Nintendo's master class in game design is back and it's perfect for the Switch.
If I asked you what the ideal Nintendo Switch game was, you might suggest Super Mario Odyssey or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Possibly Mario Kart 8 or Smash Bros.
But the game that truly pushes the Switch in unique, compelling directions?
Super Mario Maker made its debut on the Nintendo Wii U in 2015. Super Mario Maker does exactly what it says on the tin: It's a video game, but also a tool that allows you to create your own Mario levels. It's a Super Mario construction set, essentially. A complete kit to make endless 2D Mario levels. I loved it.
So did my son. He ended up making level designs and tinkering with world-building on his own. The Wii U's game pad controller and stylus worked perfectly with the game's level design tools.
But most people never had a Wii U. For many Super Mario Maker 2 will be an entry point to an idea waiting to go stratospheric.
The possibilities are tremendously and amazingly weird.
Super Mario Maker 2's creative toolkit is larger than you might expect. In addition to the large swathe of objects and items players can use to create new worlds, Super Mario Maker also allows players to save levels in five unique Mario styles (Super Mario, Mario 3, Super Mario World, New Super Mario Bros, and Mario 3D World), all of which have different graphics and different Mario moves/mechanics. This means you could build a level, change it from one style to another and potentially give your level a whole new aesthetic with the push of a button.
I wanted a completely portable magic Mario gaming kit when the Wii U version came out. There was a Nintendo 3DS version, which was fun but the screen was too small and there was no way to share your games on a larger screen. The Nintendo Switch solves for both, and offers up the perfect package. This is the beautiful Mario Infinity I can stick in my bag and experience on a large-screen TV.
I've been playing Super Mario Maker 2 for a week and also letting my kid play. He's moved on to other games since the original Maker and he's older now, but he caught up fast. Maker's creative app is still about tapping and dragging icons and building them with the touchscreen. The Switch doesn't have a stylus, but you could (and should) use a capacitive stylus like the kind you can buy for phones and tablets. It'll help. Jeff Bakalar talked me into it, and he's right.
Super Mario Maker 2 does has a few multi-touch moves, though, including a two-finger zoom-out to see course overviews. It's the most tablet-like game Nintendo's ever made for the Switch.
Unlike the Wii U version, which truly allowed second screen gaming when connected to a TV, the docked Switch ends up needing the controller to navigate, which isn't ideal for creating but can be done. Nintendo added a two-player create mode, too, which I haven't even explored. Levels can also be played with up to four players, even online.
My son agreed with me that it's hard to work on the TV, because you have to use the controllers to move the cursor, and it's harder to select items. The button mapping is different, and not all that clear. (A better instruction manual would have helped.) In fact, I could have done with a whole textbook to study. I still feel like I'm missing things.
My son says: "It's really cool because it has the original characters and also new spinoff characters, things like Meowser (a cat Bowser)." He made a level that cleverly guided me along a path of coins and an arrow made of blocks into a pit of doom.
It may seem like you know everything Mario Maker 2 can do. You're wrong. There's the game's Story Mode, which is like a full standalone Mario game and has dozens of levels to try. The levels are designed to illustrate ideas you could potentially make yourself. They blew me away with their creativity: From cranes and balancing games to shooter-like levels where you ride clouds.
Then there are the levels others make. The most amazing thing about the first Mario Maker was the online community. Player-created levels ran the gamut from brilliant to ridiculous. Some felt like performance art. On the pre-release version I played, that community barely exists yet. But it will, and I can't wait to see what happens.
I've realized, playing Super Mario Maker 2, that I'm a terrible game designer. My levels are a garbage pile of weird ideas thrown together. There is a sort of teacher in Mario Maker 2, in the form of a pigeon (Yamamura) who delivers a few dozen short lessons on game design, helpful ideas and tutorials.
I loved watching these sessions, and I wish there were more. I've started getting addicted to Master Class, the online video educational series where famous designers and creators give classes on writing, cooking, filmmaking, and even game design (Will Wright has a series of videos). Mario Maker 2 feels like it's Nintendo's Master Class in game design. If only Shigeru Miyamoto were to materialize and give a few talks, too.
Seriously: I need game design help! Playing with Mario Maker 2 began to teach me some things. I'd love it even went further. Nintendo's onto something amazing here.
My final note, which I also made five years ago: Nintendo should make Maker a whole line of games. Zelda Maker. Metroid Maker. Mario Kart Maker. I love game construction sets. Many years ago, I played Pinball Construction Set on my Apple IIc. I remember Adventure Construction Set, too.
Super Mario Maker 2 is a great update to the original Mario Maker. But what about a way to make other 8-bit and 16-bit games and publish them online? Do it, Nintendo. Let's deconstruct every classic Nintendo franchise. It's what a console like the Nintendo Switch is born to do.