Given the prestige of some of its top properties, Nintendo has a difficult conundrum on its hands whenever an anniversary rolls around. Just how do you celebrate thirty years of a character and series as medium-defining as Mario and do the franchise justice? In the case of gaming’s most famous plumber, Nintendo EAD has found an obvious, brilliant answer in Super Mario Maker.
Mario Maker is precisely what you’d expect from the title, a game that allows you to create your own levels to challenge Mario. Levels can then be shared online with other players, allowing friends and strangers alike to try out and rate your creation. Apparently built from tools Nintendo initially constructed to assist their own in-house level designers it offers players most of (but sadly not all) the core elements from Mario’s major 2D outings.
For those old enough to remember the NES era tile-sets and equipment from Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 are available, for instance, while the SNES is represented by Super Mario World, a game I’d argue is the best in the series. The final tile set is for more recent fans, featuring the full 3D visuals but still 2D gameplay of New Super Mario Bros. It’s a solid set of items, and makes for a fairly broad set of equipment to build levels with.
In a lovely touch, controls and mechanics differ slightly from game to game. If you select the ‘New’ tile set, for instance, Mario will have access to wall jumps and the like, and the recently added propeller-hat power up. Drop back to World and the wall jump is gone entirely, with the propeller hat replaced by the cape. Go back another game and there’s no Yoshi, with the cape now replaced by the raccoon tail and so on. Even the HUD adjusts, with things like Mario 3’s ‘P Meter’ appearing when you’re in that game.
As well as multiple games, there’s a suite of different level types, too – the Overworld, the Underground, an Airship, a Ghost House, Underwater, and a Castle. It ticks all the boxes for the Mario tropes you’d expect, and with the ability to have two ‘screens’ per level (transferred between, of course, via Pipe) you can actually have a level that features more than one of these backgrounds.
In a lovely and slightly strange touch, these tile sets are not game exclusive, meaning Nintendo has gone back and lovingly created era-appropriate artwork. If you’ve ever wondered what a Ghost House would look like in the original SMB or what an Airship would look like in SMW, Mario Maker finally allows that – and even features new music.
In terms of the breadth of content on offer, Mario Maker largely nails it but has some strange, glaring omissions presumably based on the large scope of the game. SMW, for instance, features little triangular blocks that, when ran on, allow Mario to run up vertical surfaces – these are absent from Mario Maker.
Similarly, you’re limited to a couple of ‘special’ transformations per game – the Super and Fire Flower power-ups are available across them all, with SMB3 adding Kuribo’s Shoe and the Raccoon Tail, SMW replacing those with Yoshi and the Cape, and so on. This means some additional transformations, like the frog suit, are sadly absent. The same is true of enemies, with many game-exclusive enemies such as SMW’s baseball-tossing sports-themed enemies missing and the only real ‘boss’ options Bowser and Bowser Jr.
I have to admit some of these absences disappoint me, and are one of the few spots of Mario Maker that don’t leave me utterly enamoured – but what there is happens to be broad and bold enough that it’s easy to look past the omissions while quietly hoping for DLC or a sequel to expand that out.
By being focused on creation, Mario Maker also becomes one of the smartest uses of the Wii U Game Pad in Nintendo’s library. Level Creation is all handled on the gamepad, with the touchscreen and stylus ideal for selecting items and dropping them on to the level. It’s hard to explain in detail, really – it’s incredibly simplistic and just works.
It’s all very Nintendo and intuitive. Want a cannon? Drop it in. Want that cannon to shoot out Goombas? Take a Goomba, drag him to the cannon, and the cannon will then shoot those instead. This can lead to glorious silliness like cannons or pipes spewing out coins, 1ups, or oversized enemies.
In another example of how brilliantly intuitive the tools are, making one of those oversized enemies requires you to drop the normal enemy into your level and then feed it a Mushroom. Of course it does. The game is steeped in Mario logic, and it all just works.
Aside from using the language players have learned from playing Mario to make the tools easy to use, there’s some brilliant touches besides. A one-touch button allows you to test out your creation, and doing so then hopping back to the editor will show a ‘ghost’ Mario, allowing you to see your movements.
If you need to know how far Mario can jump, for instance, it’s easy to hop into the editor, make the jump, then hop back to see the ghost trail. It’s smart. Options to adjust the timer or add an auto-scroll are also available for adding difficulty.
The game ships with a selection of Nintendo-curated demo levels that are surfaced to the player in the ’10 Mario Challenge’ mode, which asks you to complete 8 levels with 10 lives. The Nintendo-built levels are largely simple affairs that serve to show some of the crazy almost-game-breaking stuff you can do like stacking up enemies in a giant tower, and don’t really offer much challenge – more than anything, they’re a primer to get you used to the tools and give you ideas.
The meat of the game if you just want to play levels is in ‘Course World’ and the ‘100 Mario Challenge’ – the former being a simple browser that lets you find courses others have made, the latter a challenge which challenges you to tackle either 8 or 16 levels from the online community with 100 lives. This sounds easy, but many of the creations are absolutely devilish – and all beatable, as players must complete their own creations in a natural run before being allowed to upload them.
Course World and the 100 Mario Challenge are great modes, and there’s already some brilliant stuff out there. Course World itself is a bit lacking, making it hard to browse and simply find one level, lacking filtering options and the like.
The challenge mode is great, but of course is completely random. I’ve had the most luck finding great new levels by inputting level ID codes I’ve found online – but this is an area where Mario Maker could see a little improvement.
If the Super Mario Bros. series has meant anything to you at any stage of your life, Super Mario Maker is essentially a must-have. It’s a brilliant set of tools for making and sharing levels, but most importantly behind it all sits the gameplay systems and mechanics of some of the best platform games of all time. The game could use a little improvement here and there – in Course World browsing, in the tools available – but what is on offer is a great value package.
Super Mario Maker is available now for Wii U. The publisher provided a copy of this title for review.