Super Mario Maker is an easy recommendation for any Wii U owner, although it’ll challenge you in ways you might not have considered.
Mario is the franchise lynchpin that holds Nintendo together, but in recent years, the Big N has faced a lot of criticism when it comes to the moustachioed chap. Not so much in his claim to being a plumber when he never seemingly fixes a single S-Bend, but more that his 2D adventures had become rather rote, boring affairs.
I don’t tend to agree with those assessments — I even wrote about this at Kotaku a few years back — but Nintendo’s latest take on Mario is something quite radically different for a company that’s rather known for mining its IPs for every last possible yen.
Rarely do games describe themselves in the title quite so well as Super Mario Maker. It’s a game where you make Mario, or to be more specific, Mario levels, using either Super Mario Bros, New Super Mario Bros Wii U or Super Mario World as your graphical and gameplay templates to work from. It’s not quite the same thing as Nintendo giving you the full keys to the Mushroom Kingdom, simply because you can really only create one level at a time, rather than a full-fledged Mario “story”, and the layout and setup of the game means that players can rather easily “cheat” their way to victory. Some Mario staples are a little meaningless when lives are effectively infinite, although it’s surprising how strong the compulsion is to collect every last gold coin even though you don’t actually need to.
The core task in Super Mario Maker is to make levels. At first, you’re constrained to just a few gameplay parts and two basic “skins” — Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Bros Wii U — to work with. New elements are revealed over time and through gameplay, which is initially infuriating when you go online and see what can be done, but makes broad sense because the one thing that Mario Maker makes you aware of is just how much polish goes into each and every one of Nintendo’s “own” Mario levels.
It’s very easy to make a Mario level, and it’s exceptionally easy to make one that’s stupidly hard. Just drop a bunch of long jumps, hundreds of enemies and no guidance as to what to do next, and players will drop dead by their hundreds. That’s no fun, however.
The art, and this only becomes apparent over time, is in making a level that’s actually fun and engaging to play. You can be tough, to be sure. Some of the very best Mario levels, including some that I’ve played through Super Mario Maker, are very tough. But balance is the key, because simply resting on either floods of enemies or leaps of faith is actually poor gameplay design, and Super Mario Maker is a game all about design.
Game creation tools are nothing new. It’s easy enough to point to, say, the Little Big Planet series as one that gave users creation tools years before Mario Maker ,but their lineage goes back way further than that, to games such as the sublime Shoot ‘Em Up Creation Kit (SEUCK). Who could forget the majesty of Smurf Hunt?
What Super Mario Maker gets so particularly right is that it presents what is actually a very deep level creation tool within the guise of a very simple tool. Everything is just tap and place with the Wii U’s otherwise under-utilised stylus. I have to admit here that my own Wii U stylus is missing — I blame my kids, because it is in fact their fault — and I hadn’t noticed because it’s otherwise so very rarely used.
In Super Mario Maker, however, the stylus is your key to creating the Mario levels of your dreams, whether they’re idyllic paradises of coins, or devilishly tricky nightmares instead. If you’ve got Amiibos to hand, they’ll unlock additional costumes for Mario to wear, although they’re only superficial elements depending on which gameplay style you choose.
Bear in mind that Mario’s abilities in Super Mario Bros are a little different to those in later games, which means changing visual style will also change how players interact with the world you’ve created. Whatever you do, you have to be able to play through, however, as Nintendo will not permit uploads of levels that cannot be completed.
The upload process is itself an interesting one. I’ve had some issues getting levels up that seem, from their error messages, to be related to NAT issues, but beyond that, it’s also slightly irritating that you can’t iterate on a level once you’ve uploaded it. It would be nice to be able to tweak levels based on user feedback, but to do so you’ve got to create an entirely “new” version of your level, or delete the old one. Maybe Nintendo will implement that later in Mario Maker’s life cycle.
Does the focus on level design mean you should eschew Super Mario Maker if you’re a poor designer?
No, I think you can still get plenty of value out of it anyway. Nintendo provides its own “10 Mario Challenge” sets of levels, which are essentially meant to provide you templates and ideas to build on, but are still fun snippets of levels to play. Add to that the online community building levels, both derivative and original, and you could play a lot of Mario with Super Mario Maker without particularly dabbling in level design. I think you’d be missing out on a lot, but you could do it, and it would still be decent value.
You’re not exactly spoilt for choice when it comes to Wii U titles, and Super Mario Maker is something special indeed. To give you an idea of how special, consider this. Nintendo provided me with a media copy of the game a little early for review purposes, but it wouldn’t ever connect to the public Super Mario Maker server, which meant that I couldn’t peruse other’s levels, or upload my own to the wide world.
Super Mario Maker’s good enough that despite having a technically-working copy of the game, I went out and bought a full retail copy anyway, just so I could experience the “full” Mario maker deal. Any suggestion that the sweet 8-bit Pixel Mario Amiibo had anything to do with my decision is of course, scurrilous nonsense.
Super Mario Maker will challenge you to think about what goes into good game design, possibly inspire you to create your own games, and engage you anew with a franchise that many (not myself) were deriding as old and tired. There’s still plenty of scope for Nintendo to deliver new 2D Mario games, as you’re really only developing single levels rather than a coherent threaded Mario story, and they can always implement new powerups. Still, if you’ve played any Super Mario Bros titles, and you’ve got a Wii U, it’s very much a title you should own.