/ Laura Hudson / 3 am Mon, Sep 14 2015
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  • Your Super Mario Maker level has no chill

    Your Super Mario Maker level has no chill

    It's fun to design your own games, but here's why you should slow your roll.

    Listen, I know this is exciting. You've been playing Super Mario Bros in one form or another for most of your life, leaping hungrily for the fire flowers and invincibility stars that dot its levels like rare treats. Till now, each one has been parceled out with deliberate care, like dealing with a parent who takes your bag of candy the day after Halloween and hands out one measly piece a day until it's gone.

    But now all of that has changed. Super Mario Maker just came out on the Wii U, and now you can make and play your own Mario Bros levels, adding as many coins and stars and terrifying swarms of koopa troopas as you want. Want to design a level where stars rain from the sky like manna while a long string of coins spells out the word BUTTFACE? Then go for it, friend: You've finally got the key to the candy store, and the first impulse is to binge.

    PJsRg

    And hey, why not? The whole point of Super Mario Maker is that you finally get to sit in the driver's seat and design a ride that's as wild as you can imagine—and share it with other players around the world. The fan-made levels on offer through the game's "Course World" feel both exciting and even slightly profane compared to the hyperdeliberate worlds that we're used to seeing Mario inhabit, like bizarre video game fever dreams cooked up in the margin of some schoolkid's notebook.

    But after spending a decent chunk of time playing Mario Maker levels crafted by fans—and feeling a bit of the transgressive start thrill wear off— I've found myself whispering the same thing over and over again at the fan designers:

    Your Super Mario Maker levels have no chill.

    Again, I totally get it. It's really fun to create a giant pyramid of Bowsers, for the same reason that it's fun to make 1-Ups mushrooms rain from the sky like manna: because you can. I did the exact same thing the moment I got my hands on the game. After all, this is what I'd been dreaming about since I was a little kid redrawing Mario level maps in long, horizontal strips across the graph paper I got from school, imagining worlds where everything was stars, where nothing was off limits.

    But wish fulfillment alone does not make for a particularly good video game experience, and if you're actually trying to make an entertaining level as opposed to merely demonstrating your god-like power to make the goombas do your bidding, a better question is whether you should. The driving impulse behind many of the most popular fan levels is relentless overkill: packing every inch of the screen with bulletstorms of projectiles, onslaughts of enemies, and punishing gauntlets that offer almost no room to breathe.

    The first few times you play through these sorts of kitchen sink fan levels, there's a fresh pleasure in seeing the familiar logic of Mario subverted, and replaced with joyous excess. Some levels, like Disco Fever, manage to channel the throw-it-all-at-the-wall sense of freedom into a miniature party that feels like a piñata bursting open all around you:

    But not every party can be a rave, and after a while playing level after level of throw-it-all-at-the-wall zaniness gets tiring, and worse, kind of boring. There's a reason that Nintendo has gated some of the DIY goodies in Super Mario Maker, unlocking them for players over a series of days rather than all at once; it knows this is not a good idea.

    In fairness, there's another reason for the jaw-dropping density on display in these levels, one that goes beyond the mere thrill of pulling as many toys as you can out of the toy box at once. Unlike the original games, where each level was a link in a much longer chain that could build on ideas, teach new skills evolve over time, Super Mario Maker levels are elevator pitches where you have to get in, wow the crowd, and get out. You're not writing a novel with distinct chapters, you're scripting a one-act play that has to say everything it wants to say before the player reaches the flagpole.

    I'm excited to see how the level creating community evolves over time, which it surely will, especially after the initial excitement wears off. I've seen at least one player making levels that intended to be played in sequence (with the familiar labels 1-1, 1-2, 1-3) and particularly if talented fan creators develop followings of their own, there's no reason they can't experiment with longer form experiences.

    But if you're creating a single serving affair, consider slowing your roll: throwing everything and the kitchen sink into a level often isn't innovative so much as it is cacophonous and confusing, and has a way of devaluing both challenge and reward. When your level is an endless rain of power-ups or one long parade of Mario's most difficult enemies marching through the level three deep, the thrill dissipates—and more starts to feel like less.

    Certainly, there's a special pleasure in subverting the traditional expectations of the Mario games with unexpected twists; you could even argue that it's the whole point of Super Mario Maker. I've seen more than one clever take on the classic 1-1 stage, where all the familiar power-ups are replaced with traps, and Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi made a Mario Maker level of his own that opens by dropping the game's final boss Bowser directly in front of you from the get-go. And, nothing is wrong with the occasional disco.

    Some of the best fan-made levels are also the ones that use the building blocks of Mario to do something entirely different: to create a labyrinth, build a impromptu shooting gallery, or design a level that feels like bouncing around in bumper cars.

    But it's also worth learning the basic grammar of traditional Mario games so that you can understand exactly what it is you're subverting—and which fundamental elements of the games are probably worth keeping around. We recently collected a series of tips from seven different game developers, and Super Mario World book from the Reverse Design series has a lot of insights into what it calls the cadence of a level, the way challenges are introduced to the player, and how they progress and evolve in difficulty.

    Even in levels that feel breathless and dangerous, it notes that challenges tend to "begin and end in safety," offering the player moments to breathe so that they don't get too exhausted and frustrated. Many levels also begin with a "training wheels" challenge that introduces the player to a certain skill or idea very simply before expanding on it in more complex and deadly ways. While the temptation, particularly in the done-in-one context of Super Mario Maker is to turn the volume up to 11 and leave it there, there's a lot to be said for starting more quietly and building to a crescendo.

    Some of the most popular levels on Super Mario Maker are auto-play or "press forward" levels, where all you have to do is push right on the gamepad and Mario will automatically be propelled through a Rube Goldberg machine of wild jumps and terrifying threats that seem terrifying to negotiate, but you're catapulted through with ease. Think of them like rollercoasters: you simply strap in and ride the ride. Although they're more like performance art than actual play, they're designed around a very precise understanding of how Mario moves in different contexts, and that's knowledge worth learning.

    The more you can learn about momentum and distance, the better; figuring out how fast and how far Mario can run and jump is essential to understanding the grammar of the game. If there's a Mario level you really love, either from the original games or from Super Mario Maker, it's not a bad idea to rebuild it yourself from scratch to get a feel for how it works. How much space does it leave the player to breathe? How narrow can the passages be without accidentally trapping the player? How far apart are the platforms, and how long of a runway does Mario need to make a certain jump? Become fluent in these mechanics, and you'll be able to say all kinds of things with your levels that you couldn't before.

    The Mario level design analyses by Anna Anthropy are also instructive, particularly when it comes to analyzing how deliberate design with a small number of resources can be much more compelling than extravagance. Her analysis of the first few screens of the classic 1-1 Super Mario Bros level is fascinating, as is her deep dive into a brief section of a pyramid level in Super Mario Land:

    supermariolandpyramid_bigger

    As she notes, the pyramid offers an implicit choice: you can either proceed upward through a safer path as a bigger, powered-up version of Mario, or depower yourself to a smaller, more vulnerable Mario to reach a treasure trove of coins and power-ups. Even the tiny pit at the far end of the miniature treasure trove is carefully placed, threatening to swallow the mushroom that emerges from the question block if you don't grab it fast enough. It communicates all these decisions, challenges and threats in a single screen, using only a handful of the simplest elements in the Mario universe. It builds on the information that the player already has about the world of Mario—the same sort of knowledge we can assume about Super Mario Maker players—and it builds something new on that foundation.

    "Good level design often accomplishes several things simultaneously – it does so using a handful of basic building blocks that are already known to the player," writes Anthropy. "Concise design doesn’t introduce new game elements needlessly: an element that the player’s already encountered already has meaning to her, and she understands its implications."

    One of the quickest ways to encourage innovation is to limit your options, and chances are the final product will be a lot more interesting—and more fun for the potential legions of other people who may find themselves playing a world of your design.

    In poetic terms, Mario Maker is an exercise in free verse, and with almost nothing to constrain you, it's tempting to dump as many bells and whistles as you can on to the page. But try something more like haiku instead: limit yourself to only a small number of items, enemies and ideas, and try to make something elegant within those constraints. If all you want to do is mess around, then none of this really matters. But if you want to make the kind of level that will win the hearts of the Miiverse, then resist the siren song of overkill, start simple, learn the basics—and then get creative.

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