Nintendo’s first step into the collaborative realm is a beauty with a few rough edges waiting to be polished
Super Mario Maker is a game that is, at the same time, conspicuously safe and dangerously bold. The safety is fully derived from both the title’s concept and source material. Allowing players to try their hands at the creation of Super Mario levels is an idea that had been floating around the gaming microcosm for quite a while, one that had been unofficially implemented in a number of ways that featured different degrees of accessibility. Additionally, the building blocks of the Super Mario saga are so simple and recognizable that Nintendo’s philosophy of reaching out to all kinds of players, whether they are experienced gaming aficionados or youngsters and their families, can easily exist within a creation tool (a usually cumbersome element to most) centered around such assets.
Meanwhile, Super Mario Maker’s boldness lies in the rather obvious fact that, by crafting a universe whose bare bones must be filled by content created outside the controlled environment of the company’s Kyoto walls, Nintendo is – in a way – putting the quality of the experience in the hands of its fans. The often overprotective, for good reasons, giant is trusting its followers to manufacture the ultimate goods of the Mario series, the plumber’s most valuable property: the courses.
Those two opposing factors are behind Super Mario Maker’s most flagrant vital qualities and annoying flaws. The security of succeeding by giving players a powerful environment within which they can let their creative juices flow would not truly materialize if Nintendo had implemented a poor sandbox. Unsurprisingly, as it turns out, they did not; by choosing, on the title screen, the simply titled “Make” option, gamers are transported to a creation tool that checks the two main boxes of user satisfaction: it has loads of options and it is easy to use.
Perhaps as an attempt not to overwhelm newcomers, just a few of the assets are unlocked from the get go. Out of the four game styles available (Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U), which aside from offering huge aesthetic differences also feature minor gameplay distinctions, just the first and last are there from the start. Likewise, out of the six course themes (Ground, Underground, Underwater, Ghost House, Airship, and Castle), only the first couple are unlocked as soon as the game is turned on for the first time. Initially absent are also elements like Boos, Bob-ombs, Lakitus, Fire Flowers, and many others.
Unquestionably, some might be disappointed by that restriction, but truth is the whole unlocking process will take just a few hours of messing around with the creation tool. Therefore, it strikes the correct balance between providing younger players with a pleasant learning curve and not exaggeratedly hindering the creative exploits of those that are used to the Mario brand.
A good portion of the creation tool’s victory, and – subsequently – of the game itself, derives from its use of the Gamepad. Super Mario Maker does what few to none Wii U games have been able to achieve: it validates the wacky controller. Designing stages becomes, then, a matter of drawing the landscape and dragging the available elements (enemies, blocks, traps, and others) to the screen. Secondary actions, such as selecting a group of items to either move them, erase them, or copy them are equally performed with uncanny ease. Without the Gamepad, Super Mario Maker’s simplicity and seamlessness would likely fly out the window.
That straightforwardness is pleasantly joined by a good degree of freedom, without which Super Mario Maker would never reach the levels of insane greatness it often does. Nintendo gives players plenty of options to go crazy with their level design.
It is possible to pile up enemies in order to form menacing towers of death, give them mushrooms to use their gigantic forms, place them inside blocks or endlessly spawning pipes, shake assets to change their properties (like turning a Green Koopa into a Red Koopa), alter the stage’s time limit, activate different auto-scrolling speeds, use an array of sound effects, and deploy doors that transport Mario within the same sub-level or pipes that lead him to a completely new area.
Naturally, though, in spite of the borderline perfection of the creation tool, as players get increasingly creative some restrictions will be obviously felt. For starters, each level is limited to two sub-areas that can be differently themed; while it is understandable that Nintendo would want to control the size of the levels, there could be a trade-off between reducing the size of each sub-level and having access to more of those. Secondly, altering the vertical extension of the stages cannot be done, something that stops players from creating stages that gravitate around that kind of progression.
Finally, having no control over the camera might overcomplicate the triggering of more complex mechanisms, like not letting players see something until the time or position is right; or the use of design tricks, such as not allowing other portions of the stage to be visible from certain areas.
In terms of stage-building assets, even though the most iconic elements of the Mario universe are certainly covered, some notable absences can be felt. Important themes like ice, desert, forest, and beach are nowhere to be seen, making each game’s standard scenario the sole outdoors area that can be used. Creating small bodies of water is also out of the question, as that element is only available on the Underwater theme. Similarly, slopes and – more importantly – checkpoints are nowhere to be found at the present time, the latter of which could play a major role in reducing the frustration created by harder stages.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the room to beautify a stage by adding some visual candy – such as bushes and flowers on the standard theme, or clocks and lamps in the Ghost House – is somewhat lacking due to the fact those are randomly generated as ground is placed. It certainly would have been nice to be able to lay those down without having to resort to copying the visual assets that have been randomly placed and moving them somewhere else.
Super Mario Maker’s second component is accessed by the “Play” option. By selecting it, players go through the doorway that leads to the Course World, where the creations of players around the globe are gathered to be consumed, rated, and commented on. As it is bound to happen to anything that is left in the hands of a very large online community, what emerges is one gigantic mixed bag.
There are some remarkable treasures waiting to be found, levels that are on-par with Nintendo’s own creations and that sometimes surpass the high average quality of Super Mario stages. And Nintendo provides players with the tools to locate those. It is possible to visualize them through a list of featured levels chosen by Nintendo itself, stages that have garnered the highest amount of stars during a certain period of time, the latest uploaded stages, and stages the user has marked as favorites; and also by focusing on the most popular makers or those one has decided to follow.
Playing stages, starring them, going through the list of the creations of a specific user, navigating the menus, and looking at a level’s stats (the number of people who have played it, the percentage of attempts that have been successful at clearing it, which is a great automatic measure of difficulty), are actions done with a simple touch on the Gamepad, making the browsing experience greatly smooth.
Super Mario Maker is, then, a huge repository of platforming goodness that can be easily navigated and that never stops renewing its content. From a value standpoint, at least, it is undoubtedly the strongest entry of the Mario franchise, and as long as talented users keep on producing new creative courses that either follow the property’s traditional design rules or bend them in incredibly inventive ways, it will keep on delivering refreshing gameplay. However, while the user-creation component is what makes the cogs of the game’s engine turn frantically, it also happens to be its Achilles’ heel.
As hands-off quality control devices, Nintendo only allows the upload of levels that have been cleared and limits the number of stages users can send to the servers based on the stars they have earned. All players start with ten available spots, and that threshold is only altered when at least fifty stars are acquired, with the requirements for extra room growing bigger and more demanding from that point on.
It is a nice little touch, but as – fortunately – a democratic game, there is still a considerable amount of content that treads the line between dull and infuriating. Stages that look like they have been put together by a clumsy random generator, with blocks and enemies placed without any care or thought, are abundant. So are automatic stages that play themselves with no user input whatsoever, courses that are meant to troll and kill Mario, and other recurrent gimmicks.
When manually moving through the lists, stages such as those can be easily avoided and Super Mario Maker’s greatness rises far above the irregularity of its content. The same cannot be said about the 100 Mario challenge, a mode in which players are given 100 lives to clear a series of levels.
Here, given each stop along the way to Bowser’s Castle is randomly picked from the database according to the level of difficulty chosen, players are basically forced to sift through huge amounts of bad content – which is thankfully done by simply swiping the screen in order to discard the course – in order to try to have any sort of fun. The fact that the reward for clearing that challenge is one of one hundred character figurines that can be used as mushrooms to transform Mario’s model during a stage will certainly make many players frustrated.
Like it occurs with the course creator, the system backing up the sharing of levels does have a few punctual minor issues. Possibly in an attempt to deter negativity, commenting can only be done after awarding the course a star, an association that makes it impossible to give users constructive feedback without starring the stage and moving it to one’s list of favorites. Moreover, the commenting system is done through Miiverse, which slows down the process considerably given Super Mario Maker must boot Nintendo’s social network before allowing comments to be written and posted.
The most glaring issue, though, is the lack of a powerful search feature. The lists Nintendo provides are useful and nicely implemented, but the nonexistence of a text box to permit more detailed filtering by a stage’s name or its features, and an underlying level-tagging system to support that, is perplexing. Sharing levels with other users, and finding them, can only be done through sixteen-digit IDs – which would have been fine if other options existed as well, and it is a step back for a company that had moved on from that hideous mechanism.
All in all, despite its many small flaws, most of which can be easily fixed either through minor software updates or future installments, Super Mario Maker is mostly a delight. Creating levels is incredibly satisfying thanks to its flawless interface and controls, the flexibility of the building blocks, and the sheer simplicity of the gameplay it supports, which can be made rather intricate with a good amount of creativity. Similarly, going through the endless piles of user-created content is a scavenger hunt that yields impressive results and allows players to optimize and customize their experience by starring their favorite levels and following their favorite creators. It is Nintendo’s first step into a rather collaborative realm, and it is a beauty with a few rough edges waiting to be polished.