Review: Super Mario Maker 2 (Switch)

2015’s Super Mario Maker was a stroke of genius for Nintendo. Everyone who’s ever played a Mario game has probably dreamed of making their own levels, and here was a game that made that possible. The creation interface was intuitive, but still offered enough depth for imaginative creators to come up with all manner of things you’d never expect from a Mario game.

To a large degree, Super Mario Maker 2 is more of the same—but that’s no bad thing. For one thing, it brings the Mario Maker formula to Switch, a console with a much bigger player base than the Wii U ever could have dreamed of, which means a bigger pool of pool of creators and massive online library of player-created courses. For another, it means you can play on the go in the Switch’s handheld mode, creating levels to later share online or playing other players’ courses that you’d previously saved—something that wasn’t possible with the 3DS port, which, bizarrely, offered no sharing functionality. 

What this means is that, even if you don’t want to delve into the building side too deeply (or at all), you essentially have an endless Mario game in Super Mario Maker 2. You could never play a level more than once, and still never run out of new things to see and new challenges to overcome thanks to an ever-growing online library. Robust searching options mean you can narrow down the results if you’re looking for something specific—maybe you just want easy courses, or extra-hard courses, or courses built around a particular theme. The recommended content algorithms and user rating systems naturally float the best courses to the top of the pile, so you don’t even need to worry too much about having sort through hundreds of poorly-made levels before you finally find a good one, which is always a worry with user-generated content.

With so many players and so much scope for creativity, Super Mario Maker 2‘s community is delivering some truly off-the-wall, innovative takes on Mario‘s staple gameplay, the likes of which you’d never see from Nintendo. Auto-playing levels are a particularly fun twist: basically, they’re really complex mazes of enemies, traps, and hazards that would be nigh impossible to clear unless you… do nothing. So long as you never press a button, all the different moving parts are perfectly configured to guide you through the maze, bouncing off enemies and hitting switches as necessary, purely through momentum and the precision with which the level has been constructed. The best examples of these are impressive feats of level design and engineering, playing out like Mario-themed Rube Golberg machines.

Other levels do things like play familiar tunes as you run through an otherwise hazard-free level, thanks to meticulous use of musical blocks. They offer no challenge, but that’s not their goal; they’re simply a creative use of the tools available within the game, and a relaxing break from the more challenging side of Super Mario. (It’s worth noting, though, that levels built to play copyright-breaching music are always at risk of being taken down by Nintendo.)

At the other end of the scale, you have creators really pushing the limits of just how brutally difficult a Mario game can be. Regular Super Mario games tend to get a bit challenging, but in the interests of broad appeal, they never go to the sorts of extremes that you see in “masocore” platformers. Players who want that sort of experience out of Mario can get it with Super Mario Maker 2, because there’s no shortage of creators making those sorts of levels. There’s no worry of stumbling upon levels that are literally impossible—players can’t upload their creations until they’ve played them from start to finish and proved that they can be completed—so no matter how unforgiving a player-created level is, you know it is at least possible, somehow.

The one problem with those sorts of levels, though, is that Super Mario Maker 2 places a hard limit on checkpoints: only one per level. That mostly works for regular Mario levels (and player creations that follow a similar design philosophy), but one of the things that makes masocore platformers work is liberal checkpointing; it’s much less frustrating to bash your head against the same obstacle a hundred times in a row when you get to retry each time from that part, instead of playing a big chunk of the level before it. Super Mario Maker 2 doesn’t allow for that as an option, so players making ultra-hard courses have to either make them really short, or force players into frustrating situations of having to replay big chunks of a level.

As I say, you could keep yourself occupied forever just by playing other players’ creations in Super Mario Maker 2, but you’d be missing out on a big chunk of the experience: making levels of your own. Fortunately, the level builder makes this about as easy as possible, with a simple drag and drop interface to populate your level with platforms, enemies, gizmos, and what have you. You can easily play-test segments of your level for quick-fire iteration and fine-tuning, and the option of showing a trail of Mario’s movement from your last playtest is a lifesaver when it comes to making sure your level can actually be played.

Everything you’d expect from a Mario level can be put into your own creations, from warp pipes and bonus areas to sub areas like the different rooms of a haunted house level. But you can also do a lot of things that you wouldn’t normally see in a Mario game—like hide enemies inside blocks, or alter the size of different foes, or give wings to just about any object or monster in the game.

As intuitive as the interface is, good level design is still a skill that takes some practice. To help with that Super Mario Maker 2 offers a series of really useful tutorials that go beyond just teaching you how to use the tools available and into design philosophy. It goes into, for example, the differences between “difficulty” and “challenge”—where “challenge” is something that is hard to complete, but is satisfying and doesn’t just rely on cheap tricks, as opposed to difficulty for difficulty’s sake. It goes over ideas like playtesting with a wide audience and getting feedback, how to explore different potential solutions to a design problem, and the value in building a level around a theme instead of just dumping everything in there willy-nilly. Crucially, all of this knowledge comes in bite-sized lessons, each one running only for a couple of minutes and delivered in a fun way through the comical interactions between two new characters.

Most of what I’ve said above is as applicable to the original Super Mario Maker as it is to Super Mario Maker 2; the latter just has more of it, a bigger playerbase, and the convenience of the Switch console. But Super Mario Maker 2 also has a few new things to set it apart.

Most significantly, there’s a single-player story mode involving 100-odd courses created by Nintendo. The actual story itself is fairly limited, even by Super Mario standards (basically, Peach’s castle has been destroyed, and you have to rebuild it by collecting coins from different levels and spending them on construction work), but it still offers plenty of new Super Mario levels that you won’t find in any other game. Even if you never touched the user-generated content, Super Mario Maker 2‘s story mode is a substantial offering.

The other big new addition is the option of Super Mario 3D World as a course theme. As in the original game, Super Mario Maker 2 lets you change the style of your created levels to match either Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, or New Super Mario Bros. U. The differences between those four are mostly superficial, aside from a few minor gameplay differences stemming from the games they’re based on—Mario can wall kick only in levels using the NSMBU theme, for example.

By contrast, the Super Mario 3D World theme comes with much more substantial changes in gameplay. It has a wide variety of its own unique elements, like platforms that switch rhythmically alternate between active and inactive states and crates that can be picked up, carried, and used as floating platforms on water and lava. This theme also lets you use Cat Suit Mario, who can cling to walls and attack with his claws. The trade off is that when you switch level you’re creating to the 3D World theme, the whole level level gets erased (rather than just keeping the existing elements in place and updating their visual style). If you want to make a 3D World level, you need to make it as a 3D World level from the start, which seems a reasonable concession given how different this theme is from the others.

Story mode and the Super Mario 3D World theme are the big additions, but Super Mario Maker 2 also includes a whole lot of other little tweaks to the first game’s successful formula. You can now set unique course completion requirements aside from just reaching the end, like collecting a certain number of coins or defeating a certain number of enemies; you can now create slopes that Mario can slide down; you no longer have to unlock different course elements through play, and instead have most items and tools available right from the start; you can now cooperatively build a course with a second player, each using a single Joy Con. Super Mario Maker 2 doesn’t try to fix what isn’t broken, and instead makes some small but welcome improvements around the edges.

In short, Super Mario Maker 2 is essential for anyone who likes Mario games, anyone who likes creating their own game levels, and especially anyone who fits into both those camps. Its creation interface perfectly balances ease of use with depth, allowing imaginative makes to make bring some truly creative twists to the standard Mario design formula. Even if you have no interest in making your own levels, the growing library of courses made by other players gives you a Mario game that is, functionally, endless.

But perhaps most significant of all, it brings the genius that was Super Mario Maker to Switch—with all the convenience and the massive player base that comes with that. 

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.