Mario and luiji in builders hats

Mario Maker 2EZ

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There’s a community to Mario Maker 2, just as there was for the initial game on the Wii U. It has, like many similar communities, its own language and style. Folks get together to watch players grind through “pinpoint accuracy” obstacles on Kaizo levels, which can take actual hours to complete what is functionally finished in just under a minute.

As a community, it’s full of that git-gud mentality that is so popular in games right now, the same kind of thing that drives folks to speedrun their favorite games from when they were children. It’s its own level of mastery, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the main point of a game like Mario Maker 2. Isn’t the point of a game like this to make levels full of shell jumps into impossible areas, or a self-made escalator of boxes that must be placed delicately into clear pipes so that you can walk across lava on an upper level? They’re Rube Golberg machines of precision, a sort of ballet of movement and speed.

In a recent video series with Tim Rogers, Grand Poo Bear (a relatively popular Mario Maker 2 streamer) said that most people are actually pretty bad at Mario. That’s paraphrased. Grand Poo Bear is deeply kind on stream — it’s a trait of his to play Troll levels in Mario Maker 2 and then thank the person for a well timed Cheep Cheep that hurls him into the lava and to his death. Tim Rogers, in describing playing Grand Poo Bear’s teaching level, said this:

“I’ve learned to functionally speak 12 languages in my life. I have run several marathons. I once ran two miles in nine minutes and 58 seconds. Furthermore, I deal with Adobe Photoshop daily.

So you’re gonna have to take my word for it when I say that this was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.”

I don’t have Tim Rogers fortitude, or the deep seated need to prove that I can Mario. Despite growing up with the game (my mother once told me that we had a SNES in the living room when I was an infant, and that they would sometimes sit on the main screen of Super Mario World so that the theme music was literally the background music of my childhood) I am an exceptionally average Mario player. I don’t like to run in the game, it makes me feel unbalanced. I frequently fail to make precarious jumps, not because I can’t make them but because after I make them, I promptly run over the side. Slightly difficult maneuvers (jumping from a crouching position, etc) literally seem impossible to me.

I am fascinated by the community of Mario Maker 2 because it is so antithetical to what my experience has been playing the game. I have basically only entered one section of Mario Maker 2, and that is the Endless Challenge. Inside the Endless Challenge there are four tiers — Easy, Normal, Expert and Super Expert. You’ll find players like Grand Poo Bear in the Super Expert tier, a collection of Kaizo and troll levels designed to challenge players in a way that makes for good Twitch watching.

You’ll find me in Easy.

I have played 200+ levels in Mario Maker 2’s Endless Challenge, but basically only on Easy. I’ve tried the Normal setting, but even with a lifetime of playing every variety of Mario game I have never made it more than five levels. I am bad at Mario.

Mario Maker 2’s Endless Challenge is like crate digging through old VHS’s at the Peddlers Mall: it’s a complete mystery what you’re going to find. Hunting tapes? Maybe. A Shaw Brothers collection? Perhaps. A musical level that allows the player to listen to some tune from Castlevania as long as they don’t move a single muscle? Sure. Endless Challenge is an opportunity to see a little bit of everything, and in Easy, that little bit of everything is a mess.

Ultimately, Mario Maker 2 is about taking the designing of levels away from the folks who do it for a living and putting it in the hands of people who don’t know anything about it. Or people who think they know what they’re doing because they watched that one video from Game Makers Toolkit around the advent of Mario Maker 1. Level design is hard — it’s about understanding expectations, the paths players will take through a level. Balance. It’s all of those things. And Mario Maker 2 on Easy is like…well what if instead of thoughtfully designing the challenges in this level we put a thousand Super Star’s in the opening, filled it with Meowser and Yoshi’s and just told you to run through the level collecting 666 coins?

Why? Who knows. Probably because game design is dead, but also because it’s kind of fun in a “piss off your parents and slide down the hardwood floors in your hallways with furniture polish on your socks” kind of way.

There’s something powerfully irreverent about the poor game design at play in Endless Challenge Easy. They’re mostly a collection of levels that bring joy to the person who designed them. A person likes Yoshi’s, so here’s a level where you can run around mounted on a Yoshi. This person liked the new racing mechanic, so here’s a little race. It’s this snapshot into the world of the person who made the level, for the price of your time. The levels are generally gentle — Mario isn’t (normally) a terribly cruel game, but there’s even a slimmer chance of loss in these levels.

Sure there’s a chance I could eventually die, and I do, but also I have 99 lives, the literal max. There are no stakes. I didn’t start out with 99, but you get a max of 3 every time and frequently levels just dump coins and 1up mushrooms at you like a malfunctioning slot machine, so there’s little chance of failure. Failure is this important thing to game design — in order to feel like you’ve succeeded, you must fail. It’s part of the reason that most better designed levels, even ones that aren’t terribly hard, end up in Normal rather than Easy. They offer you the opportunity to fail.

You could just win forever. Right now the only stakes are a number at the top of my screen that says that my rank is in the 24,000. There are 24000+ players ahead of me. Which will simply not do. I have this weird desire to get into the top 10,000 players in Mario Maker 2 Endless Challenge, a game that aside from this article I have basically never talked about, and it’s a ranking that will not matter to anyone aside from myself. There’s something kind of wonderful about eternally winning, where there’s absolutely no chance that you will not succeed and you can run forever into a shining pile of Super Stars and on towards an automatic level that promises nothing but fun little adventures in standing completely still.