While we’ve only known about its existence for the last year or so, I’d like to think that Super Mario Maker has been in development since the original Super Mario Bros. entered production all those years ago.
Back in the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, level designers (including Shigeru Miyamoto) carefully designed stages using actual drawings on pen and paper, grid lines and all. Over the years, and as new iterations of Mario came forth, the developers eventually developed an internal level creator, which eventually turned into Super Mario Maker.
Some might say that a ‘level-editor-turned-game’ marked the natural progression of the series, but as someone who has stood by and followed Nintendo for the better part of his life, I for one am surprised. I always pegged Nintendo as a conservative company, not to mention one that is very protective of its intellectual properties. The announcement of Super Mario Maker came as a surprise to me personally, but after spending over a dozen hours fiddling with course creation and Mario nostalgia, I have to say that Super Mario Maker isn’t the simple level editor I had originally pegged it as.
Super Mario Maker is largely split up into two modes; creating courses, and playing them. As you might have come to expect from a first-party Nintendo title, the high level of polish is present throughout the package, from the editor and online portal to all the extras and secrets. While I didn’t have access to the art book which is packaged with retail versions of the game, the in-game manual (featuring tips and help from the aptly named Mary O.) is chalk full of tips and techniques to better design your old levels. These small touches go a long way, especially when you consider the somewhat intimidating challenge of making your own levels.
Granted, Super Mario Maker does an excellent job of easing you into the experience. A brief tutorial walks you through the basics of level building, which is all done on the Gamepad via the touch screen and stylus. The controls are easy to learn and very responsive; you place objects and obstacles by tapping, and a quick snap menu allows for quick selection of whatever you want to put in your level. Holding down triggers allows you to select objects as a group (essentially a highlight option), and you can quickly copy, paste and erase objects.
Rather than granting you access to all of the objects/enemies/powerups/structures from the get go, the game slowly doles them out over nine days, requiring you to tool around for five minutes each day before the next set is unlocked. While this might sound restrictive to some, it actually works well in practice, allowing you to master the basics before you set your sights on more complex level design.
While I was always interested in mastering the creation tools in games like LittleBigPlanet or Minecraft, at the end of the day the sheer complexity and depth allowed by their respective toolsets proved too much for someone who can’t afford to devote too much time to a single game, let alone a single facet within a game.
Super Mario Maker takes the opposite approach to level creation, as it largely builds on pre-existing titles and assets (along with the user’s knowledge of these). Levels can mimic the visual look and feel of four existing Mario titles, specifically: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U. The physics and gameplay mechanics of each game remain separate and distinct from one another, meaning that you’ll have to decide what game to tinker around based on your design goals.
For example, the ability to grab and hold objects is absent from Super Mario Bros., while a level focusing on wall-jumping will have to be made in New Super Mario Bros. U. While the style of each game is distinctively different from one another, Nintendo hasn’t shied away from allowing users to be creative, within limits of course. While you won’t be able to change enemy AI or create custom objects, there’s fun to be had when it comes to combining pre-existing objects. Want to have a stack of Goombas towering in front of you? You can do that. Want to have cannons shoot coins instead of bullets, or have item blocks spawn enemies? It’s all possible, and Nintendo has even gone so far as to placing enemies that previously did not exist into older titles, such as Boos in the original Super Mario Bros.
While it might not have the depth or power of more complex tool sets, Super Mario Maker does an excellent job of distilling level creation into something that’s meant to be enjoyed, and there’s plenty to be discovered and tooled around with. Other than the already revealed amiibo support (which allows Mario to ‘dress up’ as other Nintendo characters, such as Bowser, Donkey Kong or the Wii Fit Trainer), there are plenty of other secrets and surprises to be unearthed, though I won’t go so far as to spoil anything else.
Outside of level creating, you can choose to check out other levels via the level portal, which pools user-created levels from all over the world. Uploading levels yourself is easy enough, with the only requirement being that you’ve completed the level yourself (to avoid unbeatable levels from circulating online).
Browsing and downloading levels is a snap, and there’s the ability to comment on levels (including comments that pop-up within the level itself), along with rating them. The game tracks how many people have played and beaten each level (in turn generating a ‘difficulty’ for each level), and as a creator, you can not only follow other creators and their levels, but receive notifications about your own levels.
While I expect to see some creative gems when the game is released to the public, there are already a handful of notable levels, which show off what is capable within the level editor. Personally, I’m partial to the levels that either play themselves or simply require you to run to the right, all while avoiding obstacles and enemies from all directions. These ‘auto-levels’ are always fun to watch in motion, but some of the more creative levels really shine, including a Metroidvania-style stage and a shoot-em-up level that makes use of the Koopa Clown Car.
I’d be hard-pressed to find a reason not to recommend Super Mario Maker to series fans and newcomers alike, though there is a caveat that I should mention. Unlike games in the LittleBigPlanet series, Super Mario Maker lacks any substantial single-player or campaign mode, meaning that those who don’t enjoy creating or playing user-generated content will not find a lot to do. While there are 60 or so levels included with the game (which can be accessed through the 10 Mario Challenge), there isn’t much else in the way of a traditional single-player mode, meaning that a passion for creating and playing levels (and an internet connection) is a must.
If you meet those requirements, and aren’t turned off by the lack of a ‘campaign,’ then you’re in for a real treat. While it might not fit the standard image of your traditional Nintendo, triple-A release, Super Mario Maker is simply delightful, and might just be the first game that successfully hooked me on user generated content. After all these years of tooling and toying around with Mario, the tools have finally been thrust into our hands, and the end result is a unabashed celebration of the Big N’s flagship series.
This review is based on the Wii U exclusive version of the game, which we were provided with for review.
To the few who are dead set on a traditional single-player outing, stay clear. To everyone else, grab your stylus and take the plunge; Super Mario Maker is the king of level creation.