My first introduction to Nintendo came with the remake of Super Mario World on the Game Boy Advance. I don’t know why I loved it so much as a kid. Did I love it because I had an entire world of whimsy in my tiny hands? Did I love it because I finally had something to do on those long car trips? I don’t know. All I remember is that I didn’t just play it, I devoured it. I played it so much that not only have I completed the game 100%, but I maximized the score counter at 9,999,990 points. I literally gave it my 110%.
But I know why I love it now. I love it not just for its near-flawless gameplay and wonderful secret areas but because it introduced me to the world of Nintendo, and all of the subsequent adventures I would have both with and without Mario. It was the very first step I took in understanding how games can have such a profound effect on people; how they can evoke ideas and emotions not just through visuals and writing but through the player’s interactions, as well as how they can connect all kinds of people together. I owe all my love for games to Nintendo and their beloved plumber, and I would not be the passionate gamer that I am today without them.
But I haven’t always treasured Nintendo, or Mario for that matter. This year alone gave me several reasons to resent the company, from Amiibo shortages to YouTube copyright claims. Nintendo’s biggest issues seem to stem from their inflexibility in adapting to the climate of the industry and, more importantly, their inability to break away from their ways.
While I always loved Mario, for the longest time I didn’t bat an eye when new games came out. The last Mario game I got excited over was Super Mario Galaxy 2. After that I treated all of the subsequent games to come out, all of the derivative New Super Mario Bros. games and Mario Kart sequels and banal 3D Land games, with the same apathy one would get when someone releases the same “new” product over and over again. While his quality hasn’t gone down, Mario just wasn’t special to me anymore.
But that all changed when the new Super Mario game was announced last year. Finally, after all this time, Nintendo was making a Mario game that gave me an actual reason to care about it.
The funny thing is that Nintendo isn’t the only one who’s making this game. You know who else is? You.
Enter Super Mario Maker for the Wii U. The game allows players to create their very own Mario levels based on the styles of three of the most beloved and best-selling video games of all time, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, along with the not quite as profitable but almost as brilliant New Super Mario Bros. U. It’s a very nice gesture from Nintendo for Mario’s 30th anniversary, but the game’s premise is so genius that I’m surprised Nintendo didn’t create the game for Mario’s 25th anniversary. While the game overall isn’t perfect, it still provides an amazing creation system to satisfy the dreams of Nintendo fans everywhere.
Level creation is as simple as dragging your blocks, goombas, platforms, pipes, and other Mario level staples into a grid with the Gamepad’s stylus. Many pieces snap together like Lego™ bricks, allowing you to stack towers of goombas or place a coin into a bullet bill cannon to make it shoot coins. Shortcuts for an erase tool, a multi-selection tool and a copy tool speeds up the process. And at any point in the level, you can immediately jump into and test levels on the fly.
It’s a system that you play with as much as you build with it, and by tinkering around you can get some clever combinations. To turn a green koopa into a red one, you shake it. To make an enemy bigger, you give it a super mushroom. To create a sub-level, you drag Mario to a pipe. The creation process is deceitfully deep; what starts out as a simple matter of dragging blocks becomes an intricate puzzle as you spend hours or even days getting the right combination of parts to create your vision.
You can switch between the four game styles and background styles at any time, just in case you decide to move from building an SMB3 underground level to a SMW airship level. Switching the game styles not only changes the level aesthetically, but also changes the moveset of Mario. Nintendo confirmed that all of the styles share the physics of NSMBU to keep everything consistent between game styles, but the different movesets, such as how Mario can only do a spin jump in SMW and NSMBU, makes every style feel different. I honestly thought that each style had their own physics. You have to take into account both the strengths and weaknesses of the movesets in each style into account when designing levels, just like level designers of both the past and present.
Mario moves as tight and fluid as you imagine. However, picking up trampolines and switches can be a bit sticky. It’s frustrating to try to land on a trampoline floating in midair only to accidentally pick it up and plummet to my doom, or simply accidentally picking up a trampoline on the ground and having to position myself so that I can set it down. Other than that, it’s pretty much perfect.
Cute, little Easter eggs pop up every now and again to keep you entertained, from how the melody of the background editing music plays as you place objects to how flies occasionally appear and bring you to a fly-swatting minigame a la Mario Paint. They’re a very lovely touch that adds to the enjoyment.
Both the sheer amount of objects that you have access to and the huge amount of objects you can place in a single level is staggering. There are some things that weren’t included, such as the SMB3 suits and seesaws, but it would be greedy to ask for more in a game that already offers so much.
But if I were to include one thing, it would be a checkpoint system. Nothing’s worse than playing through a difficult level and doing so well only to slip up and go all the way back to the beginning.
There is so much you can do with this relatively simple setup. You can make levels that play themselves. You can create a level where you have to avoid mushrooms. You can make a shoot-em-up Mario level. Or you can make surprisingly creative remakes of famous video game stages such as Super Mario 64’s Big Boo Haunt and Frogger. The only limit is your imagination.
Well, it would be, but unfortunately there’s one other limitation. The game employs an arbitrary wait time where after playing the game for five minutes, the next set of objects and game styles is queued for the next day. You want to make a level in the style of SMW? Wait six days.
A day-one patch allows you to unlock all the objects and game styles in two and a half hours… somehow. It has something to do with placing a set amount of all of the items you just unlocked, but it doesn’t tell you exactly how much to place. Try looking it up on any website; nobody knows. I don’t think even Nintendo knows. In fact, I still got notifications for daily wait times even after downloading the patch. I can see why many would appreciate not being overwhelmed with objects early on, but it’s super frustrating to have a vision in your head but not have the parts to make the vision a reality.
Another thing I noticed when playtesting levels is that objects appear on the screen depending on the position of the camera. Things appear in the level as your character moves and the camera moves. So while a carefully coordinated set of platforms may appear correct when you immediately start playing from the edit menu, they may be out of sync if you begin playing at the beginning of the level. You have to remember to start your playtests from a distance away from the obstacles you actually want to test or place your obstacles above the player.
But despite the obnoxious wait times and a few shortcomings, the creation mode still remains one of the most enjoyable ones I have ever played. As assessable as it is deep, it will keep you entertained for a long time. Despite the existence of free Mario creation games on the internet, the amount of polish, depth and content make this game well worth the $60.
But that’s not all the game has to offer. Another mode allows you to both upload your levels online and play levels that other people have created. While this mode has its own perks, it also comes with its own flaws.
You can upload your levels after you beat them once. People can then rate your levels by giving them stars, the game’s equivalent to Twitter favorites or Facebook likes. The more stars you get, the more levels you can upload. It’s very empowering to have a level become well-received or to read a kind comment left by an especially happy guest.
It also teaches you that what you may find enjoyable in your level may not translate well to an actual audience. I made a level called “Sanic in Dank Meme Land”, filled with tons of Illuminati symbols, Mountain Dew logos and a painstakingly recreated pair of “deal with it” pixelated glasses. While I know that it’s cynical and contemptuous to expect people to eat up a level filled with dank memes, I still had a fun time creating what I thought was a genuinely good level. So I was pretty upset when barely anyone played it. I guess that’s what I get for being a “filthy memer”.
I also learned that while you can spend days creating an original level, a homage of a popular video game level can become way more popular. While most of my original levels received three to six stars, my recreation of the board in Pac-Man received over 30 stars. It almost gives me a bit of empathy for video game publishers who keep rereleasing games over and over again. Almost.
But while uploading levels is quick and easy, finding the levels you want is a bit annoying. There’s no way to find specific kinds of levels you’re in the mood for. If you want to play a remake of a SM64 level, you first have to root through all of the automatic and super hard “kaizo” levels first. It has filters like “most popular” and “just released”, but it needs more. A curation system that involves tags like in LittleBigPlanet would have worked wonders.
By far the biggest way to get your level popular is not just to make a good level, but to be either a prominent YouTuber or make a super flashy automatic level. Not to say that YouTubers and automatic level creators are bad, it’s just that a more democratic system of finding levels would make things a lot more fair.
The only way to reliably search for the levels you want is to either follow the creators you like or to exchange level codes on places like reddit. Level codes work for the most part, but it’s still tedious to input a 16 digit code. Doesn’t Nintendo realize that friend codes were outdated even back in 2006?
But if you don’t care about searching for specific levels and just want to play a random selection, then the 100 Mario Challenge is for you. The mode grants players 100 lives and sends them on a princess-rescuing adventure through 8 or 16 random, user-created levels. While it’s a great way to get virtually infinite amounts of Mario levels, most of them aren’t that good. I don’t expect everyone to be like Shigeru Miyamoto, but I would rather not have most of my levels made up just of stacks of enemies and blocks thrown about as if a category 5 tornado hit the Mushroom Kingdom. But it’s all right because at any time you can flick the screen to discard a level and move on to another one with little penalty. For consistently good levels at the cost of some frustration, then I recommend you stick to expert mode.
The online mode also employs a comment section, and it’s a total mess. There’s a comment section after you beat a level, but sometimes you’ll see comments flooding the screen as you play through a level, usually for more popular ones. I can see how user created comments during gameplay could work; Bloodborne used them wonderfully because it’s nonintrusive and you actually appreciate the extra hints. But here, it’s everywhere and it genuinely impairs your ability to play. Thankfully, you can turn them off via the pause screen, but it’s still an awful idea to begin with. Imagine going to see the Mona Lisa and “Gaystation 4” and “go visit my Minecraft channel” and “dicks” and other such musing are all crudely drawn on it with black crayon.
If you tap an Amiibo figure to the Wii U Gamepad, you can get a pixelated version of the Amiibo character for use in the SMB game style as a costume for Mario. Not only does donning an Amiibo disguise give you an extra hit, but it also changes the sound effects and allows you to strike poses. However, none of the powers of each character transfer. So if you were hoping to inhale blocks and enemies as Kirby or spindash as Sonic the Hedgehog, you’ll be very disappointed. I know incorporating these abilities would add a lot of unnecessary work, but I still think Nintendo missed a huge opportunity.
Super Mario Maker is a game that lives and dies by the little things. All of the little details in the creations system make it compelling and deep while still being accessible. But its problems, while small, all add up and hold the game back.
You can’t truly appreciate something without considering its flaws, and this game is the epitome of what Nintendo does and does not do well. It gives a fresh, new take on the tried and true gameplay of Mario and makes it compelling even after all these years. But Nintendo’s failure to leave its comfort zone once again is very apparent, especially when it comes to the online features.
Never the less, as a person who has spent the better half of elementary school drawing his own platforming levels on sheets of paper, I can’t think of a better game. It’s the perfect way to celebrate Mario’s 30th anniversary. It’s fun, it’s liberating, it’s addicting, and it’s reminded me why I love both Nintendo and Mario so much in the first place.