I've got no problem with make-you-want-to-scream Mario stages. There are plenty in Super Mario Maker's community, and I've been playing 'em for months! But it's not often you encounter levels as inventive as Nintendo's own creations, yet that's exactly how I felt while playing Stank's — yes, Stank! — stages today.
As part of my Mario Maker Morning series, people will often send me levels. Every once and a while, a gem floats my way. This was the case with Bowser's Empire 2.0 (4638-0000-00F9-0728), which Stank described in an email to me as "no archaic puzzles, it's just straightforward platforming". That usually means a simple level with one or two "oh, that's neat" bits that I'm able to finish in one or two lives. While that's fine, it's not what I'm usually looking for.
At first, I worried Stank was going to make my life hell with jumps like this:
But while Stank's levels are full of tricky jumps, they also have well-timed checkpoints, power-ups, and moments to catch your breath. There's a balance to his stages that's not usually found in Mario Maker stages — it's called pacing.
Not only that, he makes use of Mario mechanics in some crafty ways.
What sells this moment is the "ding dong" sound, which serves as confirmation that you've performed the right action and a smirking congratulation.
Even amidst the puzzles, Stank points you in the right direction — mostly.
I've been trained by monsters to think of arrows as misdirection, but in this case, it's anything but. You're supposed to hit the P switch, but rather than head into the pipe the blocks are hiding, you hitch a ride on the turtles that fly out.
My favourite kind of level design is when it feels like I'm having a conversation — more of a tango — with the creator. We're operating in the same space for different reasons, necessary evils for one another. Creators need players, players need creators. Some designers prefer lies; others, like Stank, prefer a dialogue.
The level even sneaks in a mini-boss that needs to be defeated to move on!
There's pieces of randomness to Mario, though Nintendo's careful about how those elements are dished out. Unsurprisingly, Stank is, too. One section has players riding a turtle into over lava, dodging fire blasts from an off-screen Bowser the whole way. But if you get the right dice roll, you coast on through.
(I did not always get the right dice roll, but thanks to the conveniently placed mushroom from earlier, you never die because randomness screws you over.)
I could gush at how satisfying it was to beat Bowser, but what really impressed me was how Stank handles the moment after. As you hit the next pipe, presuming the exit is very close, the game starts hugging you. "You did it!"
"It's just coins — yaaaay!" Given all I've suffered in Mario Maker, it's a blessing.
I started following Stank in Super Mario Maker, hoping to play whatever he was working on next. Thankfully for all of us, he's been feverishly producing stages for a while now, and I'm happy to report the others are just as joyous to play.
Some, like POW Block Stacking Challenge (OB5D-0000-0112-09C5), are built around a single mechanic, asking players to pull it off in in tougher ways, as you move forward. These stages actually deploy Nintendo's own thoughts on design:
Others, like Bowser's Thwomp Dungeon (0B62-0000-010B-C482), have an abundance of delightful "a-ha" moments that make each section a surprise.
If I'm still finding levels and creators like this months after Super Mario Maker's release, it bodes well for the game long-term. You're staying turned on, Wii U.
By the way, you can watch me play some of Stank's levels right over here: