With all the Legos imaginable laid out before you, it can be hard to focus on building something simple and functional. More often, the thought process jumps straight to, “I’m going to build a whole city! Underwater! With dragons!” Before long, all sorts of pieces that don’t necessarily mesh are being mashed together, and the creations are abandoned half-finished. This is often the case with the products of Lego-like creation modes in games, as well: too many levels that feel like a mishmash of half-finished ideas constructed by a generation of players cast as poets so romanced by the forest, they forgot how to use trees. The same fate could have befallen Super Mario Maker, but when handing over the keys to the Mushroom Kingdom, Nintendo wisely ensured we’ll take our time and get it right.
Super Mario Maker, as the name might suggest, is a game where players make their own Super Mario Bros. levels—specifically, levels that fit within the aesthetics of the original Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and the recent New Super Mario Bros. series. You lay out every tile, power-up, enemy, and warp pipe and design the levels of your dreams—to a degree. Everything still has to play by the rules of the Mario universe, so there’s no option to give Mario a sword or create wholly new enemies, for example.
The first few levels most creators build look largely the same, thanks in part to the game automatically unlocking its Mario materials over time. They’ve all got some piranha plants, a few goombas, maybe a pyramid of bricks, and then the end goal. Yawn, yawn, yawn. Somewhere around your third or fourth level, though, something magical happens: Players start to discover their personal style. Maybe they like elaborate obstacle courses or fast-paced races against the clock. Perhaps a peaceful dive into a pit full of coins is their dream come true, or maybe it’s a trap-filled hallway that requires delicate precision. And when designers find their groove and construct stages that make them happy, it shows in the people who play it. The evidence is right there in the Miiverse notes from strangers praising creative enemy placement and the YouTube comments that excitedly ask for more.
What helps Super Mario Maker stand apart from all the other build-your-own-level games, like LittleBigPlanet, is its remarkably specialized tool kit. There are only a few dozen items, and each serve a deliberate purpose. Doors lead to other areas on the same screen while pipes lead to whole other screens, just as spike-topped beetles climb up walls while koopas walk into them and turn back around. Seeing an object on-screen tells you everything you need to know about how it operates and how Mario can interact with it. This makes it easier both for players to understand a level and designers to realize their visions in a more direct and fluid manner.
Equally helpful is the slow drip with which Super Mario Maker doles out these tools. It starts with the basics and requires players to spend five minutes building with what they’ve got before the next handful will arrive on the following day. The materials are divided into themes, encouraging aspiring designers to spend a day working on, say, an underwater stage before trying their hand at castles or ghost houses. Over the course of a week, Super Mario Maker gently demonstrates every trick up its sleeve, clueing players in to just how much they can get away with using these decades-old tools in imaginative new combinations.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of opportunities for surprise, though. Creative fusions of items can birth obstacles that have never appeared in the original games, like ghosts hiding inside question blocks, pipes that spit out coins, or giant flying bob-ombs with piranha plants coming out of their heads. The novelty of these impossible combinations makes for quite the spectacle, which is perhaps why these towering abominations are so prevalent in the game’s marketing materials and many of the early custom stages. The difference between a spectacle and a level that is actually fun to play, though, involves a bit more time, thought, and practice.
There are a lot of options when it comes to building, but actually playing the potentially infinite number levels is somewhat more limited. The stages can be sorted according to the number of times other players have favorited them, and if a level has a high ranking, odds are it’s pretty good. There’s also a “100 Mario Challenge” mode that pulls random levels with no visible degree of quality control.
Otherwise, your search options are limited. There’s no way to search the community for stages that employ specific themes or items, for example. A tagging system for puzzles, levels, races, or boss battles would go a long way to ensuring people can find the types of levels they want to play. Likewise, if you see a stage you like posted online, say on YouTube or Twitter, there’s no option to search by the level’s title or creator; rather you have to input a 16-digit code similar to the much-maligned Friend Code systems of the Nintendo Wii and DS. Just typing one of these strings into the game is an unpleasant reminder of how antiquated that system had become and how far it felt like Nintendo had matured in the past few years.
For better or worse, Super Mario Maker also provides merely a close approximation of each of the four Mario generations represented. While New Super Mario Bros. levels do support newer techniques like ground-pounds and wall-jumps, enemies do not bounce to the music the way they had in previous New games. Hammer Bros can be made giant-sized to more closely resemble their appearance in Super Mario World, but they cannot be given other power-ups to recreate their fire- or boomerang-wielding cousins. Platforms in Super Mario Bros. 3 cycle between three colors, including the infamous white blocks, but Mario cannot pass through them the way he could in the original game (though there is a cute little Easter egg in its place). Levels need to make sense linearly, so there are no endlessly repeating hallways like the final castle of the original Super Mario Bros. None of these alterations are “deal breakers” in any sense, though they do mean that while players can make a lot of Mario stages, they cannot make every Mario stage.
As both a user experience and dream fulfillment, Super Mario Maker is far from perfect, but it is still hugely charming and packs a copious helping of fan service for longtime Mario aficionados. Its greatest accomplishment, though, is showing how such a simple collection of toys can be used in so many different ways. With an active and passionate community, Super Mario Maker could very well be the last Mario game we ever need.