The phenomenal success of Minecraft shows that, in this day and age, just playing games isn't necessarily enough: it's even better if you can build them as you're going along.
Therein lies the genius of Super Mario Maker: it marries the oldest of old-skool – the glorious early stirrings of the iconic Mario's platforming career – with the most modern of gaming sensibilities. As the name makes plain, it lets you build your own 2D, side-scrolling Super Mario levels and play them.
Is Mario Maker another classic under Nintendo's belt, adding to the wide range of must-have Wii U titles, or an overcomplicated tangent on the Mario games we know and love?
Super Mario Maker review: Creative ease
The father of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, has spoken at length recently about how Nintendo's level-design tools had reached such a polished and intuitive point that he felt ready to unleash them on the general public, and you can see why he felt that when you play Super Mario Maker.
It's wonderfully easy to use, and makes great use of the Wii U Gamepad's unique capabilities. You just pick your element (a block, say, or a pipe or a Goombah) and paint it onto the screen in your favoured position using the stylus.
A "Coursebot" lets you upload finished courses online so that the rest of the world can play them, as well as manage previously made courses; you can also download other people's courses to it and edit those too. Course World, meanwhile, gives access to a whole wondrous universe of other people's courses (even pre-launch, there were some very bizarre and inventive ones to be found).
Then there's the 100 Mario Challenge gives you 100 lives to clear eight randomly selected courses made by others. Which might not be as generous as it sounds, since you frequently encounter levels that are beyond fiendish. There's also an offline 10 Mario Challenge which takes you through a set of eight pre-determined courses.
So even when viewed as a conventional Super Mario game, there's plenty for you to play – and as everyone who buys Super Mario Maker posts courses, an unimaginably vast amount of content will accumulate. You're encouraged to comment on all the courses you play, and in as specific a manner as possible. The game even points out that giving your course a jazzy name is likely to add to its popularity.
Super Mario Maker review: Initial limitations
At first, having a Super Mario Bros toybox at your command is quite something. You're encouraged to dive straight in and make a course, and Super Mario Maker holds your hand pretty effectively.
But the initial stages also breed a tiny amount of frustration. There are two different themes you can flip between: the original Super Mario Bros and New Super Mario U, and clicking one of those icons and being able to instantly transform all the elements of your course into a new art-style will have you cackling. But at first, you have an annoyingly restricted set of course-building elements at your command.
That's a conscious decision that Nintendo made: you'll be drip-fed new sets of level-design elements each day, as long as you put a few hours in until, after less than a week, you have them all. We can see why Nintendo pursued that policy, though. It allows you get to grips with the basics of level-design before you feel tempted to run riot, and forces you to find out for yourself what makes a good course, and what doesn't (there are plenty of tips on offer, such as avoiding the temptation to indulge in unnecessary clutter).
But since you can dive into Course World and download courses made by people with access to all manner of exotic elements like doors, Boos, lava, platforms that move along designated tracks and so on, it swiftly becomes annoying. You will be rewarded for courses that strike a nerve with the general public, and Amiibos (Nintendo's physical toys) also generate exotic design elements. But until you've unlocked everything, Super Mario Bros moves at a pace which is much more glacial than it ought to be.
Super Mario Maker review: Endless scope
And if you don't prove to be a naturally talented level-designer, there's actually plenty of potential for embarrassment. Eager to upload our first, faltering efforts (which frankly weren't much fun to play) we tended to give them apologetic names in the hope that nobody would notice our general ineptness. You can, at least, delete uploaded levels when you've come up with something better.
But Super Mario Maker really takes off when you've done enough grinding to unlock all the tools, and can therefore build levels which look impressive and play in interesting ways. The game cleverly ensures that you can't upload levels which are physically impossible to finish (and it's very easy to make those) by insisting that you complete each level in a play-through before you're allowed to upload.
And the scope is endless. You can create subterranean sub-levels accessible via pipes, or levels that more or less resemble the board game Mousetrap or the oeuvre of Heath-Robinson. You can spell your name, or any specific message, in blocks. You can make underwater levels, and record your own sounds to attach to items or events (glorious, generally 8-bit, sound is a notable feature of the game). You can also unlock some of the more obscure art-styles from the long history of Super Mario games.
In terms of replay value Super Mario Maker is in a league of its own. The whole experience is very gentle, involving tinkering rather than much action, but it becomes incredibly moreish once you have a full design palette at your command.
When, post-launch, a whole Mario-making community sprouts virtually overnight, you could see Super Mario Maker becoming a phenomenon along similar lines to Minecraft (albeit limited to Wii U) – it definitely has more appeal than Minecraft to an audience which has passed beyond its pre-teen years.
If you've ever fancied yourself as a maker of games, rather than a mere player of them, Super Mario Maker should be the stuff of your dreams. And if you turn out to be a less than talented level designer, it will still contain vast – and often stunningly original – repositories of irresistible side-scrolling platforming action.
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