Super Mario Maker’s appearance was the coup de grâce of the Nintendo World Championships at E3. From what we knew beforehand, it was already an intriguing proposition, but as John Numbers and Cosmo Wright went head to head in the final, the vast possibilities that will be afforded to players truly came into view.
This isn’t merely letting you create Super Mario levels of your own, retreading the steps of Nintendo’s developers, but rather a tool that lets you twist and contort that game in ways that were previously unimaginable. Yes, you can create a rather straightforward platformer level, but why would you do so when you can just as easily toy with people’s expectation?
Take the humble question mark box, which will ordinarily contain a coin or a simple power up item for Mario. Super Mario Maker lets you put practically whatever you like in there, from creating a ring of giant Boos as soon as you headbutt it, to a mushroom that doesn’t make you bigger, but turns you into Princess Peach instead. As a player, you will never be quite sure whether to trust what that question mark box will hold.
But while Super Mario Maker clearly has great potential, sampling some of the levels created during the Nintendo Treehouse sessions at E3 shows that it will take skill and imagination to make something both fun and accessible. I soon found myself stuck in a level that required you to explore by way of trial and error to find the only possible route through which, while fantastic viewing for the World Championships finals when in the hands of talented gamers, will likely lead to frustration when played at home.
It is, admittedly, a problem that is endemic of the ‘Play, Create, Share’ genre. The LittleBigPlanet series has spawned some truly incredible community creations, taking its powerful logic tools to the absolute limits, but equally so many of the millions of levels created are barely playable, simply aren’t fun or lack the quality to be appealing. Super Mario Maker’s use of the Wii U Gamepad solves a lot of those problems, simply by virtue of the stylus input.
In the level creation mode, it really is as simple as selecting a particular tile and effectively painting into the grid on screen, with your level fitting into one of four classic themes – Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. U. Though there’s a lot in common across them all, and some enemies and elements have been transposed from one to another, there are still moves and power ups that can only exist in particular themes.
Placing items and enemies is similarly intuitive, but the possibilities spiral out of control when you start to combine things together. Drag a coin into a cannon and it will start to shoot coins, drag a mushroom onto an enemy and, as you might imagine, it will become super sized, or simply stick enemies together to create unholy, hammer-throwing monstrosities. You can even create a Warp Pipe to a sub-level by dragging the little Mario character on screen into a pipe, opening the door to some incredibly complex level structures.
Having the grid on screen certainly helps you to place items and get a general level layout, but it’s only really through testing this that you can see if your idea is actually going to work. Do you have enough of a run up to be able to clear that gap? Is there such a thing as too many winged Koopa Troopers? A quick press of a button on-screen and you can find out, as the game seamlessly switches into play mode and back, with your trial run recorded and shown as a trail of faint Marios.
The problem of creating a level to be played in a very specific way though will regularly rear its head, with Miiverse functionality used to leave notes for players, such as to simply stand still and let the level play out for you, or that you need to run flat out into some springs for them to work.
Throughout, there are cute little touches and call backs that can elicit a smile from a long term Nintendo fan. For example, the Undodog and deletion rocket make a comeback, having originally appeared in Mario Paint, while grabbing the eraser tool – also stylised after Mario Paint – and dragging it closer and closer to Mario, the little dungaree-clad plumber visibly starts to sweat and tremble at the prospect of this omnipotent being deleting him. It is a little bizarre to look up from the Gamepad and see a photo realistic hand holding a stylus and reacting to your inputs shown on the TV, though.
It’s fairly safe to say that Super Mario Maker is going to be unlike any other Mario game. Rather than the measured and meticulous design that is such a hallmark of Nintendo’s work, putting the tools of creation in the hands of their fans will see all manner of unexpected concoctions. This won’t be the definitive Super Mario game, this is the start of a whole new adventure into the unknown.