Super Mario Maker
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