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Entertainment & Arts

What to Play: ‘Super Mario Maker 2’ and its unexpected lessons in corporate life

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No one is kidnapped in the surprisingly deep story mode of “Super Mario Maker 2.” Instead, Mario has to get to work.
(Nintendo)

Nintendo makes game design look easy in “Super Mario Maker 2.”

For those familiar with the first game in the series, that’s far from an outlandish statement. “Super Mario Maker” simplified game creation to the point where series staples such as bouncy bricks and wobbly mushroom characters became not just obstacles but creative tools of expression.

Why yes, I will construct a world where an opening scene of lettuce-like plants give way to a bounty of ghosts, seeing-eye bombs, lava fireballs, smiling clouds and a beanstalk that leads to a serene conclusion — with, of course, giant slow-moving bullets possessing scornful eyes. Is that not how you unwind after a stressful day?

But what I wasn’t expecting to find in “Super Mario Maker 2” were lessons in time and wealth management, not to mention a treatise on corporate life. While there’s plenty of silliness in the core “Super Mario Bros.” games, for a certain generation these interactive texts could be viewed as something of a parable. How else to explain why 4 million people bought the original for the beleaguered Wii U console?

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Sprung initially from the mind of legendary gamemaker Shigeru Miyamoto, the “Super Mario Bros.” games turned modern life into a fairy tale, where a plump plumber, Mario, could become the hero of a nonsensical kingdom that made perfect sense to those wiling to abandon all reason.

While it was possible to live like royalty here, that task was accomplished only by surviving a daunting series of tasks. And any rest will be short-lived, as Nintendo will eventually release a sequel with essentially the same plot.

So while “Super Mario Maker 2” is ultimately a toolbox for players to create their own levels from the “Super Mario Bros.” era of their choosing, and then share them with friends and strangers online, a surprisingly extensive story mode with about 100 mini levels keys in on the above. It ignores the old-timey fable-like quest — rescue the princess — in favor of a sharp critique of our work-obsessed lives.

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One can create levels that represent various eras of Mario in ‘Super Mario Maker 2.’
(Nintendo)

It’s not the scaley lizard-like creature Bowser that causes problems for Mario here; instead, it’s a dog who with the press of a button wrecks a newly built castle. The lack of a decent insurance policy in the Mushroom Kingdom sends a now-broke Mario on a quest for cold coins to rebuild his fortress and maintain his quality of life.

“See, this is why I’m a cat person,” a member of the construction crew unhelpfully says.

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While the Nintendo-designed levels here are short, each heightens the challenge by focusing on one particular responsibility: complete it without jumping, reach the end while carrying a block, avoid an angry sun. This is Nintendo game design at its most distilled and economical — a less-is-more philosophy that presents a mechanic and explores its variables before introducing another layer.

It’s also the direct opposite of what one will likely find in going online to hunt for the user-constructed levels, where there’s a tendency to make things as difficult and as crazy as possible. Give humans the keys to the kingdom, and we’ll act a bit gluttonous.

In contrast, the play-one-way-at-a-time approach of Nintendo’s pre-built levels also makes them feel like little jobs. Throughout, plenty of construction-worker Toads are there to offer sympathy for Mario’s plight: “Management, am I right?”

Each level is presented as an assignment from an anonymous client. The Toads don’t care that someone named “Goomba lover” may not have Mario’s best interest in mind; they just want there to be cash so Mario can hire them to rebuild the castle.

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All told, these 100 or so levels add some new depth to the “Super Mario Bros.” canon. Mario isn’t a happy-go-lucky-plumber who approaches life’s challenges with a can-do optimism; he’s an employee, and getting the job done can be easier when we imagine ourselves somewhere where the world is literally upside down.

Yet just when we’ve grasped how to defy gravity, the next level completely rewrites the playbook and forces us to learn a new set of rules. Management, am I right?

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‘Super Mario Maker 2’

Developer & Publisher: Nintendo

Platforms: Nintendo Switch

Price: $59.99

ALSO: ‘Super Mario Bros.’ at 30 — the plump plumber who changed gaming »

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