User-generated content (UGC) is getting bigger and bigger these days, and it’s easy to see why. First and most importantly, it’s cheap – much cheaper than paying professional content creators. Second, it fosters a sense of community between both creators and consumers. Finally, it provides the allure of fame – who knows if you just might become the next Internet Superstar? Sony’s LittleBigPlanet is the poster child of the UGC craze, Microsoft has tested the waters with Project Spark (and snagging the coveted Minecraft property), and now Nintendo’s getting in on the action with Super Mario Maker.
We can directly link the existence of Super Mario Maker (as well as things like the Share button on the PS4 controller) to the Let’s Play trend which began in the late 2000s. Some history: one of the most popular “genres” of Let’s Play video consisted of Super Mario World romhacks which took Nintendo’s classic game and remixed it into a more difficult form. These were achieved largely thanks to applications like FuSoYa’s Lunar Magic, programs designed to make it easier to construct your own version of Mario, and it’s clear that Nintendo’s higher-ups were paying attention. Today, almost a decade after the trend began, we’ve got an officially-licensed method of constructing your own Mario romhacks, er, levels.
I’m serious: anyone who has used Lunar Magic will feel right at home with Super Mario Maker. Both programs use a similar drag-and-drop interface that makes creating courses easy. The two boast differing feature sets; Mario Maker doesn’t allow you to sort your courses into “worlds” outside of your own console, for instance, and it also doesn’t offer any sort of overworld editing. On the other hand, you can use the visual themes from games other than Super Mario World here; there are four options – Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. U.
These styles are more than just cosmetic, as your course will also inherit the gameplay style from your chosen game and each has its own quirks, as well as course elements like powerups that are unique to that style. Super Mario Bros., for instance, offers minimal air control while jumping and no method of flight, but it does offer character costumes from myriad other Nintendo games accessible through Amiibo and through clearing other players’ courses. Super Mario Bros. 3 introduces more fluid jumping and movement as well as flight in the form of the Raccoon Suit. Super Mario World improves air control, keeps flight, and adds in a few more gameplay elements like lovable Yoshi and the block-busting spin jump.
Finally, New Super Mario Bros. U might be the most unique choice thanks to its wall jump, allowing players to create otherwise-unclearable courses. You can also adjust the background of your course, including making it an underwater adventure or incorporating auto-scrolling.
Course creation is made incredibly simple thanks to the use of the Gamepad. You click on a course element that you want to place, “paint” it onto the screen, and repeat until you’ve got the course of your dreams; adorably, the game will sing along with your course design, calling out the names of your placed objects to the tune of whatever background music your style uses. Some course elements can be adjusted by “shaking” them with the stylus, like changing forward-charging green Koopa Troopas into less suicidal red ones. The Gamepad’s triggers are used to simplify actions like deletion, copying, pasting and moving course elements about. It’s almost entirely a quick and easy affair, though I’d have liked to be able to overwrite existing bits of a course with new ones without having to delete the old first.
It’s also worth noting that there’s no way to have a block offer powerups dynamically as they do in official Mario titles, such as having a block give out a Mushroom to small Mario and a Fire Flower to Super Mario, which is a bit disappointing. Completed courses can be saved and uploaded; in a nice touch, any uploaded course must be completed by its creator, ensuring that all courses you’ll see online are at least theoretically beatable.
It’s worth mentioning that you aren’t given access to everything at first. In fact, upon booting the game your options for course design are pretty paltry – two styles, two backgrounds, no water and a handful of enemies and blocks. More course elements are unlocked with time. You’ll receive “deliveries” of more elements on a daily basis, resulting in a fully unlocked course creator after about nine days; alternatively, players who show dedication to the course creator by spending a lot of time in it and using their available tools will receive these shipments much more quickly, unlocking the full creator in a matter of hours. I did find this to be a bit irritating, but the majority of my time was spent playing courses rather than creating them, so it’s not a critical flaw. Patience is a virtue.
Also, it’s worth noting that in an unusual design decision by Nintendo standards, Super Mario Maker doesn’t support multiple in-game profiles while the game is open. Players using different Wii U profiles will have their own saves, but switching is a bit of a pain and it would have been easier for the game itself to just have multiple profiles. Unlocks, like course parts and costumes, are individual to each Wii U profile, which can be a pain, even if you can get around some of them by using Amiibo to unlock costumes.
Speaking of actually playing courses, you’ve got a few options on that front. There’s a 10-Mario mode and several 100-Mario modes available; the first has you play through Nintendo-designed courses intended to impart course design ideas, while the second has you play through other players’ courses. There are varying degrees of difficulty in the 100-Mario mode, ranging from Easy to Expert, with the third offering a longer succession of more difficult courses. Each course style is largely authentic to its respective game, so a well-made course feels like a real, authentic Mario course.
With that, it’s important that we discuss perhaps the most ciritcal issue related to Super Mario Maker: while there’s basically an infinite number of courses to play, most of them aren’t very well-made. It’s true! There’s not even really a point making excuses for it. The most common response is that it’s early in the game’s life cycle, but the implication that more time will result in better courses doesn’t really hold water. YouTube, for instance, has been around since 2005. It’s still packed to the brim with terrible videos and more are uploaded every day.
While this is an accurate criticism of the state of this game, though, my dissenting opinion comes in when people act like they expected anything else. This is a user-generated-content focused game created and marketed to children on a console marketed to children designed in such a way that a child can easily dig right in. Shockingly, children typically aren’t professional level designers. Most adults aren’t either. Level design isn’t easy, and while the game’s in-game digital manual does its best to assist, expert level design isn’t something that can be taught in a day. Sturgeon’s Law suggests that 90% of everything is crap – that the remaining 10% exists at all is nothing short of a miracle.
So the fact that there are a lot of bad levels isn’t a dealbreaker. There are diamonds in the rough, you just have to be patient enough to dig for them. What could use some work is the functionality offered to players to avoid those bad levels. Given Nintendo’s brand personality and today’s cultural climate, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this game follows the Facebook model of “say something nice or don’t say anything.” You can give stars to courses that were especially good, but there’s no reciprocal option for courses that weren’t great. This strikes me as a bit of a lost opportunity, since crowdsourcing away low-quality courses would go a long way toward improving the pool offered to players during play.
You COULD leave negative comments on a course…which would also result in your giving it a star automatically, implying you tacitly approve of that course. Whoops. Reporting, on the other hand, is only intended to be used for courses that break content rules, not necessarily bad courses.
That’s not to say it’s not worth your time to try and find the best of the best. In fact, I’d hate to sound overly negative, because the highs outweigh the lows when it comes to Super Mario Maker. When you do come across a well-made course, it’s like a breath of fresh air or a drink from a desert oasis. There are creators out there who grasp the intricacies of Mario in a way few others do, that sense of gradual learning and discovery – and they grasp them more than you might think at first glance.
It’s this sort of person, the sort who might not have been able to share their work with a significant audience otherwise, that makes this a solid and important title worth your attention even if you’re not interested in designing courses yourself.
In conclusion, there are a few different types of player who’d love Super Mario Maker. Mario fanatics who can accept that there are going to be some weeds in the garden are going to be thrilled with the prospect of endless Mario. Aspiring game designers, meanwhile, should jump at the chance to try and make their dreams come true. Finally, those who will get the most out of Super Mario Maker just might be those of us who’ve been with the overall-clad plumber and the Mushroom Kingdom from the start. He’s been around for 30+ years, you know, and Nintendo’s decided to trust their fans with him. It’s cute if you think about it.