Platforms: Switch (Reviewed)

It’s been a few days since Super Mario Maker 2 came out and about a week since reviews first started popping up on the internet, and yet our review is coming out a little late. Why? Well first of all, you can’t review a game based on user created content without users playing the game to make that content.

Second, it seem particularly strange to review the new features of Super Mario Maker 2’s stage creation mode. No one really wants to know the quality of the On/Off blocks or how much fun slopes are.

You can sum up these new additions fairly easily. It’s more Mario Maker and that’s a good thing. You get more power-ups, more enemies, more stage pieces, and that opens up many more possibilities for stage creation. It’s clear that Nintendo was listening to fans and gave us much of what we wanted, from switches that take the place of convoluted logic gates, to a whole new style in Super Mario 3D World. Combine all of this with the promise of DLC and Super Mario Maker 2 has the potential to basically replace every other 2D Mario game with its near infinite content, much like its predecessor did on the Wii U.

And that’s enough. You can stop reading now. If all you want is a better version of the original Mario Maker then Super Mario Maker 2 is all you want and more.

However, if you really want to know what the Mario Maker 2 experience is like, continue reading.

What are we really reviewing here?

Super Mario Maker 2 is not just a game. It’s also a creation app, similar to anything from Photoshop to Game Maker. When reviewing apps, the thing you talk about most is user experience. How easy is it to do what you want to do in the app?

And Super Mario Maker 2’s user experience is workable, but not fantastic. It’s a user experience many will gladly put up with simply because this is the only way to officially make new Mario stages, but it’s an experience that is nonetheless clunky and honestly perplexing. A lot of the design decisions that Nintendo made negatively affect the user experience and don’t seem like they would take a whole lot of work to change.

Let’s start with the maker mode itself. You have two choices: use the touch screen or use the stylus. Here we come to Nintendo’s first problem. Super Mario Maker used the Wii U’s touch pad, so you could always use both the touch screen and the controller at the same time. The Switch, on the other hand, doesn’t have that capability. So what do you do?

Well, the controller mode is unwieldy. You use the analog stick to move the cursor and the d-pad to move the menu, but you kind of want to use the cursor to just click things on the menu. You use the face buttons to place objects but also to use shortcut commands, like to summon Mario to your cursor’s position. The shoulder buttons are used to cycle through delete and cut/paste commands.

It works, but it’s not particularly fun. The first issue is the d-pad and analog sticks do different things. You’ll likely switch between the two when playing the game, and you’ll have the same desire when making. This causes you to fumble around menus for a while every time you try to move. There’s also the problem that entering the menus seems to change analog control to menu control. Now you have to press another button to get back to the map. You’ll wrap your brain around it eventually, but it’s not intuitive. It also hurts that you can only use this mode in co-op creation, but that’s just one of Super Mario Maker 2’s many multiplayer flaws which we will get to later.

Making stages in handheld touchscreen mode is much better. Just tap the touch screen to use the tool you want and tap it again to place it. It’s a great interface but it too has a few problems. For example, there are easy ways to quickly scroll back and forth but no easy way to scroll up and down without dragging an item with you. This creates a lot of false placements that you then have to clean up with the eraser. It’s just annoying when you think a simple arrow at the edge of the screen would allow for easy scrolling, zooming, and so forth.

Inevitably, the best way to design is with a combination of the touch screen and button interface but… that too is just a little clunky. Yes, it’s how you would have designed anyway if the Switch was in handheld mode, but it’s simply not clear why Nintendo didn’t make each individual control scheme more user friendly. Here’s a small piece of advice, get a stylus. It’s just way easier to use touchscreen mode if you have a stylus.

Then there’s this strange issue with uploading. If you upload a level and then make a few changes, you can’t upload it again to let those changes go into effect, even after playing it all over again. You have to manually go into your maker profile, delete the uploaded level before, and upload it again.

You might think that this is needed to avoid hacks that change levels after they get a lot of plays, but get this. If you make a level, upload it, and then alter it into a different stage and “save as” into a different slot, you can’t upload this NEW level because the FIRST level was uploaded, even if it’s a completely different course! This means you HAVE to build levels from scratch, which is terrible, especially when using an existing level with existing gimmicks is a great way to get started in level creation! You can’t even rip-off yourself!

There’s a ton of other tiny little usability quirks that make for an annoying experience. You can’t easily change your level’s screenshot, for example. You can’t easily comment on your own levels, making puzzle levels harder to make. You can’t move the entrance and exit of your level if, say, you decide that your sub level would really be better as the main level. All of these things can be fixed in future patches and none of these things ruin the game, but they are just weird design decisions that make the game a little harder to play.

Finding your favorite levels

Let’s talk about the user experience you have when finding stages to play. As you might expect, you can browse levels by the newest, most popular, or by a number of new “tags.” The tag system is fantastic, allowing you to note whether your level is a standard Mario level, a puzzle level, an “auto-mario” level, a speedrun level, and more. Unfortunately there are only a few tags to use and while they do the job, it would have been nice to further be able to explain our level’s themes and play style.

The algorithm that searches for and propagates new levels appears to be broken. Many Mario Maker veterans are noting that even levels with a lot of work put into them never get showcased UNLESS they can get one unique like on them first. This involves basically finding a friend and giving them your level’s code, or posting it in a YouTube video, or chat, or so on. It’s not a big deal for people who have extensive friend lists, but any upcoming solo creators may find themselves in a desert of plays.

A lot of Mario Maker 2 is designed to allow you to easily find more levels you like, but once again a few design decisions hold it back. For example, the Endless Challenge lets you play random levels of a selected difficulty. This is great, except the level code is only shown before you play a level and not after you complete it. So you’ll have no idea whether or not you’ll actually like the level! The only way to go back and play a level you liked is to record every single level code you see, which is great for streamers and YouTubers but crap for the individual user.

Mucked up multiplayer

Nowhere does the Mario Maker 2 experience suffer more than in multiplayer. In fact, pretty much everything about this game’s multiplayer implementation is weird.

First, we have online multiplayer. Here you play in either co-op or competitive play, but you can only play random levels. You can’t play, say, a level you really liked with your friends online, nor can you go through the game’s Endless Challenge or Story Mode in either online or offline multiplayer. You can do “local multiplayer” to have a bit more flexibility, but only if you have multiple Switches and copies of Mario Maker 2. It seems like a needless limitation.

You can’t play multiplayer in the normal course world view. Instead you have to download levels first and THEN choose to “play together.” This is the only way to do local multiplayer with one copy of the game. However, this also prevents you from commenting on the level or even seeing the level’s code. You can’t even easily go to the maker’s page to check out his other stuff after completing it in multiplayer.

Then there’s the online netcode itself. It’s horrible! Its delay based netcode in a platformer. Who the heck thought that was a good idea! This is what rollback netcode was made for!

Nearly every level you play runs at a snail’s pace. It’s hard to make precision jumps because your game will freeze in the middle of them. The chaos of multiple players interacting along with laggy netcode makes it difficult to enjoy ANY online experience. So you’d think you’d just go back to local but once again the local multiplayer experience has so many negative quirks it’s practically hamstringed! You can’t even choose your character in local multiplayer, but you can for single-player! Why is it so hard to just let two players do the same thing that one player can do?

Strange decisions all around

We’ve been doing a lot of complaining but none of this is to say that Super Mario Maker 2 isn’t fun. It’s just to say that it’s weird. Nearly everything Nintendo does is weird and sometimes that makes for some amazing games and sometimes that makes for broken multiplayer and strange controls.

There’s a lot of weird stuff that is actually cool. For example, Nintendo has added the mega mushroom as a power-up to the original Super Mario Bros. style. They have also added the power ball, the original projectile power-up from Super Mario Land to that style. It even turns Mario into a Gameboy grey color palette. Of course, one has to wonder why they didn’t go all the way and give us a Super Mario Land theme, but this is nice little compensation.

There is another secret power-up that you get for finishing story mode, the super-hammer, but it’s only usable in Super Mario 3D Land mode. Once again this is cool, but you have to wonder why they chose this specific power-up. In fact, power-up choice is limited in general. If they were going to add more power-ups to the game, why not add things like the frog-suit from SMB3 or the ice flower from NSMB?

The original reason was because it would make these themes too different, but they are already different. Some have Yoshi some don’t. Some have special power-ups some don’t. Heck, Super Mario 3D World is such a different theme it wipes your whole level if you choose it! So why not go whole hog and just differentiate these themes even more with lots of unique power-ups and enemies?

Then there’s the strange thing with the moon. Super Mario Maker 2 has about twice as many themes as it originally appears to have because each theme has a night version with new gimmicks. However, these themes are locked when the game first begins. How do you unlock them? Place a moon. That’s it! Nintendo even said as much in a direct. That’s fine, it’s an easy unlock condition, but why lock these themes at all! Doesn’t that just punish people who haven’t had the opportunity to keep up with news? Why would you want to do that?

A truly solid game otherwise

As I said at the beginning of this review, you already know if you are going to like Mario Maker 2. It’s Mario Maker but with more stuff. No amount of weird design decisions will change that. All the features from the first come back (except for Amiibo costumes) and all the mechanics from the first have come back as well. So you can still pull off weird loading screen tricks and create strange logic gates with the entity limit. However, with things like the on and off switch, directional treadmills, and the new dry-bones shell power-up, you’ll just have even more options than before. It really is a creative field day here.

It would be hard to call Super Mario Maker 2 bad. It’s just that it COULD be better. It feels like Nintendo spent a lot of time thinking about what new elements they were going to add to the editor that they didn’t think of the user experience at all. Granted, all of this can likely be fixed in future patches and we are sure to get a ton of new content as well.

Instead, it’s better to call Super Mario Maker 2 the best sloppy game we have played in a while. If these flaws were in any other game, we would probably dock points, but the sheer power of Nintendo’s idea here, and the quality of  the maker system outside of the user experience itself is enough for us to still give this a pretty high rating. In the next few days we are already going to break a hundred hours in this game, and you will too. Just know that you are in for a little bit of frustration before you get there.