Sometimes it feels like the entire Super Mario Maker series is a hellish experiment. It's as if the designers at Nintendo are saying to critics, "Yeah, well you do better!" Occasionally, someone actually does take the design concepts and themes of a proper Mario level and do them justice. Others makes grueling obstacle courses, known within the community as "Kaizo Levels," in honor of the Kaizo Mario World ROM hack. More often though, players attempt to make Kaizo Levels without understanding how they work, turning out frustrating, painful levels that serve only to anger and dismay.
The third user-created level I tried on Super Mario Maker 2 took me 25 minutes to clear. It was a harrowing level on the night version of the forest theme, meaning the waters below were poison, constituting instant death. It's a level so full of "gotcha" moments that I had to get up and go get a drink. Ultimately, I did clear the level—one of three percent of contestants who has as of this writing. I'm still not sure if it's a good level on not.
Constructing a Story
When the Nintendo Switch was released, a port of Super Mario Maker was on the top of my wish list. Super Mario Maker 2 is the answer to that wish. Take the new Story Mode, for instance. This is technically the 100 Mario Challenge from Super Mario Maker, a slew of Nintendo-created levels for players to enjoy. In Mario Maker 2, this is framed as Mario helping a work crew of Toads to rebuild Princess Peach's castle. Each bit of the castle costs coins to rebuild, and each level is a job, offering a certain amount of Coins depending on its difficulty.
It's wonderfully charming though, as Mario has conversations with all of the characters that live near the castle. The Toads themselves are fine, but the standouts are the weird Mario Maker crew, like Mr. Eraser, Undodog, and Partrick. Listening to Mr. Eraser talking about cleaning my sins before he rubs off his eraser head in mid-air is... a surreal experience. Thank you for that, Nintendo. It may just be narrative framing, but at least it's fun.
Story Mode also serves as an illustration of the things you can do with all of Super Mario Maker 2's various parts. Each course is laser-focused on a specific idea or part, telling the player, "This is one way you could use this item in your own courses." One stage tasks you with using the swing claw to never touch the floor, while another uses Bowser's Clown Car and platform paths to create a rough side-scrolling shooter. Combined with Yamamura's Dojo, an extensive set of classes on course design and philosophy taught by a pigeon, Mario Maker 2's single-player content allows the player to undergo a rough internship of sorts.
A Course World of Pain
You can see the credits roll on Story Mode without finishing every course. I personally finished every damn level, though some of those four-star difficulty levels tested me. If you're still not ready to tackle building, you have some other options. There's Course World, for example, which is where all of the user-created courses live. Nintendo has also expanded upon previous options, with pages for New, Popular, and Hot courses. You still can't search by course name, but there are filters for game style, theme, difficulty, region, and tags. Speaking of tags, courses can now have two tags, and the list of tags is more condensed this time around.
Overall, it's much easier to find a course you might enjoy, or a course-maker whose work you'd like to follow. That's not just via Search either, as the leaderboards can show you some of the best course-makers, which courses they enjoyed, or which courses the top players are tackling.
Nintendo realizes that the Switch is a travel companion for some folks, given the addition of Coursebot. Coursebot is a place to store the courses you've created (up to 32 in total), or download any user-created courses to play offline. I treat it like podcasts on my phone; it's a nice feature to have if you know you're going on a trip and are going to be offline for a bit.
Course World adds the new Endless Challenge this time around, a twist on the 100 Mario Challenge. This mode gives you five lives and pits you against a random assortment of user-levels based on your chosen difficulty. I quibble with what Mario Maker considers "Normal" or "Hard" at times, because Endless will have some definite spikes in challenge. You can skip levels freely in Endless Challenge, as score is the final goal, not overall completion of every level.
Super Mario Maker 2 has a heavy focus on multiplayer options. Up to four players—controlling Mario, Luigi, Toad, or Toadette—can tackle a course together, or in a versus mode. (You can choose any character in Course World. Story Mode is always Mario.) The latter seems inspired by the Mario races at the Games Done Quick speedrun events, with all four players moving at breakneck speed to survive and get to the finish line first. Given the recent Mario Battle Royale fan game, this is a fun little addition, though I only engaged with it a few times. There's even a Leaderboard page for the best Versus players, so this might become a big part of the Mario Maker community in the future.
Even without Versus mode, multiplayer is a blast. It's a shame then that Super Mario Maker 2 is a bit weird in terms of when and where you can engage in multiplayer. Locally, you can't enjoy multiplayer in Story Mode or from the Course World. Instead, you have to download courses to Coursebot, and then access local multiplayer there. You can also work together with another player to make a course. There is an option to engage with local multiplayer in Course World, but it requires that every player has their own Switch and copy of the game.
Worse, online multiplayer is with randoms only; there's no way at launch to join up with friends and do co-op or versus play yet. Nintendo has confirmed that the option is coming in a future update, but it's odd that it's missing here. With the push toward playing together, Mario Maker 2 should have fewer barriers.
I should also note that the matchmaking in multiplayer can occasionally lead you to levels where multiple players can't actually progress. Any level that's based on a single item for traversal, whether that's a Clown Car, Koopa Troopa Car, or Dry Bones Shell? Those actually break multiplayer a bit, because they boil down to one player getting through everything alone, while the other players just die.
Course Maker, Course Breaker
That leaves the Course Maker, which is technically the primary focus of Super Mario Maker 2. You're forced to choose either playing on TV with a controller, or on the touchscreen in portable mode. In terms of the controller user interface, Nintendo has made some improvements. Y brings up a radial menu of items that you can flip through with the shoulder buttons, the directional pad lets you easily access options on either side of the creation window, and erase and undo options are right at your fingertips.
It's still nowhere near using the touchscreen though. The Switch allows players to get close to the original Wii U version by allowing you to use the portable touchscreen and your finger. And... it's fine. Doing level creation works fine with your finger. Japan has the option of purchasing a stylus, but I honestly don't think I'd pick up one up. There's nowhere to put it, so I'd likely just lose it eventually. So, if you're dead set on the stylus, import or pick one up, but I'd honestly not bother. I do wish there was a way to connect the portable console to the TV without losing access to the touchscreen though, as that would be the best of both worlds. It makes me miss the mirrored presentation of the Wii U.
Super Mario Maker 2's Course Maker is a bit less... game-y compared to the first title. This one is far more rigid, aimed more at providing players with a robust set of tools to create levels, rather than letting them explore some item combinations. The closest Mario Maker 2 gets to that kind of experimentation is the method for unlocking the night levels.
If you've messed with the Course Maker in Super Mario Maker for Wii U or 3DS, you should feel right at home here. There are a few new options in terms of course styles, themes, and items you can place within your courses. There are five game styles available when you boot up Super Mario Maker 2: Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World, New Super Mario Bros U, and Super Mario 3D World. There are also ten course themes—Ground, Sky, Underground, Forest, Underwater, Ghost House, Desert, Airship, Snow, and Castle—compared to the six in previous games. Each theme also has a night version is every style except Super Mario 3D World.
The Super Mario 3D World style is odd, because the original game was a 3D title, like Galaxy or Odyssey. What this style does is graft some of the 3D World mechanics onto a 2D Mario. In some ways it actually feels faster and more enjoyable than the New Super Mario Bros style. Unfortunately, it's also missing some features, including night mode andnote blocks.
I honestly could list the new additions all day, because while it looks largely the same at a glance, there's a ton Nintendo has crammed in the new Course Maker. And that's before you get to all the ways that different items can interact. Put a parachute on a Thwomp for some weird fun, or make Mario a lava-gliding Thwomp killer with the combination of the Dry Bones Shell and Spiny Helmet. Part of the fun of exploring Course Maker is finding all the odd systemic intersections of Super Mario Maker 2.
But there are also issues from the previous Course Maker that made their way over to this version. The biggest problem remains moving a whole lot of things at once. If you're deep in the design phase and need to move everything in a level to make space for one last section, you can't. I'm actually unsure that it's something that Nintendo can fix, given the constraints of a console, but it's still annoying for level design purposes.
Super Mario Maker 2 is a sequel, when all Nintendo really needed to do was port the original over. I'm glad it spent the time and effort though. It's provided ways to help players build better levels, something I hope that some course-creators take to heart. Even if you don't make your own courses, Super Mario Maker 2 provides a robust single-player experience and a gateway into an entire world of user-created levels. It's a shame that the constraints of the platform mean that Super Mario Maker 2's Course Maker isn't quite to the level of the superior Wii U format, but I'm not sure I can completely hold that against the game. New items, new themes, new styles, and multiplayer means that Mario Maker 2 is two steps forward against the one step back; at the very least that means Nintendo is moving the series in the correct direction.
Players now have the chance to make their own hellish, evil Mario levels on Nintendo Switch. Super Mario Maker 2 starts with the foundation established in the first game, and adds new themes, new game styles, and new items. It falters due to the loss of the second screen of the Wii U and 3DS iterations, and the lack of Amiibo costumes hurt, but this is still a fantastic package for a Mario fan or budding level designer.