2D platformers are often the first type of game that an up-and-coming game developer will try to create. The mechanics of these types of games are usually relatively simple. Players can run, jump, and maybe one or two other actions. The simple movement mechanics can be combined with unique level elements that create interesting and fun challenges for players to overcome. One of the first games to show this off was none other than the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES in 1985. This game quickly became a sensation and spawned a host of similar platforming games. The Super Mario Bros. series continued to get new games for decades, with unique art styles and mechanics. Eventually, Super Mario Maker was released in 2015, allowing Mario fans to create their own levels. Here’s where I come in.
Mario Maker is one of the things that gave me a start in game design, and it’s helped me get a better sense for designing levels. The tedious programming work and asset making has already been done, so there’s nothing between you and a fun Mario level besides your own skill at designing one. Also, note that I will specifically be talking about traditional level design. There are many possibilities in Mario Maker like music levels, auto levels, puzzle levels, and more. These are fun to create and play, and feel free to try them, but I am specifically going to be talking about traditional level design. Becoming a better level designer in Mario Maker can help you understand how to design levels in general and will give you skills that will apply far beyond this single game. So, how do you design a good level?
Step 1: Play other levels
Before you jump into designing a level for yourself, it may be worth analyzing what makes other Mario levels good. Maybe play your favorite Mario game and analyze what exactly you like about it. Or you could look through the most popular user levels in Mario Maker to see what people like about them. Once you’ve played some good levels and you feel like you understand why they are good, hop into the level creator.
Step 2: Experiment
Mario Maker has a variety of elements that you can use in your levels. The first step to designing a level is trying out mechanics and seeing what works. What happens if you have skewers that trigger P-Switches? Or if a Fire Bar goes over a Bob-omb? How do enemies affect seesaws? There are so many possibilities in Mario Maker that it may be overwhelming at first. Try using two or three items and seeing how they interact in different situations. Once you’ve experimented with the different items a bit, move on to the next step.
Step 3: Pick 2–3 main elements to use
You may notice that in most Mario games, every level has a specific mechanic associated with it. One may have you riding on flying Buzzy Beetles to fly up to the goal. Another may involve avoiding a giant fish who is constantly a threat throughout a water level. Good levels usually have a small number of unique mechanics that are introduced and built upon throughout the level. After experimenting with the elements, you should pick a few that interact with each other in a unique way and use them as the main elements that you will build your level around.
Step 4: Introduce the mechanic
The player should have an understanding of what will be expected of them in your level from the very beginning. You should introduce your mechanic in a safe environment so that the player does not get caught off guard later on when it is used during a platforming challenge. Say that your level revolves around skewers destroying blocks. In the beginning of the level, have a skewer destroying blocks above Mario where it cannot actually hurt him, but shows him the danger of skewers in the coming level.
Step 5: Design your platforming challenges
It’s difficult to give specific advice on this aspect specifically, because it varies greatly depending on the mechanic you are using. In general, have a few easy challenges towards the beginning of the level and then gradually increase the difficulty towards the end. Mario is generally aimed at a more casual audience, so make sure your challenges are forgiving. If Mario falls, maybe he can recover by wall-jumping back up. Or if the challenge involves enemies, give him a few power-up opportunities as a bit of leniency. However, this portion is completely up to you. You may want to make a more difficult than average level, and that is okay too! My advice is just that you maintain a steady increase in difficulty throughout the level, and constantly play the segments as you edit them to ensure they are fair and fun.
One thing you should do with your platforming challenges is combine your mechanics. Say you have two main mechanics in your level: Bob-ombs destroying blocks to make a path and seesaws. In the final challenge of your level, you might want to have a Bob-omb on a seesaw that the player has to pick up and throw at some blocks to create a path while trying not to get hit by the explosion. If you have more than one mechanic in your level, try combining them to make an interesting final challenge.
Step 6: Breathing room
After designing your platforming challenges, play through it and figure out the divides where one challenge ends and another begins. In these divides, give the player some room to breathe. Some easy examples of breathing room would be: a short challenge to get a one-up mushroom, a coin block with multiple coins, or a pipe that goes to a secret area with lots of coins. The purpose of these is to give the player a moment to relax after a difficult challenge and rewards them. These help players feel more accomplished when getting through a section and ensures that they are not bombarded with difficult challenges.
Step 7: Final touch-ups
After creating a level that safely introduces a mechanic and then gives the player challenges of increasing difficulty with breathing room in between, there is only a little bit of work left to do. First, you will want to add features that help guide the player through your level. In Mario Maker, coins are extremely helpful in this regard. Coins are satisfying to collect, and they show a player that they are doing something right. Putting coins in between jumps of platforming challenges helps the player understand what they need to do and makes it feel more fun.
You should always try to end your level on a high note. In mainline Mario games, there is usually some sort of optional challenge to reach the top of the flagpole using the level’s mechanics, which is something you may want to consider adding. Before even that, you may want to add an easy section that empowers the player. For example, in a level with lots of enemies, give the player a star to run through them with ease right before the goal. Or, you could have a slope to slide down with a jump to the flag. Whatever you choose to do, try and make the end of your level a satisfying conclusion that neatly ties up the level.
Finally, decorate! Mario Maker has a lot of options to personalize a level, such as sound effects and background elements. In a jungle level, use vines to give the level a more natural feel. The semi-solids in level types all have different appearances that can be used as decorations as well. Also consider using elements other than regular ground as the terrain. The player may be walking along bridges, pipes, clouds, or a host of other objects. Try to make your level stand out visually.
Step 8: Playtesting
Congratulations! You have completed the first iteration of your level. However, a level may need some work in areas you may not have realized at all. A good way to find small mistakes is by watching other people play it. To playtest, ask your friends and family if they would like to play your level. You could also ask a Mario Maker streamer to play your level on stream. Try to get opinions from people with varying levels of experience playing Mario, as all types of people may play your level, and you want to try and account for all of them. Ask people what parts they thought were unfair or difficult and note it down. When you have time, edit the sections people didn’t like and try to make them more fair and/or fun. It may take a few iterations of your level before you can truly say you’ve completed it.
Lots of people play Mario and were drawn to the idea of Mario Maker: making your own levels. However, for your level to truly stand out, you need to take a lot of care in how you design it. You shouldn’t have so many elements that the level doesn’t feel cohesive, but too few elements may make it boring. Take care to make your levels as fair as possible by getting feedback from people who play it, and add elements that make it fun, like satisfying rewards after challenges and hidden secrets. You may also want to create a Super World, a new option in Mario Maker 2 that lets you create worlds full of your own levels! This can help you gain more experience in not only individual level design, but game design as a whole, as you can ramp up the difficulty and introduce mechanics that reappear in later levels.
Mario Maker is a great way for someone interested in game design to try designing levels. The game allows you to experiment with mechanics that would never appear in a mainline Mario game, and that’s what makes it so interesting. The skills that you will gain from building Mario levels and iterating upon them will help you understand one of the most important pieces of the game design puzzle: the player. As you design more levels, you will eventually understand exactly what appeals to different types of players and what doesn’t. Your first few levels may not be great, but that’s fine! Everyone learns from their mistakes, and a few bad levels will help you develop the skills to build truly good levels. Mario Maker is a fantastic way to learn level design if you build every level with care and iterate upon its designs. If you one day decide to try level design outside of Mario Maker, you will already have a head start.