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Super Mario Maker 2 showed me why I don’t like 2D Mario

In short: its high strictness and punishment plus its regressive difficulty and locking mechanics behind power-ups make it frustrating to learn to play.

I’ve never really gotten into mainline Mario games, but I was intrigued by Super Mario Maker 2’s story mode, which apparently serves as a sort of extended level design tutorial. It features 120 levels each themed around particular level pieces or combinations thereof, showing you how to use them in play and hopefully providing inspiration for how to use them when creating your own levels. I find tutorial design really interesting, and Mario famously teaches through level design, so I checked it out.

It starts well, with a focus on new features that the original Super Mario Maker lacked. The first level (“A Downhill Battle”) teaches you to slide down slopes and shows some interesting ways to use that in a level. Next comes a level similarly demonstrating clever use of the ON/OFF Switch (called “ON/OFF Switch Research Expedition”), and then a level (“Hello, 3D World!”) using the new 3D World theme and showcasing climbable Super Bell Trees and the corresponding Super Bell power-up that turns Mario into Cat Mario.

The latter half of this level is where I ran into trouble. There’s a large coin worth thirty normal coins suspended over a pit. It’s not in the main path and not required to complete the level - it’s clearly a bonus reward allowing you to test and show off your mechanical mastery. It’s worth noting that coins are actually valuable in Story Mode - they’re a key part of the progression. So - I didn’t have to get that 30-coin pickup, but I absolutely wanted to.

Now, I never played Super Mario 3D World. I’m not familiar with Cat Mario’s physics and controls. The level to this point had given some opportunity to practice, but with setups that did not resemble this coin floating over a pit. Plus, there was a platform nearby that could be manipulated into one of several positions and it wasn’t immediately obvious what position would make it easiest to safely collect the coin. Overall, this was clearly an opportunity to grow my skills with the game - to experiment and practice until I could safely pick up the 30-coin without falling into the pit.

So I tried, did the wrong thing, fell into the pit, and died. I was sent back to the mid-level checkpoint, erasing all the coin collecting I’d done since then. I made my way back to the 30-coin, re-collecting all the coins along the way, and tried again. I did a different wrong thing, fell into the pit, and died. I made my way back to the 30-coin again, collecting all the coins along the way again, and tried a different thing which actually worked and enabled me to safely collect the 30-coin and proceed.

Now, I absolutely don’t mind that it took me a few tries to figure out how to properly collect the 30-coin. This was me learning how Cat Mario works - in particular, my instinct was to use the jump button to wall climb when it actually sends you leaping away from the wall. Trying this out and seeing the results and failing to get the reward and then succeeding enabled me to overcome that bad instinct and was more effective than something like a “Hold forward to wall climb!” dialog box would have been.

My problem is that the game punished me for trying to learn. The 30-coin was an isolated test of skill. The “too lazy to git gud” thing to do would have been to just skip it and finish the level. Only players who actually want to engage deeply with the game’s systems bother trying to get the coin - and to these players, the gameplay between the checkpoint and the 30-coin is likely not particularly challenging. But if you try to get the coin and fail - because you are actively engaging and experimenting with the game’s systems in order to master them - you are penalized with a time-wasting retread of unrelated content you’ve already done.

This was frustrating, and is not how people learn best. But it only took me a few tries and I can forgive anything once, so I moved on to the next level - “Under the Angry Sun.” This level introduces several new things - it’s an auto-scrolling level in which you ride a moving platform. The Angry Sun is a persistent hazard and you need to jump over it every time it crosses the screen without falling off the platform. But you’re also given the Propeller Mushroom that enables super jumps and gradual descents - and with skilled use of this ability, you don’t just have to hop over the Angry Sun (which by itself gets old fast) but can actually collect a whole bunch of coins that are otherwise out of reach.

The trouble is, collecting the coins also requires avoiding spikes, in ways that are difficult if you aren’t an expert with the propeller jump. As you might have guessed, I’m not - I’ve only played a little of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. So while I was able to get most of the early coins, as the hazards became harder to avoid I eventually hit a spike and took damage. And that means I lost the propeller.

As a result, I wasn’t able to try again to collect those particular coins. And then I couldn’t try at all with the next set of coins. I was penalized for trying to master the game’s mechanics by having those mechanics removed. All I could do was wait on the platform, periodically hopping over the sun, watching coin challenges scroll by out of reach, until the game gave me another Propeller Mushroom.

So there had now been two levels in a row where there was a safe, easy, boring path and a path that allowed the player to test, improve, and show off their mechanical mastery - but if you weren’t already a master and were trying to learn, you were punished by having to spend time playing the boring way. And it was becoming clear that this pattern was a natural result of elements core to the design of 2D Mario games. Instant-death pits with sparse checkpoints, mechanics enabled via power-ups which are lost when you take damage - add these up and it’s almost impossible to avoid punishing players for trying to learn.

Realizing this, I understood why I was quickly turned off by most Mario games I’d tried - and I also lost interest in bothering with the admittedly incredible range of user-created levels. No matter how you combine your blocks, you can’t change these core factors of Mario’s design. You can paper over it by having no pits or instant-death obstacles and showering the player with power-ups, but it’s ultimately just a band-aid over an outdated design.

Other franchises have mostly evolved past these kind of mechanics, but Mario is so iconic that it can’t really escape its own legacy. If a 2D Mario game changed these systems, it wouldn’t feel like Mario and that’d be a big problem.

The only time Mario games can escape these issues is when they’re doing something different already. Like in the only 2D Mario game I’ve actually gotten into: Yoshi’s Island, where taking damage doesn’t cost you an ability and is recoverable if you can catch Baby Mario in time. In the mainline Mario games, it’s only possible when transitioning to 3D: even in the very first 3D outing, Super Mario 64, Mario has more health and the power-ups that are present are more like vehicle or mini-game mode changes than extra abilities that are easily lost. Failure is more of a recoverable range than a punished binary, which is much more interesting and a better way to teach.