The Language of Mario Maker

The preposterously fun game franchise has given birth to a whole vernacular.

Screenshot of Super Mario Maker 2
Nintendo Switch

The timer in the video game is nearing single digits, the screen is a riot of bullets and explosions, and there are faces on everything. Cute faces. Smiling faces. Mocking, taunting faces. How is the player supposed to make it through this chaos? It seems impossible to know—but the level’s creator, benevolent and wise, has anticipated that the moment would cause confusion. The player looks around desperately for clues—and there it is: a Z. The Z is made of tracks, empty, with nothing riding on the rails. Pressing Z when it appears makes Mario whirl like a dervish—he ricochets off a deadly piranha plant that pops up just in time, and the player can land him safely and head further into the madness that awaits.

This is the kind of experience you’ll find in Mario Maker 2, a game that can make your eyes bleed and your thumbs hurt and somehow leave you wanting more. It’s the latest in a long line of creativity tools from the Mario multiverse, dating back all the way to Mario Paint (1992) for the Super NES. In Super Mario Maker 2, as in original Super Mario Maker for the Wii U, players create and share their own levels based off classic Mario games. Released on June 28, Mario Maker 2 has now gives players new ways to make levels in the style of classic Mario titles. Creators can share the levels they’ve made, and many streamers are playing levels suggested by their audiences live on Twitch.

The game has sold extremely well so far, due to the popularity of the Nintendo Switch console and the more niche success of its precursor, which created a cadre of elite level designers already versed in the tools of level creation who were ready from Day 1. Once again, the game has led to an explosion of creativity—and a signature style, one that’s busy and colorful and packed with arrows and indicators to tell you what to do. The vernacular these level-creators are working in has informal rules to observe and sometimes break, and understanding them adds depth to the madcap platforming fun.

Mario Maker always prominently featured a list of the most popular user-made levels, but a new addition to Mario Maker 2, tags, help narrow things down to the types of levels an individual wants to play. Many of these are based on the categories that grew organically within the community of the original game. There are levels tagged “auto-Mario”—a popular category in which the player does nothing (or holds a simple input or combination of inputs throughout) and is carried by something resembling a Rube Goldberg machine, conveying them to the goal. Good auto-Mario levels are a feast for the eyes, with jump scares, narrow escapes, and miraculous-seeming timing.

Another tag is for music levels, which are similarly easy and visually busy, but instead of moving Mario through dangers, there’s a space to walk serenely along the bottom of the screen while the level puts on a music-accompanied show for the ears and eyes.

For players who want to play the actual game, there are themed levels that have a central gimmick. Many of the most popular themed levels elaborately re-create the visuals and mechanics of other games, from Pong to Super Metroid to Five Nights at Freddy’s. Puzzle-solving level designs are more varied. One popular variety is the one-screen puzzle, which have the simplicity of Sudoku: Small, self-contained, with every element having a purpose that must be used to open a path to the goal.

Levels tagged “speedrun” often share the same baroque, visually overwhelming look of easier fare, but here, slowing down or failing to react in time will typically result in death. There’s a carefully developed language to these levels, particularly the hardest ones. In the parlance of the community, good levels are distinguished from “hot garbage,” and the distinction comes down to whether the level is fair to the player. It is considered perfectly fair to expect split-second timing, insanely difficult jumps, and even near-impossible speedrun tricks—and to expect players to chain these together into movement beyond anything a human could do on their first try. But, it’s not fair if there’s no indication of which move is required, where to jump, what path is safe, or how to proceed. Level creators use old tricks like lines of coins and arrows to indicate where to go, just as Nintendo’s professional level creators do.

Extremely difficult “Kaizo” levels also employ newer fan-created indicators, such as making shapes from empty tracks. For instance, a Z denotes a Z-jump; and three sides of a box show where to try for a shell jump (with the open side indicating the direction to release the shell). A single coin indicates “jump up exactly this high right here” and an arrow pointing at an enemy or wall means “throw a POW block at this spot.” The result may still be impossible—even the best players have to grind for hours to complete the trickiest courses. What’s crucial is the feeling that the player is being given a chance, however slim, to understand and get through on the first try.

And then there are the troll levels—levels that know the advanced Mario Maker rulebook but intentionally subvert it, misdirecting the player to hilarious death after hilarious death until, finally, the correct route is learned. The added mechanics in SMM2 are already resulting in new trolls—exclamation point blocks that squish you dead instead of opening a path, Thwomps that unexpectedly move sideways when you think they’re going to move down (or down when you’re sure they’re going sideways), complicated shenanigans with off-screen on/off switches that make the same room behave differently the second time around, and many more.

But even troll levels have their rules. A good troll level will never make the player pick at random between identical paths: It will always give the player a way to die and quickly return to the last checkpoint instead of soft-locking (forcing them to either restart or wait the timer out). And there’s a limit to how many times it’s funny to suddenly drop a fish on top of the player’s head. Good troll levels allow for progress to be made—before dashing the player’s hopes and dreams—and reward learning, while bad ones are random or too punishing a slog.

As you gain experience in Mario Maker, it becomes easier to tell at a glance a good level from the many terrible ones that exist. Poorly created levels tend to use less of the screen—having Mario move in either the bottom or middle third with the remaining space unused. They tend to include many enemy types with no coherent theme, and use only one or two kinds of blocks for Mario’s path. Perhaps this is why the visual language of the better levels became so busy: to better communicate that this is an experienced designer who took the time to pack the unused portions of the screen with decorations and pizazz.

As with all video gaming in 2019, the community for Mario Maker exists both in the game and outside of it in Twitch streams and YouTube channels. The popularity of troll levels and Kaizo-difficulty levels has a lot to do with how cool they look when the player finally makes it through. The interactions between the ordinary players in the community and the superstars can be conflicted—one recent Reddit post complained that stars who play troll levels on stream are degrading the level pool for the majority of players, who’d rather not be killed over and over in interesting ways. In turn, elite players tend to look down their noses at the superficially pretty but skill-free music levels and auto-levels that dominate the most popular levels list.

Whether you’re watching an auto-Mario play itself or attempting a crazy-hard Kaizo level, the most exciting thing about the language of Mario Maker 2’s makers is that the creator’s actual language doesn’t seem to matter at all. I’ve played countless levels whose names and descriptions were written in Japanese or Korean without fear that I was missing anything I needed to enjoy the run. Unlike any other multiplayer, creative, or collaborative game I can think of, there’s no point in a Mario level when you’re called upon to read or converse in the language the level creator speaks.

At the heart of classic Mario’s greatness was the games’ genius at showing the player new mechanics and wordlessly helping them grow in competence, through the design of the levels alone. It’s fitting that Mario Maker’s fans have expanded on this tradition, creating a common language all their own, with new ways to signal one another what to do, when to jump, where to go—and how not to get crushed by a giant exclamation point.