(Note: All data in this piece is from the game on the morning of September 30, unless otherwise noted)
In our first review of Super Mario Maker (which we played on pre-release servers open only to developers and critics), we noted that the game would definitely change quite a bit “once the public starts creating and uploading their own levels in significant numbers… Who knows what kind of sort of level design trends and counter-trends will rise to the top once the game’s own internal social network effects come into play.”
Which over a million players have uploaded over 2.2 million different levels in the game in a few weeks we can finally start answering that question. After 30 years of “Super Mario” games, Super Mario Maker gives us a rare opportunity to examine what types of Mario levels are generally most loved by the public… or at least the portion of the public that gives “stars” to their favorite levels.
We’ve been keeping an eye on the Top 50 “Most Starred” levels in the game’s “Course World” section to see if the cream of the crop made it to the top. In contrast, our analysis shows that the tiers that seem to get the lion’s share of public adoration are those that use cheap (if occasionally clever) design tricks to grab attention. That’s due in part to some key issues with the way Super Mario Maker surfaces levels and measure their popularity.
Autocomplete is the new black
The levels with the most stars in it Super Mario Creator overwhelmingly fall into a few different categories. While many of the highest levels fall into more than one of these (the second most popular level currently is an auto-complete stage that uses an Amiibo mushroom to pay homage to Super Mario Kartfor example), very few cannot be linked to at least one of the following six archetypes:
By far the easiest road to get to Super Mario Creator popularity is making a level that plays itself. In all, 19 of the top 50 levels can be completed without pressing a single button (or just running right). That includes 11 of the top 13 levels, clogging the top of the game’s Most Starred chart with levels that require no active input from the player. Six of these levels were part of a sizable subset of auto-complete levels that use pink musical note blocks to play a song as Mario moves. All six of these levels, of course, played theme songs from famous Nintendo franchises.
The overwhelming popularity of these levels makes sense. Auto-complete levels are fun to watch, with Mario often bouncing around like a man possessed, constantly sending him into perilous close calls. Of course, they are also very easy to complete, which gives most players a prominent chance to award a star using the button that appears at the end of the level. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that there are so many of them Super Mario Creator players apparently enjoy watching the game play itself out as much as actively participating in the level.
On the other end of the spectrum, 17 superpopular stages were completed in less than 15 percent of the time (measured by total lives, not individual players). Eight of these levels had completion rates of less than 10 percent if you want to be stricter with where you cut off the “ultra-hard” name. Anyway, it seems clear that the most popular levels to play are the ones that require players to work a bit to get to the end.
The sadistic “Super Meat Bros.” level (a tribute to ultra hard indie darling Super Meat Boy) takes the cake in this category, with a completion rate of just 0.44 percent. That means the average player dies over 230 times before reaching that goal (or just giving up, we suppose). Surprisingly, “Super Meat Bros.” managed to attract over 25,000 stars, although fewer than 20,000 people actually beat it (in over 4.6 million attempts!).
Amiibo Costume Levels
People seem to love turning Mario into other popular characters. As many as 16 of the top 50 levels have transformed Mario’s appearance using the “mysterious mushroom” item, which creators can unlock by tapping the appropriate Amiibo on the Wii U gamepad (or by beating an in-game challenge ). A popular level – titled “Amiibo Maniac!!” – has gained over 19,000 stars for simply providing a long line of question blocks to make Mario fit each Amiibo costume in order, without the threat of enemies. Someone clearly has too much money to spend on Amiibos…
A full 20 percent of Top 50 levels were explicitly inspired by another game. Some of these levels were downright clever, van Metroid and Zeldathemed dungeons to levels that are accurately recreated Super Mario 64 stages in two dimensions. Others were downright confusing, like a “SONIC 1 MEMORY” level that bore only a passing resemblance to the original game’s Green Hill Zone. Whatever the quality, players seem to respond strongly to reinterpretation of well-known games Mario Maker‘s palette.
I loosely defined this category as “levels with gameplay significantly different from what you normally see in a Mario game” (excluding auto-complete and homage levels). One gimmick level requires players to avoid a phalanx of power-up mushrooms in order to fit into a small tunnel. Another puts a fireflower-powered Mario in a clown helicopter to dodge flying spikes, shmup style. Two more put Mario in a race with enemies that cut his path if he’s too slow. Also in this category, there are levels that force Mario through tight mazes and levels that ask Mario to just dance around with Yoshi.
These levels get bonus points for cleverness, but they seem hard to imitate without getting tiring. With gimmick levels, once you’ve seen the basic idea, you generally don’t need to see it again.
These are levels that I subjectively judged would fit into a reality Super Mario Bros. game – not too difficult, not too gimmicky and not too derivative of other games. Real levels need a good mix of enemies and power-ups and calm and exciting sections. Even being generous on all these counts, the “real” levels were still easily outnumbered by auto-completed silliness, gimmicks, or ultra-hard challenges (although two “ultra-hard” levels also made it onto the “real” list ).