A quirky and powerful construction toy that's fun to play with even if you aren't trying to make anything.
Fireballs through pipes. That was my first idea. It was inspired by a level in Super Mario Maker 2's story mode in which I spawned a fire flower and then blitzed a room of Koopas by bouncing hot death through the pipes they had been using to travel around in and mess me up. When it was all over, I suddenly thought: what if you had a level, right, where Mario couldn't really move very much, but he had all these pipes which he could launch fireballs down? What if there was a way to have him sort of play this pipe organ of glorious Mario murder, cleaning out the level and perhaps bringing the exit straight to him at the end of it?
This is the first idea I have ever had for a Mario level. It's the first idea I've ever really had for anything, if I'm being honest. And the key is that it didn't come out of nowhere. The story mode in Mario Maker 2 - a wonderfully frothy collection of over 100 scattershot challenges that takes its cues, I gather, from a similar addition to the 3DS Mario Maker port - gave me the idea. It made me think about the possibilities inherent in the pieces of Mario without me even realising that's what I was doing. It gave me a prod in the right direction and I barely noticed it even as I started to move.
Mario Maker 2 has a lot of stuff that other content creation games don't. It has a pigeon that helps you through the tutorials. It has an undo button that is also a dog, and a clean-slate button that is a rocket. But the core thing it has, its unfair advantage in the marketplace, to use the chilly language of VCs, is this: you understand its world from the off. You know how things work. You know what Mario can do and you know how the creatures and objects around him behave. So when it comes to making things yourself, the gentlest of nudges is all you need.
Even then, Mario can still surprise you. And surprise remains one of the great joys of Mario Maker. The original game allowed Wii U owners to make their own 2D Mario levels, dressed up in the style of the original Super Mario Bros, Mario 3, Super Mario World or the 2D Wii U number, if memory serves, and share them online. That's basically the deal here, aside from the addition of that new story mode, the ability to skin levels with 3D World assets and moves, a bunch of new doodads scattered about and the ability - oh my god - to add slopes to your courses. Still: a lot of the time this is Mario Maker as you already know it and many of its additions are hard to spot if it's been a while since you played the first game. (Actually, the whole thing's been quietly pared back in places. Amiibo support and the character roster unlocked through Mystery Mushrooms have both taken a kicking. And once you lose, say Fox McCloud, you lose a decent part of the impetus to make Star Fox-themed levels.)
Even so, in the elbowy cludge of creation, things have still happened that I did not foresee. Fireballs through pipes was a new one on me. Equally, I did not consider how the doors and separate chambers of Mario's brain-spinning ghost houses could be used to time and structure actual stories. Onwards and onwards: Mario can do a lot with a little.
Mario Maker 2 is a wonderfully powerful tool. You can reskin levels, change their themes, build landscapes and add baddies and pickups all in a matter of prods, if you're using the touchscreen, or with a little shunting around of the face buttons if you're docked and using controls. (I struggled with docked mode at first, but after a few minutes I realised it's actually pretty elegant.) There's four-player online co-op with randoms, couch co-op with Joy-Cons - a delight! - or local "nearby" play, which I admit I haven't been able to test, and online co-op with actual friends is coming.
Couch co-op itself is completely brilliant, incidentally. Last night I played Mario Maker 2 with a friend as we made a snow level using the 3D World assets. We messed around with slopes, not knowing what to make of them, until my friend found the Koopa Troopa Car waiting in an item menu, and before long - almost without speaking - we had put together an Evel Knievel bus jump, but with Banzai Bills firing into the screen instead of buses. Then we tried to use the new on/off switch that can make certain kinds of blocks blink in and out of existence to recreate the classic NES game City Connection. City Connection in Super Mario! Then, of course, we loaded the place with Boos and fell out quite badly. It was astonishingly good fun - collaborative doodling, and even the bickering and recriminations were part of the joy of it.
There are a new range of level goals - at least I think they're new. As well as getting to the finish line, you can ask people to defeat a certain number of baddies, or get to the end with a certain object or in a certain condition. This makes for levels that have fundamentally different structures to the standard assault course model. You can change the water level - or lava level - in certain levels and there are new options for meddling with the speed of auto-scroll. And I think this is new too, but I'm happy to be wrong: objects for your levels are now stored on a series of neat radial menus. It's all very tidy and approachable, even if you're doing something complicated like adding sub rooms and connecting them with pipes. All things considered, Mario Maker allows you to do most of the sorts of things you'd want to do.
But more than that, as with the original Mario Maker, it all feels so good. There has been so much thought put into this thing regarding simplicity, sure, but there's also been so much thought put into feedback. Everything in Mario Maker 2 feels good to place, to delete, to mess around with. Subtle musical cues are everywhere, reminding would-be designers that the best Mario levels obey a rhythm as much as anything else: they are dance routines from an alien dimension. And talking of musical cues, oh man, I would read a (short) book on exactly how the placement and movement of objects in a level you're editing affects the audio you don't even realise you're listening to. Beyond that, as ever, it's easy to go back and forth between creating a level and testing it, and not much trickier to upload it with a title, a description, a handful of tags so that people know what they're getting. Then they can play it comment and like it and help you unlock new outfits for your Mii avatar. They can search for it, follow your work, or have your level randomly scrambled into the same mini-campaigns that you could play through in the first game.
And like the first game, Mario Maker 2 is similarly fascinating in terms of the stuff people are already making and sharing. You get to see what people who don't normally make Mario levels do when they get their hands on the controls. This is the part of Mario Maker that evolves over time, but there's much more to the scene, I would argue, than the levels that are extremely challenging and complicated and get to go viral on YouTube. Mario Maker allows you to make something that's sweet and goofy, something that's weird and disarming. I've played and made levels that are dumb jokes, that are celebrations of my favourite Mario power-ups. There is a richness here that will only grow.
And now it's joined by the story mode, the whole thing feels so harmonious. If you're sated with the community stuff for the time being, here's what the Mario team does with its own tools - and along the way you get to enjoy a silly story about rebuilding a castle.
For my money, better than the new doodads and that 3D World skin (complete with Cat Mario, who can run up the sides of levels and generally make designing around him super tricky), and better than the freakin' slopes even, is a chance to play this humbling game again and marvel at the sheer challenges of making interactive fun. Everyone who plays games should make a Mario Maker level, I reckon, because it serves as a reminder that everything in games is incredibly difficult. Over the course of three minutes piecing together a very short level whose best hope was that one day, with a lot of work, it might be merely terrible, I realised why goombas sometimes come out of pipes forever and why they sometimes spawn in the world in set places. I realised that you have to make a Mario level in essence two or three times over all at once, because a level should be completable regardless of what size Mario is or which power-ups he has. And get this: I am an absolute sucker for the goomba shoe - 5-3 4 life - but when I made a level all built around one, I had to work out how to get the player out of the shoe for certain sections without creating circumstances in which they had no alternative but to take damage. (Still working on this, TBH.) In short, I realised that even bad Mario levels are an art and a craft and a gift that we probably do not deserve. I certainly don't deserve them anyway. But here at least I can tinker, zipping back between making and editing, until a doodle has started to look like a plan.
Years ago I read the only writing advice that I suspect anybody really needs. Type something, it ran, because then you have something to change. William Goldman said that, I think, and he would have been very at home with Mario Maker. Everyone would be at home here, I suspect. Like the first game, this is a warm bubble bath to settle into, or an afternoon on the sofa with the Sunday papers and nothing else in the diary. Has it changed? Not too much. But it is wonderfully soothing to have it back.