Platform: Wii U
Release Date: September 11th, 2015
Note: This game is designed as a level editor and doesn’t not contain any semblance of a story or plot. Therefore, the final review score is reflected in the grades of the 4 remaining categories.
Hard to believe that it’s already the 30th Anniversary of the release of Super Mario Bros. To see something that’s been the face of a company for so long still be relevant in the modern age of video games is pretty cool. What better way is there to look back at Super Mario Bros. than with the culmination of Mario’s history that is Super Mario Maker. Does Super Mario Maker actually do the series justice? Does the game bring enough to the table to warrant its attention and investment? While I was reluctant at first, Super Mario Maker has managed to win me over.
As may be evident by the title, Super Mario Maker is a level editor for making your own Mario levels. You have a varied arsenal of tools with which to do so, from items to platforms to enemies. You can also make these levels in 4 game styles, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U. Each style has unique controls and physics to emulate the feel of each game, like the P Bar in 3 or spin-jumping in World and U.
Super Mario Maker would be flat-out impossible to handle if it weren’t for the grid layout. This makes it simple to see where your placements are going and make corrections as needed. You also get a good sense of height with the midpoint of the useable area defined by a thicker horizontal line. You also unlock the ability to have Mario leave a shadow trail in the editor. That way, you can pinpoint precise platforming jumps and enemy placements while being sure that it is actually doable.
While some of the better gameplay features introduced in more modern games aren’t here like slopes and checkpoints, the tools you do have and what you can do with them is pretty great.
Shaking most items with your stylus changes their properties, like changing green Koopa Troopas to red or moving platforms into collapsing platforms. Most enemies can be given a Mushroom to grow bigger, Wings to fly, or even both. You can also stack enemies on top of each other for threatening enemy towers.
These rules also apply to Bowser and Bowser Jr., and no, that wasn’t a typo. Many items and enemies introduced in later Mario games have been retroactively placed in Super Mario Maker. For example, you can encounter Boos and Chain Chomps in Super Mario Bros., or Bowser without his Clown Copter in Super Mario World.
There are some additional tools that add effects to your level. These play sound and visual cues, and you can even record your own sound effects for local use. You can also place these effects anywhere in the editing space. If you place it as its own item on the grid, it will trigger when Mario reaches it. You can also place them inside items and enemies to trigger on contact.
All this seems like a lot for the game to handle, but Super Mario Maker holds up incredibly well. The framerate stays consistent, even with all that is happening on screen. There is a limit to how much of certain items you can use, and it will be automatically disabled after reaching its threshold. This means that you don’t have to worry about risking slowdown or glitches.
The controls for editing are also pretty streamlined. The main functions for editing are tied to the Touch Screen and the L/ZL and R/ZR buttons. The Touch Screen does what you expect, but the shoulder buttons are super useful once you get to know them.
Holding the ZL or ZR button allows you to highlight and select multiple items in range and letting go lets you move them all wherever you please. Holding L or R allows you to make a copy of whatever item you select with the stylus. Using this in tandem with Multi-Grab makes patterned designs super easy to replicate. Being able to use either the left or right shoulder buttons also makes Super Mario Maker right-handed and left-handed friendly.
The core design does have a couple of hiccups. For starters, I recommend re-calibrating your Touch Screen as even having it slightly off makes for infuriating error-fixing. Enemy behavior is also hard to predict, and it can be difficult for you to get them to control the way you want them to (I still can’t figure out how to get Spike Tops to move the way I want).
With the mechanics so streamlined, it makes sense that the presentation would share that trait. The interface makes it easy to jump in and out of editing, playing, and finding other players’ levels. The whole aesthetic really drives it home that this is Super Mario Maker.
This also translates over to the music, which does a good blending of old and new tracks. The normal tracks for certain level types in certain styles play the original music, while Edit Mode plays remixes of them. Some combinations that didn’t exist in the original games (like Ghost House in Super Mario Bros.) have brand new tracks as well. Another nice little touch is that when placing an item, a voice will say the name of it in tune with the music currently playing.
Super Mario Maker does have a couple of modes that access new features. These are the 10-Mario Challenge and the 100-Mario Challenge. In the former, you have 10 lives to beat 8 premade stages in order to rescue Princess Peach. Each level you complete will be saved to your manager called Coursebot, which allows you to revisit them and try some editing tweaks to put your own spin on them.
100-Mario Challenge makes use of user-generated levels posted online and functions similar to the 10-Mario Challenge, albeit with three difficulty levels. Beating these unlock special 8-bit costumes for use in the Super Mario Bros. pallette as a powerup called the Mystery Mushroom. This powerup gives you an extra hit as well as changing your sprite and sound effects to match the character used. Over 100 costumes are unlockable, either naturally or through use of amiibo.
Really though, that’s all the meat on these bones as far as modes go. It’s actually pretty surprising how little single-player content there is here. The most satisfaction you get is a cutscene of finding Princess Peach at the end of the 100-Mario Challenge. Sure, you can make levels and play the 10-Mario challenge offline, but you miss out and another big section of content for this game, Course World.
I line with everything else so far, Course World makes uploading, sharing, and playing other people’s levels streamlined and super easy to use. First and foremost, levels have to be completeable before uploading. This mitigates the obvious problem of impossible levels, but there will be those few that slip through the cracks with lucky runs and secret passageways only the creator knows about.
The Star system is also a pretty good buffer for this. If players play your stage and like it, they can give you a star. Comments can also be placed in the level to provide hints at things like the aforementioned hidden passageways.
This does have a couple of flaws. High-Star levels don’t necessarily mean quality, as the many variations on “Don’t Touch the Controller” and “Kaizo Mario Redux” demonstrate. Comments can also obstruct the screen if you don’t disable them and make it hard to see what you are doing, especially on popular stages. The benefits of the system outweigh these gripes, but my gripes are written down here for a reason.
One last thing I need to mention about Super Mario Maker will be one of its biggest sticking points for players, and that is its content unlocking system. Before launch, Super Mario Maker was designed to only allow certain items to be useable when you first start the game. Spend at least five minutes making stuff in the editor, and you’ll queue up the next wave of content to be added the following day.
This process continues in 9 waves over 9 days. Not from the game’s release date, but from the first day you spend at least 5 minutes making levels, as well as each subsequent day. A post-release patch does fix this somewhat. If you use the editor enough in a session, it will unlock the next wave early and cue up the following one five minutes after that.
I don’t completely condone this design, but I will say that any game that has limits for all players without providing options for some is a bit ridiculous. Sure, there are those the could really use a stepping-stone system (myself included), but there are definitely others who don’t need that. At the very least, each style should have been available from the start and that isn’t the case (you start with Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. U).
As for why I like the concept itself, let me give you some backstory. I am not a creative person. I’m the kind of player who gets overwhelmed by the possibilities of a game like Minecraft and resorts to copying pixel art with blocks or just making simple houses. For me, Super Mario Maker gradually opening the toolbox to me was just what I needed. I can see the improvement I’ve made from my first level to my latest and actually feel like I understand what makes for good level design. If it wasn’t for that approach, I may have dropped the game entirely.
Super Mario Maker is an excellent creation tool with the gameplay to back it up. This design appeals to both extremes, making it easy to pick up for a few moments and mess around or for a few hours and really dig in deep. Granted, the real core of the experience comes from yourself and sharing with others, not from the game’s pre-built levels and somewhat shallow game modes. The sandbox may be a bit stubborn and arbitrary, but when the game opens up, it makes for a game worthy of commemorating the 30th Anniversary of Super Mario Bros.