Super Mario Maker: Designing a Challenge

Super Mario Maker is something people wanted for a long time. An easily accessible Super Mario level design tool, officially made by Nintendo. The levels people, maybe even you, design, range from fun, to meant to troll . Then you have people that just want to create a challenging level to puzzle others and test their design mettle. I tend to fall into the latter category.

Since I picked up Mario Maker last month, I’ve steadily designed several courses that are not so much puzzles, but just challenges based on basic game mechanics alone. For this I tend to use the Super Mario World design, as I see it still as the most aesthetically pleasing while having the relevant mechanics to create a challenge. The first two levels I created and uploaded were done in Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 styles (I was still unlocking everything).

My first and only design in the original Mario Bros. aesthetic. It’s a very short level. My idea was to create a level that requires correct timing while having the knowledge of the mechanics of both movement underwater and the Bullet Bill Cannons. I have just a single mushroom after the first series as it’s almost required to get past some of these humps. The invincibility was also taken into account.

What you need to know about Bullet Bill Cannons is that:

The other issue to take into account is the fall speed in which Mario sinks in water. Which takes about 2 seconds from top to bottom. If you can get to the far side of the screen, you can drop before the new cannons fire.

This was my second level design, in the aesthetic of Super Mario Bros. 3. This is also the only level I designed with the auto-scroll feature. The idea of this level is move fast, and don’t get stuck. If you get caught between the spike pillars, you’ll die to either cannon balls, homing Bullet Bills or the Hammer Bros. on the top of the pillars.

The opening of the level does require an exact set of movements. Don’t do it, you die. I wouldn’t call this level, a “kaizo” level, there’s no crazy shell jumping involved or ridiculous skill requirement, it’s all in the timing.

Auto-scrolling is an interesting feature. It can either create a no turning back option in it’s slowest mode, or cause stress in its fastest mode. Adding a speed of auto-scroll to a level not designed for it, will cause headaches. If you want to use it, design the level with the speed you want in mind. Test each individual section of your course to make sure that the speed you have set works.

I finally had access to the Super Mario World mechanics! So what did I do? I built a small level where you need to traverse a series of Flame jets followed by falling platforms, surrounded by spikes. The platforms are spaced so the jumps must be precise or else you get spiked! Nothing too fancy here.

It is the first level where the “ghost” system helped in designing the level. That system is an integral part in creating any cool platforming challenges in the game. The path of your ghost allows you to place hazards properly or create optional jump paths to a platforming section of your level.

Spin jumping is one of my favorite mechanics Super Mario World introduced. This level is entirely built around this. Simple in design, spin jump from block to block. Stationary spikes shells tend to be the best option as they don’t move, but you can accidentally jump head first into one on a higher platform and get the helmet. This will usually end up with you restarting the level. Some jumps were spaced too close together. This makes it possible, should you get the helmet, to reach the next block and kick the shell off and hopefully continue from there.

I actually ran into the item limit in this level. It made me wish it didn’t exist, but at the same time I like the limitation on item quantity. Limiting the amount of items, means diversification in creating level designs is restricted but your creativity is then forced to increase. You end up thinking more on how to best use the items at your disposal. Would no limit on items increase creativity and innovation? Yes, but it would lead to excessive item overload on levels that don’t require it.

Did I tell you I love the spin jump? No, well I do and it’s my most used mechanic in my designs. This design took me to the extreme with spin jumps. With a spiked enemy on a wobbly track, you need to keep Mario steady for a while, including keeping track of his location off screen. There is no jump in this level that’s not a spin jump.

This is also the first design, where I used the sub zone. Sub zones are very useful as it increases you design space, and allows you to get creative when creating pauses and checkpoints in your level. I’ve seen many people use these sub zones as a way to complete an atmospheric experience in their levels. Ive seen examples like an inside of a building, tank, airship, etc or continuation of a “challenge chamber”.

Sub zones also bring up “is more good?” question. It follows the same ideals of the item limitations. Creating more sub zones would open more design space, but remember there is a time limit on levels. You have to design a level in such a way that someone playing your level has to be able to go from start to end in at most, 500 seconds (8:20).

My longest course to date, this level took several hours to create, lots more to finish the clear check. A medley of spin jumping, precise jumps, correct timings, this level is quite possibly my favorite design. The entire course could also be considered an endurance run, as there is no checkpoints and no power ups. I designed the course so that even standing on the tracks at certain points require exact standing placement for you not to die. Tracks play a part in this course, I just want to lay out the basics of tracks.

Tracks are a mechanic where you can set any item/enemy to run a set 8-directional course. When designing a track you need to keep several things in mind.

Make sure you time your items on the track. You want them to appear when you want them to. Nothing is worst when making it to the beginning of a track to see the platform already departing for its destination. Even worst, should the track not loop.

As for checkpoints, I dislike using them. Not only does it lessen the challenge a level could bring, the added power-up can be a pain. If you were to add a checkpoint, after you have already designed the level. You are going to run into issues with the different aerodynamics and size of big Mario compared to small Mario. Most of my levels (except two) do not use power ups. Power-ups are fine, but the keeping the player as small Mario, adds a sense of tension, to the design of the level. Only when creating an obstacle where a hit is needed to pass or using it to lessen the burden of a challenge (Underwater Bullet Hell for example) should a mushroom be used.

One more quick note! I designed this using the Airship level background. So items placed near the bottom of the level will go off screen momentarily. One specific block, one you”need” to jump on will do this at a very crucial jump.

This level requires speed and precise jumping. You miss a jump, well odds are your gonna have to restart. This is my first level using P switches. In this case, the switches are used to makes coins into blocks and vice versa. I also designed these sections to require very stringent movement as you have little time to beat the P switch timer. The design is simple enough, yet the challenge remains.

There is one jump I designed where you have to use the p switch after press as a quick platform to continue on. Underneath the switch would have been turned to coin. Placement of the P-switch does make a difference, and will cut that little bit of time off your record.

As for P-switches in general, I like them. They are a great little mechanic. Either to create a time based challenge or to create more doors for use in a design. P-switches can even be activated remotely, through the use of big enemies and a shell.

Inspired by the Gnome challenge present in both Half Life 2: Episode 2 and Left 4 Dead 2, the Carnival campaign. You have to get the P-Switch from beginning to end and there are obstacles in between that will separate you from it.

This was a fun level to design. Making contraptions to move an object is fun enough. But when your designing some to also be a race, is even funner. In the picture above for example, you have to race the p-switch to the top or else, you will end up stepping on it. I never had much trouble designing the contraptions so that a thrown P-switch would properly move along. Throwing an object is easy enough, but when throwing it to somewhere specifically, it gets a tiny bit harder. Too light, and it’s now unreachable, too far, and it’s over the edge.

I’ve only designed 8 levels so far. There are more to come and I have plenty of ideas. Hopefully Nintendo continues adding more and more tools to work with. I want to see some Football guys, angry suns, different power-ups, and a Paper Mario design!

Do you have any tips to creating a challenging Mario level? Do you have interesting design tales? Do you have any Mario Maker levels you wish to share? Please Do!

I’ll finish by saying, if they were to lift the item limit, Hotel Mario is the first level I’m designing.

AlmightyDuke is an average gamer from the Great White North. When he’s not cursing out Dark Souls or conceptualizing Mario Maker, he’s sharing the good vibes and good laughs. Tweet him your level ideas, @AlmightyDuke_NL .

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