Between the company refocusing its business strategy and releasing fresh new titles in the recent months, 2015 seems to be a catch up year for Nintendo.
In March, Nintendo announced their mobile initiative after maintaining a stubborn refusal to do so in the face of both fans and investor suggestions alike. We’ve also seen the announcement of Pokemon Go, perhaps the closest we’ll ever come to the long fantasized Pokemon MMO we’ve all dreamed of. In addition, 2015 brought us Splatoon, Nintendo’s first foray into the much established multiplayer shooter genre which, to this day, still remains to be one of this year’s best surprises.
Now, after the likes of LittleBigPlanet and years of popular demand generated by die-hard Nintendo fandom, we can finally make our own interpretations of everyone’s favorite side-scrolling platformer in Super Mario Maker.
Super Mario Maker (SMM) arguably nestles itself into the user-generated content (UGC) space easier than any other IP or franchise. This is thanks to Nintendo’s idiosyncratic approach to intuitive systems built upon a brand that celebrated its 30th anniversary this year – it’s a seamless convergence of approachability and familiarity all in one package.
Only mere seconds after jumping into the game’s opening level, SMM freezes the action, prompting you on how to drag and drop pieces into a very readable grid-like canvas. SMM’s intuitiveness is unmatched thanks to the Wii U’s gamepad, making the game unquestionably the best title fitted for the tablet controller. Because of this, there’s a natural tactility that you feel when building levels that you won’t find with an analog stick; simply drag enemies, blocks, pipes and more with the stylus, and place them in the exact set of tiles desired. Its basics are as simple as that.
Some advanced options in the creation tools, however, aren’t as obvious as some would like them to be. There are combinations of enemies, objects and power-ups that you need to play around with in order to discover how they interact with one another. Many – not all – items are shakable, which reveals various alternate states that withhold different appearances and behaviours. Also, you can insert enemies (as well as power ups and coins) in a number of different objects, mainly Question Blocks, Pipes, and Bullet Bill Launchers.
Though SMM may not be as transparent about many of these actions up front, as a UGC title, there exists an entire community of levels (pre-loaded Nintendo levels are included as well) that can be used as interactive references that naturally encourage you to experiment with similar concepts in your own creations.
Just seeing what SMM is capable of will make you eager to get your hands on all of its available tools as quickly as possible. Just like Splatoon, SMM withholds content from the initial startup, but here it’s for the purpose of allowing players to get acclimated to the creation tools instead of being overwhelmed with everything at once. Before, players had to wait a dreaded nine days while slowly unlocking all the items, ‘game styles’ (Super Mario Bros. 3 and World in addition to the original Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. U), and level themes such as Ghost House and Air Ship. Now, after the game’s 1.01 patch, the wait has been drastically reduced down to a mere two hours and fifteen minutes, which gets you to your content much faster.
Rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty in creating levels will quickly open you up to what’s not in SMM, which prevents you from building one-to-one replicas of some of your favourite Mario stages. It won’t take long for you to notice the lack of check points, special enemies, and platform types that were core to the design of many historic Mario levels. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll pick up on things like Yoshi’s inability to adopt the properties of the Koopas he swallows, as seen in Super Mario World, and the restriction of having to build stages within one main level and sub-level: neither are nearly as vertical or as wide as proper Mario stages. It becomes clear that this is anchored by how the game allows you to switch between the four different game styles – all of which are distinguishable by their differing platforming mechanics, and a perhaps a way to avoid inundating the player with too many options. In light of all this, SMM has a unique problem in being compared to three decades of its own history.
With that said, even if SMM had all of the tools needed to recreate every Super Mario level in existence, it still wouldn’t be immune to the worst of user generated content. As expected with any game of this ilk, you will find a lot of real bad fucking levels in Super Mario Maker. You’ll play trollish stages that go out of their way to kill you at the drop of a hat, you’ll play stages that you cannot beat without taking a hit, and you’ll play stages that allow you to be boxed in a corner while forcing a restart. Overall, you’ll play many stages that do not match, or even adhere to, the Nintendo way of building a level around mechanical themes with a beginning, middle and end.
And yet in spite of all that, what keeps Super Mario Maker heads and shoulders above most UGC platformers are the unrivalled pitch perfect controls. A poorly designed level in say, LittleBigPlanet, is a bad level from top to bottom. A poorly designed stage on SMM is a bad level that could possibly be somewhat salvaged by excellent controls. That’s something that you cannot say about almost any other game.
For every few bad stages played in SMM, you’ll come a cross of a handful of marvellous creations that stand toe to toe with the best of the franchise’s history, and even create completely new experiences all on their own. I’ve steered Koopa Clown Cars through spike mazes, unravelled traumatic stories about fatherhood, played new versions of Flappy Bird, and jumped through brilliant recreations of Wario Ware Inc. and DIY. What you’ll find here more than makes up for the lack of desired creation tools or the heaps of nonsensical levels found online. The best of SMM takes ample advantage of the game’s subversive systems and churns out alarmingly fresh new concepts that mark the very reason that SMM exists: it’s a complimentary factory for some of the most inventive and mechanically sound 2D platformers you’ll ever play.
When it comes to experiencing the best that SMM has to offer, it’s all about discoverability, something that many UGC titles struggle with. Thankfully, Nintendo has implemented precise – yet unsurprisingly clumsy – networking features that encourage the celebration of well-crafted stages. For starters, you are only allowed to upload a total of ten stages. In order to gain access to more uploads, you’ll need to increase your star ranking (think of ‘star ranking’ as SMM’s version of Facebook ‘Likes’ or YouTube ‘Thumbs Up’), which thus pressures you to polish existing courses or replace them with better ones.
Outside of using social media to share you level’s ID codes to pimp your content, this is a great opportunity to take advantage of SMM’s couch co-op mode that effectively turns your living room into a playtesting studio. While you manipulate stages on the gamepad, a second player can run the course with a pro controller or a Wiimote. I’ve found this particularly invaluable as my wife has uncovered holes in my level design that I’ve overlooked countless times.
SMM smartly profiles players which makes it easy to keep track of some of your favourite creators. Once you’ve discovered a player on either the game’s 100 Mario Challenge – which strings together uploaded levels in a more traditional Mario format – or picked from the network’s various featuring lists, not only can you access all of the levels that they’ve uploaded, but you can also access stages that they’ve starred. Ideally, following talented creators paves a path that mostly avoids some of the game’s shittier uploads; though it’s important to be mindful that SMM’s star rating filter is inherently imperfect.
After playing a stage that you’ve had a miserable time with, you may feel compelled to leave, *ehem… some constructive criticism on where they went wrong. Don’t. Anytime you comment on a level, the game automatically applies a star to it. That opens up some significant discrepancies between popularity vs. quality as levels that are slammed with negative comments could allow less deserving creators to skyrocket up the polls. It’s completely counter intuitive to the all-encompassing incentive to build well designed levels. Yes, good stages could raise one’s star rating, but shit stages have an equal, if not greater chance, of increasing one’s star rating as well.
All of this exists next to some cumbersome navigational issues that aren’t uncommon to Nintendo online titles. You’ll have to work with a UI that splits up categories such as ‘Followed Players’ and ‘Starred Stages’ which would more logically exist in the same space, and, most annoyingly, deal with the hassle of waiting on the system to jump between the software and Miiverse every time you leave a comment. Still, these issues pale in comparison to Nintendo’s past online attempts, and if games like Super Smash Bros. and Splatoon can be forgiven thanks to just being excellent play experiences, we can certainly forgive Super Mario Maker as it’s a very special game.
To many, Super Mario Maker is a game that has been 30 years in the making. Sure, you may not be able to completely relive your childhood memories with some of the parts that made up Super Mario classics, but their absence is long forgotten after you use the numerous tools that are available to create your own modern 2D Super Mario experiences. And with hundreds of thousands of other active creators doing their best to stand out, Super Mario Maker has the potential to exist as a conduit for seemingly limitless amounts of new and creative Mario stages. Many will be crap, yes, but with the profile based systems that SMM features, you’ll hardly have a shortage of some of the best 2D Mario levels you’ll ever play.
And with that, I will leave you with some of my favourite Mario Maker stage’s that I have played thus far:
Cheers to all the talented creators. Keep up the good work!
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