Time to grab all those old level drawings out of my mom’s attic.
While I was a child, there came a point in my life where I started focusing on one particular type of toys above all others: Legos. From typical projects, like building my own house or castle, to more unique stuff like the Bionicle and Exo-Force lines, which were more akin to customizable action figures, Lego sets were my jam. It wasn’t just because of the endless customization, either. Sure, it was endless fun to put different kinds of bricks together and see what I could create, but I wasn’t often very quick to take apart the original sets I had purchased. I enjoyed them for the same reason I liked going online and looking at what others had built. Even though Lego bricks fostered endless ideas, it wasn’t just about my creativity; it was about everyones’.
With Super Mario Maker, I feel that this very defining part of my childhood – tons of peoples’ childhoods, really – has come full circle.
When you power up Super Mario Maker, a choice is offered to on the game’s opening menu: would you like to build, or play? This sums up the entirety of the experience perfectly, as it happens, as the joy of building levels is evenly matched with that of experiencing what others have made. Players are encouraged to try building on their own stuff first and foremost, but the ability to hop online and see what hides in the wilds of the internet is available from pretty early on as well. There’s also 10-Mario Mode, an 8-level string of pre-programmed levels designed with just as much freedom as the game gives its players.
As the third and most identifying word in its title might suggest, Super Mario Maker a game all about the building of stuff. Players are first given a basic arsenal of tools, from brick and question blocks to Goombas and Koopa Troopas, with basic mushrooms and a couple other bits of trimming. Along with this selection comes basic World 1-1 style terrain, available only in the style of the original Super Mario Bros. Soon, though, these assets are joined by the option to make underground levels, and a choice between Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. U palette sets. It is impressed upon builders quickly that the arsenal of Super Mario Maker expands over time.
Before Super Mario Maker came out, the original plan was to give players daily additions of more items to use in level creation, spaced out over almost 2 weeks. This announcement resulted in some amount of public outcry, resulting in a day 1 patch that slightly changed things up. Now it is easier to get all level and game types, as well as the full set of items hiding within the game. That said, unless you’re the kind of person who puts hours upon hours into the building levels every day (and kudos to you if you are), it’s still going to take a while to get everything. If there are particular level elements you want to experiment with, but you can’t get them until you’re been building stuff for days, the meantime can be a discouraging form of purgatory. It’s good that Nintendo made a last-minute step in the right direction, but it would be nice if slightly easier access still existed for those who live for the complexity of creation.
Speaking of complexity, let’s talk about what would be defined as the “gameplay” of Super Mario Maker. Sure, playing user-made and pre-programmed levels can be one hell of a fun adventure, but the pool of user-generated content the game offers is more than just fulfillment for those who demand endless and constant free content out of their games. Some levels are good, and that’s good. Some levels are bad, and that’s also good. Some levels are Rube Goldberg machines, requiring no movement from the player as combinations of springboards, moving platforms, and other mobile elements push Mario along. Sure, these levels require no input from those playing them, but what must be considered is the sheer amount of planning and engineering on the part of the people responsible for these mechanical mosnter-levels. The real gameplay of Super Mario Maker isn’t playing as Mario; it’s getting deeper and deeper into the “what ifs” of game design. That’s a beautiful, amazing thing.
The one shame in user-created content is the interfaces available for finding it. There’s 100 Mario Mode, where random user-made levels are dished out in either an 8- or 16-round gauntlet, which can be fine if you just want some cool new stuff and don’t care where it comes from. There are also lists of the top most-played and highest-rated creators, as well as a list of most recent levels. Creators can share the levels they have made via 16-digit codes, ala the 3DS’ friend code system. Players can follow creators they like, giving them a short list of people to check up on for new content. The flaw in all this, though, is glaring: there is absolutely no way to look up specific users. Super Mario Maker user profiles are not in any way tied to Nintendo Network IDs, meaning the game gives no option to simply look up someone from your friends list as easily as some other games allow. This oversight is distressing, especially given how gradually better Nintendo and the Wii U have been getting with online communications in the last year.
All that said, flaws in community management can’t hide the fact that Super Mario Maker is an absolutely beautiful level-creation tool. Its interface is simple and fluid, eventually offering tons of items to use in all sorts of combinations, not kept to the rules of any Mario game previously released. Four graphical styles are available, the previously-mentioned two joined by Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. Each has the mechanical distinctions that go along with them, such as the ground pound and wall-jumps in New Super Mario Bros. U. Builders can make anything from basic field levels to underground, underwater, and lava levels, and even ghost houses and airships. Levels aren’t constrained to a specific size, and can be made horizontally or vertically huge or tiny; whatever the designer wants them to be.
The real beauty here is that, despite any complaints about how long it can take to unlock everything, even the most base selection of items available from the start is just varied enough to offer a ton of possibility. Part of the reason the Super Mario games have been as enduring as they have is how simple they are at heart. Thou shalt run, thou shalt jump. From there, the games crank up levels of challenge all built around that baseline simplicity. Similarly, building with even the most basic of Super Mario Maker‘s assets can lead to any number of levels, from the traditional to the abstract, the straightforward to the intricate. It’s really cool to see how the base nature of Mario as a defining pillar of game design translates into a building tool.
Super Mario Maker makes me feel like a kid again. I just got gifted infinite Legos, and I can’t wait to keep building with them, and to see what others have made. The free reign designers are given means that even using only one or two types of items can lead to some unique, imaginative, often downright crazy levels. But experimenting? Experimenting, mashing elements together and seeing what happens, can lead to ideas straight out of a childhood Nintendo nerd’s dreams. There are some flaws, like the time it takes to unlock everything and the shortcomings of the games online systems. That said, though, Super Mario Maker is an extremely smart and enjoyable design tool. I seem to remember saying on a podcast a long time ago that Super Mario Maker was like Nintendo’s answer to LittleBigPlanet and Project Spark. I would now return to that statement and go so far as to say that it has surpassed them by a few mushrooms worth. I give it 4 Bowsers-with-wings out of 5.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Wii U (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Nintendo ; Developer: Nintendo ; Players: 1; Released: September 11, 2015 ; ESRB: E for Everyone ; MSRP: $59.99