Super Mario Bros. has always been the bane of the modern “indie” developer. Entire careers have been built upon the groundwork that Nintendo laid back in 1985, too many to count, and yet, put any of their Mario-likes beside it, and what happens? It’s like lifting a counterfeit up to the light. They immediately lose all their splendor. Can any studio, much less any single developer, claim to have matched the shining pinnacle that Nintendo has with their Mario titles? If you’re going to bestow the “independent” label with some kind of innate honor, few studios would be more worthy of that honor than Nintendo, who ventured forth into the wasteland of the 1980s home console market and rejuvenated it with their Famicom machine. And once their Mario software hit, there was no going back. The future was now wide open to anyone who would dare answer the call.
Yes, Nintendo has quite a remarkable history of achievement. It’s understandable then why they might be annoyed with all the current controversies surrounding their Italian plumber’s quest to rescue the princess from the evil turtle king. Rather than wage a futile battle against this movement, Super Mario Maker instead brilliantly leverages it by channeling the “indie spirit” of the times back into their own game from which it’s escaped, featuring an infinite playground bursting with “retro” graphics, quirky and subversive level design, and old-school difficulty. All thanks to its in-game editor, which makes it so easy to snap together a Mario level that anyone can do it. And many have, with sometimes stunning results.
Oddly enough, this really upset some people. Many of those so offended have been studying Mario under the microscope for ages now, feeling as if they’ve acquired some special knowledge or insight about design in the process, and now with the release of Super Mario Maker, a horde of unwashed commoners, children, and rabble have crashed into Nintendo’s Course World servers like a tidal wave, and left behind more than their fair share of small treasures. Eaten up with envy, the Mario scientists have taken to spreading a malicious rumor across the videogame blogosphere that it’s hard to find good content on Course World.
What rubbish! What they’re doing is so obvious that it’s shocking that they haven’t been called out for it yet. They’re trying to preserve for themselves alone, the elite who’ve studied and re-studied Stage 1-1 for the past three decades, the title of game designer (a title that takes on an almost priestly dimension with them). Spending any time at all in Course World is such a powerful rebuke to this outrageous intellectual attack that nothing else need be said. The Wii U has always been home to very talented and creative players, as Miiverse undoubtedly proves, and Super Mario Maker only reaffirms.
Honestly, it’s extremely difficult to make a bad Super Mario Maker level. Just for the sake of example, here’s one of the worst: Pit of Panga: U-Break. That’s not the kind of thing somebody’s going to accidentally make. You’d really have to try your hardest to make something that bad.
Nor is it all that difficult to make a decent Mario level either. Nintendo’s done a great job jumpstarting the creative process with their intuitive editor and an excellent manual. All it takes next is a community to jump in, learn from, and contribute to. And a willingness to improve. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you have friends you can share levels with and see play in person. It’s also a great feeling to see others playing and starring your levels via the notifications on Course World. Nintendo’s philosophy of the joy of play permeates the entire experience, and the community is alike united through creating and playing cool things together. It’s a real great place to be. Only it’s a shame that the community features aren’t as cleverly integrated as Splatoon’s, but that’s to be expected given that Super Mario Maker expels all semblance of cohesive illusion. It’s software, through and through, and it’s never going to let you forget it.
Which, all things considered, might be grounds for disqualification for a game review. But even though the framework holding all the levels together is frail from an artistic point of view, the levels themselves are where the meat’s at. And if you’re hungry for Mario levels, you’ll certainly find your fill. Nintendo’s even crafted a few of their own for you to play via the 10-Mario Challenge mode, but unfortunately most of them are really only meant to show off the game’s potential and get you thinking about your own creations. The Nintendo World Championship levels are a real treat though, so it’s worth going through all of the 10-Mario Challenge in order to unlock them.
There are a few unusual level elements that feel completely out of place though, including weird disco light effects and strange sounds. Some of them almost feel like inside jokes, their inclusion is so completely bizarre. They clash so violently with everything else, and every time that I see them, I cringe. I wonder why they were even included at all. And yet, they are all over the place, both online in Course World and in Nintendo’s own levels. Better get used to it.
And although the game is sold on the promise of being able to create the Mario level of your dreams, you might want to consider that Super Mario Maker is really only good at making levels that’ll fit within the strict grid lines of a graph paper design document. The community has been quite vocal about their wish for slopes and the like, and hopefully a future update will deliver just that. Until then, courses can feel a little primitive, but this can be mitigated somewhat with clever placement of other available level elements.
But the real question you have to ask yourself is this: Is it still worthwhile to play a Super Mario game in the year 2015? Judging by the top charts on Course World, maybe not! It’s nearly all occupied by automatic, press right, music, and drawing levels. As in, the most popular levels on Super Mario Maker barely even qualify as Mario levels. Most of them require little to no player input. You just sit back, and let the level do all the work for you. As for why they’re so popular, I think it has less to do with the community’s inability to play a more demanding level and more likely that they simply want to see something new, while at the same time marveling at the creative talent that put it together. Can you blame them?
Sure, had this game come out alongside any of the Mario titles represented within, it would have been noteworthy. Maybe even exceptionally so. But if creating something awesome was really my goal, why would I be making Super Mario Maker levels when Epic’s just made the entire art asset library for the Infinity Blade games free alongside the latest version of their Unreal engine? And if it’s editors we’re talking about, what about the Skyrim (or soon to come Fallout 4) Creation Kit? Compared to something like that, Super Mario Maker‘s editor feels downright childish. And honestly, who cares if somebody manages to create the “perfect” Mario level? Am I really going to take time away from playing something like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to play through a single Mario level? Not likely.
Now if the game had let you run through courses cooperatively with a friend, the greatest innovation to the series in years, then maybe it’d be a different story. But as it is, an endless supply of basic Mario levels just isn’t enough to get me excited. The elimination of an overarching adventure, simple as it was, only makes it that much more of a bore, not to mention the fatally missing thrill of discovering a new world and all the wonders within.
Let’s not kid ourselves. There just isn’t enough Mario here.