Shit.” Like “Mushroom Asylum” (QRF-2VH-KLF), which is described thusly: “Mario keeps waking up in the same padded room, haunted by strange visions!” Or “Olimar’s Pikmin Adventure” (YMT-2GW-CGF), which casts Mario as the protagonist of Pikmin and attempts to retell the story of that game as best it can.
While sometimes I think it would be nice if Nintendo included an option to insert text boxes into Mario Maker levels, not having that option forces players to be more creative with the tools that they do have. Even if what they come up with is often unsettling.