Super Mario Maker isn't our Game of the Year. It's not the best Mario game. Its impact is far removed from the likes of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy. At first glance, it shows recycled worlds, zero direction. At first glance, it may even come across as a complete lack of innovation.
But Super Mario Maker is a masterpiece. It's a tribute and a lesson on 30 years of video game history. It's a step forward for Nintendo, a humble and necessary move and the best possible first step into a new land. It's been designed to uncover abilities and stimulate knowledge you had dormant in the back of your mind. It teaches, allows, encourages and entertains with the same ease and joy Mario did with his very first jump.
As we started our relationship with this game/tool (a couple of weeks ago, with much lower expectations), we felt awkward and uneasy. In the first few hours, Super Mario Maker focuses on playing a series of bizarre levels and trying to create enjoyable things with a very limited range of elements. What are those sound effects and shrill graphics? Why can't we place a pipe for people to get in? Why did they make a level like this, breaking every canonical convention?
Truth be told, our spirits weren't exactly high, but there was something urging us to go on. After two or three days, we realised that not only were we beginning to enjoy the most outlandish ideas implemented by others, but also that the game was awakening a kind of creative curiosity within. Today, after a series of funny blunders, not only are we amazed by the work of others, but we're constantly thinking of new ideas for original levels as we're playing Mario, or when we're playing other games... and even when we're not playing games. Super Mario Maker provides the tools for innovation and then surprises us with what others are capable of. It pushes you to be creative and overcome any obstacles you thought were blocking your creativity, like an endless runner it pushes you to your goal.
That special something is probably to do with how the game is presented. After decent attempts such as WarioWare: Do It Yourself or editors found in titles like Smash Bros, Super Mario Maker represents Nintendo's first proper attempt to wholeheartedly embrace the creative side of gaming. It offers the same quality, finesse, clarity, fun and user friendliness that we've come to expect from traditional Nintendo offerings. The tools populate the screen in seconds with a mix of icons, menus and audio hints making for a well-rounded experience.
The fact that nearly all the items and options are locked and that they gradually become available is a nuisance at first, but it turns out to be a wise design choice. At first you feel like Miyamoto and Tezuka in the early 80s, with a very limited range of possibilities, but soon you discover that even if you have limited options, the possibilities are still many and entertaining. You learn that the most basic concepts make the core of the level, and as you start unlocking more things you also start to develop your own philosophy of level design thanks to the solid foundations that are put in place. Do we evolve what we tried yesterday with four new features? What if we start over with this new concept as the foundation of a design? Why not improvise a bit? How do we approach issues such as challenge, reward, rhythm and continuity?
It's all about presentation. Nobody talks about these things, but if you think about it, they're always present in Nintendo's creations, through its community, and your own creations too. They contain the essence that allows your levels to go from being poor imitations to something convincing that will resonate with your peers. It works, whether you follow the conventions or even if you break them, and you'll also begin to appreciate all the crazy things that others have come up with.
For this review we feared that the small number of users playing and creating would result in a spread of content that wasn't up to scratch with what we expect to be out there a few months after the game launches (in fact, we even considered delaying our review), but we couldn't have been more wrong. Fortunately it's already in the hands of many people spread across a very diverse community, and this has provided more than enough content to prove not only what Super Mario Maker can potentially become in the future, but to confirm what it already offers.
When you play the levels included on the disk (some of them are traditional and respectful of the past, while others are wildly daring), you're taking mental note of the things that seem particularly curious, witty or funny. Those mechanics that you would have never come up with, or that element that you want to test later on in the editor; these levels are found in the offline mode called 100 Mario Challenge.
Likewise, the huge collection of levels created by the community also reveals what works and what doesn't. The star votes create a ranked collection of amazing creations and talented creators. You can manage and track everything easily, and of course you can download any level to see how it's been made or modify it with your own ideas. Here you can test new experiments from a creator you follow, or look at Nintendo's suggestions for that day, follow the top picks, or take on a series of online challenges with different difficulty levels in the 100 Mario Challenge.
Even when you have all the elements, environments and tools available, the possibilities aren't overwhelming because you've been discovering them little by little. We are now designing a Super Mario Bros. 3 level in which you must escape a prison made of brick blocks, and we'll use logically-placed doors and sub-levels with pipes. These days the trend is so-called [Auto] levels, the kind of level that doesn't require you to touch the controller, where you watch a show of precision while Mario moves by himself, using rails and bouncing until he reaches the flag. There are people who choose the most worn-out concepts and turn them into innovative challenges with new modifiers, like giant enemies or shell-helmets. Others are working hard on genuine side-scrolling shooters with automatic scroll, a ship, a fire flower, and flying enemies.
The references and tributes are found everywhere. Users are creating fully-themed levels with Amiibo in the classic Super Mario Bros. environment. They're turning Mario into Donkey Kong, Isabelle, Yoshi or a Goomba, and designing levels based on features of other games.
And then there's Dalagonash. It's clear that this author, who's apparently the community manager of Nintendo UK, is one of the first famous creators, and many players will want to emulate his ideas and execution. This guy has put together a tribute to Metroid (Mario-Troid) that turns it into an adventure where you must find objects to access the next part of the level. He has also released a bowling game made with items from Super Mario World. Miyamoto might even be tempted to sign him up, and many players will want to pursue that same status within the community.
The connection between the editor, local levels (stored in the so-called Save bot) and the online community is really smooth and logical, therefore you're constantly switching from creating to playing, or seeing how your published levels are doing, etc. The integration with Miiverse and its comments is great (even including notes or clues in the middle of the level), and the idea of marking down where others have been losing lives when you die is one of the most successful implementations. Once again, the presentation is spot on.
Quality aside, there's more. There are three things that raise this to another level.
Its educational nature and unprecedented accessibility:Super Mario Maker is perfect for learning about the creative process, and it shows clearly how a game is made. It can't be compared to Minecraft or other editors. It grows your appreciation for both classic and modern games, it teaches you design philosophies, mechanics and level design, and as it uses the touch screen as well as the TV, it's ideal for learning and sharing your knowledge.
Its commemorative aspect: This is no trivial feature. It isn't promotional. Nintendo didn't live up to expectations with the 25th anniversary of Super Mario. This history lesson pays tribute to the phenomenon that started on September 13, 1985, and what it has offered three generations of players. Its constant references make you smile, but it's the way that it allows you to see what went into them that brings even more relevance to an already unique series.
Its meaning for Wii U, Nintendo and Mario: With many games, such as New Super Mario Bros. U, our complaint was that they didn't really take advantage of the new possibilities offered by the Wii U console and the second touch screen. Super Mario Maker, however, is probably the best example of hardware implementation to date, and therefore an essential game if you have the console. It's also interesting to consider what this entry means for the Mario franchise, as it's obviously a turning point. What direction will the side-scrolling platformer take from here on in? Beyond the multiplayer, successfully realised on Wii and Wii U (and perhaps too complicated for this editor), what else can be done with this genre and its well-worn formula? These questions become much clearer with this game.
These are the cherries on top of this huge birthday cake for Mario. Its 'wow factor' doesn't stem from how impressive the new features seem while you're jumping, controller in-hand; but from the ideas you discover, created by others and yourself, from how it changes your perception of Mario and video games in general.
Nintendo should ideally adapt Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS and, eventually, NX, as this is a title that would then become a platform/service accessible to many more players. It managed to surprise us when we realised that once again we were having fun, playing the same old Mario; only this time we're inspired to create and innovate with new ideas, to challenge ourselves, our friends, and the rest of the world.