I’m a Nintendo fan at heart—have been for years, hopefully will be until the day I die. I’m also kind of snarky. So when Nintendo announced Super Mario Maker at E3 2014, I was simultaneously excited and relieved. “Finally!” I thought. “Now Nintendo can stop wasting everyone’s time cranking out those bland, samey New Super Mario Bros sequels year after year and just let the fans make them.”
I was only half kidding. When New Super Mario Bros U launched alongside the Wii U in 2012, it was exactly what the console didn’t need. Another rote—albeit beautiful—2D platformer didn’t say anything special or unique about the then-new console. While I enjoyed New Super U (and to a greater extent New Super 2 on the 3DS a few months earlier), it really felt like a stopgap. Super Mario 3D World was the real showcase a year later, but like so many other things in the Wii U’s troubled history, by that time it was too late. Nintendo failed to differentiate or even portray their console in a fun, accessible light right out of the gate.
New Super U frankly wasn’t very inviting, in spite of its four-player co-op. It’s one of the more obstinate Mario games in recent memory, and while my old-school Mario fan girlfriend loves it (and loves watching me die creatively playing it), New Super U always grated on my nerves. Aside from the steep difficulty curve it felt like Nintendo was wasting valuable time and resources retreading old ground. Yes, it’s super pretty and that one level looks like Van Gogh’s Starry Night but after pumping 7 lives into it just to reach a checkpoint the novelty wears off. It’s the same issue I had with Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze: brilliant technical and graphical skill on display, but it’s just difficulty and nostalgia for their own self-indulgent sake.
So yeah, I was pretty surprised and excited when Nintendo dropped Super Mario Maker out of nowhere. Just in concept alone it represents a major shift in Nintendo’s policy and thinking. The 100-plus year old company is notoriously possessive when it comes to their IP, especially Mario—just try posting a Let’s Play to Youtube and you’ll see what I mean. This is the company that kyboshed any chance of future films featuring their properties for two decades after one crappy Mario movie bombed back in the 90s. The idea that they’d release an official level editing tool featuring their mascot is almost unthinkable, even today.
Of course, fans have been making Mario levels for years with very un-official level editors. This is the rare case in which Nintendo is being proactive about a tricky legal situation—instead of just killing all fan projects like they’ve been wont to do at times in the past, they’re giving the fans a licensed, legitimate option for making Mario games. It’s certainly better than Square-Enix’s recent track record; they seem to send the legal grim reapers after anything that even smells like it’s using their IP, regardless of whether it’s for-profit or not.
But enough of my prognosticating about how momentous an occasion this is. Just what kind of editing tool is Super Mario Maker? Well, it turns out it’s a unique, sometimes weird, occasionally frustrating, incredibly deep and capable one.
Right from the start Super Mario Maker encourages you to get making. Much like Scribblenauts and Terraria its idle screen is an open sandbox—you can jump right into editing as soon as you boot up the game. Of course, this is where I hit my first stumbling block with Mario Maker. This game—if you can even call it that—is an incredibly complex editing tool, and Nintendo in their infinite wisdom have decided that you shouldn’t have access to it all at once from the beginning.
Mario Maker queues several content unlocks over the course of nine days, forcing you to edit with each new update for five minutes before even lining up the next content drop and notifying you about it. I guess this is just to make sure you’re really comfortable with every new morsel Mario Maker doles out—you’d better get the hang of placing those question blocks before we let you make an underwater level, Nintendo doesn’t want you getting overwhelmed, oh no! This might be a nice leisurely pace for very young gamers, but for longtime Mario fans who have been screaming to build their own levels for decades, it’s agony.
You have to wait a whole day just to access damn fire flowers, or…well you could just fiddle with the Wii U’s internal clock settings to make things drop quickly. Frankly I don’t feel too guilty for doing this as I didn’t want to wait a whole week and a half to build my first Bowser castle, and I wanted to get this review out on time. That said, Mario Maker is extremely tight-fisted with its unlocks. As of this writing, I still can’t access everything yet.
Once you do start opening up the more dynamic tools and options though…oh boy. You can make some crazy levels, and quickly. Mario Maker has a highly intuitive interface, presenting a simple grid-based plane and drag-and-drop items, blocks and enemies along the upper edge of the screen. There are options for changing the type of level—basic green, underwater, castle, ghost house—along the left edge, and in the upper left corner you can select the art style. These include classic NES Super Mario Bros, Mario 3, Mario World and the shiny HD New Super art style.
Putting wings on everything from question blocks to Bowser is fun for a while but eventually you’ll want to construct a respectable course and show it off. Luckily Mario Maker has a robust (for Nintendo anyway) online sharing feature. You can plaster any old level in the online leaderboards, but don’t expect it to last long unless it’s good. There’s a ranking system that displays the top Makers according to region, skill and popularity. The more your level is downloaded and played the higher your status within the community, represented as a string of coins next to your Mii and name.
This means that while you can always upload a level, it will have to be decent to warrant space on Nintendo’s servers and stick around. In that way Mario Maker is something of a meritocracy. It also means that every day you’ll be greeted by a parade of the best, toughest or all-around craziest new levels to download and try out. Mario Maker’s online component is straightforward but deep enough to keep dedicated Makers coming back to sample and upload levels for years.
Mario Maker also implements Amiibo, Nintendo’s hugely successful toys-to-life initiative, in an amusing way. You can place a special kind of question block that produces a mushroom that changes Mario into various random things—a goomba, question block, etc. Tapping a compatible Amiibo on the GamePad will unlock that character as a “costume” for the special random mushroom. With enough Amiibo you can have a healthy rotating roster of cute 8-bit Nintendo mascot costumes for Mario; running around a level as Captain Falcon, Diddy Kong or Samus was pretty cool, especially with each character’s signature music cues. Sadly none of the costumes seem to grant their characters’ powers to Mario, so we get some of the flavor of the infamous Super Mario Crossover fan game, but without the substance.
Of course the meat of Mario Maker is in the main editor, and unfortunately I kept running up against the old “empty page” obstacle. Sometimes the most intimidating thing in the world in a blank slate, so thankfully Mario Maker has a meticulous FAQ built right in—almost a Mario owner’s manual. It reads like a cheeky but intuitive piece of technical documentation, amusingly hosted by an attractive Japanese tech support woman named Mary O. As you pore over the FAQ you’ll start to get a sense of Mario Maker’s odd sense of humor. The game’s “mascots” as it were are the aforementioned tech support lady, a pigeon and a cute yelping dog that also serves as the editor’s “undo” button. I get the sense that a few people from the WarioWare team worked on Mario Maker because certain aspects of its style are just a little bizarre.
While the FAQ has loads of good advice, leading me to many “ohh, so that’s how you do that” moments, it can also lead to some frustration. At times it discusses things I hadn’t unlocked yet, leaving me to ponder whether I didn’t have access to a certain feature or if I was just working the interface wrong. Can I create sub-worlds? Can I make scrolling levels, or alter the time limit? The FAQ says I can, but will the game let me yet? The startup screen hints at fun, goofy little features like Magicoopas that transform Mario into a Goomba, but I’m left wondering if I can actually implement these things into my levels or if they’re just for color. Issues like this make the game’s content gating its most irritating aspect.
There are also potential hard limitations that could really get in the way of a superior level designer. In my play time I could find no way to construct a world map or even arrange my levels in a linear sequence. I hope this isn’t the case because I don’t want to be destined to forever crank out one-off levels to share with the community—I want to make multi-level worlds that end with white-knuckle castles. The game includes a feature called “10 Marios” where you get ten lives to play through a set of eight sample levels, culminating in a Bower castle, so really I hope I can make a similar level progression.
The stage type selection also seemed limited. While you have access to basic, water, and castle styles I didn’t see any options for desert levels or the devious soda jungles from the more recent games. From the sample levels and some of the community-made ones I downloaded it’s clear that you can do a lot—really, a lot—with Super Mario Maker. However, it seems that there’s also a lot you can’t do.
As it stands Super Mario Maker is an incredibly dynamic level editor with a few annoying roadblocks. That it accomplishes as much as it does without ever asking the player to engage in complex logic gating or even raw programming is a testament to Nintendo’s UI designers. I’ve always loved creating my own game content; I spent an embarrassing number of hours in Timesplitters’ map maker recreating as many GoldenEye 007 levels as the editor’s abilities would allow. Super Mario Maker reignited that same creative drive in me, but it also got in my way almost as often. I can only hope that Nintendo supports this very robust toolset with as much DLC as they’ve showered upon Mario Kart 8 and Smash Bros. There are a lot of toys to play with here, but they could add a lot more over time.
Super Mario Maker is tricky to review and score. It’s a heck of a first effort from Nintendo when it comes to level editors, with a shockingly deep number of options. However its few limitations are puzzling, and its time-based content gating makes it very slow to start creating.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.View Profile