Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 52, Super Mario Maker 2
The best modern 2D Mario platforming isn't actually made by Nintendo developers at all, and it fills a gap left by New Super Mario Bros., to boot.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
If you’ve been with this project since its beginnings, you might recall how I feel about the New Super Mario Bros. games. The only one of them to make the top 101 is New Super Mario Bros. U (or Deluxe, if we’re talking about the Switch port), and that’s mostly on the strength of its Luigi-focused game within a game, New Super Luigi U.
The NSMB games are fun, don’t get me wrong. They’re just too safe to be all across these rankings. They’re not experimental enough, not pushing enough boundaries and so on, as I wrote about when ranking U/Deluxe:
And that’s kind of the thing about this whole series. They’re pretty good games, but they could be better ones, if Nintendo wasn’t developing this series with the idea of “hey, remember 2D Mario?” in mind. The 3D Mario games always seem to explore new territory, and their ambition is obvious and impressive even in the moments where they falter. They want to be different, to explore new territory and ways to play video games, but also still be Mario: in that, they succeed, and since the release of Super Mario Galaxy, succeed in awe-inspiring ways. The New Super Mario Bros. games, on the other hand, feel like a safe space for Nintendo to just release A 2D Mario That Makes People Remember 2D Mario once per new system. And that’s fine! But there’s a reason the 3D Land/World series works so much better, and why Super Mario Maker is the 2D-only Mario series of the modern video game era. They are both far fresher experiences, and more memorable and enjoyable because of it.
That leads us to Super Mario Maker, which isn’t a Mario platformer developed by Nintendo: it’s a toolkit for making your own Mario platforming levels, using basic versions of the kinds of tools Nintendo deploys when they’re making their own Mario platformers. The levels are shareable, and as far as the ones you’ll be exposed to go, they’re also by and large ambitious. Sure, plenty of unexciting and uninspired levels exist, but given how up voting and sharing tends to work, if all you want to play is bangers, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to do just that.
The original Super Mario Maker released on the Wii U, and it was a revelation. While limited by the small install base of the system and plenty of questions about where certain items or game sprites or enemies were, it was still an excellent experience. You could design levels using the original Super Mario Bros. sprites and locations, or Super Mario Bros. 3-looking levels, of Super Mario World, or New Super Mario Bros. levels. Regardless of your preference — unless your preference was Super Mario Bros. 2, anyway — you could make levels that looked and played like those you grew up loving.
And you could do it much more easily than you might believe, thanks to a very intuitive system that helps guide you along, and slowly unlocks more content for you to utilize the more you build. Getting overwhelmed was difficult to do, and the slow drip of new stuff to utilize made it so that you really began to learn the ins and outs of platforming design, if you were so inclined.
With all of those questions that required answers, though, answers that would make for obvious upgrades, Nintendo didn’t simply port the original over to the Switch. They instead made a whole new game built on the strong foundations of the original. The ranking here is for Super Mario Maker 2, specifically, but really, it’s a series ranking, since more so than with some other series, there is no Mario Maker 2 without the original, and I mean that more than just in a sequential sense.
Games that let you make games certainly aren’t new, but Nintendo getting into the mix with Mario sprites, levels, art, etc. and allowing players to make their own levels — and now playable worlds, too — is a lot different than something more niche like the long-running RPG Maker franchise. And more approachable, too: you’re limited only by your imagination, really, or your own skill level, but if you’ve got a decent amount of both, you can make some exceptional stages to be shared with others. And if you’re no good at the creating but just want to absorb the wonderful creations of everyone else, then Mario Maker 2 is still exceptional and worth your time.
The level of experimentation present in the best Mario Maker 2 levels help the game be something of the 2D spiritual successor to Super Mario Bros. 3, which was hyper-focused on experimenting with the format of Mario and 2D platforming. It spent its eight worlds introducing concepts that could have been built out into something more, but were instead discarded for the next fun idea that a developer had. It’s not that Mario 3 doesn’t build on itself, because it does, but it’s always pushing forward. And Mario Maker, 2, especially, with its wealth of options and upgrades over the original, encourages its players to do the same whether they’re creating or seeking out something to play.
Anything that reminds me of Super Mario Bros. 3 is a positive, but unlike with that NES title, which simply released in one form and has stayed that way since, Mario Maker 2 released during the era of digital updates. Super Mario Maker 2, out of the box, was something to behold. Super Mario Maker 2, after three rounds of updates to tweak and refine and add to the base experience, is a masterpiece. The first update just added some additional multiplayer options, but the second update added an entire new mode to the game, one focused on speedrunning. It also featured new enemies and new items — including a Master Sword that lets Mario transform into The Legend of Zelda’s Link and perform new maneuvers, sure, why not — that allow for even more experimentation and change from the Mario formula we’re used to.
The final update, though, is the most significant one, as it’s the one that changed Super Mario Maker from just being levels that can be designed and shared into a toolbox that lets you build an entire Mario game. Now, entire worlds, with traversable overworlds, could be designed, with up to 40 levels spread across eight different worlds. That’s a game! That’s allowing someone to create and share an entire Mario game of their own!
This update also came with another new wave of items, with Nintendo seeming less concerned over time about items that might only work in one particular context, and more concerned with making sure players had just about every possible tool at their disposal, including ones that only exist within Mario Maker and none of the Mario proper games. That’s how the ability to pick up and throw items from Super Mario Bros. 2 finally made its way to Mario Maker, once again changing what was possible for level designers to create. Mario Maker is fully its own universe now, and that’s extremely impressive for a game that originally launched as, “hey, want to make your own Mario levels using all the kinds of things you’re used to seeing in a classic Mario platformer?” This could have easily been something of a nostalgia trip, but instead, ambitious players made level after level (and now entire worlds), with the kind of excitement and care you normally see reserved for expansive mods of PC games.
I don’t know if more Nintendo Maker games are needed, necessarily. On the other hand, I guess a fully realized Zelda Maker would be one way for the fan game designers to avoid getting sued for using Nintendo-licensed materials in their development, and even while typing this I realized how much I’d love a Kirby or Star Fox Maker, please give me a Star Fox Maker, Nintendo, I will make bullet hell Star Fox with it and all will fear my creations. Uh, anyway. Whether new Maker games are ever released, Mario Maker is an incredible success. Like the players making levels themselves, Nintendo dedicated themselves to experimenting and creating something new, and while it wasn’t all there out of the box, it eventually got there to create the game that’s available today.
It’s a wonderful experience, and an ever-shifting one, sure, but you can make your own Mario game now, or just play someone else’s, and do so with ease through Nintendo’s servers that store all of this in one searchable place. You probably don’t want to play some of those levels and definitely not some of the games, since some level makers should not consider quitting their day job even if they had fun designing stages. When you find someone who actually does have a sense of pacing and progression and what makes a platformer work, though… it’s the best. And hell, if you know enough to realize why something doesn’t work, you can likely make your own successful stages, which others can then enjoy.
You can just turn to Google to find the best Super Mario Maker 2 levels around, but here’s a starter article that intentionally didn’t focus on extremely difficult creations. There are also Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing levels made by people who tweet them out, a Mario Maker 2 subreddit… if you want to get really into this community, it’s easy to do so, and you’ll avoid a lot of the un-fun designs in the process, too.
It takes a little work to maximize your enjoyment of Super Mario Maker 2, but that work is worth it. There is so much here that already exists or that you can make exist beyond the admittedly limiting scope of what Nintendo has allowed New Super Mario Bros. to be. The sheer variety and the focus on experimentation, on making something new using something familiar, is what makes Mario Maker 2 stand out to me. Enough so that, from where I’m sitting, it’s one of the best things Nintendo has ever made, even if what they made was a toolbox so that someone else would actually do the making.
…now get me a Star Fox Maker and a Kirby Maker.
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