I've been watching a lot of Super Mario Maker videos this past month. Probably a hundred hours! This game is like a world onto itself, and it was fascinating to learn its design language and patterns.
With Super Mario Maker 2 coming out soon, I thought I'd show off some of the cool stuff I've seen, to celebrate Mario Maker.
We'll start with some basic elements of Mario Maker (with screenshots), and then move on to a lot of video clips showing cool stuff.
Mario Maker basically lets anyone create levels and share them with others.
Each level has to be in one of these game styles:
- Super Mario Bros (SMB)
- Super Mario Bros 3 (SMB3)
- Super Mario World (SMW)
- New Super Mario Bros (NSMB)
A lot of gameplay elements are available in all styles. However, there are some differences.
For example, the spin jump (letting you jump off of enemies that would normally kill you, among other things) is only available in SMW and up.
Similarly, the wall jump, twirl, triple jump, and ground stomp are only available in NSMB. This makes it a prime choice for speedrun levels (see below).
Clearing levels: goal box, flagpole, axe,
A level is cleared by touching the goal, located to the right end of the level. Levels can have different widths, so counting blocks won't help, but the screen refusing to scroll further right is a giveaway that the goal is near.
SMB3 levels have a goal box (pictured: Ryukahr)
Other styles can have a flagpole. Hitting any part of the flagpole (except the base block) will clear the level, but hitting the top is good for some reason.
Flagpoles are extremely easy to hide behind tracks in some game styles. Vines can also be used to conceal it somewhat.
Also available is the axe from SMB, after a variable number of “bowser bridge blocks”.
The axe is interesting, because it can be destroyed by magic Koopas. It's also relatively easy to hide or otherwise obstruct.
Or a goal tape. The tape is moving up and down the goal. Hitting any other part of the goal will not clear the level.
Doors and pipes
Doors and pipes both allow you to teleport to another place in the level.
To enter a door, you must press up while standing on something (can be the ground, or a falling item). Puzzle levels often use doors that are slightly above ground levels - jumping and pressing up is not enough - you need to do something like a stack POW blocks, trigger something else to fall down and fill a hole, or to raise up from the ground.
There are also more difficult techniques like dropping a spring and using it to enter a door. Entering a door resets everything in the room, except for blocks that have been destroyed by bombs.
Pressing “up” does other things in mario maker, such as climb up vines. If you're not touching the ground, or you're in front of a locked door whilst holding no keys, you will climb up the vine instead.
Here's a door with a hidden vine behind it:
Pipes can be entered by holding the proper direction when touching the entrance. For example, you can jump up and hold up below a pipe and enter it.
Not all pipes are teleports - some are just not connected to anything. Also, enemies and items can spawn out from pipes.
One-ways can be used to make pipes enter-only or exit-only. This is an exit-only pipe:
Pipes can be overlaid in a few interesting manners. You can:
- Make pipes exit-only (without using one-ways)
- Make “re-entering a pipe” bring you somewhere other than where you arrived from
- Make mario enter a different pipe whether he's big or small.
Using conveyors, you can make pipes that are impossible to enter if you're big (or small).
You can overlay pipes perpendicularly to hide one of them:
Checkpoints / red coins / key doors / CP1
Checkpoints are little black flags that turn into mario flags when touched. They can be upside down. Touching a checkpoint also has the same effect as picking up a mushroom.
However, the “mushroom” feature of checkpoints is often directly countered by using unavoidable spikes, ensuring the player remains small mario:
Upon death (either by enemy, lava, falling off screen, or timeout), the player will respawn at the last checkpoint they touched. Note that you can touch any checkpoint that isn't the last one you touched. If there are two checkpoints, you can touch the first one, the second one, then the first one again.
This is used for good in some levels that have multiple sections: you always loop back to a central “hub” with a checkpoint that lets you save your progress.
This is also used for evil in some levels, through what's called a “CP1”. CP1 is when a player takes a false path in a troll level, and is eventually unknowingly forced to touch the first checkpoint again (checkpoint 1, CP1), which often means they have to redo the whole level.
CP1 sequences are sometimes teased (“bet you won't fall for that!") and also sometimes involve, long, drawn-out sequences where the player is dragged through the screen by moving blocks, mocking them through writings made of coins.
Here's a whoooooole compilation of checkpoint trolls:
One of the things that checkpoints save are the number of red coins you have collected so far. Levels can have a certain level of red coins, and collecting them all grants you a key, which in turn lets you open a key door.
You can tell a level has red coins by the presence of a red coin counter in the upper-right corner:
Red coins are not the only way to obtain keys. Keys can also be hidden in blocks you can hit from below, in enemies you need to kill (bosses like the various Bowsers, but also any other enemy), or they can just stand somewhere.
A “hard lock” would be the game or the console crashing - preventing you from doing anything. A soft lock is simply being stuck somewhere in the level, with no way to either:
- Make progress towards the goal, or
- Kill yourself
There are many anti-softlock measures used by level designers. Some use hidden blocks that make fishes fall. Some use boos that you need to lure towards you by repeatedly changing directions. Some use fire balls, or falling blocks timed well enough.
“Near softlocks” are often used in troll levels for dramatic purposes. Troll levels also tend to include “evil anti-softlocks”, where, for example, you need to dodge stars so that you stop having invincibility frames and can finally die to an enemy.
Here's a particularly nasty one:
Start over vs checkpoints
Mario Maker comes with a “Start over” button, allowing you to spend one life to restart a level anytime. However, this doesn't take checkpoints into account. Thus, if you've already hit a checkpoint, it's usually better to find a way to die.
If you can't find a way to die, and have to wait out the timer, that means you're softlocked. Waiting out the timer can be really long (the timer goes up to 8 minutes).
Key death / safety red coin
I've said before that checkpoints save the amount of red coins you've collected. However, when you collect the last red coin, you're given a key, and the red coin counter is reset to 0. If you hit a checkpoint a die with the key, all your progress will effectively has been erased. It's a “key death”.
Here's an example of key death:
To avoid that, levels usually have a “safety red coin” next to the key door, that you collect last, just before entering the door, to avoid a key death.
Upload rules / dev exit
To upload a level to “Course World”, the creator must beat the level:
- From the start, without using any checkpoints
- From every checkpoint
Here's Carlsagan42 trying to upload one of his levels:
Some creators work around that by using a “dev exit”: a hidden block that contains a vine, a cloud, a star, etc. Anything that helps immediately reach the exit, bypassing most of the level.
Here's an example of hidden star:
When players like a level, they can star it. The amount of stars a creator has limits the amount of levels they can upload.
P switches are activated by walking on them (other things can activate P switches, not just mario). They change the music, and, for the duration of a timer, they:
- Turn some blocks into coins
- Turn some coins into blocks
- Activate P switch doors (which are otherwise just outlines)
- Stop conveyors
They're often used to force the player to go fast, like here:
P switches can be picked up and thrown (when accessible). It's also possible to throw them, and then jump on them, a technique called a “P switch jump”.
Holding and throwing items
In all game styles except SMB (correct me if I'm wrong), mario can pick up items and throw them. This includes, but is not limited to:
- POW blocks
- P switches
- Vertical springs
Underwater, holding an item makes mario swim faster. In NSMB levels, it's not possible to perform a wall jump while holding an item. However, it is possible to throw the item up, do a wall jump, and then catch the item.
There is a lot you can do with koopa shells in Mario Maker.
Here are two extremely cool showcases back to back, that were performed at Summer Games Done Quick 2018.
The first one, by Glitchcat7, demonstrates techniques like:
- Regular shell jump
- Double shell jump
- Spring drop
- Vertical & horizontal bomb ride
- POW jump
The second one, by Grand POOBear demonstrates shell jumps in SMB-style levels, where you can't hold or throw shells.
Mid-air shell jumps
Mid-air shell jumps are harder than regular shell jumps - there's no wall for the shell to bounce off of.
Here's a level based on a single mid-air:
Speedrun track indicators / Z
There's a lot of “commonly agreed-upon” indicators present in speedrun levels. Arrows are built into the game, tracks are used for almost everything else.
Closed boxes indicate hidden block, boxes with one side open indicate the direction in which to throw an item. Quarter-circles usually indicate twirls in NSMB levels.
“Z” is often drawn onto levels using tracks to signal that a spin jump is required (Z is the button you need to press to spin jump in SMW). In speedrun levels, it's usually a genuine hint. In troll levels, it's often used in game styles that do not allow spin jumping, like SM or SM3.
Pick a path
Presenting the player with multiple options, like four doors, or three pipes. Although it can be done well (at the start of a level, or right after a checkpoint), it's usually considered bad taste.
The player usually has to try all paths. Apparently, when troll levels first became popular, players tried doors left to right - so the last door was usually the right one.
Then, troll level makers started making the second door the right one, so that trying 4-3-2, or last-first-either would result in at least two failed attempts.
Then, the second door became the one that gets tried first, so, in 2019, anything goes apparently.
Here's theDragonFeeney going through a particularly bad one:
Often used in troll levels, this involves building similar-looking sections twice in a level, confusing the player.
There's often subtle differences. In this video, there's a fern center-right in the first section, but not in the second:
Mario Maker has its fair share of glitches. Sometimes it's just something innocent like clipping through walls, sometimes it's something a lot more funky.
Ever since Mario Maker's release, Nintendo has been deleting numerous levels exhibiting glitches. CarlSagan discusses it in that video, while playing a very glitched level:
Super Expert / 100 Mario Challenge
In “Course World”, levels are sorted by difficulty level. At some point, Nintendo added a “Super Expert” difficulty level. The consensus among streamers is that Super Expert is a hopeless landfill where hot garbage is king.
A particularly masochist challenge that streamers sometimes do is the “100 Mario Super Expert Challenge”, where they have a hundred lives to go through 6 Super Expert levels.
Ryukahr raises the bar by refusing to skip levels. Here's a 20-minute episode:
Levels usually fit in one of a few categories:
These look well-rounded and play smoothly. There contain no overly devious traps, usually come loaded with well-placed checkpoints, and have a reasonably high clear rate. They feel like they could've been part of an official Mario game.
These are nice levels with a particular theme. There's one that recounts the history of video games. Another is a story about a shipwreck, pirate encounter, and subsequent escape. Another is about Mario delivering a pizza.
These usually involve precision jumps - choosing between full jumps and smaller jumps, hopping between falling platforms or spin jumping on enemies. This is sort of a bonus category, as any genre can very well have, or not have, a focus on platforming.
These require you to think about the order in which you do things, what each item is for, and so on. “Mansion escapes” are among the simplest ones. The harder ones rely on obscure game mechanics, like clipping through walls, P switches having different weights, shooting fireballs while being offset by a falling block.
Here's some harder ones, by Seanhip2:
These take all the expectations the player has of a Mario Maker levels and flips them. They are riddled with multiple paths, only one of which will lead to completion.
The most basic element of a troll level is the “kaizo block”. Those are invisible until you jump up into them (falling down or sideways through them does not trigger them). They're usually placed right before a gap, ruining your jump.
That said, there are a lot more elements one finds across troll levels. You can also notice some trends among level creators ever since SMM's release.
There many notable troll level creators, PotatoChan is one of them:
These have a bit of everything thrown in, usually a lot of enemies that are hard to dodge, impossible jumps, etc. They usually contain a hidden block that contains a star (letting you kill all enemies in your path), or a cloud (letting you fly over the level), etc.
These require a lot of speed and precision. They are usually on a tight timer (10, 30, 50 seconds), only allowing one or two mistakes before the end, otherwise, it's a time out!
These are chaos showcases. The player usually only has to hold right, or run + right, and watch everything happening around them.
Here's Grand POOBear showing one:
These use music blocks and various items/enemies to trigger them to play a song during the level.
If you want to watch more Mario Maker, I recommend the following YouTube channels:
- CarlSagan42 is a beloved figure at GDQ events. He loves to talk about science stuff and is all-around chill. A lot of his viewers make troll levels especially for him.
- Grand POOBear also appeared at GDQ events, and sometimes does friendly races with Carl & others.
- Ryukahr has an entire series of “Super Expert No Skip”, which is insane. I'm not sure how he keeps his cool, but it's worth a watch for the resilience alone.
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