Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Nine, Conclusion

[This is the last post in a nine-part journey through Super Mario Maker.  Be sure to check out parts onetwothree,  fourfivesixseven, and eight.]

After two weeks with Super Mario Maker – the time I needed to get through the game’s nine-day content rollout and also deal with the few extra days of waiting the game threw at me, maybe to punish me for playing past my bedtime – I finally have access to the complete game.  And if the previous eight posts don’t make it clear, I love this game.  On the creation side, Nintendo has made the act of designing a level feel like a game.  The tools allow you to be really creative while keeping the interface intuitive and simple, with pop-in pop-out playtesting.  And every step of building a level is a lot of fun: throwing a bunch of random elements into a stage and then playing through it, just to see what happens; testing, tweaking, and refining your creations until they function the way you want them to; dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s, and getting to where your level finally feels complete.  All of this is fun.

On the play side, the game offers you, in effect, infinite Mario.  And because levels can be built in one of four themes, complete with their own mechanics and some unique items, it actually offers you quadruple infinite Mario, infinity times four.  The pool of community-created levels is a mixed bag, but abandoning one level and jumping into another is pretty quick and simple, and the pool is so deep that you’re bound to find some great stuff if you spend a little time looking.  The Internet is also stepping in to fill the curation void, with a lot of “The Ten Most [adjective] Levels in Super Mario Maker” lists out there.  In the first week of the game’s release, more than a million levels were uploaded, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that the game limits users to ten uploads until they accumulate some stars from the community.  And the levels already range from brutally hard to auto-playing to musical to Kafka-esque exploration of Waluigi’s existential dread.  So obviously this community’s potential is huge.

And that’s one of the things that most excites me about this game: its potential.  With most games, good or bad, two weeks of playing for several hours a day is usually enough time to give you a pretty good impression of what the next ten or hundred or thousand hours of play will be like.  Games can always surprise you with plot twists, new settings, upgrades, and changes to the mechanics.  But few games can surprise you the way Super Mario Maker seems all but guaranteed to.  The community is already doing things I didn’t anticipate.  For almost all of us, it’s just been two weeks.  The level pool right now represents just what people have come up with off the top of their heads.  What will people come up with when they’ve had time to really digest the game and internalize its mechanics?  I can’t wait to find out.

Weirdly, though, one of the things I’m most eagerly anticipating is actually tangential to this game: the next proper 2D Mario game.  The mere existence of Super Mario Maker is going to push Nintendo to do something really great for the next iteration of their flagship 2D platformer.  For one thing, an incremental iteration on the established formula would feel bland, if not unnecessary.  If the next 2D Super Mario game – New Super Mario NX, perhaps? – just feels like the next batch of levels, it will feel no better than a compilation of stuff you could find for free in Mario Maker.  If they want us to spend $60 on a 2D Mario game, Nintendo’s going to really have to wow us.  The next game is going to have to be packed with new ideas; it’s going to have to go above and beyond something that could just as easily have been DLC for Mario Maker.

And as the community continues to develop more and more levels, better and better levels, weirder and weirder levels, it’s likely going to inspire Nintendo.  The community is very clearly eager to push Mario into new, unexpected territory, and Nintendo has given us the tools to do so.  Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired to create Pikmin by watching ants carry leaves through his garden; imagine what a marathon session of user-created Mario levels will inspire him to do.  And as Mario Maker changes gamers’ perceptions of what a Super Mario game can be, Nintendo will see an audience more and more willing to embrace whatever experiments Nintendo dares to take with their beloved plumber.  Super Mario Bros. 2 might have seemed weird in 1988, but after playing some Mario Maker levels, who would find anything weird in a Mario game?  Super Mario Maker might seem to some like it’s the swan song for 2D Mario games, rendering any further installments unnecessary.  But it could instead mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the franchise.

I’m also excited to see what Nintendo does with Mario Maker now, post-launch.  DLC, for one thing, seems likely, and there are a lot of cool things that could be added this way.  One thing they could add would be new items for the toolkit.  As robust as the design tools are, they clearly don’t include every item that’s ever been in the game, so there are a number of things Nintendo could add.  But they could also take the opportunity to add completely new items, especially new power-ups.  I imagine a DLC pack that includes a new power-up for Mario, maybe a few other items, and a batch of Nintendo-designed levels that use these items.  They could even sell this DLC via an Amiibo of Mario wearing his new costume, if they wanted.

Another type of DLC that would be worth paying for would new art styles.  One of the nicest features in the game is the ability to instantly transform your Super Mario World level into a Super Mario Bros. 3 level with the touch of button, and it would be cool to take this idea further.  The first thing that jumps to mind is Super Mario Bros. 2, a style conspicuously absent from the game.  Mario 2 is the most mechanically distinct game in the series, so its absence is understandable.  As DLC, though, separate from the “four flavors of Mario” idea at the core of the main game, Mario 2 might make sense.

Super Mario Maker course "Torpedo Ted Terror" by user jmac464 (ID: 290D-0000-0033-78F0)
Super Mario Maker course “Torpedo Ted Terror” by user jmac464 (ID: 290D-0000-0033-78F0)

Beyond that, though, Nintendo could just start throwing all kinds of wacky art styles at us to superimpose over the existing mechanics.  This wouldn’t have to fracture the player base the way other DLC might, but it’s certainly something a lot of people would be willing to pay for.  We could get a cel-shaded Mario, a Rainbow Curse-style clay Mario, a Yoshi’s Wooly World-style yarn Mario, a South Park-style paper animation Mario, an ASCII art Mario, a stained glass Mario, an impressionist Mario.  The possibilities are endless, as a little time doing Google image searches will attest.

Similarly, Nintendo could add new course styles to the game.  We’ve already got all the basics – overworld, underground, castle, etc. – but why not send Mario to a carnival, or the jungle, or a robot factory, or outer space?  Again, these wouldn’t have to split the player base.  With the exception of underwater levels, the level type doesn’t affect mechanics.  Courses designed in new style could be automatically transposed into a style from the base game for people without the DLC.

I fully expect Nintendo to release some kind of DLC for Super Mario Maker.  Post-launch support is becoming more common for Nintendo games, and there isn’t much else to keep Nintendo fans busy between now and the NX.  But there are also a number of other things Nintendo could do to improve the game via patches in the coming months:

More Amiibo support.  The ability to transform Mario into dozens of other characters is a popular and charming feature, and one that has inspired countless levels designed around specific characters.  Sadly, though, these characters are only available in the original Super Mario Bros. style.  It would be great to see Mega Man in the Mario 3 style, Link in the New Super Mario style, and so on.  It would also be nice to be able to keep your character skin after you pick up a fire flower (or feather or leaf, etc.) so you could become, say, a fireball-shooting Samus.  Adding this much Amiibo support would obviously require a lot of work, so it might only be worth the effort if it were paid DLC.  But then, it would also sell a bunch more Amiibo, so maybe it would be a reasonable investment for Nintendo.  Either way, it’s a feature I’d love to see.

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Better curation.  I’ve mentioned this before, so I won’t go into too much detail, but the in-game options for discovering new levels are pretty limited.  Nintendo needs to come up some advanced metrics, and maybe some tagging options, to help people sort through levels in more ways.  They also need to find ways to help people compile lists of levels, share and sort those lists, and discuss various levels, users, and lists.  Whenever they launch their cross-platform account system, they should integrate it into Mario Maker, as certain aspects of curation and browsing are more easily done on a computer or phone than with a game controller.  We’re going to be at five or ten or twenty million user-created levels before you can say, “It’s-a me.”  Better tools to comb through those offerings are a must.

Campaign mode.  One thing missing from Super Mario Maker is a sense of purpose.  When you’re playing a difficult level, there’s not much reason to stick with it.  Even if you enjoy the level and don’t think that it’s unfair, it’s hard to resist the siren song of the other million levels out there and not quit on a tough stage.  In the 100 Mario Challenge, where you have incentive to work your way through eight or sixteen levels, the game still gives you the (albeit necessary) option to skip as many as you want.  A campaign mode could give players a reason to work through tough levels, help deal with the game’s curation problems, and open up a whole new level of design possibilities.

The best platformers don’t just throw a bunch of challenges at you, but establish a meaningful progression from start to finish.  Challenge is ramped up gradually from one level to the next.  Environments and enemies are distributed to create the sense of a journey.  Mechanics introduced in one level will be expanded on or subverted in a later level.  Allowing users to create not just individual levels but entire campaigns would let the most creative Mario Maker players flex their muscles and produce really great work that would excite the entire community.

A campaign mode could also allow for curated campaigns, stringing together levels from a variety of creators in a more meaningful presentation than a top 20 list.  Just as the best mixtapes and playlists don’t just throw a bunch of good songs together, but arrange them in a way that enhances each individual song’s impact, a curated campaign could highlight the strengths of each included level and design trope.

A Stronger Meta-Game.  Another way to address this problem of giving players purpose would be to enhance the meta-game.  As it stands, playing through levels gets you nothing but satisfaction.  A lot of satisfaction, granted, but nothing else.  And outside of the 100 Mario Challenge, certain elements, such as 1ups and coins, are essentially useless.  (As are points, but then, points are always useless in Mario games.)  What if there was some overarching goal you were working towards, some goal that could only be accomplished by playing through a bunch of user-created levels and collecting a whole lot of coins?

This is where Nintendo could take a cue from Destiny, of all places.  Just as Destiny players spend hours grinding away to collect glimmer and shards mote of light and whatever else, in order to unlock and upgrade gear, Mario Maker players could play through dozens or hundreds of levels and collect thousands of coins in order to unlock… something.  Nintendo could dribble out new design elements and “sell” them for the stars and coins you earn by playing the game.  And while I don’t want to see Mario Maker become loaded down with microtransactions, it is a game that could easily get bombarded with DLC; if Nintendo does decide to go that route, it would be a nice gesture to their biggest fans if they let us earn (at least some) of this DLC for free by playing the game a lot.

Obviously, they’d have to build in some safeguards to prevent the pool from becoming overstuffed with levels designed just to give you a ton of coins and a quick, easy victory, but this shouldn’t be too hard to do.  As long as it’s implemented correctly, though, a good meta-game would add a lot to the gameplay experience.

Super Mario Maker course "Stay Sharp!!" by user Deano (ID: 33E2-0000-0053-0503)
Super Mario Maker course “Stay Sharp!!” by user Deano (ID: 33E2-0000-0053-0503)

Two-player mode.  Before you had to worry about finding a server and assembling a fireteam and joining party chat, multiplayer meant one thing: handing the controller to your friend after you died.  Nintendo should bring this type of multiplayer back for Super Mario Maker.  This game is already proving to be an incredibly rewarding social experience.  Nothing quite matches the joy of designing a level and then watching a friend or loved one play it.  And the endless variety and sheer absurdity of some of the levels out there makes it really entertaining to watch others – whether friends on your couch or strangers on YouTube – work through a tough level, or get trolled by a cruel designer.

Imagine putting Mario Maker on shuffle play and passing the controller back and forth, watching your friends stumble across tough levels, weird levels, awful levels, and funny levels.  Who wouldn’t want to spend hours like this?  Of course, you don’t need a two-player mode to just pass the controller back and forth, but Nintendo could build a variety of modes around the basic controller-passing mechanic.  There could be a race mode, for example, with each player trying to be the first to get through a set number of randomly selected levels.  Or two players could team up on 100 Mario Challenge and check their stats at the end to see who was carrying most of the weight.  A Super Mario version of H-O-R-S-E could be a lot of fun, too.  Or an asymmetrical mode, with one player using the gamepad to browse for levels that the other has to play.  There are a lot of possibilities for multiplayer modes in Mario Maker, and adding at least a few to a game that is already such a fun social experience seems like a no-brainer.

A designer workshop.  Playtesting is one of the most critical parts of level design, but it’s also one of the hardest things to do alone.  I’ll spend hours on a level, trying to account for every possible route a player might take, and then hand the controller to my wife, just to see her immediately do the “wrong” thing and break my design.  No matter how much time you spend on a level, you need feedback from other players to account for behavior you can’t anticipate.

When you upload a level in Mario Maker, you can get a little feedback in the form of a completion percentage and a snapshot of where people are dying.  If they feel so inclined, people can also leave you comments.  This is the extent of the feedback you can get, though, and it’s all for levels that are, by virtue of being uploaded, ostensibly “finished.”

What would be great would be an area you could go to explicitly solicit feedback on a level that you know needs work.  A place where designers could get together to share ideas and test each other’s levels.  The core of the system would be easy: in order to upload a level for testing, you have to leave a certain amount of feedback for others, and creators could rate feedback in order to prevent spam and trolling.  You could ask specific questions or just look for general feedback.  The system would compile more robust stats on your level and maybe record play sessions so you could watch replays of other people’s playthroughs to see what approaches they took.

In addition to simply helping dedicated designers make better levels, there would be another major benefit of a system like this: it would keep some flawed levels out of the general level pool.  Certainly, some percentage of users are uploading levels just to see what happens, then deleting the levels, fixing their problems, and uploading them again.  As a designer, it’s great to see if your level has a really low completion rate and maybe a particular spot where a lot of people are dying, so you can go in and fix the design.  But as a player, it’s no fun to wander into these broken levels unexpectedly.  Cordoning off the playtesting aspect of the game would make the overall experience better for everyone.

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A designer pro pack.  As the creativity on display can already attest, the creation tools in Super Mario Maker are surprisingly robust, especially considering their simplicity and accessibility.  Users can do a lot with these tools, and will continue to do so.  That said, it’s also obvious to anyone with a bit of Mario experience that these tools only scratch the surface of what can be done in these games.  The designers over at Nintendo obviously have a much more robust set of tools, with the ability to tweak the timing of certain items, enemies, and obstacles; design conditional, triggered events; and program specific behavior for enemies.

There are obviously some very talented, dedicated users out there who have already put dozens or hundreds of hours into the game, designing great levels in the process.  Some of these people would probably eagerly buy a DLC pack that gave them a more robust toolkit.  It’s obvious why Nintendo designed the toolkit the way they did, to strike a balance between accessibility and depth, and they absolutely nailed that balance.  But the more people play the game, the better they’ll get, and some of them might eventually graduate.  It would be nice if there was something they could graduate into.

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These suggestions are in no way meant to imply that the game is in need of major changes.  Its flaws are few and minor.  Overall, Super Mario Maker is a phenomenal game.  These suggestions don’t reflect shortcomings, but rather my eagerness to continue playing this game for many months, if not years, and to see it grow and evolve.  Some of this growth will, by design, come from the community, but there is also room for Nintendo to make some tweaks.  In a world where post-launch support and regular updates are the norm rather than the exception, I’m looking forward to seeing what Nintendo will do to improve on an already excellent game.

Read all about What I Play When I Play.

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