Two things that rarely matter to a modern Mario level: lives and time limits. The existence of both, even in 2019’s Super Mario Maker 2, is largely owed to nostalgia and tradition. Heck, even coins have been reduced to largely aesthetic dressing. But a huge part of what makes Mario Maker special is how players embrace the unexpected. It’s how 20-second stages became a phenomenon for a while, and I recently came across a level that promised something wilder: a gauntlet of nine rooms with nine coins to be completed in nine seconds.
It’s impossible to make a Mario Maker 2 level last only nine seconds; the minimum is 10 seconds. But the level’s title is misleading. “9 seconds, 9 Coins, 9 Rooms?” by designer James Tarr technically gives players 400 seconds to make it through, but you only have nine seconds to make it through each section. It’s easier to see how it works in action:
Tick, tock, tick, tock. Once nine seconds passes, boom. The level presses on, and you have only a few moments to figure out what's being asked of you.
There are a number of clever things going on here. Look at the top of the screen. The ball of flame, technically called a podoboo, slowly moves from right to left, acting as a timer. The moment the flame hits the left hand side, a wall explodes on the right, and the level moves to the next section, whether Mario is ready or not. If you’re not, Mario dies.
There are no tools in Mario Maker 2 to make a timer, it’s cleverness by Tarr. The “timer” doesn’t do anything—it’s a visual aid. All the action happens in the bottom right, where a hidden bomb explodes after nine seconds. The bomb is ignited by yet another hidden podoboo. (If you look closely when the explosion happens, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the internals.)
“Took quite a while to get right,” Tarr told me, who said the most difficult part was getting the timer at the top, wholly unconnected to the bottom right, to get in sync with each other.
Levels aren’t supposed to move like this, either. Tarr built an autoscroll level that...stops! They achieved that by building these walls that, for those nine seconds, halt the autoscroll.
Each section has a different puzzle attached. One requires you to manipulate one/off switches, another asks you to swing to a higher ledge. Individually, none of them are all that hard, but put in sequence with one another, alongside a time limit, makes them stressful.
To date, Tarr has made nearly 200 levels, but weirdly enough, they almost didn’t buy Mario Maker when it came out on the Wii U.
“I thought I probably wouldn't stick to it like a lot of creative things I have tried to [do] in the past (3D modelling, coding, etc.),” said Tarr, “but the tools were so great in that I couldn't help but finally pour all my time into it doing something creative.”
Tarr described his early levels as “pretty bad” but, over time, found their footing.
“You know you have a great level when you yourself go ‘Wow, that's goddamn good’ when you finish playing it, which I did with that one especially,” said Tarr.
This level is, indeed, goddamn good. The level code is 7H9-0DG-4LF.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you've got any Mario Maker recommendations, drop an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. He's also available privately on Signal.