I have written a great deal about what (I think) makes good game design, but for all my pining to create my own video game, I've never actually tried putting those thoughts into action. With the arrival of Super Mario Maker, it's finally time for me to put my money where my loud mouth is.
Here's the thing: My goal here is not to simply create crushingly hard levels. Everyone's going to do that, and... eh, it's fine. For me, though, that's not my idea of fun. Insanely challenging platformer levels are pretty easy to make, if years of platform gaming have taught me anything. Far rarer and more difficult are good levels: Levels that lead the player through naturally and graceful, offering a challenge and a test of skill while nevertheless being fair, thoughtful, and communicating their goals clearly.
That's my objective, and over the next 10 days or so, you'll have the opportunity to watch me either teach myself how to go about it or fail pathetically. The Daily Mario will chronicle my attempt to use Nintendo's Mario level designer to create levels worthy of a real Mario game... or, more likely, to fail spectacularly.
After a seamless, elegant, and charmingly brief tutorial, Super Mario Maker sets you free to create any kind of Mario world you'd like. With a ton of restrictions here at the beginning, of course. On the first day you use Mario Maker, your canvas is a rough six-by-two-screen blank slate with nothing defined but a starting point and a goal post at the end. To fill that space, however, you have three different kinds of blocks, pipes, coins, a Super Mushroom, a spring block, and three enemies (Goomba, Piranha Plant, Koopa Trooper).
Your palette of design options includes a single modifier, a pair of wings that you can attach to basically anything to render it into a flying version of itself. This serves as your first real hint at the unexpected interations that will show up as more tools roll out. Put wings on a Koopa Troopa and it will behave exactly like the Koopa Paratroopas that have been a fixture of the series since the beginning: Red Paratroopas will hover in place, slowly patrolling up and down in a fixed vertical path, while Green Paratroopas will bound along the ground. Likewise with Goombas, who behave like their winged counterparts from Super Mario Bros. 3. Put wings on a coin, however, and it will fly toward the beginning of the stage. Put them on a Piranha Plant and it will leap out of its pipe and hover in the air momentarily before drifting back down.
Besides that, your only options are to toggle the visual style between that of Super Mario Bros. and of New Super Mario Bros. U, or to set the current look of the level (and the music that plays) to either "Ground" (the classic blue skies of World 1-1) or "Underground" (the gloomy blues of World 1-2).
This early selection of options can feel pretty limiting, but the restrictions allow you to get a feel for each level design element. How do enemies interact when you pile a bunch of them in weird situations? (Predictably and by internal rules, but with lots of moving parts to keep track of.) What happens to power-ups if you don't hide them in blocks but rather leave them sitting on the ground? (They start scooting for the hills.) What happens when level design elements pass off the top of the screen and onto the upper area? (You can scroll smoothly to the top screen once you approach the boundary, like in SMB3.) Do spring blocks deflect Koopa shells? (No.) And so forth.
As I expected, I'm actually somewhat relieved to begin with such limited options. As someone who's never really designed a game level outside of sketching general flow and progression concepts for a metroidvania game I will never make, being presented with this huge blank canvas to doodle on is kind of intimidating. I'm OK with taking baby steps, at least here on day one.
After messing around with block placement basics, I eventually settled on a general level philosophy: A stage bisected into two levels, which then flow back together, force players to climb to the upper screen, then drop back down before dashing to the goal. Along the way, I try to make collecting the two Mushrooms a bit of a challenge — not a breakneck platforming challenge, but rather a test of intuition.
The first Mushroom is actually hidden off the top of the screen, in a block you have to scroll upward to find. In order to reach it, you need to find a spring block that can only be revealed by taking the dangerous lower route and hitting a block in what appears to be the main route's floor. The spring block will launch you up to the top of the stage, at which point you need to leap onto a pair of bricks at the very top of the screen to scroll vertically and reveal the Mushroom's block.
The "main" route is actually blocked off by indestructible blocks — except for one brick at ground level, which can be broken away by kicking the patrolling Koopa into it and creating a small gap that little Mario can dash through but Super Mario has to slide through.
For the second portion of the stage, you need to climb upward by leaping on staggered pipes containing Piranha Plants. The path upward is fairly obvious, but there's extra guidance in the form of coin placement that encourages you to jump onto each pipe. Once you reach the top, you need to descend again through a series of "blind" jumps onto one-block platforms below — though they're not really blind, as Koopas patrol the tiny blocks, and coins hang directly above the small platforms. Once you're down, it's a fairly simple matter to reach the goal.
This... is not a good level. There are some sound principles at work here, I feel — particularly the idea of two routes, one straightforward, the other more dangerous but essential for finding power-ups — but they're executed terribly. The path to the first Mushroom is entirely too obtuse; the spring block is already tucked in an out-of-the-way spot, so it needs to be in a clearly marked Question block in order to communicate its presence.
Putting a Question block in what appears to be a blank stretch of floor would also encourage people to explore the lower route, which is pretty uninviting. The Koopa patrolling down there is especially inept, since the path is designed in a way that kicking him will cause him to break an essential stepping stone.
Once you use the spring to reach the top, there's no real indication that you need to hop onto the two hanging bricks in order to reach the Mushroom — there should be half-visible coins up there or something to lure players to explore up top.
And while the idea of forcing players to kick a Koopa in order to advance through the main route has potential, the gap immediately following is a bad idea; if you're Super Mario, you have to give up your forward momentum in order to duck through the space, which means you probably won't clear the gap.
It's also needlessly punishing to have a Piranha Plant on the pipe you're dashing to; there are enough requirements in order to advance that the added hazard makes it a pain in the butt rather than interesting.
The Piranha Plant pipe staircase seems clumsy and inelegant, and the nook filled with secret reward blocks is a bit too cramped for its own good.
And finally, while it's good that the "blind" jumps at the end offer visual cues to guide your movements, it's all sort of pointless when Mario can simply take a running leap and reach the goal.
All in all, a genuinely terrible first attempt!
I'll take another pass at this one to see if I can salvage this mess. I'll also try and come up with something more interesting for tomorrow, once the second set of blocks becomes available. In the meantime, I'm open to theme suggestions for stages (bearing in mind the few tools I have available). Mario standards like airships and such are out of the question, but please offer more general suggestions, e.g. "make a maze" or something.