For three years, the Wii U has toiled away, boasting a number of downright outstanding exclusives on a piece of hardware that, frankly, doesn’t make much sense. The GamePad has forever been a novelty at best and a clunky toy-like tablet imitator at worst, and while the issues with the design of the Wii U’s main controller persist, we finally have a game that fundamentally would not function half as well without it. Could you imagine a world in which Super Mario Maker was a Wii U launch title? Had the ability to create and play levels from the greatest video game franchise known to man been bundled in with Nintendo’s brand new console, would we still be making jokes at the Wii U’s expense? We’ll never know how the Wii U’s lifespan would have played out differently had it not taken three years to maximize the GamePad, but now that Super Mario Maker exists, we can finally begin to see what Nintendo was going for when it released its new console in November 2012.
In a vacuum, Super Mario Maker is everything that hardcore gamers could ever dream of: a game that gives us the power to play new Super Mario Bros. levels until the end of time. Sure, a great deal of hubbub has been made over the outstanding creation tools present, and this statement certainly doesn’t discount their inclusion or the creativity they inspire in any way, but Super Mario Maker is bigger than simply a create-your-own-level title. The Super Mario Bros. franchise, from the iconic first NES title’s release in 1985 all the way up to New Super Mario Bros. U on the Wii U, has been something truly special from its inception. A master-class in gameplay, level design, charm and mechanical perfection, there’s something to be said about including the framework for greatness in a game with unlimited creation potential. Thinking of this fact is consistently mind-blowing: there’s a game in my living room that will let me play oodles of Mario content for years. As someone who grew up with some of the best Nintendo games always on his television before growing increasingly annoyed at Nintendo’s practices, it’s a joy to play a game that reminds us all what made this company so special in the first place.
Super Mario Maker‘s creation tools give players access to literally everything you could possibly imagine from Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. Once players select a game to model their creation after (there’s no way to splice elements from different games together, so unfortunately that Frankenstein-like monstrosity you were hoping to make is currently impossible), they’ll have the opportunity to drag and drop as many pieces as they see fit. Of course, lots of other games have made in-depth creation possible, just look at LittleBigPlanet and the more engine-like Project Spark. The thing about Super Mario Maker that makes its creation mode so special is that it feels like it was inherently designed to be intuitive. With the exception of an eraser being a separate function entirely, which is likely a result of the Game Pad’s lack of multi-touch functionality, everything that you think you can do is exactly what you should. Dragging and dropping is the name of the game here, and when this is combined with a number of easy touch tools for increasing item size and position, the result is magic. The greatest barrier to entry for any creation-based title is player motiviation, and the tools have been put in place here so that making the Mario level of your dreams is actually pretty attainable.
Sure, the tools are there, but good tools without actual entertainment value makes for a bland experience. Super Mario Maker, thanks to the rock-solid mechanics that essentially kicked off the insane journey that the video game industry has been on over the past thirty years, thankfully and obviously doesn’t suffer from this problem. The idea that you can play-test your level at any time during your creation process allows you to make sure that the stages of your dreams can actually exist. Being that everyone and their mother understands the Mario jump, which is, to this day, the most mechanically sound jump in any platformer, it’s exciting to create a stage that you know will be pleasurable to play. Sure, there are definitely some stinkers floating around the community levels, but even the worst Super Mario Maker levels still have that iconic charm that makes this franchise so special.
Included in the package, which some are insanely claiming isn’t a full retail value in comments sections around the globe, are 100 pre-built levels from Nintendo itself. Not only do these function as a brief, yet still wonderful introduction into the world of Super Mario Maker, but they also are a phenomenal way to begin to understand what goes into a decent created stage. This also gives a preview to the legs that this particular game is going to likely have; we’re probably playing the worst of what the community has to offer, so increased gameplay is going to make for an increasing quality barometer. From remixes of classic stages from the original Super Mario Bros. to some downright masochistic levels with saw-blades, trampolines and bloopers everywhere, this community is constantly learning good level design through osmosis. This is where Super Mario Maker begins to seem like the special game it is: if the community continues to create levels and one-up itself (pun totally intended), this is going to be the Mario game we’ve always wished for.
After completing the included levels in the 10-Mario Challenge, the vast majority of players will find themselves going through the 100-Mario Challenge. This mode, which includes increasing numbers of community-created stages as a form of difficulty control, provides one hundred lives and challenges players to finish every stage and then do it over and over again. If you wind up stumbling upon a clunker of a level, simply holding the select button allows you to skip to another stage without spending a life, losing or gaining progress. Super Mario Maker‘s lone flaw is its weak community search tools (which feel like they could use another level of polish), so being able to cycle through stages constantly makes for an awesome experience that never has to end. If you’re thinking of playing Super Mario Maker until your eyes bleed, then you’re going to spend a great deal of time fiddling around with this particular mode.
Of course, this wouldn’t be half the game it is if it wasn’t for the insane level of charm that encapsulates every pixel on the screen. Nowhere is this more evident than with the triple digit number of unique character skins and the disturbing addition of the Skinny Mushroom. By including special mushrooms that change player appearance, there’s a distinct level of mystery and possibility that surrounds every block. There’s always a chance that hitting a question block or passing by a pipe could wind up turning you into Pikachu, Marth or Bowser himself. My personal favorite moment thus far in Super Mario Maker‘s short lifespan was when one of the hardest levels around gave me the chance to be both a kid now and a squid now (that’s right, a kid mushroom and a squid mushroom were in the same stage). That aforementioned Skinny Mushroom turns Mario into a downright shocking Italian Slenderman, though his increased speed and jumping ability make for a straight up zany experience. While it may not have the water cooler style of a game like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain or Bloodborne, there are tons of hysterical moments to take in and tell stories of. The only sad part is that the social functionality doesn’t make it particularly easy to directly share levels with individual friends (though they’d have to put up with a downright obnoxious amount of Miiverse comments flooding the screen at any given time if this function existed).
Super Mario Maker is a special video game, period. You could include all of the lengthy, metaphor-laden nonsense that your little brain can come up with as to what is and isn’t perfect about it, but at the end of the day, this is a title that allows you to create and play Super Mario Bros. levels for as long as your thumbs can handle. Yes, the creation tools, while outstanding and intuitive, could be a little better if the Wii U’s touchscreen wasn’t archaic and the social functionality was a bit more robust, but that isn’t the main takeaway here. The fact of the matter is that the series with the perfect platforming mechanics has a fountain of content that won’t stop operating until its servers are shut down, and there’s an inherent magic to this that so many other games can’t dream of attaining. Super Mario Maker is the type of game that reminds you why video games are special in the first place, and this reminder has the perfect central face: that goofy looking, slightly overweight plumber we all cherish.