Thirty years ago, Mario and Luigi stepped into the Mushroom Kingdom in the NES classic Super Mario Bros. This kickstarted the Super Mario series, which has gone on to create a peerless resume of sequels, prequels and spinoffs that have created legions of Nintendo fans over the last three decades. Nintendo found the perfect way to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Super Mario Bros. in the form of Super Mario Maker, which gives those fans the ability to create their own little piece of Mario’s history.
Super Mario Maker started production as a sequel to the SNES title Mario Paint, though somewhere along the line Nintendo’s vision for the title turned into something greater. The end result is a level builder that, although not unlike LittleBigPlanet and its ilk, outshines its contemporaries with far more accessible creation tools, and superior gameplay that’s pulled directly from some of Mario’s finest adventures.
For those who have questioned or bemoaned the Wii U’s Gamepad controller, Super Mario Maker is its ultimate justification. Creating levels is built entirely around the gamepad, and it really is as simple as dragging and dropping objects on the touchscreen, and drawing the layout of your level like you would with a pencil and paper.
Some objects can be shaken to change their properties (shaking a green Koopa Troopa will change him to a red one, with its functions changing accordingly). Many enemies and objects can be altered in ways that go against their normal functions in the Mario series: Bill Blasters can now launch coins and power-ups, while question blocks can be turned into deadly traps containing Hammer Bros. You can stack enemies into totem poles, make them super-sized with Super Mushrooms, and give them wings, Lakitu clouds, or Koopa Clown Cars to transform even a lowly Goomba into something menacing.
But it’s not just enemies and objects, but the things you’re able to create with a few swipes of the Gamepad are staggering.The simple drawing approach easily makes Super Mario Maker the most welcoming and fluid creation game I’ve played. In the case of LittleBigPlanet, I often felt that the kid-friendly aesthetics were misleading to a deep but alienating creation tool. Super Mario Maker retains a similar depth, but it streamlines game creation by basing it on drawing and drag-and-drop mechanics. It simply couldn’t work this well with a traditional controller.
Your levels can take on one of four styles: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U. The four styles not only affect the visuals, but the gameplay as well. The physics change according to each game, with Mario 3, World and New Super Mario Bros. all maintaining their respective sense of control and momentum, as well as Mario’s moves from each game (if you want wall jumps, go with New Super Mario Bros., for example). The original Super Mario Bros. has seen some tweaks, however, with Mario being able to jump higher when bouncing off enemies, which was an ability he didn’t gain until the sequels, and getting hit as Fire Mario only reduces him back to Super Mario, as opposed to going directly to his miniature version like in the original game.
Additionally, some enemies and objects that only appeared in later (or earlier) games now find their way into each play style. You can now see Boos in the original Super Mario Bros. (which somehow look cuter than ever) and Wigglers can appear in Super Mario Bros. 3.
Some objects are limited to certain play styles, however, with Raccoon Mario, the Super Cape, and Propeller Mario being unique to Mario 3, World, and NSMBU, respectively. Meanwhile, the original Super Mario Bros. gains the new “Mystery Mushroom,” which contains costumes that give Mario the visual appearance of other video game characters, from Nintendo’s own Link, Samus, and Donkey Kong to characters like Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Players can unlock the different costumes through Amiibo connectivity, or by the slower method of beating the “100 Mario Challenge” repeatedly (with each conquest of the mode awarding a single costume). Though it’s probably one of the best uses of Amiibo so far, it’s somewhat of a shame the costumes only appear in the Super Mario Bros. setting, since playing as Mega Man in Super Mario World would be indescribably amazing.
Then there are semi-exclusive objects, with Kuribo’s Shoe appearing in the two represented NES styles, while Yoshi can only be found in World and New Super Mario Bros. U.
Each level you make can only be confined to one play style, so you’ll find you want to create more and more levels so you can delve deeper into each game’s engine.
As exquisite as the creation tools are though, there are a couple of disappointing limitations. Namely, you can’t place checkpoints in levels. This can be a huge pain given players’ penchants for making ridiculously challenging stages. You also can’t place slopes, so no sliding downhill into enemies like in the good old days. Levels can take on six different themes (normal, underground, underwater, airship, ghost house and castle), with some obvious options (snow, desert and fire) being left out of the loop. Chargin’ Chucks, Big Berthas, and other notable Mario enemies are also no-shows.
Mario’s power-ups also feel sadly restrained. While Super Mario Bros. 3 gets the Raccoon Suit, the Tanooki Suit, Hammer Suit and Frog Suits are nowhere to be found. Even the majority of New Super Mario Bros. U’s power-ups, though less desirable, are questionably absent. But perhaps the biggest bummer is the limited potential for boss encounters.
Bowser and Bowser Jr. are the only true boss characters at your disposal, and you have to jump through some hoops to make them mandatory boss fights. Unless you get creative with their presence in your stage, you can often simply run past Bowser and Bowser Jr., avoiding the boss fight altogether. Hopefully some DLC can add boss rooms or some method of required fights against boss characters. Adding the Koopalings, Reznor, Boom Boom and the Big Boo wouldn’t hurt, either.
Despite these limitations, the combination of accessibility and depth that Super Mario Maker provides is a captivating gaming experience that will hopefully encourage gamers to get really creative. Naturally, not everyone will make great levels, but Super Mario Maker provides all the right tools for the great ones to reach their potential.
Players can upload their created levels for others to play, which can be found by searching through lists of creators or the stages themselves. Or for those who want a more complete experience, you can tackle the aforementioned 100 Mario Challenge.
The 100 Mario Challenge can be played on easy, medium, and expert difficulties, and sees Mario tackling 8 (easy) or 16 (medium and expert) randomly selected stages with 100 lives. Though players can place as many 1-Up Mushrooms as they’d like in a given stage, only a maximum of three lives can be earned on any given level, as to maintain a balance.
The difficulty of each stage is determined by the number of players who have completed a course compared to the overall number who have played them. It’s not a perfect system (you may notice some levels are harder or easier than the current mode suggests, and are only present in that mode because relatively few people have played them), but for the most part it works. Playing on easy should be a cakewalk, with its best levels relying on creativity and gimmicks over steeper challenge, while making it through expert difficulty even once will feel like a hard-fought victory through gauntlets of punishing obstacle courses. At their worst, expect lazy stages in the easier modes and troll levels in expert. But those levels can be skipped in favor of better ones if need be.
Once again, experiencing other players’ levels and sharing your own is a real treat, but it too comes with some unfortunate limitations.
For starters, you can only upload ten levels from the get-go, and only earn the ability to upload more by receiving enough “stars” on your levels from other players. I actually like this idea of rewarding players with more stages, as it gives them incentive to make levels people will like to play. On the downside, the number of stars required to upload more levels increases drastically over time, and most players probably shouldn’t hope to be able to upload the maximum number of stages (100), and may find themselves deleting their levels from servers and uploading new ones in their place instead. So the system is a bit of a double-edged sword.
Secondly, searching for specific levels won’t be so easy. You can search through lists of creators and even favorite certain level builders to find their stages more easily. But you can’t instantly search for people on your Wii U friends list, nor can you search for a level by its title or filter your searches for specific play styles or objects (let’s face it, we all want more Mario World and less New Super Mario Bros.). In order to find specific levels, you need to input 16-digit codes that are listed with each stage. Yes, despite the fact that Nintendo has abandoned these codes in favor of more streamlined methods elsewhere, they decided that Super Mario Maker of all games should bring them back. Hopefully this is another area Nintendo can touch up in updates and DLC.
I hope none of these criticisms sound too harsh, because truth be told they are ultimately very small complaints when the overall package is, in a lot of ways, a dream come true. What Nintendo fan hasn’t wanted to create their own Mario games at one point or another? Not everyone has the technical know-how for romhacks, nor do such things tend to present themselves as particularly welcoming. Super Mario Maker takes the ambition of players to create their own Mario levels, and wraps it up in a convenient package.
Super Mario Maker is the best showcase of the Wii U Gamepad to date, as it provides an experience that couldn’t work so well without it. Super Mario Maker gives you clean, easy-to-use creation tools to make the Mario levels of your dreams (or nightmares). You can make stages more akin to Mario’s traditional adventures, or create something quite different out of those same assets.
Simply put, Super Mario Maker is as good as a game-creation game gets in terms of its interface and gameplay (Sackboy’s sense of control never compared to Mario’s). And although it’s bound to be a different experience every time you pick up the Gamepad, it could be argued that Super Mario Maker is the Wii U’s definitive title.
Is Super Mario Maker one of the best Mario games ever? That’s entirely up to you, me and everyone else to decide.