Wednesday, December 7, 2016

My Mario Maker Levels

I said in my last post that Spider's Hollow was the first game I'd finished making in a year and a half. That's not technically true! I've actually put quite a few levels together in Super Mario Maker since I nabbed it last year. You can see what me and various friends and family members have uploaded over on our Mario Maker Bookmark page.

I've had a blast with the game; it's the most gorgeous and tactile level editor I've ever gotten my hands on. I love the cute sound effects when you lay down tiles that match the music. I love the absurd easter eggs. I love the updates that reinvigorate the game with new assets and tools. And I really love playing levels by folks from around the whole world. Super Mario Maker turns creation into its own kind of play, and it's resulted in a whole lot of lovely art.

Here are some thoughts on the levels I've finished. If you have the game, give 'em a shot!

Bothersome and Antagonistic (

This was the first level I put together, before I'd unlocked more than the starting set of items. I like it 'cause it's malicious without actually being all that hard, and it ends on a joke I'm pretty proud of. Inspired by a twitter conversation with my friend Amr.

Don't Go Breakin' My Heart (95B7-0000-0038-057C)

My only water level! It's just a short little puzzle I made when I was still figuring out the engine, but I think it's cute.

A Brisk Summer Breeze (

Now we're talking!

So. I really like autoscroll levels. It's a shame nobody ever posts them! There's a bit of a stigma attached I think, 'cause so many autoscrollers in the mainline Mario games are pretty dull. No one wants to wait around for the screen to crawl from left to right when you're more than ready to keep going, and that's what so many of these levels devolve into.

Autoscroll strips away the player's progressive agency, which is valid but it's something you have to be careful with. Because when the tool is used well that robbing of agency is precisely what makes it so effective. It can be an instrument of tremendous tension and excitement -- you just have to make sure it's sufficiently demanding to be tense instead of boring.

My stewing on the topic is what ultimately led to "A Brisk Summer Breeze," a Mario 3-style airship level where the scrolling moves twice the speed it usually does. It's brief and hard and full of nice little touches (I especially like the semi-secret branching path). It's a simple idea executed well, and it's one of the levels I'm most proud of.

Cozy Cottage (5485-0000-0042-B74D)

Like autoscroll levels, mazes in Mario games are frequently maligned. But I've always enjoyed Mario's better maze levels. Some of my favorite childhood memories of Super Mario World are finding secret exits in the haunted houses. The final level of Super Mario Bros. is a quiet eerie masterpiece. And only this year did I finally beat the World 8 Fortress in Mario 3, after a decade of failing to comprehend its obtuse (but consistent!) architecture.

So I made a door maze. Unlike the levels I just listed it's not supposed to be scary. You can't die or get stuck, and there's only one puzzle beat that seems to give folks trouble. I really was going for a "cozy" vibe, something chill and warm and inviting. 

This has by far the highest completion rate and by far the highest star ranking of my levels. That makes me happy, 'cause I honestly think it's some of my best level design ever.

Don't Scratch Your Nose (

By far my most self-indulgent level. You progress by riding over a river of lava along very fast moving conveyor belts. You have to jump back and forth between conveyor belts to avoid falling off. Also: the screen scrolls to the right at the fastest speed possible. 

You get a cape at the beginning which makes the precision platforming a little more bearable. But moreso than usual I made this level for purely my own satisfaction. You're still welcome to enjoy it though!

Spooky Tower (AEEE-0000-012F-F752)

Mario Maker doesn't technically allow for vertical levels, but that sure hasn't stopped folks from trying to make them. I've seen a few ambitious levels that attempt to simulate verticality, but none of them sold the illusion in quite the way I was looking for.

The natural way to fake vertical levels in Mario Maker is by using pipes and doors to make transitions from one "tier" to another. But that's too clunky to feel grounded on its own, so you have to use theming to insist that you're "ascending" and "descending" when truly you're moving between disconnected areas.

I used as many tricks as I could to make it seem like a vertical level. The design of each floor emphasizes ascent. After the long climb, you fall back down inside the wall of the tower, seeing all the level you passed through on the way up. And the door at the end subtly implies the entrance flag and the exit are only thirty or so blocks apart from each other.

I don't like it quite as much as Cozy Cottage, but this level definitely takes the silver for me. I put a lot of thought into the logistics of it, and I really think that work paid off.

Super Mario Maker made me feel like a storyteller during a period where making art felt impossible. I'm thankful for the joy its brought me -- and for the joy it's brought thousands of other artists across the world.

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