Super Mario Maker is a new game for Wii U that lets anyone create and share their own side-scrolling Mario levels. It seems like a great idea, right? Not only does it give budding game designers a chance to try their hand at making levels, but it also acts as an infinite Mario game for players.
The only hitch? Designing a fun level is really hard to do.
Even if you’re destined to be the next Miyamoto, chances are your early attempts are not going to be masterpieces. Game design takes time to learn. Its rules and best practices are not immediately obvious even to people who have been playing games their whole lives. Entire courses of study have been built around how to design games that are fun to play.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that most of the levels players have created and uploaded so far in Super Mario Maker aren’t very good.
But here are five species of bad levels I ran into over and over again playing Super Mario Maker. Don’t be like these people. Learn from heir mistakes and do better. Here we go.
1. The level that plays itself
You’ll find lots of these in the game: levels with titles that tell you not to touch the controller. They’re Rube Goldberg-like designs that use things like moving platforms, spring boards, and conveyor belts to send Mario through the level automatically. You don’t have to do a thing.
Granted, these levels are fun to design; that’s why there are so many of them. They’re even fun to watch once or twice. But unless they have some amazing twist, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. The novelty wears off fast, leaving you to wonder why you even started playing the level to begin with.
2. The “surprise, you’re dead” level
Super Mario Maker doesn’t allow creators to use checkpoints, so dying means you have to restart from the beginning of the stage. This is fine on normal levels, but sometimes level creators decide to get a little more devious than they probably should.
In one level, I made my way to the ceiling and found four openings I could drop down. The first one I tried was a pit that killed me. So was the second. It turns out I had to drop down the third opening to continue, but the only way to know that was by trial and error. That level was no fun to play, and neither are any that kill players through no fault of their own.
3. The maze
Some levels are designed like mazes, with multiple pathways you can choose at the start. Often each pathway has additional branches scattered throughout — but only a single route brings you to the flagpole. You might be able to see the flagpole on your first play through, but you won’t have any idea how to get there until you go back and forth, trying each route one by one. Unless the creator somehow indicates where to go, the player is in for a heaping dose of annoyance.
4. The brutally difficult level
Some games, like Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls, are hard by design. But the reason so few ultra-challenging games become popular is because 1) not many people are gluttons for punishment, and 2) those games are really hard to design in a way that makes them fun to play.
I like watching a good Kaizo Mario level on YouTube as much as anyone else, but that doesn’t mean I want to play one. Making a difficult level is easy. But it takes a lot of skill to make a difficult level fun. Try to find a good balance between challenge, surprise, and enjoyment.
5. The pointless level
Perhaps the worst sin of all in the user-created levels I played was that many of them were complete snooze-fests. Some just had a single challenge, like making a tough jump across a long pit, and then ended unceremoniously. That’s a fine challenge to put in a level, but if that’s all your level offers, why even bother?
To avoid making a pointless level, try taking a single idea and iterating on it in different ways. Start the level with an easy challenge. Then introduce a slight twist to make the same challenge a little more difficult. Do that a few times, and then put the toughest one at the end. Voila, you’ll have a cohesive level that progresses in a logical, satisfying way.
Making good Mario levels is tough, and no one’s going to get it right on their first try. But if you can avoid falling into any of these common traps, you’ll be one step ahead of the competition.