Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Although anyone who owns a Switch—or who hangs out in the vicinity of gaming Twitter—already knows this by now, Super Mario Maker 2 came out this week, kicking off a fresh orgy of creative expression in the Nintendo community, from incredible covers of John Denver songs, to taking everyone’s favorite block-smashing plumber out on the town. Four years after the original Super Mario Maker came out on the Wii U, the appeal of Nintendo’s ingenious course creation kit remains twofold: First, there’s messing around with the tools yourself, finding the surprisingly generous limits of what it allows players to build. And second, there’s the point where you hop online to see just how ridiculously your fellow players have broken those rules in half.
But while Mario Maker 2 is obviously a powerful creative engine, it remains to be seen: How good is it at corporate cinematic synergy? After all, if this weekend’s release of Stranger Things season 3 taught us anything, it’s that you need a little bit of that New Coke heat if you really want your art to pop for a wider audience. And so—inspired by this holiday weekend’s release of Far From Home— the call came down, in true J. Jonah Jameson fashion: Our own Sam Barsanti and William Hughes have been tasked with bringing the collected editorial staff of The A.V. Club levels about everybody’s favorite menace, Spider-Man.
The terms were simple: Sam and William each had two hours to build their best Spidey-themed level in the Mario Maker 2 framework, at which point they sent them off to the other for notes, critiques, and inevitably, comments featuring butchered versions of popular Marvel catchphrases. The end results were surprisingly similar—neither of our intrepid builders were able to resist the allure of the Sinister Six as Mario baddies, apparently—but the differences speak to just how wide and varied the creations made with the Mario Maker toolset can be. And of course, this is What Are You Playing This Weekend?, not What Were WE Playing This Weekend?, so we’d also like to invite everybody reading to participate in the challenge and post the results in the comments; we’re pretty sure they’ll blow Sam and William’s efforts away.
Course ID: 9TF-584-XHG
SB: My first thought when we came up with the Spider-Man theme was web-swinging, and I figured it would be a perfect chance to make use of the hanging claw items that were added to Super Mario Maker 2. They’re not something I had used before, so I didn’t really know what sort of rules they follow, but you can use them to swing pretty easily and get extra air on a jump—perfect for Spider-Man-style web-swinging. The problem is that you can’t use other blocks or items to affect them in any way, which means there was no way for me to hide them in blocks or have them reach down to grab enemies on command. Still, I think it worked out well enough. The opening sequence was actually my favorite part of this level, and had we not given ourselves a two-hour limit, I would’ve doubled the length of the web-swinging portion. I especially liked putting in different kinds of skyscrapers for Mario to swing on, including one that’s “under construction,” with collapsing floors and angry workers throwing wrenches.
Of course, I had to get to the “story” portion at some point, which is where the bank comes in. I thought incorporating the Sinister Six would be a good way to justify different rooms of puzzles, and my initial plan was to have each of them be different types of enemies—until I decided to try using Mario Maker 2's new clear condition options to require players to kill six Koopas before they can clear the level, instead. I briefly considered doing the exact opposite, forcing you to capture each Koopa in a hanging claw as if it were a web, but I couldn’t find a way to make that work—let alone force the player to do it. Instead, I just went with six different fights against similar Koopas, although they don’t really reflect the actual Sinister Six in any way. At the end, you also meet the Six’s secret benefactor: Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. The Kingpin, a.k.a. Bowser. Again, the time limit prevented me from being able to really figure out something smart to do with this final boss fight, but you can drop him into a money-filled pit as a bit of poetic justice. (Or you could just avoid him, if you’re a bad Spider-Man who doesn’t care about the Kingpin’s criminal empire).
WH’s notes: My favorite touch in Sam’s level is his addition of satisfying little “Thwips” every time you hit a claw in the first half of the level; sound design is a surprisingly robust part of making a Mario Maker 2 level click, and that satisfying noise (accompanied, bizarrely, by a giant cat’s paw swiping into the level, which is just something you kind of have to live with with that particular effect) really helped sell the first half of the level.
I’ll admit to a bit of confusion when it came to the bank parts, mostly because I was trying to map individual Koopas onto different Spidey villains. The fights themselves were plenty satisfying, though, with nice little bursts of action and a good sense of pace. As to our decision to create weirdly similar levels with absolutely no planning beforehand, I’ll chalk it up to identifying the two basics of Spider-Man’s life: He swings through cities, and he fights video game-style bosses. So it’s natural that we’d both gravitate to those ideas as our basic gameplay hooks.
Course ID: 3G5-QBD-93G
WH: When I sat down to dig into this assignment, I had three basic themes running in my head: Swinging, supervillains, and music. I’m mildly obsessed with Super Mario Maker 2's ability to let you play songs by bouncing enemies and objects off of specifically arranged note blocks, so I knew I’d have to work the classic ’60s Spider-Man cartoon theme in there somewhere. (I eventually dropped it in at the beginning and end of my initial web-slinging segments.) I struggled for a bit with how to adequately capture the feeling of swinging through a city, before settling on a bunch of big, long jumps with a safety net that would allow players to switch to running across rooftops—at least, at first.
I also wanted to pay homage to my favorite superhero movie moment of the last several years—Miles Morales’ leap of faith from Into The Spider-Verse—so I ended this section with one massive, timing-intensive jump across the second half of the level, complete with a nod to Blackway and Black Caviar’s “What’s Up Danger” spelled out in the background. I’ll admit to a weakness for these big all-or-nothing leaps in my course designs; I know they’re a bit amateurish, but when they actually connect, they feel amazing. (Pun intended.)
Having already burnt an hour of my design time, I now had to hustle to include six whole supervillains to fight, something made even harder when I realized that my go-to pick for Rhino, wall-crushing sportster Chargin’ Chuck, wasn’t actually part of the game’s toolset. (Extra frustrating, because that had been my primary reason for picking the Super Mario World level template for my course.) So I started improvising: Rhino was now a Thwomp, crushing through yellow blocks to get to Spider-Mario, while Doctor Octopus, obviously, was a Blooper. (Complete with babies, for extra-tentacle-y goodness.) I got more ambitious with Vulture, represented by a flying Boom-Boom in a narrow vertical hallway outfitted with chain swings, which played double-duty for Spidey’s webs because they allowed the player to lure him in to getting caught in them for an extra easy hit.
For Mysterio, I went conceptual, creating an apparently open area that’s actually an illusion hiding a nasty, danger-filled maze. I had planned to use Electro, too, but damn if there wasn’t really anything that fit the bill in terms of “electrified” enemies. So instead I did a very loose interpretation of Kraven The Hunter, creating a trap-filled course with a Chain-Chomp in tight pursuit. Finally, I put together a big, nasty Green Goblin fight in the form of Bowser and Bowser Jr. in a pair of Clown Copters, because what’s a fight with Norman Osborn without Harry popping in to help out (or, more likely, get in the way and screw things up)? Going back through my level, I used my last few minutes to tweak things and fix a few errors, and then subjected myself to a clear check (the Mario Maker requirement that forces creators to finish their own levels before uploading them, lest you fill the entirety of Nintendo’s servers with unplayable trap-filled garbage)—at which point I realized I had made something pretty damn hard.
With more time, I might have tweaked this, creating a version that requires less moment-to-moment perfection for players. But hey: If Peter Parker’s life was easy, he wouldn’t be Pete, right?
SB’s notes: First off, I love that we both went in such similar directions based only on the Spider-Man theme. Is it because we’ve both played Spider-Man video games, most of which are generally built around swinging to a place, going inside, and then fighting the Sinister Six? Either way, it’s still wild that our levels are as different as they are, with yours leaning harder in the direction of precision platforming than mine did. I don’t know how the game tracks your time when you die and go back to checkpoints, but it says it took me just over 13 minutes to beat this one, which is one way of saying that I had some trouble with it. I know I could bring that number down if I practice and memorize the exact paths of certain jumps or that Chain Chomp chase, but for now I’ll just be content with the J. Jonah Jameson picture I was able to draw in the level’s comments section after beating it.
As for the actual level, I’m glad you were able to put in unique challenges that were actually tied to who the Sinister Six characters are, with the Rhino and Doc Ock moments giving me a good laugh (the narrow corridor in the Vulture fight and the red Bullet Bills for Mysterio were…also things that you did). At the end of this experiment, I feel like the tools that are already in place in Mario Maker 2 are pretty much all you could ever need, considering we were both able to make Spider-Man video games with them, but I find myself wishing now that there were options for how to end a level. How great would it be to throw in some kind of “Sorry Peter, but MJ is another castle” gag with Toad when you finish?
And there you go, web-heads: One assignment, two (somewhat) different takes on Spider-Mario canon. Leave your own level codes in the comments, please (along with all your other thoughts on the gaming world this week).