The original Super Mario Bros. came out 30 years ago. Think on that: for some of you, Mario has been a constant: always there, always playable, and always saving a princess. The game has been through seven generations of video game consoles and more besides, and now Nintendo is giving you the chance to take control of the level design, and create the most evil, messed up platform hell ever created. Or a fun joyride–it’s your choice. If you’ve not yet heard of Super Mario Maker, then perhaps it’s time to sit up and pay attention.
Super Mario Maker is quite literally just that: a game that gives you, the player, the chance to create any Mario level you want. The game has two main modes: Create mode, where you use the Wii U GamePad to build your very own Mario level, and Play mode, allowing you to do the highly familiar Mario thing and play the levels you’ve created (or download and play the levels that other people have created).
Naturally, Super Mario Maker isn’t the first game to try its hand at the user-generated content thing. Before this there was Little Big Planet, and before even that there was Excite Bike, and the list of games with level editors is massive. Still, no level-creation game has had 30 years of teaching us how to play and create the levels. And here we come to the first of Super Mario Maker’s huge strengths: players already know how objects in the Mario universe behave. This means that we can jump straight into things. However, for those of us who have been living under an 8-bit rock for the past 30 years, there are more than enough example courses that you can play to learn how the elements work.
The game’s tools unlock slowly over a period of several days, allowing you to become thoroughly familiar with the tools you have at hand before giving you new ones to play with. Each time a new toolset arrives with a cheery lorry-horn sound, you’re given an example course from that toolset to play with to give you an idea of what you do with it. And there are far more creative options here than I suspected. For example, shaking some of the tools with the stylus transforms them: green koopas become red koopas, single Boos become a ring of Boos, standard Bullet Bill cannons become homing Bullet Bill cannons, and Bowser becomes Bowser Jr. You can also combine some of the tools in peculiar ways, for example giving wings to a Thwomp, or feed a mushroom to any foe character to make it bigger, or even put a piranha plant on a goomba’s head. And if that weren’t enough, the game also supports Amiibo: by scanning in one of the many Amiibo out there, you can obtain special costumes for Mario (which, I might add, only work in Super Mario Bros. mode).
Your own levels are fun enough, of course, but the true brilliance of Super Mario Maker is the ability to download, play, and tweak courses built by other people. The version of Super Mario Maker I was supplied with was a special media preview version that only connected to a temporary server, but some of the ingenuity shown by just the media reviewers was enough to open my eyes to the possibilities of this game. There was one fun one that turned the level into a maths quiz. Another had you outrunning a series of P-switches that threatened to turn the level into unwinnable chaos. If creating levels isn’t your thing, then rest assured that there will be plenty to just play against. Some courses are pure evil, of course. Some are delightful. And something I never thought possible: some were thrilling. The range of courses was what astounded me. To all the reviewers out there who had to play my horrible-by-comparison levels, I am truly sorry. I am not a good level designer, which is why I review games instead of create them. If you particularly enjoy the way a certain creator builds courses, you can follow them and be notified whenever they upload a new course. Everyone has an initial upload limit of 10, but as more people “star” a course–the Mario Maker version of clicking “Like”–the more courses you can eventually upload. The impetus here is to create courses that people will enjoy playing, limiting the amount of guff out there. It’s a good ploy to keep the designs interesting.
Here’s the thing: no matter how evil or twisted or downright malevolent a level is, the creator of the level has to prove that the level is winnable before they can upload it. So somehow, whether by crafty design or stupid luck, each level out there has been beaten at least once. Which means that you’re not stuck with a daft unwinnable situation–this is a good thing. It also means that, even if you’re not seeing it, there’s a definite way to reach the end. That’s good game design right there.
Everything about the game is a work of love from Nintendo, from the sprites to the way the level creator works, to the sound effects, to the wacky intro screens. You know a game’s got something good going when you are firing it up just to see what the intro screen is going to do today. There is a crazy amount of detail here, but what’s interesting is what’s missing. There’s no way to create a halfway checkpoint, for example, and some of the harder courses could definitely use one. I also didn’t see a way to create secret areas and rolling platforms as seen in New Super Mario Bros. U, and no way to create vertical levels. Still, what’s here is a ridiculously vast amount of Mario level creation.
There’s a definite reason why Super Mario has been going strong for 30 years. Every single iteration of the 2D platform game sells well, and while I doubt this game will be the “final word in Super Mario”, it’s definitely a work of love to all the fans of the game. If you’re a creator, you absolutely have to play it. If you are someone who enjoys the mechanics of crafting a game, you have to play it. If you are a fan of Super Mario, you will be getting this game anyhow, but man, do you have to play it! It’s going to be one of the Wii U’s must-have games (and somehow, the Wii U manages to have an uncanny amount of them!)
Final Score: 9.5 Super Prawn Bros. out of 10
Distributor: Nintendo South Africa
Platform: Nintendo Wii U
Release Date: 11 September 2015