When the original Super Mario Maker came out on the Wii U in 2015, I called it the console’s “defining game.” The entire experience of crafting your own 2D, side-scrolling Super Mario levels felt perfectly suited to the Wii U’s bizarre setup: you could tweak levels using the touchscreen tablet in your hands, and then play through them on your TV. It was a near-perfect marriage of software and hardware.
Flash-forward four years, and Super Mario Maker 2 on the Switch has everything you could want from a sequel. There are all kinds of new building options, including slopes, on / off switches, and the terrifying Angry Sun from SMB3 as well as other very welcome features like custom win conditions. Nintendo has also created a surprisingly robust story mode that’s great for teaching you about the game, but it also stands on its own as a solid Super Mario experience.
The sequel improves just about every area of the experience. But it also makes me miss the Wii U and its wonky controller, which just so happened to be perfect for Mario Maker.
At its core, Super Mario Maker 2 is the same as the previous iterations in the series, which includes the sadly hobbled Nintendo 3DS version. It’s really more of a tool than a game, one where you can build something very specific: classic 2D Super Mario levels. You can choose from a range of terrain, power-ups, enemies, and gadgets to do whatever you like, and you can utilize the visual style from games like Super Mario World and Super Mario 3D World, each with their own unique elements. These levels can then be uploaded to the internet and shared with other users (provided the level is actually beatable). The result, at least with the original game, was a huge community of creators designing a seemingly endless supply of strange, challenging, and inventive levels that Shigeru Miyamoto would’ve never thought of.
The Switch version simply adds more — a lot more. One of the biggest changes is the new custom clear conditions, which dramatically alters the kinds of levels you can design. Typically, you beat every Super Mario level in the same way: making it to the end without dying. But what if you needed to do other things as well? You can make a level where you can only complete it if you don’t jump or another where you need to carry an object across the finish line.
Naturally, there’s also a large array of new building blocks as well. You can add a Koopa Troopa Car to make something like a side-scrolling shooter or the Cat Mario power-up for wall-climbing fun. Building is a very intuitive process: you can simply drag and drop items into your level and instantly playtest anything you add in.
If you’re not a practiced level designer, the sheer amount of options may be intimidating. But one of the best things about Super Mario Maker 2 is how it eases you into the world of game design. There’s an incredibly helpful series of tutorials, for one thing, which not only teach you the basics of how things like vines or “?” blocks function, but it also contains lessons on more cerebral topics like finding inspiration, creating atmosphere, using pen and paper for tracking ideas, and finding a balance between challenge and fairness. (One of the lessons is called “Seriously, treat the player fairly.”)
By far, the best way to learn about everything is through the new story mode. It’s essentially a full-fledged Super Mario campaign tacked onto the creation tool. It’s not stitched together in the same way as a traditional Super Mario game, so you won’t be making your way through various themed worlds. Instead, you’ll play through a series of distinct levels under the guise of earning enough coins to rebuild the Mushroom Kingdom. As you build the castle, new levels and paths will open up.
What’s great about these levels is that they show you, in a very tactile way, some of the things you can do with the various tools at your disposal. The campaign is a wonderful source of inspiration. For instance, my favorite level takes place in a dark cavern where you can only see what’s immediately around Mario. When you take a turn down an unknown path, a screeching horror movie-style music prompt plays, making it the first Super Mario level I’ve ever played with jump scares.
So far, so great. Super Mario Maker 2 takes an already solid premise and builds on it with new tools and a fantastic story mode and tutorial. The problem, though, is in the hardware. Everything works well enough in portable mode, where the design process is as simple as using the touchscreen to drag objects around your level. Some people might prefer a stylus, but I found that my finger worked just fine. But the process changes quite a bit when the Switch is docked in TV mode. Using a controller to create a level is a fiddly process; you’re essentially using the left stick as a mouse cursor, dragging it around the screen, and making it tough to create intricate or complex designs. A big source of frustration for me was the menus erratically popping up around the side of the screen.
The obvious solution is to design levels on the tablet and then play them on your television, and it’s not a terrible situation. If I hadn’t played previous games in the series, it probably wouldn’t be such an issue for me. The problem is that a more elegant solution already exists with the Wii U. (This might be the only time someone uses the words “elegant” and “Wii U” in the same sentence.) I’m really enjoying my time with Super Mario Maker 2, but I still feel like something is missing when one half of the experience is far superior in portable mode.
This isn’t to say that I don’t recommend the game. Super Mario Maker 2 is an excellent sequel, and I’m incredibly excited to see what the community does with it when it officially launches. I also really enjoy playing through levels on the go, something that wasn’t possible with the Wii U. But while there have been plenty of Wii U games that migrated to the Switch — including Mario Kart 8, Splatoon, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze — this is the first time I’ve ever pined for the clunky Gamepad. It’ll probably be the only time, too.
Super Mario Maker 2 will launch on the Nintendo Switch on June 28th.