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For decades now, gamers have dreamt of crafting their very own original Super Mario Bros. stages, and, for just as long, Nintendo has jealously kept the tools needed to do that safely locked away in another castle. Of course, some particularly dedicated and/or technically adept creative types have torn apart ROMs or built their own faux Mario games from the ground up in order to realize their vision of the Mushroom Kingdom, but, for most Mario fans, making their own levels has always been just out of reach. Until now.
In honor of the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo is finally giving up the keys to the kingdom with Super Mario Maker. A Mario level editor is a can’t-fail, “How have they not done this yet?” kind of project, but does Super Mario Maker live up to its super-sized promise? Is Nintendo really sharing all their toys, or are they still keeping the coolest stuff for themselves? Is this maker a faker? Let’s find out.
Super Mario Maker (Wii U)
Super Mario Maker is basically just a level editor with an online sharing component attached, so there’s even less storyline per Mario than usual. Nintendo does include 60-some pre-made sample stages, but they don’t really frame them in any particular way. Mario Maker is about creativity, not context, dammit.
Visually, Mario Maker does nothing to push the Wii U technically, but it’s certainly not a bad-looking game. In fact, one of the appeals of the game is how crisp, clean and razor-sharp Nintendo has managed to make classic NES and SNES Mario graphics look on modern HD TVs. There’s also a slick charm to the game’s menus and interface. Mario Maker has a certain low-level visual cool going for it.
The slightly insane beauty of Super Mario Maker.
Ultimately, though, it’s the game’s audio that really stands out. Of course, Mario Maker contains all the Mario themes you’d expect, but Nintendo has created interesting, strange and sometimes slightly creepy remixes of these classic tunes for when you’re editing your level. A strange robotic voice will “sing” the name of whatever object you’re putting down, and putting down a bunch of blocks/coins/whatever at once will create a little song. The game is packed with these kind of audio cues, and they really help liven up what could have been a slightly dry experience.
Super Mario Maker is a straightforward level editor. You place objects, elements and enemies, test your level out and then share it online. Not particularly cutting edge. That said, Nintendo does include a few unique touches. Shaking most objects on-screen with your stylus will cause them to change forms, and a lot of objects can be combined in ways you might not expect. Want to put a cannon that shoots fire-chucking hammer brothers on top of a bouncy spring? Go for it. Want to unleash a squad of giant, flying Bowsers? Why are you asking me? Go do it! So, there is plenty of fresh ideas to be found in the fine details, even if the overall picture isn’t exactly groundbreaking.
The Wii U was pretty much made for a game like this. The GamePad alleviates most of the usual level editor frustrations, as it allows you to place objects with a simple touch of the controller’s screen. For the most part, Nintendo has done a good job of making object interaction as intuitive as possible. Want to make a pipe taller? Simply tap the pipe and pull it to whatever size you want. Want to place something inside something else? Just drag that object onto the other object.
Not everything will be grasped immediately, though, and, unfortunately, Mario Maker doesn’t do a great job of explaining itself during its less easy-to-grasp moments. Figuring out how exactly warp pipes work was a bit of a trial, and I’m still not exactly sure what logic governs the movement of floating platforms. Mario Maker has a charming, well-designed digital manual (I have a bit of a crush on its mascot, Mary O), but this game is crying out for a full tutorial or FAQ. Instead, once you get past the basics, you’re pretty much left to fend for yourself. That said, sometimes the freedom and lack of hand-holding is appreciated.
The best new video game character of 2015, right here. The pigeon is the second-best.
Super Mario Maker also has some odd omissions. You can pack your stage with flying clown cars filled with giant Chain Chomps, but you can’t make a smooth slope. The game also lacks mid-level checkpoints, which have been a standard Mario Bros. feature for three decades. Most vexing to me personally, the power-ups don’t work the way they’re supposed to. In an normal Mario game, you have to collect a Super Mushroom before you can grab another power up, but in Mario Maker, if you put, say, a Fire Flower in a box, a Fire Flower will always come out of that box, even if the player is still itty-bitty regular Mario. As far as I know, the proper Mario power-up progression simply isn’t a part of the game for some reason. Given Mario Maker‘s usual attention to detail, these obvious omissions are kind of baffling.
Another oddity is Super Mario Maker‘s rather miserly unlocking process. That’s right, Nintendo doesn’t let you play with all your toys right away. The game only gives you the most basic Mario building blocks to start, and gradually portions out new elements each day you play Mario Maker for at least five minutes. In the end, it takes nine days for all of Mario Maker‘s tools to be unlocked, which is more drawn out than it needs to be. I understand Nintendo wants to ease players in and force them to master the basics before moving onto the advanced stuff, but the fact that there’s no way to speed up the process or earn unlocks by demonstrating your Mario making skillz is frustrating. I didn’t find the unlocking process as troubling as some, but the whole thing does feel a little weird and paternalistic.
Don’t expect to be playing with all of this right off the bat.
The Super Mario Maker online component is solid, but, as is usually the case with Nintendo games, it’s a bit limited. Courses upload and download speedily and play without a hitch, but Nintendo doesn’t give you enough tools to search out the kind of stages you want. Aside from a list of the top-50 most popular creators, Nintendo gives you no option for searching for specific users. Trying to find specific courses is similarly obtuse. Players can give creations they liked a star, and there’s a list of the most-starred courses, but, generally, the most punishingly challenging and/or gimmicky stages tend to be the most popular. Those kind of courses may be for some people, but they’re not really my cup of tea. Finding a straightforward, not-too-maddening, well-designed Mario Maker stage can be difficult, and, mind you, I was playing on a server with maybe a couple hundred other reviewers and press people. I can only image how hard it will be to cut through the chaff once millions of gamers are pumping out stages all at once.
I don’t want to nitpick Super Mario Maker to death, though. The fact is, 95 percent of the time, the game is a hassle-free experience, and there’s something hugely satisfying about creating a stage that really works. And it is very much possible to make stages that feel like they were ripped from an actual Super Mario game. Even more satisfying is watching somebody else play through your masterpieces, although I fear most of my twisted creations are a bit too tough for my Goomba-phobic wife. Speaking of which, it would have been great if Nintendo had included the ability to watch other players take on your course online. Hopefully Nintendo continues to add features to Mario Maker via patches and DLC in the future.
Hypothetically, Super Mario Maker should have near-unlimited staying power. An infinite number of Super Mario stages at your fingertips! The reality is, playing through piles of mostly crummy user-created Mario courses without any context gets old fairly fast. The longevity of Mario Maker is going to depend on Nintendo properly curating the mass of Mario stages that will soon be coming their way. If they make fun, unique courses easy to find, then this game will have some serious legs. If, on the other hand, 90 percent of the courses you get are barely playable nonsense, the experience is going wear out its welcome, but quick. Similarly, if players start to feel that making a good course won’t result in any real recognition or reward, they’re going to stop bothering. So, the jury is still out on the staying power front, but the potential is certainly there.
If you don’t like dying horribly, Super Mario Maker may drive you away quickly.
This is an Nintendo game, so of course performance and stability were not an issue. As with all new Nintendo games, Super Mario Maker supports Amiibo. Actually, it supports every Amiibo. Tapping an Amiibo to the GamePad will add an 8-bit costume of that character to the game, which is a cute touch. Run through Super Mario stages with everybody from Princess Peach to the Wii Fit Trainer and Sonic the Hedgehog! Thankfully, all these costumes can be unlocked in-game without the use of Amiibo. The figurines just speed up the process.
Super Mario Maker isn’t a perfect product, but a Super Mario Bros.-level editor is a very hard idea to screw up, and, thankfully, despite a few jitters and missteps, Nintendo doesn’t drop the ball. The Wii U and its GamePad work perfectly for this kind of game, and creating your own little Mushroom Kingdom worlds can be a truly engrossing and gratifying experience.
Super Mario Maker holds back at times, and doesn’t always explain itself well, but it’s a game worth getting to know. If you ever carefully mapped out your own Mario stages on graph paper as a kid, this game is essential. If you’re more of a fair-weather fan, Mario Maker is still a worthy purchase, as it’s perfect for people who just want the occasional quick hit of Mario fun. Basically, if you own a Wii U, this is a must-have app. Nintendo has given us question block full of unlimited 1-Ups, and I recommend you hit it up.
Verdict: Clear Your Calendar
This review was based on a digital copy of Super Mario Maker provided by Nintendo.