We've spent so many evenings playing Super Mario non-stop and so many years dashing and hopping from block to block that it's not strange to assume that along the way we, even if by force of habit, have learnt something about level design from one of the best 2D platformers ever. We've picked up tactical positioning, like where on a map would be the best spot to place an enemy, we've learned how to chain a few jumps or where to lay an unexpected trap that puts the player's skill to the test.
Nintendo gave us a valuable tool to put all this knowledge into practice with Super Mario Maker for the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS - the long-awaited level editor with a family-friendly approach that its creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, so fervently supports. The game was such a well-rounded experience with a guide to help start you off, a few sample stages to play and experiment with, and a chance to share your creations online. The idea was outstanding at the time of release, but it turns out that it had plenty of room for improvement, as we've realised after sitting down to play Super Mario Maker 2 for a few hours.
Rather than a sequel, we've been shown some sort of enhanced version of the original game, which takes all the above and adds to the already existing experience. As stated in its Nintendo Direct, there are more tools, new items, backgrounds and more elements to use, along with new characters and multiplayer features, more ready-made content and easier ways to share your ideas and enjoy the ideas of other players. Not to mention the main addition - Super Mario 3D World is now a game style template. And yet we have but scratched the surface.
The stages created by Nintendo are linked together within a peculiar story mode dealing with the reconstruction of Princess Peach's castle. We saw it collapse and then watched as a gang of Toads and Toadettes set out to rebuild it. Now, however, they're broke and it's up to us to travel the worlds to collect coins and resume the rebuilding process. This mode is built on a task-based reward system where you raise money to foot the bill for the construction of new areas of the castle, which, in turn, opens up more levels for you to explore.
Not surprisingly, the first zone features Goomba as a headliner, but you'll be able to bite into the Super Mario 3D World style as soon as you get to the third area. The change is quite well-made, as it captures the essence of that bright colourful 3D platformer despite losing the third dimension. All the original features remain untouched, particularly the versatile cat suit, with which we can climb walls and backgrounds. We were pleased to see that this shift of perspective gives rise to new gameplay mechanics, like when we struggled in a level with no floor or platform to stand on and where we instead of jumping between platforms had use our feline claws to cling to whatever is in sight. There's no need to select the stages in a set order either as long as you get the coins, and you can even collect coins by repeating the same stage over and over again (though you'll only get the special reward for completing it once). So, if you get stuck in one of these 100+ levels, just move on.
You can tell this is certainly not your average Super Mario game, not just in terms of its length, but also in that there is more to this game than a platformer label - there are features of other genres such as puzzles and old-school arcade challenges. Their purpose is certainly not only to entertain, but also to instruct and set an example to follow. Now we can even use them directly as templates in the creation mode.
The pre-made levels are quite the opposite of what you get when diving into the online options and start playing what other players have created. Course World has changed somewhat; the menu is now more straightforward and, at the same time, it has more to offer. There are various sections to browse, and using tags to narrow your search does come in handy when looking for a specific theme, template or type of challenge. You also get to see how many people have tried to complete a stage as well as those who've actually managed to do so, which makes for quite a reliable "difficulty indicator". There was a short level we felt eager to beat, where, instead of reaching the goal pole, we had to find 99 coins, three of which were impossible to get. However, we also found another level based on Super Mario Bros. 3 that brought us back to the Desert Land as if it were canon.
The Nintendo Switch is a highly social platform, so multiplayer features were a must. Up to four players can cooperate or compete through the levels, provided each has their own copy of the game. We tried a few of these stages and you could tell the inspiration was, at least in part, New Super Mario Bros. U, so you can expect to be shoved and bothered for the sake of good old friendship. There's quite a noticeable change though, as there's no rescue bubble, so dying means starting all over again and having to run to catch up with the rest. You can either dash to meet your opponents or drag your feet a little as you let them pave the way for you.
Making one's own stage truly is a joy. How about a dusk setting by the lake under the moonlight? It's as easy as choosing the Super Mario World style, selecting the forest theme, setting the water level at 20% and using the sun in night mode (that is, the moon). All it takes to make all these settings reality is to look for them in the side panels and click on them. At first sight, the interface design is the same as that of Super Mario Maker, but with a twist that each bar in the tool palette includes a specific set of buttons. General design features are on the left, particular elements at the top and in drop-down menus, the action ones at the bottom, with those to manage the level on the right.
Something that can really feel difficult is familiarising oneself with the design grid when using the analogue stick or the directional pad to enter or exit it. It's not that hard, as you only need to press X, but it does get a bit confusing. You can always turn the cursor into a selector and move it around the screen, but this takes much longer. The last thing we could try was the touchscreen gameplay, and even if it was easier to arrange the levels with all the options at our fingertips, we did enjoy the feeling of watching our creations come to life on the big screen.
Once our creation had been tested and revised, we managed to create something with two basic features; autoscroll with multiple layers and a fast-moving Snake Block to hop on in order to cash in better rewards. It was action-packed, challenging and fast-paced, and it could be completed. Not bad for our first attempt, right? We'll have to wait until June 28 to keep polishing our skills.