When I was in grade school, I spent a large amount of time during our recess period drawing, due mostly to the winter weather keeping me from bounding out the door to the playground. While I’m not any sort of art savant, I was pretty good at drawing things young boys draw. Space ships. Dinosaurs. Sonic the Hedgehog levels.
Yeah, I was a SEGA kid for the most part, and my love for Sonic has never wavered. I wasted plenty of paper learning to draw the characters and stages from the franchise. I always wanted to play my levels in the games, but that was not possible in the 90s unless you had some considerable programming talent. Still, I enjoyed the creative side of that hobby for a while, and it was not long before I grabbed some graphing paper and tried to do the same for the Mario franchise, another franchise I grew up loving every second of.
Well, its been a couple of decades since I was making video game levels in my classroom. Now? I’m doing it at home with Nintendo’s “Super Mario Maker” when I probably should be doing a number of more grown-up things. The game’s concept is deceptively simple: here’s a bunch of square pieces that fit on a grid. Make the Mario level of your dreams! What’s amazing about the implementation that Nintendo has come up with is that the game transcends the vast majority of the Mario franchise, allowing players young and old to not only experience the franchise’s long history, but create new experiences in all of them.
The game starts off allowing you to work in Mario’s 8-Bit roots and modern-day “New Super Mario” pallets, complete with brick, question, and unbreakable blocks. You get the basic power ups and some pipe pieces to decorate your creations, and a sampling of enemies to populate your levels. While you can’t switch between game styles mid-level (I’d love for this to be a future update), you do get some distinct differences when playing. For example, modern Mario can wall jump, while other versions of Mario can take advantage of game specific power-ups like the Tanooki suit.
As you accumulate more game time in the designer mode, you’ll unlock a large set of additional pieces, baddies, and settings to use in your creations, as well as two additional game engines to run them in with Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. Thankfully the time needed to unlock everything was drastically reduced to a few hours thanks to a launch patch from Nintendo. Originally you’d have to way 9 whole days to get everything, provided you put time in each day. The additional pallets are a plus, with plenty of new things such as Boss characters, Star Powerups, moving platforms, music blocks, sound/visual effects, and more. Additionally, you are given the ability to make levels auto-scroll, change the countdown timer, and even make sub-levels you can access via warp pipes. The game does a fantastic job easing you into the more complicated aspects of level design by withholding some from you at first.
Once you’ve made a few levels of your own, you can take them to the internet and start interacting with the growing community of other creators and players. After proving you can actually complete your level, you can upload it and wait for the accolades to come in. Players can star levels they enjoy, which in turn raises the rating of whoever created the level. Nintendo even allows users to comment on levels to tell the maker what they think. Finally, you can favorite creators and be notified when they make new stages to try.
If you are more into playing than creating, Nintendo has given users the ability to take the 100-Mario challenge, which tasks you with completing a set of player-created levels randomly chosen from the ether, giving you only 100 lives to do it with. This is quite challenging, and can be a great way to see what others are creating and maybe steal a few ideas for levels of your own.
Right now the player-created levels are a bit of a mixed bag. It’s only been out for a few days, so the current crop of highlighted stages are either really simple, mind-numbingly hard, or auto-complete levels where the player does not need to do anything to win. There’s no scale of challenge or variety, and most players seem hellbent on just making levels as hard to complete as possible. I’ve played a bunch that are cited as having 0% of players complete them.
Unfortunately, users cannot string together levels in a traditional Mario style, so there’s no obligation to actually complete any stage at all. Curiously, there is also no ability to place a half-way checkpoint in a level, meaning players who actually make it through a gauntlet of fireballs and piranha plants will have to start over if they die before the goal. Also, aside from the limited number of levels and creators highlighted due to high ratings, there is little else to aid players in discovering some of the others that may have gotten buried, and without any sort of tagging or classifying system, they will probably stay buried. As usual, Nintendo really lets me down with their online feature-set. It is basic, almost to a fault. You can, however, type in a shared “level id” into a search field if someone sends one to you directly. It’s a bit cumbersome, but I suppose it works. Keep an eye out on LevelSave.com for the IDs of levels we decide to highlight in the future!
And this is where the biggest issue I have with this game lies: playing other people’s levels. Creating levels is fun, but I’m not seeing any tangible incentive to play anyone else’s aside from satisfying my own curiosity. There’s no rewards to unlock, no unlockable items for creative mode, and no ability to progress through levels in any satisfying way. I would really love to see Nintendo make some additions to the game that expand the playing half of the title. The easiest fix would be to allow creators to make sets of their own levels into miniature campaigns to play through. If a player finishes one, it would be nice to unlock some sort of badge or other market to showcase the accomplishment.
But don’t let this odd lack of depth deter you: this is still an incredible game in one package. The ability to play levels that would otherwise have to be hacked into games to play is outright astounding, and I’m a bit shocked that we haven’t seen similar games made for other properties. Where is Metriod Maker? MegaMan Maker? Castlevania Maker? Zelda Maker?
…. Sonic the Hedgehog Maker?
There are a ton of popular franchises out there that could also capitalize on a concept that Nintendo just did: user creation. The user just became the best level designer Nintendo could have ever hoped for, ensuring the legacy of Mario titles will carry on for a long time after Nintendo decides to make something newer or different. Much like other creatively driven games, like Minecraft – or more similarly, Terraria – Super Mario Maker has near-infinite replay-ability. There’s no end to the levels that could be generated by everyone playing the game, and I think Nintendo may have inadvertently created a roadblock for their own Mario series going forward. I’ve already seen a bunch of level recreations from past games, and I can’t see Nintendo releasing a new side-scrolling Mario game that couldn’t just be accomplished in Super Mario Maker. I fully believe Nintendo will drop “official” Mario levels into the game either via DLC or some other delivery means in the near future, but without drastically changing the 2D Mario formula, I’m not sure they could get away with releasing a whole new game anymore. It’s an interesting thought.
The game is also ripe for new content for creators. I’d love to see some other past Mario games get their own engine inserted into the creation mode, such as Super Mario Bros. 2 or perhaps the engine from my favorite Mario game of all time, Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. The mechanics of those games are a bit different from other Mario games, but that didn’t stop four distinctly different games from being used already.
Overall, this is the first game on the Wii U that, to me anyway, screams “must play.” Anyone who has ever picked up a Mario game will not only fine enjoyment from this game, but may learn even more about why they loved the franchise in the first place. They may even gain a little insight into what goes into level design. This is a system seller. A prime example of what the Wii U can do, despite its lagging state in the industry, and why none of us should give up on it just yet.
And hopefully, this game spawns a bunch of copies. I would play a lot of Toejam and Earl Maker, or Aladdin Maker, or Metal Slug Maker.