I am not a good game designer, but I knew that before playing Super Mario Maker. In other games with a built-in "creator" mode, like LittleBigPlanet, I would just ignore the creation aspect and focus on playing. Mod and level design tools for most RPGs require too much dedicated study and practice to draw me in. But with Mario Maker, it's incredibly simple to design a hideous torture chamber. Or indeed any product of intentionally horrible, unfair game design. I'm still not very good at it, but I'm beginning to love creating.
Super Mario Maker is essentially two games: A design tool and a traditional 2D platformer. The tool aspect lets you crib elements from several Mario games and toss them together into a level of your own making, which you can then upload online for everyone else to play. You choose the overall graphical skin from among Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, or New Super Mario Bros. U. This affects the way everything looks and sounds, and how some items are used (for example, Mario World allows access to Cape Mario while New Super Mario Bros. U swaps that with Propellor Mario). And the background that you choose (airship, underwater, castle, etc.), determines the stage and musical themes.
The mix-and-match nature allows for exciting and anachronistic additions to familiar scenarios, like dropping a version of Bowser Jr. into an 8-bit style underwater Mario level. And some items can be combined for interesting new effects--placing a POW block in a pipe creates a pipe the distributes POW blocks, and putting a mushroom on pretty much any item, or enemy, makes it significantly larger.
It's a simple system that involves dragging and dropping different items from the menu bar into the environment. Copying, deleting, and drawing platforms is as easy as swiping and drawing across the Wii U tablet. As you place your level's obstacles and platforms, little background elements pop up adding color and variety to the scenery. And with an undo "dog" button and a restart "rocket" icon, the menu aesthetic is an obvious nod to the quirky, experimental SNES title Mario Paint. You'll even get flies swarming around your screen if you let the game idle for too long.
Building off of Mario Paint's eclectic sense of humor, you can also add pre-recorded sound and visual effects to your stage that would have never been used in a more traditional Mario game. Whether that's as simple as a friendly "ding" when you hit the correct box, or a "beating heart" sound when you want to add some tension to an ominous dungeon hallway, the effects use the same intuitive drag-and-drop system as the game's other items.
"The first time I discovered that not only could I make a giant, flame-spewing piranha plant, but I could also make it fly, I cackled with horrible glee at the possibilities."
Everything is incredibly easy to understand, implement, and experiment with, which makes creating levels, even for a complete novice, fun and effortless.
Unlike other games where the creation aspect is secondary to playing through a story or mission mode, crafting a level in Mario Maker is the focus. And also unlike with those games, creating a level is just as fun as playing one. Swapping between building and testing a stage is immediate and seamless, so it's easy to try new ideas. This lends the game a sense of discovery and adventure, even after you've been creating for hours.
While it rarely feels like there aren't enough tools create with, the longer you spend with Mario Maker, the more you might notice things you can't do. There's no way to add a mid-stage checkpoint. The dimensional limits of the levels are set in stone, so if you want to build something focused on a long, vertical freefall, rather than a horizontal jaunt, you're out of luck. Enemy AI is fixed--you can't create Goombas or Turtles that will try to actively seek out and attack Mario (though there are Mario-seeking Bullet Bills already included). And while you're allowed to place and use the game's creations in almost any way you like, the broader details, whether that's changing the color palette of an enemy or composing your own music, are outside your control. The restrictions doubtless keep the creation aspect more focused on interesting gameplay moments, but--especially with Mario Maker's other nods to Mario Paint--it's hard not to want just a little bit more freedom to expand past the bounds of a normal Mario game.
And, as both a positive and a negative, you don't have complete access to all of the game's creation tools when you first turn it on. You start off with a very limited palette of items and themes to experiment with, and more of the game's options unlock the longer you spend creating. That unlock time isn't measured in hours, however; it's measured in days. After playing with the tools you have available for about five minutes, you'll get an on-screen message saying the next unlock is queued up for delivery...the next day. Come back the next day, play for five more minutes with your new toys, and the next set of items will queue up for another next-day delivery.
It's a simple albeit tedious system to bypass: backing out of the game and changing your system's clock lets you hack your way to quicker access. But even though that week-long process of unlocking all the game's available items is a bit too long, it does serve a purpose: it makes sure you get out of the creator and play more levels.
Experimenting with the creation tools and playing around with the maker aspect is fun on its own, but the way you really learn to use those tools is through trying other peoples' creations. Just like reading makes you a better writer and listening to music makes you a better musician, playing through stages, both good and bad, lets you experience first-hand what works and doesn't work in a level. Mario Maker comes with a suite of pre-built stages, so there's something to try out even if you never go online and try user-created content.
But the user-created levels are where the real sparks of both genius and maddening difficulty come in. With a mix of hundreds of stages from around the world, I survived gauntlets of impossible-looking spinning fire traps; crossed massive gaps that required precise, last-second jumps; and solved levels that were more about using shells and other items in creative ways rather than reflexes and timing. In one particularly devious stage, I was forced to avoid mushrooms entirely, normally a highly sought-after power-up, in order to squeeze through tiny gaps at certain points in the level. The catch: the level was filled with hundreds of mushrooms.
The game makes it easy to find and sort user-created levels by popularity, difficulty, and creator. And the force that keeps driving you through these player-created levels, no matter how crazy, is knowing that someone had to beat them to upload them. They might seem hard. They might be put together with unbelievable unfairness. And maybe its creator only got through using luck and sheer force of will. But someone beat that level at least once, and that means you can too.
Super Mario Maker is a game of joyous creation and fun surprises. And that's without mentioning things like the music, a highlight in every Mario game. From the familiar and joyous themes of the main worlds to the altered riffs you get when tinkering around in Make mode, the soundtrack captures that same essence of wonder and surprise as the rest of the game. Even the in-game instruction manual is incredibly useful and entertaining; it's graphically animated, written with a great sense of humor, and, for no particular reason, throws in some thoughts about brussel sprouts.
The first time I discovered that not only could I make a giant, flame-spewing piranha plant, but I could also make it fly, I cackled with horrible glee at the possibilities. And for the first time in a creation-focused experience, I look forward to returning again and again for more than just the amazing levels I know other people will create. I want to keep making my own levels better. The game won't necessarily turn you into the next Shigeru Miyamoto, but you can almost feel a little bit of that magic rubbing off every time you upload a new creation.