My goal for Super Mario Maker today was to create a castle stage with a Bowser showdown, then go back and rework existing levels to a higher standard. Alas! The castle project turned out to be so involved that I didn't make it to the second task.
Fortunately, these scheduling issues came about specifically because I'm slowly integrating better habits into my map-making. As I've eased into Super Mario Maker's rules and options, I've begun thinking more about what I'm trying to accomplish, how Nintendo's own designers might approach a problem, and jumping in to "play" mode more frequently in order to test ideas on the fly.
Something I've noticed in my own levels and those of others is a compulsion to make stage layouts as dense as possible. That's a valid creative choice to be sure, but it's not how real Mario games usually work. Especially castle and fortress stages — they incorporate lots of challenges and hazards, but there's a natural limitation on just how many of those factors you're likely to see on a single screen at any given time.
Also, much of what makes castle levels so daunting comes down to the psychology of them: They're dark, oppressive, and full of automated hazards like fire bars and balls of flame bouncing from the lava. In many cases, though, these seem far more dangerous than they actually are.
So, in building this stage, I attempted to (1) stick to the rule of limiting the variety of hazards involved rather than dumping the entire toolset into a single level; (2) create lots of room for players to maneuver while giving the impression of a dense, dangerous environment; and (3) make use of pit hazards and secret passages, since people keep chastising me for not being more liberal with those elements and concepts. Let's see how it went...
The beginning of the stage creates the impression of danger, but the actual threat level is quite low. The Podoboo hops in a corner of lava you'll never cross, and the Bullet Bill runs beneath all elements of ground here. Neither of them can hurt you, unless you were going to die already. The only actual concern is the Goomba, which waddles off the overhead pipe...
...and lands on the moving platform. But even then, you can clearly see the Goomba moving toward the edge, and if you don't hop on the platform immediately it'll just wander off into the lava.
A cluster of coins to the side might tempt you to snag them without stopping to take stock of the fact that there's a spinning fire bar attached to the pipe, which sweeps through the space where the coins are. It's a bit of a "gotcha," but it appears right next to a Super Mushroom — so chances are good that even if you bumble into this weak trap, you'll still be able to take a hit and fight on, wiser for your mistake.
Now you face a Bullet Bill tower that can actually cause you harm. The pipe it fires over pukes out Buzzy Beetles, but this is probably something I'll change in my next round of revisions. This is the only place Buzzy Beetle shows up, and the constant churn of bugs combined with a regular sequence of bullets is just too much to worry about this early in the stage in such a confined space. The Buzzy Beetles have got to go. Simpler is better.
A Koopa Paratroopa here provides a boost to a Super Mushroom if you don't make it through the Bullet Bill/Buzzy Beetle gauntlet unscathed. This is where fine-tuning on the fly is important: The Question block is placed high enough that you need to bounce off the turtle to reach it, but low enough that you don't have to worry about your bounce taking you into the Bullet Bill's path.
The Paratroopa also allows you to remove an obstacle, if properly timed. The one flaw with this setup: You need to make a blind jump to a platform below from here, and the coins are there to guide you. Unfortunately, the turtle shell "collects" any coins it hits, so I had to mess with the placement of coins to ensure some would still be there to guide your fall no matter how you punted the Koopa.
I've seen complaints that my stage designs haven't incorporated enough pit hazards, so here you go: Narrow bridges and moving platforms, with fireballs leaping from the lava.
Once you reach the top, there's a fire bar blocking the passage. It's kind of hard to see, though, so this section needs to be reconfigured for greater fairness.
The stage's single Fire Flower sits in plan sight, but you have to leap through a gap in spikes from a moving platform (and then back again) in order to make use of it. A bit of risk/reward to create a dangerous tradeoff in collecting a power-up that will tilt the difficulty balance of your encounter with Bowser.
This dead end may look useless, but it's not!
If you drop down the gap next to the pipe...
You can leap through the bridge pylons to a dangerous area that "reads" as inaccessible.
Which leads you to this Piranha Plant nook. However, you pass up the opportunity to collect the Fire Flower this way, so the shortcut comes with its own tradeoff.
The final set of moving platforms required a lot of fine-tuning to hit the absolute minimum number of platforms necessary to advance. I also dropped some hazards from this area, like the Goomba generator in the long pipe. It originally dropped Goombas onto the moving platforms, but it made things too fussy. Bowser starts belching flame as you draw near, and there were just too many moving objects to worry about at once.
Nintendo's official levels will sometimes include a lot of simultaneous moving parts, but they're always thoughtfully placed; this was too haphazard to work. But it's much more playable and fun with some of the superfluous elements removed; you still have to make precise jumps while dodging flames and watching the timing of fire bars, and that's enough.
A few Bullet Bills at the entrance to Bowser's position. I contemplated putting the lower Bullet Bill at Mario's height so you can't just stand there and pepper Bowser with fireballs... but eventually I decided that if you can hang on to the power up until this point, you deserve the chance to be cheesy.
And that's it: My first complete "world," which has gradually improved in quality. For Monday, the rule of the day is refinement. I'll be going back and trying to really polish the stages I've made so far and work out all the kinks, bring them aesthetically and mechanically into line with "true" Mario stages, and basically just play-testing until everything seems fun.