In the early 1980s, Nintendo designed the first Super Mario levels by hand with graph paper. Decades later, Nintendo released Super Mario Maker on the Wii U. With the use of the touchscreen on the Wii U Gamepad, players of all sorts can whip together a functional level within a matter of minutes. Is this the tool that puts Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto out of business?
It should go without saying that this isn’t your traditional Super Mario package. You’re not going to get a traditional campaign with warp zones or anything like that. However, you’ll still get a series of Nintendo-made levels that have been cobbled together as part of the 10 Mario Challenge. Starting with 10 lives, your goal is to beat all eight levels before you run out of lives. While it is certainly entertaining, as Nintendo clearly knows how to make quality levels, this mode’s primary purpose is to inspire your own creations by showing you what’s possible.
The heart of the Super Mario Maker experience lies in the Course Maker. Leaning heavily on the of the touch screen, you’ll drag, place and stretch elements onto the screen to create your masterpiece. I prefer to start from scratch, though you can modify one of Nintendo’s courses or something that someone else has made that you’ve downloaded from Course World. Keep in mind though that the game will not allow you to upload levels that were originally created by someone else.
I found the tools to be extremely intuitive. Within seconds, laying down blocks, erasing enemies and flipping between build and play modes was second nature. Being able to switch between motifs on the fly is neat, as the game dynamically substitutes all of your level’s assets to match with virtually zero down-time. As far as enemies go, they all behave as you would expect them to, so all you really need to do is drop them in and the computer will handle the rest. One thing I wish they made a bit more clear are the game’s copy and multi-select options, which are done with the bumpers and triggers on the Gamepad. Didn’t figure that out till a few days in by accident.
Some of the options available to you aren’t necessarily intuitive from a menu standpoint, but they make perfect sense within the context of Super Mario. For instance, it’s awesome that dragging a mushroom on an enemy will turn it into a big enemy. Or, by adding wings to a mushroom, the mushroom will fly across the screen. The new possibilities that are made possible by the Course Maker are dizzying.
Regardless of how good the level creator tools were, I never expected to use them much. I’m just not the type of person that has any interest in creating levels. That said, most of my time with the game has been spent making stages and having a blast doing it. The tools are so intuitive, inviting and fun to use that its easy to get lost in the building process.
At some point, you’re going to bump into its limitations. One common Super Mario trope is that if you hit a power-up block and you already have a mushroom, you’ll get a better power-up instead. Here, power-ups are fixed, probably because serving up specific power-ups could break someone’s level. Some iconic pieces and enemies aren’t in the game at all, such as the charging football players from Super Mario World or hills you can slide down in Super Mario 3. For my first design, I wanted to create a level where you dropped from the sky. This isn’t possible, as Mario must always start on the starting platform with the arrow on it. As you build, you may find a few other quirks that just aren’t possible within this game.
If your dreams go beyond creating a cohesive Super Mario game, that isn’t really feasible here, either. You can’t really bundle levels together as worlds, nor can you make any sort of warp pipes to skip worlds. Everything here is all about the single-level experience. This tool won’t let you fully recreate any of the classic games in perfect detail, but the new possibilities that it makes available to you more than make up for it.
Another aspect of the game that will temporarily stifle your progress is the method in which Nintendo doles out level elements. As a means of easing players into level designing, most of the pieces aren’t available to you when you first launch the game. Instead, pieces are delivered in chunks over the course of nine days. On one hand, I totally get the idea of not overwhelming players at the start. However, those who want everything right away are getting punished. You can simply noodle with your system clock to get all the pieces immediately, though I appreciated working with a few new pieces each day to get accustomed to how everything works.
When you’re done building out your masterpiece, you can save it locally or upload it to Course World, the section of the game dedicated to showcasing the levels of others. Sharing your level is quickly done through the editor, though you will have to beat your level once for Course World to take it. Once its done, you’ll get a 16-digit code that can be used to share your level with the outside world.
One aspect of the Course World experience I love is the amount of feedback you get on your work. When viewing your levels in the menus, you’ll see hot spots for where people die, completion rates, stars that players have awarded you with, as well as comments. You even get notifications every time someone someone engages with your level, making you feel like someone out there is playing your stuff.
Having said that, you’ll quickly see that your content is getting buried relative to the stuff you’ll find in the popular sections. The algorithms are such that those at the top are likely going to stay there for quite some time, leaving the rest of us hoping for a day that we can get some of the crumbs in the featured or rising star sections. Besides having your level appear randomly as part of the 100-Mario Challenge, it’s hard to get noticed within the confines of Course World.
One other thing I wanted to mention about the experience that is worth covering here. If you have Amiibos, many of them will come in handy here. By scanning them in, you’ll unlock that character as a costume for Mario in the Super Mario Bros. template. Besides being able to run through stages as the Wii Fit trainer, characters have their own taunt animation when you press up, character-specific sound effects, and a little jingle when they beat the stage. Some characters have more dramatic changes, such as Sonic, who actually jumps and runs like his normal self. It’s an awesome touch and one that Amiibo fans will get a real kick out of.
Super Mario Maker is not quite the be-all-end-all Super Mario game, but it’s close. With a seemingly endless stream of stages to play (at varying levels of quality, admittedly), plus the ability to make the course of your dreams with very few strings attached, this is a title with the potential to entertain forever. Even if you have little interest in making levels, there’s more than enough levels to try and the level creator tools will probably win you over anyway.