With the final day of Super Mario Maker’s content rollout just around the corner, I decided to forego level design today and spend some time playing other people’s levels. Tomorrow – Mario willing – I will finally have access to the full toolkit, and can properly tackle the ghost house I’ve been working on. In the meantime, there are over a million levels to explore.
Previously, whenever I’ve decided to play user-created levels, I’ve surfed through Nintendo’s three meagerly curated lists. I’ve found some great levels this way, but I feel like I’m getting a narrow view of the community from this angle. In particular, the list of top-ranked levels seems overstuffed with auto-playing levels. These are novel enough, but sitting down to plow through a few dozen of these things isn’t really my idea of a good time.
Auto-playing levels come in two main varieties: the “don’t press anything” variety, and the “keep running” variety. An example of the latter is this level (ID: 4B37-0000-0010-6C26), titled, appropriately enough, “Keep running!”:
Certainly, a lot of work went into building this level, and there is plenty of technique and creativity on display. I’m certainly glad these self-playing courses exist, and it’s fun to play – or watch – one from time to time. By just surfing through the featured, top-ranked, and “up & coming” levels, though, you’re certainly missing out on the full extent of what the community is doing, and perhaps also missing out on the chance to see some truly awful levels. So, to take a deep dive into the bottomless pit that is the Super Mario Maker community, I’ve decided to take my first run at the 100 Mario Challenge.
To begin, you’re given the choice of an “easy” or “normal” challenge, with an “expert” mode unlocking once you beat “normal.” You then have 100 lives with which to beat 16 randomly selected levels (or 8 on “easy”) from the hundreds of thousands of user-created levels out there. Finish the challenge on any difficulty and you’ll unlock one of the many mystery mushroom costumes. The levels on “normal” are generally harder than those in “easy,” but some really simple levels manage to sneak in, as do some auto-playing levels.
Some of these levels are clearly first attempts. One of the first ones I faced consisted of not much more than a whole bunch of goombas and koopa troopas stacked on top of each other between Mario and the flagpole, with a fire flower conveniently located right in front of me, and an extra life bouncing around just for good measure. Other levels take the opposite approach, assaulting you with an unconscionable number of enemies and a string of blind jumps, traps, and other puzzles that can’t be solved without a healthy dose of luck and/or dying.
These punishing levels make a few things obvious. For one, there is wide gulf between a difficult level and a challenging level. Unfortunately, Nintendo’s difficulty-rating algorithm does not know the difference. Anyone can make a difficult level; you just throw in too many enemies and you make the jumps too wide, or you make a puzzle that can only be solved with trial and error – in other words, guessing and death. Making a challenging level requires more thoughtful design, a level that could conceivably be beaten on its first attempt, so long as the player has the right mix of platforming skill and puzzle-solving cleverness; a level that offers clues to its puzzles and the occasional safety net that gives a player a chance to fall for a trick, discover the mistake, and change tack without having to restart the course.
But these overly hard levels also underscore a major difference between Super Mario and modern platformers. A lot of recent platformers have made extensive use of the try, die, repeat design trope, sometimes with a lot of success. But, in addition to good overall design, this approach relies on two very important elements you don’t find in Mario games: copious checkpoints and instant respawning. Take a game like Ori and the Blind Forest. You have essentially unlimited checkpoints in this game, because you can put them wherever you want, whenever you want, with few exceptions. And when you die, you respawn, ready to play, almost immediately. These features make it relatively painless to attempt the same tricky platforming obstacle ten or twenty or even a hundred times; they are critical to the “learn by dying” method of game design.
Compare this to a typical Super Mario game, where you have maybe one checkpoint (none in Mario Maker), and where dying and starting over will cost you five or ten seconds every time. When you get 80% or 90% of the way through a level, just to walk face first into an impossible-to-predict trap that kills you instantly and will require countless attempts to figure out, it sucks the wind out of your sails. In a lot of modern platformers, you’d get to such a point and just quickly bang out a few dozen attempts at the challenge until you solved it, triggering the next checkpoint and moving on. In a Mario game, such a point marks the beginning of a half-hour odyssey during which you must flawlessly execute the entire level just to have a shot at figuring out how to get past that one trap. And then, when you finally get past it, you might walk into another trap that starts the odyssey all over again.
Understanding the difference between these two approaches to platforming is critical to authoring enjoyable Mario levels. There are a lot of people in the community who get the difference and are doing great design work, but there are also a lot of people who don’t. And until Nintendo’s level-sorting tools can do a better job of separating the wheat from the chaff, the 100 Mario Challenge will be a bit of a slog. But at least the game gives you the Tinder-like ability to swipe away a level you don’t like.
Though the 100 Mario Challenge is decidedly imperfect, it’s still interesting to play through a hodgepodge of levels that vary so much in both quality and philosophy. Some of the “bad” levels are actually pretty well designed but simply not suited to the Mario framework. And the difference between a bad level and a good level can sometimes be the matter of adding or moving a single block. Ultimately, the 100 Mario Challenge is a good way to see another, messier side of the Mario Maker community, but it’s also an uneven, sometimes enjoyable, sometimes frustrating experience.
Tomorrow I’ll finally unlock the last bits of the level editor’s toolkit, and will finally have a complete version of the game. After playing with those things for a bit, I’ll weigh in with my final thoughts on the game, and make a few suggestions for its future.
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