Su­per Mario Maker

Wii U


We al­ways sus­pected our col­leagues were hor­rid. Su­per Mario Maker’s re­view build ran on its own server net­work, one that will have been switched off by the re­tail ver­sion’s launch, tak­ing all its player-cre­ated lev­els with it. At first we thought this was to pre­serve the pu­rity of the con­tro­ver­sial item-un­lock sys­tem, en­sur­ing day-one buy­ers would not log on to find stages made with tools they weren’t go­ing to get their hands on for days. Now we’ve spent weeks play­ing the mean-spir­ited cre­ations of the videogame press, we sus­pect Nintendo sim­ply saw it com­ing. It knew that peo­ple who write about games for a liv­ing bear the mark of some hor­ren­dous evil, and moved to quar­an­tine their de­vi­ous cre­ations to pro­tect play­ers at large from the hor­ror of it all. Yet the chances are the re­tail servers will soon be a bit like this, too.

You see, mak­ing a hard Mario level is easy. You just stick en­e­mies and haz­ards ev­ery­where, hide threats out of sight un­til it’s too late to re­act to them, and throw in the odd leap of faith, or max-dis­tance jump be­tween two sin­gle-block plat­forms. Job done. Mak­ing a good level, though? We never ex­pected it to be easy, but af­ter a life­time spent play­ing Mario games we thought we’d be rea­son­ably well equipped for the task.

Sadly not. You should see some of the dreck we’ve made, and the dross we’ve aban­doned half­way through af­ter re­al­is­ing it’s al­ready be­yond sav­ing. Even the cour­ses we’ve up­loaded onto that tem­po­rary server aren’t what you’d call fin­ished, though we didn’t re­alise it at the time. Only a few days later, puz­zled by the stats screen show­ing that one’s been played by many, fin­ished by a hand­ful and given a star rat­ing by no one at all, do we replay with fresh eyes and re­alise our er­ror.

You don’t see a run­ning jump as a leap of faith, be­cause you know where the next plat­form is. You don’t see a pipe-squat­ting Pi­ranha Plant as a trap, be­cause you know it’s com­ing. One of the ear­li­est lessons Su­per Mario Maker teaches you is that vis­i­bil­ity is es­sen­tial. If you can’t di­rectly show a player where to head next, you need to at least sug­gest it to them – maybe not with a lit­eral sign­post, but at least with a trail of coins, mak­ing a bread­crumb trail of col­lectibles to coax play­ers into a run­ning jump off a high plat­form. Or per­haps to stop them do­ing it. Coins are a vi­tal pac­ing de­vice, used not only to make the player speed up but also to slow them down and alert them to a loom­ing threat.

Lit­tle de­sign tenets such as these be­come grad­u­ally clear over time, but other, more chas­ten­ing lessons are rapidly de­liv­ered too. Next up: playtest­ing. While a zoomed-out screen­shot of each level you upload shows where play­ers have died and is an es­sen­tial tool in the solo cre­ator’s it­er­a­tion process, it’s no sub­sti­tute for pass­ing the GamePad to a friend and watch­ing as your beloved cre­ation falls apart be­fore your eyes. You’ll scrib­ble pages of notes – ex­tend that plat­form, sign­post that se­cret path, tweak or even just re­move that trap – and dive back in to make the re­quired changes be­fore pass­ing the pad over again. As­sum­ing your en­thu­si­asm for the job hasn’t been sapped en­tirely, of course.

Hap­pily, the cre­ation process it­self is a de­light, snappy, sat­is­fy­ing and, once you’ve be­come ac­quainted with its short­cuts, tremen­dously in­tu­itive. It’s full of play­ful lit­tle touches, too. Grab­bing and shak­ing an item will change its prop­er­ties, flip­ping a trampoline on its side, for in­stance, or trans­form­ing a lem­ming-like green Koopa into a red one that turns around when it reaches the end of a plat­form. Drop­ping an item into place plays a sound ef­fect that matches the pitch of the back­ing mu­sic. A few things can be fid­dly – ex­tend­ing or ro­tat­ing a warp pipe, for in­stance, in­volves tap­ping and hold­ing a spe­cific point on its up­per cen­tre, and you’ll of­ten find your­self pick­ing up and mov­ing the whole thing – but on the whole cre­ation in Su­per Mario Maker is an ac­ces­si­ble, thor­oughly en­joy­able process. At least un­til you tap the icon in the bot­tom cor­ner of the screen, in­stantly switch from cre­ation mode to play, and re­alise that you have, once again, made a bit of a mess. It’s lit­tle won­der that so many of the cre­ations we’ve made and played are so un- Mario, since many of the tools pro­vided seem de­signed to en­cour­age it. Nintendo’s pre­re­lease mar­ket­ing has sug­gested Su­per Mario Maker be used to sub­vert, rather than fol­low, the con­ven­tions of the Mario se­ries, and many of the pack­aged Nintendo cre­ations toe that same line. Out­sized en­e­mies (made so, nat­u­rally, by feed­ing them Su­per Mush­rooms) are stacked on top of each other or hid­den in Ques­tion Blocks; Bullet Bill launch­ers gob bun­dles of coins; there are wings on ev­ery­thing; and disco lights, lasers and fire­works trig­ger as you pass. There’s sup­port, too, for cus­tom sound ef­fects, though you can’t upload your own. This is a fam­ily-friendly show, af­ter all, and when asked to ut­ter a short phrase into a mi­cro­phone most will tend to re­spond with some­thing that car­ries at least a PG-13 rat­ing, es­pe­cially if they’ve spent any time play­ing one of our cre­ations.

The Nintendo-made lev­els are short, meant to stim­u­late the brain be­fore the re­flexes, sug­gest­ing ideas to be bor­rowed or built on. Once com­pleted, they’re added to your Course­bot hub to be played or edited – giv­ing a new mean­ing to the con­cept of a jump­ing-off point in plat­form games. A ran­dom se­lec­tion of them is served up in 10-Mario mode, giv­ing you ten lives with which to com­plete eight stages (16 on higher dif­fi­cul­ties). There are few clearer signs of Nintendo know­ing what sort of lev­els users would be cre­at­ing than the fact that a sim­i­lar mode con­tain­ing play­er­cre­ated cour­ses gives you 100 lives in­stead of ten.

It was a good de­ci­sion. Trolls are ev­ery­where: one stage seems to be a car­bon copy of Su­per Mario Bros’

The Nin­ten­do­made lev­els are short, meant to stim­u­late the brain be­fore the re­flexes, sug­gest­ing ideas to be bor­rowed

1-2, but its cre­ator has deleted the safe ground where you drop down to the warp pipes. Such cre­ations are rife not only be­cause of the fa­mil­iar­ity of their de­signs, or the slap­stick of their fa­tal twists, but be­cause they are easy to make. You copy 99 per cent of a clas­sic level and save your dark de­signs for a small, sin­gle part of it.

Yet else­where this theme of un- Mario- ness yields far more pos­i­tive re­sults. Win­ners Don’t Do Shrooms re­casts Su­per Mush­rooms as the en­emy. They’re ev­ery­where, spilling out of pipes and fly­ing around un­pre­dictably, and touch­ing just one of them will make you too big to go through the small gaps that dot the stage. The log­i­cally ti­tled Metroid U blocks off ar­eas un­til you find an ap­pro­pri­ate item (a path blocked by Pi­ranha Plants, for ex­am­ple, can only be tra­versed when you find a Fire Flower). And we’re rea­son­ably fond of our Flappy Bird ripoff, an un­der­wa­ter au­to­scroller with pipes and spikes end­ing in a cathar­tic Power-Staren­abled swim through a cas­cade of Th­womps. There are di­a­monds to be found be­tween all those trial-and-er­ror leaps of faith, and while the bal­ance be­tween the two will be un­even early on, it’ll smooth out over time as play­ers – sorry, mak­ers – gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the prin­ci­ples of good Mario course de­sign.

And, of course, once they’ve un­locked all the tools. While we’re with Nintendo, not the online out­rage mob, on this – hav­ing ev­ery­thing ready on day one would be over­whelm­ing, and stag­ger­ing parts’ avail­abil­ity via timed un­locks is wel­com­ing, not pa­tro­n­is­ing – a planned patch to re­duce wait­ing times for pro­lific cre­ators should take the edge off the frus­tra­tion of hav­ing an idea only en­abled by later sets. Still, giv­ing un­der­wa­ter or air­ship stages the same promi­nence as the Su­per Mario World tools and art style seems like wish­ful think­ing on Nintendo’s part, even if the daily packs that don’t ini­tially ap­peal have their own lessons to im­part (un­der­wa­ter lev­els are hard to make, since there’s no jump arc to plan around; auto-scrolling air­ship lev­els are as bor­ing to cre­ate as they are to play).

There are lit­tle nig­gles else­where. A ten-upload limit feels stingy on day one and sim­ply un­sus­tain­able by the time you’ve un­locked ev­ery­thing; the cre­ation en­gine doesn’t, for some rea­son, al­low for slop­ing sur­faces; while the Ami­ibo-linked Mys­tery Mush­rooms, which see Mario bor­row togs and sound ef­fects from across Nintendo’s port­fo­lio, only work in the Su­per Mario Bros art­style. We’d also have liked the abil­ity to make our own 100-Mario chal­lenges, stretch­ing a me­chanic or idea across mul­ti­ple stages. The ran­domised se­lec­tions may keep you on your toes, but they’re a lit­tle jar­ring, fluc­tu­at­ing wildly in themes and qual­ity.

When Su­per Mario Maker was an­nounced, many won­dered if Nintendo was mak­ing a mis­take. With a the­o­ret­i­cally in­fi­nite sup­ply of new Mario lev­els on tap, why would you ever need to buy another game? As we sit, sty­lus in hand, and pon­der where to even be­gin af­ter another dis­as­trous playtest­ing ses­sion, the ob­vi­ous an­swer is driven home: even when given all the tools, no one makes Mario games quite like Nintendo. Su­per Mario Maker’s great­est achieve­ment isn’t in the pleas­ing snap­pi­ness of its cre­ation, but how it fos­ters a deeper un­der­stand­ing, and ap­pre­ci­a­tion, of good Mario level de­sign. There can be few finer ways of mark­ing the se­ries’ 30th birth­day than that.

The Power Star should, as the name sug­gests, be a power trip, but too of­ten in Mar­i­oMaker it’s apolo­gia for puni­tive de­sign. Which is not to say we’re above us­ing it when we re­alise we’ve made some­thing hor­rid

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