Super Mario Bros. revolutionized the world of games in 1985 and has continued to make history ever since. The series' 2D platforming is so ubiquitous in modern culture that you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't at least seen a Mario level being played, and it's long since inspired generations of hackers and even amateur players to create their own Super Mario levels through various under-the-radar programs. But now Nintendo is opening the mushroom-crested floodgates of fan-made Mario levels officially endorsed and curated by Nintendo itself. Never before has the joy of game design been so accessible, intuitive, and delightful. This is Super Mario Maker.
At the heart of Super Mario Maker is perhaps the most finely-crafted level editor to date. It boasts an easy-to-use grid system wherein players can drag enemies, coins, platforms, and more from place to place using the Wii U GamePad's intuitive touch screen controls; it lets players transition seamlessly from the creative and careful process of designing your levels to the kinetic fun of actually playing them with the touch of a button. When you dive back into the editor it displays a ghost of Mario's actions, which means you can see where in the level Mario might land when performing a given action. You can swiftly swap between the level, its editor, the level, and back again, and thereby design pixel-perfect courses with astounding fluidity.
It's this elegance which defines Super Mario Maker as one of the most painless game creation tools publicly available, and yet one of the most robust. Players have nearly thirty years of Mario's history at their fingertips, including nearly every one of the enemies, items, and platform types that have graced the 2D games, as well as several famous level themes, like airships, ghost houses, and more. You can apply any theme to any level at any time during editing, and better yet is that you can create levels in all four of the major iterations on the core gameplay that Super Mario Bros. laid down. If you want to make a level that looks like Super Mario Bros. 3, go right ahead. Super Mario World? Be my guest! New Super Mario Bros.? Go wild!
Any level you create can take on one of these four skins, and with it the actions and physics of their original titles. The New Super Mario Bros. skin, for example, lets players wall jump, triple jump, and perform Mario's cute little air spin. The Super Mario World skin lets players kick shells vertically into the air, or spin jump to survive otherwise lethal footing. And because you can change either the theme or the skin of any given level on a whim, it's easy to play with dozens of different visual and mechanical qualities and discover how a given match—such as an airship theme in Super Mario World, or a castle theme in New Super Mario Bros.—affects the level you're making.
As an example, items uniquely from one title will change when you switch from one game skin to another. So Mario 3's Super Leaf becomes the Cape Feather from World, or the New Propeller Suit. This is a nice gesture to further ensure that each skin has its own unique design possibilities on the one hand, but on the other, it does limit the potential to mix fun features like Yoshi with the Kuribo's Shoe.
This selection of thematic options does have a few noticeable exclusions, however. There's no trace of forest levels, desert levels, a Super Mario Bros. 2 skin, or any of the content directly associated with these environments. But Nintendo has done a good job covering their bases, and Mario Maker doesn't actively suffer for their absence.
Within this wealth of settings and gameplay opportunities, players can mix and match their level editing tools to their heart's delight. You could drag a Super Mushroom onto a Goomba and create a behemoth baddie. You could drag a Spiny's shell on Mario's head and give him an empowering defense mechanism. You could drag a coin into a Lakitu's cloud and luxuriate in his delightful golden shower. The possibilities are many every step of the way, from the settings, to the gameplay, and of course to the level designs. I've spent hours doing everything I can think of with this game, and I still know darn well I've only been able to scratch the surface.
Super Mario Maker even has your back if you border on the less creative side. There are dozens of pre-made level templates that it may start you off with, and you can even play through sample courses that show off creative ways to play with its tools. Mario Maker masks this as its single-player mode, called "10-Mario Challenge," where you can play through ten pre-made levels for inspiration. It also offers you the option to play sample courses any time you unlock new tools for the editor, so you can see what kind of ways you could use them.
Another great aid to creativity is the Mystery Mushroom, a power-up exclusive to the original Super Mario Bros. skin that grants Mario one of numerous different costumes. He could become any number of pieces from Super Mario Bros., including Goombas, Question Blocks, and of course Luigi. But the true joy of Costume Mario is the crossover outfits for characters like Donkey Kong, Marth, Link, the Pikmin, and dozens of truly surprising inclusions. I found that these costumes open a reservoir of inspiration for new level ideas. If you want to make a level for Donkey Kong, for example, you could base it all around climbing vines. If you want to build a level for the Pikmin, you could make everything gigantic. Or if you just feel like you've gotta go fast, there are plenty of speed boosters, springs, and falling platforms you can use to make sure you're not too slow.
While these costumes are easiest to unlock by scanning in an Amiibo, you can also unlock them by playing the game's many difficulties for the Mario Challenge mode. It may take longer than you'd like, but it's an excellent way of delivering great content through Amiibo and not gating it behind hard-to-find paywalls.
Super Mario Maker, however, is not without a few disappointing limitations. I was personally disappointed to see how little visual flair you can grant a level without altering its physical terrain—some tools can change color, but otherwise the most you can do to breathe life into a level without changing its physical boundaries is place a semi-solid platform in the background. More players will be disappointed, however, that the slanted ground on which we had so much fun sliding over Goombas in Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mario World aren't available in Mario Maker, nor are some of the wackier game elements like Pipe Cannons or bendable mushroom platforms. Worse still is checkpoints are completely absent, which means even medium-difficulty levels can be more brutal than you might intend.
Nintendo also bizarrely excluded one of the power-up system's fundamental mechanics from mainstream Mario games. In the core series, most power-up blocks give you a Mushroom to start, or give you a stronger power-up if you strike them when you're already souped-up. Mario Maker, however, limits power-ups to their particular type, which means a block with a Super Mushroom will always produce a Super Mushroom, a block with a Fire Flower will always produce a Fire Flower, and so on. This nuance shifts focus away from the power-up system as a fine balance between rewarding players for their skill and protecting them from too-frustrating death (as it more often is in the main series), and much farther towards the power-up system as a means of using different abilities to solve specific puzzles. This has its place, no doubt. But without the option of using power-ups as they function traditionally, I can't help but feel that there's disproportionately less joy in creating levels that pride themselves on superb design instead of clever ideas.
The game's worst crime, however, is that it locks nearly all of its content behind arbitrarily-timed gates. The game only grants you access to a small handful of tools, themes, and even several features at the outset, only rolling them out at a painfully slow pace day-by-day. The idea was to avoid overwhelming players, especially newer ones, by boasting too many unfamiliar tools all at once. A more gradual rollout affords everyone, no matter their skill level, more comfortable time to experiment with the many different ways each individual piece can be used. It's an excellent idea, but its execution feels all too arbitrary and too distant from its intent.
Luckily you can trick the game into unlocking everything early on by setting your Wii U clock back a few weeks when you first start the game, something I would recommend that every one of you do without hesitation, lest you want to slog through a version of Mario Maker that lacks 90% of its boons.
Super Mario Maker then has an online level sharing system so that others can play and rate your levels, interact with you, send feedback, and so that you can do all the same with them. After all, what fun would a level editor be with nobody around to play your creations, and what fun would it be if you couldn't play everyone else's? You can mark courses as favorites, follow your favorite course creators, and download others' levels to edit them in your own fun ways. Unfortunately the personalization system pretty much stops there. When you play a course it may lead you into other courses people are enjoying, but it's otherwise an extremely basic system.
Its weaknesses are most frustrating when you try to incorporate your experience in the online community back into the levels you're creating. If you see a place where too many people are dying, or perhaps a level-breaking exploit that someone online has discovered, or even if people are giving you constructive criticism on Miiverse, naturally you'd want to adjust your level and re-upload it. You might expect a system where you can see a level's revision history, or upload multiple versions of the same level based on your fine-tuning, but none of this is possible. Even the smallest change demands that you re-upload the course as a totally different level. The play data you've collected, the stars people gave you, and all the feedback your level got will all stick with the original, unedited version. When you've earned enough stars to upload tons of levels, this is no big deal. But especially earlier on, when you only have a handful of levels you're allowed to upload at a time, it feels as if they're damning you to choose between keeping records of your level's revision process (and the stars you've earned with them), or uploading levels that the community will better appreciate.
You're completely prevented, meanwhile, from uploading courses that you made based on something you downloaded from the community. It's good to discourage plagiarism in the Mushroom Kingdom, but letting people remix levels and upload them to a sub-feed for the original would lead to a much better wealth of creative energy flowing within the community, and a restriction that prevents remixed levels from being re-uploaded without a certain number of meaningful changes couldn't possibly be hard to implement.
Super Mario Maker's level sharing features get the job done fine, but it's not quite the online system we should expect from a user-generated content game, and an even farther cry from the robust system that the rest of Mario Maker's ingenuity demands.
The Verdict: Excellente!
Super Mario Maker is what we get when an unprecedentedly thoughtful and intuitive level editor meets the undisputed god of 2D platformers. It's clever, it's fresh, it's charming, it's playful, and for the most part, it's smoother than we ever could have dreamed a year and a half ago. The wealth of content it invites players to use, coupled with the inspired new ways it lets you use it, is just enough to excuse what parts of the 2D Mario history it ignores. Its only (unavoidable) crime is an online infrastructure that doesn't do its marvelous editor justice. But whether it's enough for you or not, Nintendo has here the makings of a truly super Mario.
Super Mario Maker launches at $59.99 on September 11th, only on Wii U.
Editor's Note: Nintendo provided Gamnesia with a digital copy of Super Mario Maker for review. Because the content rollout system can be skipped by adjusting the Wii U's time and date, it did not negatively affect the game's score. We will update this review accordingly should Nintendo make any significant changes to Super Mario Maker through patches or content updates in the future.