The first level I saw made by someone in Super Mario Maker 2 reenacted the John F. Kennedy assassination. It didn’t last long on Nintendo’s servers, but a slightly viral tweet should keep its memory alive online forever for some.
Say what you will about making a Mario level in extremely poor taste, but it’s just a small sample of the endless creativity that comes with a game like Super Mario Maker 2. If you can build it and beat it, you can share your warped vision with the world and let others try to beat its world record. A game as replayable as this can make you more forgiving about the wonky Maker ID codes and all the menus you have to navigate to find things, then try to find them again if you liked them enough.
The second version of Nintendo’s Mario course maker is just as good as the first, but publishing it in 2019 and offering players essentially limitless options in the sandbox means things are going to get weird. And in this case, it’s entirely a good thing. The game’s story mode has your Mario building a castle that UndoDog blew up, completing levels and gaining coins to slowly rebuild it once more. But the real fun is in the online play that is absolutely necessary to truly enjoy one of the most replayable games on the Switch outside of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
One popular level, Mario Goes To McDonalds, has your Mario drive a car to the titular fast food eatery and consume a powerup that makes him Mega Mario, then forces him to run on a treadmill until he becomes a regular-sized Mario again to finish the level. It’s funny, charming, and extremely thematic. There’s hilarious fun pretty much everywhere you look in the player-made levels. You can unionize a Goomba warehouse, play Spot The Difference, solve a puzzle box and find Zelda, and other Nintendo games remade or paid homage. There are plenty of speed runs, too, if you’re into that kind of thing.
If you dig deep enough you’re bound to find something that interests you, including Vine references and all the meta humor our broken online brains crave in this day and age. For me, the puzzle levels worked a different part of my brain, which is often a necessary reprieve if you’re not particularly great at Mario in the first place. Which, well, I’m not. Playing some levels in Super Mario Maker 2 as a person who is “Just OK At Mario Games” can be a frustrating endeavor, but it’s the reason we watch people who are good at video games play them online: good gamers making things look easy is wildly entertaining.
Trying to get through something like this, though, is a controller broken in anger just waiting to happen.
Even with a considerable portion of the levels essentially off-limits to the mediocre, Mario Maker 2 is insanely fun. You could intentionally never play a multiplayer versus level or an insanely difficult puzzle or speed run and still find plenty to do. But if you’re not inclined to make games, well, you’re missing a whole section of the game that’s essentially useless. And one of the strangest things about a deep dive into the game is that you realize it’s not the game’s fault if you can’t make something. It’s yours.
I’m going to level (sorry) with you here: I never once finished making a level with the expansive, oftentimes overwhelming course editor at my fingertips. That’s not to say it isn’t intuitive or easy to use or complete with a catchy jingle that morphs as you place things on your level. I just never felt creative enough to make something interesting enough that was worth sharing. Even the idea of an easy, gentle Mario level seemed too much for my brain to handle. A friend joked to me that in 2019 what we need are chill Mario Maker levels to relax to, but for me that’s completely accurate. It’s possible to make them, too, but I just somehow couldn’t manage it myself.
I once had someone tell me they didn’t want to write because they might use their good ideas too early, as if there’s a limited well of ideas out there that can run dry before you actually get good at the task. I always thought that was a bullsh*t excuse not to put the work in, but it’s equally as bullsh*t as my real-to-me excuse: if I don’t feel right away that something I’m working on will be good, I do pretty much everything in my power to put off finishing it altogether. If the endpoint isn’t obvious and the idea isn’t fully formed, it may as well never happen at all.
When it comes to the level editor, the problem is that I’m supposed to be creative, right? It’s right there in the job description and, once in a while, I’d like to think that I actually am. But even when finding mild success, then there’s the pressure to follow up that piece that was well-received and it’s extremely easy to get in my head again and just keep deferring action in the first place. This is exactly what happened with levels in Super Mario Maker 2 and, well, writing up this review as well.
I made an upside-down Kaizo level. Please don't play this.
— Panga (@PangaeaPanga) July 10, 2019
In William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, he offers a succinct bit of advice about comparing yourself to other writers: don’t. Your only contest is with yourself, the classic guide to creating nonfiction says. It’s advice that’s always stuck with me, and a good reminder to not compare yourself to others when measuring success. But it doesn’t really solve my problem, which is that my own imaginary standards keep me from doing things I’d very much like to do without the spectre of failure hanging overhead. And as I aimlessly messed around in a Maker course I’d never publish, it occurred to me that this confidence crisis has loomed over a lot of my life. It kept me from some sports and trying new things and set up a lot of bad habits, some I’ve yet to break as a Mario Making Adult.
It’s an uncomfortable thing to realize, and likely a conclusion I might be alone in reaching while playing a game where weirdos make levels praising a Monty Mole that gets sacrificed for Mario’s sake in another uploaded level. But hidden among all the fun and weird meme-filled Super Mario Maker 2 levels waiting online was a lesson about myself. Because while Zinsser is right, it’s also part of the problem: sometimes you can’t help but feel like you’re losing a contest, even if you’re the only person playing the damn game.