If you somehow managed to hunt down my notebooks from the early years of elementary school you would have found many things scrolled in their margins. Among the scribbles sat elaborate and meticulously designed “levels”. A series of ridiculous side-scrolling obstacle courses that some imaginary hero would have to clear for reasons not clear to myself. We all did this, we didn’t think it would go anywhere, but it was fun to share our ridiculous creations with one another. A few decades later Nintendo decided that our notebook shenanigans were not acceptable and gave us Super Mario Maker, a level editor that is equal parts nostalgia trip, creative toolbox, and an instrument of pain for more sadistic creators.
Super Mario Marker is first and foremost a level creator and editor. These pieces of software live or die based on two opposing but important things: simplicity and flexibility. To be more specific, the more flexible a level creator is, the more more complex it becomes. Balancing this trade off between complexity and simplicity is vital, but it is absolutely not a straight line affair. It is very easy to make a creator that is both complex and restrictive as the ones found in Neverwinter Nights and Shadowrun Returns have proven in the past. It is a little unfair to compare it to those level creators. After all Mario games are (for the most part) platformers, and not expected to need something with the same level of complexity. Nevertheless, I was still impressed with how easy it is to create a level in the game.
The maker is presented as a scrolling environment of your choice with grids the size of a question mark block. Building levels is just a matter of dragging and dropping assets into the screen. They game has very generous limits for the number of assets, so you will be able to create that bullet hell Mario stage that you’ve been dreaming of. You are able to change between style of stages on the fly, including the usual over-world, airship, underground, castle, ghost house, etc… as well as connecting two different style of stages via doors or warp pipes, essentially doubling the amount of assets that you can use. You can also change between four “games” on the fly: Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros (No Doki Doki Panic for you, sorry). These are largely the same but they will have sublte differences. For example Mario 3 will have the famous leaf so Mario can turn into a raccoon, while World will have the feather that gives Mario his cape. Some of the moves Mario and his enemies have will change depending in the game as well. Mario Bros itself gets one of the most intresting items in the game, a question mark mushroom that will change Mario’s skin not only to characters from the Mario games, but an impressive collection from the history of Nintendo, from Splatoon, to a mushroom that makes Mario creepily realistic.
You can do a lot with the game. You can determine how fast the stage scrolls, if at all. You can put a timer on the stage, and add your own sound effects for atmosphere. You can also get creative with the assets. You can add wings you just about any enemy and even many of the inanimate assets, or make most of them gigantic using a mushroom. Many assets also have extra modes that can be unlocked by shaking them before placement. On top of this you can combine assets for unexpected effects. Do you want to put a gigantic Bowser with a cannon that fires homing bulllet bills? You can do that! While the game does allow for creativity and flexibility when creating levels, the greedier part of me was sad to see some omissions. There are no mini thwomps, for example, and different color of Yoshi and koopas (which had different effects when eaten by Yoshi) are nowhere to be found. In general all of the Mario worlds have been somewhat standardized in the name of simplicity.
It is worth mentioning that the game does not throw all of this at you at once. You will unlock the assets a little at a time. It usually takes a few days to unlock everything but you can get it done faster if you spend a reasonable amount of time building. The first group of assets are basic, and you aren’t able to do things like use sub levels, add effects, or manipulate the scrolling and timer, but that complexity obviously grows. I have mixed feelings about this. It seems to be designed so that they player has to get some use of the new assets and understand what they do before they unlock more. This theory is supported by the short tutorial levels Nintendo provides when you open up new assets. However, Super Mario Maker is intuitive enough that it does not need it, even if its intended audience is children, my kids did not seem to have any issue picking it up.
So now you made you your bullet hell torture chamber, what else can you do with the game? Well, obviously the main attraction is to be able to upload your levels online and have other’s play it. I hope you made your level possible, because you have to beat it before you can upload it for others to enjoy. You can upload ten at first, but if others like your levels and star them, you will be able to upload more. You can also go to the Course World and play the levels of others. These levels vary rather drastically in quality as you might expect.
If you feel brave you can take the 100 Mario Challenge, in which you are given 100 lives to clear a certain number of levels made by other players. In easy its 8 and they are usually pretty easy to clear. Normal has 16 stages, which are usually fairly easy to clear. Expert on the other hand has sixteen stages that are clearly drawn from those that have a low clear rate. It is supposed to be a challenge and in a way it is. Unfortunately, the challenge comes mostly from levels that are designed in such a way as to be frustrating. Make no mistake, there is the occasional gem that is well crafted and challenging that can be very satisfying to beat, but they are the exception, not the rule. As a reward for braving the levels made by other users, you get skins to use in your question mark mushroom, making it an added incentive to play the levels of others. If you get bored of playing levels made from other players there is also the 10 Mario Challenge, where you must beat 8 levels made by Nintendo staff, which are, of course, better designed in general. The 10 Mario Challenge does not provide skins for you, however.
The longevity of a game like Mario Maker will be dependent on how long Nintendo can keep its players engaged and creating levels. These things are hard to predict. At this time, the game seems to be everyone’s favorite on the Wii U, and it is strangely compelling to play. If you have children that like to build things, this game will be their new favorite thing. Particularly young children who may not be ready for more complicated things like Minecraft. Anyone that is a fan of Mario owes it to themselves to pick this up. It is great game with great replay ability and one that stimulates your creativity. But if that doesn’t make it to you, it will at least give you an appreciation of how well designed all the other Mario games are!