Several months ago, we announced a level-building contest for Super Mario Maker. And then we received about four times as many entries as we expected, creating an enormous pile of stages to play — which is to say, codes to punch in through the game's rather pokey interface.
But at long last, our journey is complete! Hooray for us. And hooray for you! More than 150 people entered, and 12 of you will take home a prize. I know, we said 11, but we had trouble paring it down, so I threw in one extra prize.
Thanks to everyone who entered. There were some great levels here! At the same time, many of these submissions reinforced some of the principles I talked about in the Daily Mario video series: Great level design is more about what you don't do than what you do. I think our running the contest so soon after Super Mario Maker's release meant that most players were still in the discovery phase, exploring just what they could get away with in the Super Mario Maker toolset. And that's good and well and an essential part of the creative process!
However, the levels that really stood out to me weren't about finding as many devious ways to kill the player as possible or demonstrating how chaotic a single screen could be. Rather, the best stages were the ones that focused on just a handful of elements, revolved around a single central theme, and doled out challenges and twists with a measure pace. Just as the secret to great horror movies isn't a nonstop barrage of gore but rather the suspense of anticipation, Super Mario Maker levels work best when you give players room to breathe. Then you hit 'em hard.
Our contest winners were often quite clever in their use of gimmicks and high-concept designs, but they also demonstrated an admirable ability to hold back — to think about the overall experience as opposed to building manic intensity through constant danger. We received a lot of great entries, but these 12 truly stood apart.
Our second favorites
Captain Toad Does Not Jump
By Marchbanks | Bookmark
Extra notes: This stage lays down its rules in the title—you can't press jump or you'll die horribly—and then challenges your nerves by putting you into situations where you instinctively want to jump.
Journey of Flame
by jeffcorry | Bookmark
Mario in Wonderland
by Toad64 | Bookmark
Notes: Taking Mario back to his inspirational roots, this stage plays with the big/small dynamic in a literary (and surreal) way.
Doors to Doom
by MattG | Bookmark
Notes: A level that needs to be played several times along different paths to appreciate its full depth.
Infiltrate! Destroy! Metal Cog!
by Axel Fury | Bookmark
The Heist Mission
by James-Hope-Howard | Bookmark
Betting Big on Bowser-back Races
by PizzaStart | Bookmark
Notes: Possibly the weirdest stage submission, but definitely inventive.
Behold, The Caves of Mariozani!
by tigh | Bookmark
Broken Bridge of River Koopa
by EvilRed | Bookmark
Notes: This stage pulls off a personal favorite design trick of mine: It creates a sense of place and architecture, using Super Mario Bros. stage layout components to build a crumbling bridge across a vast expanse. Every area plays a little differently, and you can find multiple paths in many places, making this level a load of fun to explore. Congratulations, you get a vinyl Mario figure.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 Abridged
by Scruggles | Bookmark
Notes: Can a level design be sarcastic? This is a question that New Super Mario Bros. 2 Abridged puts to rest. (The answer, in case you're wondering, is "yes.") Enjoy your vinyl Luigi figure!
A World Sixish Castle
by Guycot | Bookmark
Notes: By far the most genuinely Mario-ish of all the submissions I played, A World Sixish Castle demonstrates a Nintendo-like sense of restraint, giving the player room to breathe without turning the stage into a cakewalk. In fact, it might arguably be the best submission we received... but since it came from a professional designer who's shipped quite a few games, it seemed a little unfair to give it top prize. So instead, Guycot wins a Dead Ness keychain.
And finally... a drumroll, if you would.
Top Prize: Zelda: The Lost Temple
by Leamus | Bookmark
Notes: A goodly percentage of submissions fell into the "homage to another series" category, and some of them were quite enjoyable! There was a low-key stroll through Animal Crossing's museum, a decent Mega Man tribute, and quite a few Metroid and Zelda wannabes. This one, however, leaves them all in the dust.
The excellence of The Lost Temple works on multiple levels. Yes, it's a Zelda pastiche, but it's one that manages to both be true to the spirit of Zelda and work within the confines of the Super Mario Maker tool set. I saw a lot of stages that gave players a specific character transformation, but the illusion breaks as soon as a Mario bumps into an enemy and sheds his disguise. The solution Leamus went with: Keep Mario out of harm's way, so there's never any concern for him dropping his costume.
The idea of a threat-free Mario stage might sound dull, but The Lost Temple isn't some cakewalk stroll. It consists of a series of clever and intricate environmental puzzles that manage to use the simplest Mario physics-and-object set to present brain-teasers that feel very much like they came from a latter-day Zelda adventure. And they take some effort to solve; my first time through, I managed to finish with about 30 seconds left on the clock.
Of all the Super Mario Maker stages we played, only The Lost Temple was truly transformative, using the tools available to create a working homage to another classic game series without betraying the fundamentals of a good Mario level or disregarding the realities of the Super Mario Maker sandbox. Awesome work, and a lot of fun to play. Everyone should check it out! Congratulations, Leamus, you win the precious Modern Retro Mario amiibo.
Everyone who won: Send me a private message from the account you entered with!