When I think about Nintendo’s philosophy as a company, I constantly think back to something they said a lot during the DS and Wii era: “Games are for everyone.” Perhaps that specific rhetoric was just a marketing ploy back when they attempted to rope more of the casual market into their corner, but it’s a mantra I think has been utilized behind the scenes for a long time.
The mass appeal of the Big N’s franchises is partially because of just how accessible these games are to people of all kinds — even back when gaming was even more of a boys’ club than it is now, women flocked to Zelda, and the company’s developers now make sure to include options so even the littlest of children can play. That’s why I’m sort of baffled by the decisions in Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS, a port of last year’s best Nintendo game. At its core, this is still a product well-worth having, but I can’t help but feel like it takes steps backward on the accessibility front.
The basic idea here is the same: build courses or play ones other people have created. Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS offers almost all the robust creation tools that its Wii U counterpart did, and its portability means that your on-the-go ideas don’t have to wait until you get home. I can’t say enough about how intuitive and fun-to-use this game’s interface is; anyone who’s got the basic idea of how a Super Mario game plays should be able to pick up the stylus and start putting together their own levels. If you’ve seen even a fraction of the stages created with the current console version, you’ll know just how flexible this really is: from the now-ubiquitous auto-running music levels to recreations of famous locations from other games, Super Mario Maker‘s community has put together a real collection of winning ideas.
Accessing these ideas is sort of where the problems begin in this portable version, though. While Nintendo has provided a robust Course World and accompanying website for the Wii U version, things are a bit pared down for 3DS. Here’s how the limitations work: for players, any levels created and uploaded from the Wii U version are accessible except those with a Mystery Mushroom — a purely cosmetic item whose exclusion from this new version is utterly baffling to me (and also means no amiibo support).
If players want to access a specific level, they’re also limited in that they can’t search for them by course ID; they only have access to a “Recommended Courses” menu curated by Nintendo. For creators, things are actually a bit worse: they can’t upload their creations to the Internet at all, only share them locally or via StreetPass. These problems — which seem like they could have been easily avoided — effectively neuter the 3DS version. The freedom to create, share and find others’ levels over the Internet was easily the best part of the original, and with that gone, what we’re left with feels a bit depressingly stripped-down.
The problems don’t end there, unfortunately. Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS also diverts from the original in how new creation tools become available to you. The Wii U version gradually distributed the tools to you over the course of a week or so, a choice that proved irksome for some players who wanted all the options available to them from the start. At least that issue could be circumvented by fast-forwarding the unit’s clock, though. In this new 3DS version, players actually have to complete a whopping 18 worlds in the new Super Mario Challenge mode before they have access to every tool there is.
For all but the most experienced and skilled players, this proves a ridiculous obstacle. I appreciate that Nintendo set up the single-player campaign as a way to give budding creators ideas about their potential levels, and indeed, these 100+ stages are a tantalizing look at some of the game’s coolest features. But why on Earth did they feel the need to gate so much of the content behind it?
This isn’t the most difficult campaign you’ll ever play, but it’s no cakewalk either, with several of the later levels providing a relatively stiff challenge. That means players who have a tough time — I’m imagining a lot of little kids in this position — will find creation features lost to them if they aren’t able to make progress in the mode. Since the Wii U version seemed to understand that creators weren’t necessarily also players, I find myself at sort of a loss for words at the decision-making here. It just doesn’t make sense.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that dying a certain amount of times will provide players with a special item that makes it easier to get through the level, but ultimately, that still doesn’t guarantee a victory — especially in perilous locations full of bottomless pits. And I don’t think this excuses the fact that Nintendo made its initial bad decision — to make any of the content unlockable instead of letting creators go hog-wild from the beginning — somehow even worse. For a company that apparently wants to make their games accessible to everyone, this port features a ludicrous number of barriers to entry.
All of this may sound harsh, but it’s only because this game is so good beyond its limitations. Super Mario Challenge is actually a really wonderful experience when you’re not frustrated by its keeping tools out of your reach; I absolutely adore the new optional medals you can go after, two per stage, which often require you to go about completing the level in a completely different way. And once you’ve overcome the maddening irritation of unlocking the tools, the process of creating is a joy, even if you’re limited in your ability to share your stuff with others.
Ultimately, Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS proves disappointing in a number of important ways. I don’t think its limitations can completely discount what is still one of the coolest ideas in Nintendo’s history, but this version — which is going out to a much larger installed base than the superior Wii U original — feels like the wrong way to introduce people to it. Not being able to share your stages with others online is a crushing blow, as is the inability to search for Wii U creations by course ID.
Worst of all, the gating of creation tools behind a challenging campaign means a significant time commitment before you’re able to access all the items and such — if you’re skilled enough to complete it in the first place. If you can jump all these hurdles, you’ll likely have an amazing time, but I can’t help but feel this port is a real missed opportunity to expand the game’s wonderful community.
Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS is a delight to play and create with, but it's got some disastrous barriers to entry. The inability to share 3DS courses online is a painful limitation, as is the choice to gate creation tools behind 18 worlds of platforming. If you can overcome these issues, you've got a portable version of Nintendo's best game from last year, but I fear most users' patience will run out before then.