Super Mario Maker 2: The Kotaku Review

There’s more to Super Mario Maker 2 than just making Mario. It’s got a story mode, for instance, plus online and local multiplayer for groups of four. But the level editor is still the star of the show. Making one’s own Mario levels remains a joy, and Mario Maker 2 is designed to bring out that joy as much as possible.

This piece was first published on June 26, 2019. We’re bumping it today for the game’s release. 

I’m not quite sure what was going through Nintendo’s collective head when it released the first Super Mario Maker on Wii U in 2015 and gated off most of the level editor’s items and tools, forcing players to regularly log in to the game for a week and a half before they unlocked all the parts. This decision was so universally excoriated by early reviewers that Nintendo ended up releasing a day-one patch to give players another option for unlocking items faster.

But even with that patch, Mario Maker was still inadequate. For whatever reason, major elements of Mario levels were nowhere to be found, like checkpoints or door keys. Perhaps Nintendo did not want to overwhelm players with too many options, but in the end it just frustrated us that the Mario levels we could see in our heads couldn’t be replicated on the screen.

Nintendo released regular updates over the ensuing months to add these important options. Super Mario Maker 2 includes them all (well, with very limited exceptions, like the Mystery Mushroom that let you use Amiibo figures to change Mario’s sprite). More importantly, it makes every creator option available right off the bat. From the first minute, you can start creating with the full suite of tools.

Illustration for article titled Super Mario Maker 2: The Kotaku Review
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)

The major difference between the two Mario Makers is that on the Wii U, Nintendo knew that the player would be holding the GamePad controller while in front of a television. That meant there was just one control scheme for the level editor, which was using the touchscreen. With the Switch, Nintendo needed both controller- and touch-based options. Although the controller option is designed about as well as it could be, I found touch to be vastly preferable (and using a nice pen-sized stylus to be vastly preferable to jabbing the screen with my finger for hours). But who knows, maybe you’ll find it more comfortable to use a Pro controller and your big-screen TV.

Can it be a bit overwhelming at first, as Nintendo may have feared long those many years ago? Perhaps. I looked all through Mario Maker 2's layers of menus but didn’t see a glossary-type mode that explained all of its many tools. There are so many decisions to be made as a creator, starting with the type of course you want to build. Do you want to set it in the open air? Underground? A snowy field? A forest halfway submerged in a lake of bubbling, purple poison? The idea seems to be that you’ll learn about how these levels all differ from each other by playing around with them, rather than reading about them. But there were many times when I thought it would be nice to be able to look up a certain item to understand how I might use it.

What Super Mario Maker 2 does have are a series of lessons in which two characters discuss various problems of game design, and ways to overcome them. It’s one thing to give millions of people the tools to create their own Mario levels and share them on the internet; it’s quite another to get them to design stages that are anywhere near as good as even the worst levels made by Nintendo. This is where Super Mario Maker tries to bridge the vast knowledge gap, actually attempting to teach the secrets of Mario course design to its players.

One of the lessons it attempts to impart is the importance of playtesting—not by you, the designer, but by other people. Like how Shigeru Miyamoto famously engaged in “random employee kidnapping,” so too will you benefit from roping your friends and family into testing your levels. You really don’t know if your design is good until someone tries it for the first time.

When a few friends came over this past Saturday, I made sure to get them in front of my levels. As luck would have it, the first friend who walked in the door was an actual professional game designer who has worked on popular platform games, so I knew I was in deep shit. I had him play my newest level, the title of which I came up with before I had a design: “Bob-Omb Is You.”

Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)

This level was about kicking Bob-Ombs to blow up bricks to get keys to open doors, in increasingly difficult scenarios. At the end, you have to hit an On-Off switch with good timing to create a path for Bob-Omb to walk along. The problem I simply could not have seen on my own: My friend didn’t even see the Bob-Omb walking around in the first place before he mishit the switch and blew him up. He very quickly noted the solution: An intermediary version of this puzzle with a simple pathway where the player would be more likely to see the Bob-Omb, thus priming them to find it when they discovered the more difficult puzzle.

The lessons built in to Mario Maker 2 want players to understand how much they can learn about their levels by having others test them. Will it work? The first Super Mario Maker’s servers were famously full of hot garbage as soon as the game launched; Nintendo’s algorithms did not do a very good job of finding and elevating quality work into the “Course World” menu that let you play others’ uploads. In Super Mario Maker 2, these menus look relatively similar to the first game’s, but I’m not yet sure what’s going to happen when the game launches and they’re flooded with content.

Super Mario Maker 2's editor has a few major new options that let you create courses that are fundamentally impossible in the first game. You can add conditions for clearing a course, requiring a player to do such things as defeat a boss, collect a number of coins, or play the entire level without jumping. You can do vertical levels. You can customize the direction of the automatic scrolling, creating a course that winds up and down. You can have a level half-full of water, lava, or poison, letting the levels rise and drop arbitrarily, either permanently or looping back and forth. But the biggest change is the addition of Super Mario 3D World as a type of stage, joining Super Mario Bros., Mario 3, Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. 

Illustration for article titled Super Mario Maker 2: The Kotaku Review
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)

Mario 3D World is labeled as an “Extra” theme. Unlike the other four course styles, which function more like skins that you can switch around at any time during creation, Mario 3D World stands on its own. It has enemies and functions that aren’t replicated in the other themes, like Bullet Bills that fly from the background into the foreground. Mario has a few extra moves from the 3D games, like a long jump. The course creation, and thus the gameplay, is still all on a 2D plane, though. It’s a nice extra addition, but it doesn’t radically change things.

Although the section in the menu where you can find Mario 3D World is labeled “extra themes,” plural, and there’s a big empty space right next to it, there doesn’t seem to be a hidden final theme inside Mario Maker 2 at this time. That’ll likely be DLC. (And I hope it’s Super Mario Bros. 2, since that would really change the game in a way that even Mario 3D World does not.)

Once you’ve created a level, the process for getting it online is similar to the original’s, with some welcome tweaks. Beat the level to prove it can be done (you can now do this any time, not just immediately before the upload), then give it a title. You can now add a brief 75-character text description to the level, which lets you set up the theme or give hints. And you can tag the level with pre-written tags like “Short and sweet” or “Auto-Mario.” Players can use these tags when they search for levels.

At that point, you can upload your level and… well, let’s be honest, it’s unlikely that people will randomly stumble upon it. So you can generate a nine-digit code for the specific level to share it online. You can also generate a Maker code that goes to your profile, to share all your levels at once. And then… instant stardom. Miyamoto will call your parents and tell them he wants to fly you to Kyoto where you will be hired on the spot. Good luck.

Illustration for article titled Super Mario Maker 2: The Kotaku Review
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)

In the unlikely event that doesn’t happen, you might want to enjoy playing some Story mode. It’s a collection of a little over 100 different levels made by Nintendo, loosely strung together with the barest hint of a hub world. The writing is hilarious. The levels themselves vary in quality. And it’s all over in a few hours. But it’s nice to have one’s first experience with Mario Maker be expertly-crafted designs. It’s meant to inspire you, not give you a big new meaty Mario game to play.

If you want to enjoy others’ courses, you can play them a la carte online, or pick the “Endless” mode, a tweaked version of the first game’s 100-Mario Challenge. Here, you start with three lives and are dropped into a random assortment of player-created levels, to play until you’re done.

And then, of course, there’s multiplayer.

It is the year of our lord 2019 and Nintendo is about to release the first Mario game with online multiplayer. What have they been scared of, this whole time? Will the seas dry, and the mountains crumble to the ground? I don’t know—although online multiplayer is enabled on the game’s review servers, there are far too few people playing it to get a game going.

What I was able to try, after I’d subjected a few friends to testing my courses “Bob-Omb Is You” and “Shlooter,”was the local multiplayer. At first, I was stymied by how to do it. I assumed we’d be able to go into Course World and choose a player-created level to try out in four-player mode. This didn’t seem to be an option. Instead, we had to manually download the level to my Switch, then go into the offline Coursebot menu to play it with four. This seems like an obvious oversight, adding lots of friction to our attempt at enjoying some couch co-op, since it was a pain to have to pre-download everything we wanted to try.

Once we got in there, something dawned on me. Mario Maker 2 has a bit of an identity crisis. When you’re designing a level, you’re by yourself. You’re testing by yourself, you’re designing the level for one person, you’re maybe showing it to a single friend to get feedback. But once you upload it, a group of four players might jump in to try it out.

What we found legitimately surprised me. It was actually quite fun to drop four players into a level that was clearly designed for a single person. It turned basic, simple levels into nonstop madcap chaos. Deaths every second. Fortunately, dead characters immediately came back in a floating bubble, New Super Mario style, so we could strategize how to get through obstacles through strategic bubbling.

We loved the total broken chaos of it. But what if you don’t want that? In adding multiplayer, Nintendo has added a vast new problem to the already-difficult reality of Mario course design: how do you tweak a level for four players? And how do you avoid having a group of four players play your expertly-designed solo level, tear right through it, and come away unimpressed?

Super Mario Maker 2 lets you tag a level as “Multiplayer Versus,” but it seems like that’s the only metadata that you can tweak to make some kind of distinction between solo-focused and multiplayer-focused levels.

Super Mario Maker 2 is almost here. While the improvements that Nintendo has made ensure it will likely have a much smoother launch than the first attempt, if that game’s trajectory is any indication, the game’s story is just beginning. We won’t truly know how Super Mario Maker 2 did until millions of fans are bashing away at it. For now, I can say that Nintendo has delivered a much more robust and feature-rich Mario maker, and hope players will use it well.

Features Editor, Kotaku. Japanese curry aficionado. Author of the books Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life and Final Fantasy V from Boss Fight Books.


Dark Aether

This is gonna be a fun weekend. Now the real question remains: is this abomination back?