Mario Maker may have been inadvertently revealed a little earlier than intended at E3 this year, but with the allure of what was on offer — a new Wii U title which lets budding Miyamotos create and play their own Mario levels — we’d argue that the effect was less like ruining a surprise and more like knowing you’re getting exactly what you wanted for your birthday a day early. We certainly jumped into our hands-on time with Mario Maker with high expectations, and what we saw didn’t disappoint. Even in a very early state we found it to be a fantastic concept wrapped up in a charming package as only Nintendo can, a great fit for the GamePad, and a whole lot of fun.
Right from the start, Mario Maker’s editing interface is intuitive and remarkably easy to use; starting your stage is as simple as picking an object — say breakable bricks, power-up blocks, jump springs, moving platforms, enemies, pipes, or coins — and painting them onto the side-scrolling canvas using the stylus. Once you’ve placed an element, you can move and resize it as you’d like, or group different pieces together to edit them as a single unit, and while there’s a dedicated eraser tool you can also simply double-tap an object to make it disappear.
As you may have hoped, you can make your level as crazy, intricate, silly, or tough as you’d like, and we certainly saw the whole gamut on display at the show. From walking towers of Piranha Plants to impossibly wide bottomless pits, cheeky coin skywriting to hearts made out of Koopa Troopers, and maze-like tunnels to levels without any ground to speak of, there’s a huge amount of freedom in what you create, and walking around to see what other attendees were making became a popular pastime in Nintendo’s booth.
Putting together courses feels like second-nature almost immediately, thanks largely to the GamePad’s functionality — Mario Maker is a wonderful showcase for the Wii U’s unique controller. Level editors on consoles can be truly daunting stuff, not least because of the challenge of translating what essentially amounts to sketching out levels to button-and-analogue-stick controls; the GamePad’s touchscreen lets Mario Maker sidestep that problem entirely, while still retaining the traditional button controls best suited for actually playing the levels you make. It really is an ideal setup, and one that makes it a piece of cake to dive in and start creating your masterpieces of Mario-themed masochism right away.
Playing your levels is just as easy, of course — a quick tap of the ‘Play’ button in the bottom left sends Mario into action, and you can switch back and forth between the two modes on the fly, as well as place Mario wherever you’d like with the left stick before starting. Once you’re up and running, everything feels like classic Mario, with predictably precise controls that recreate the physics of Super Mario Bros. perfectly. The graphics have gotten quite a boost, however; the high-definition take on Mario’s 8-bit aesthetic is beautifully smooth and inviting, with foreground elements casting drop-shadows onto an appealingly ‘pixelated’ sky.
Even better, a flick of a switch lets you take your creation from World 1-1 to the Acorn Plains, exchanging the graphical style of Super Mario Bros. for New Super Mario Bros. U’s shiny HD look — the physics remain unaffected, though we were told this could change before the final release. Mario Maker also gives players a peek at how those physics really work; whenever you switch back into Edit Mode after playing, you’ll be able to see ghost trails of exactly where your Mario ran, hopped, bopped, and fell, helping you fine tune your level design, or realize that it simply isn’t possible to jump over an eight-tall pyramid of Hammer Bros., no matter how hard you try.
Even if Mario Maker offered nothing more than a straightforward way to create your own little corner of the Mushroom Kingdom, it still would have had our attention. What really stood out in our time with the game, however, was the sheer number of wholly unnecessary but thoroughly charming little touches that made it into so much more. The menu up top only has green Koopa Troopers, for instance, but there was an easy and fun way to place red ones: grab a green Koopa and shake it with the stylus until it retreats into its shell, and then pops out red. Not only did that little detail put a huge smile on the face of everyone who tried it, it also inspired us to try shaking other tools, with similarly endearing (if less functional) results: shaken-up Hammer Bros. get angry and toss their tools, for instance, while Goombas burst into a dozen mini-Goombas, like tiny, toothy fireworks.
On one run-through of our level, we broke a ‘?’ block to find a taller, skinnier mushroom than we were expecting. Normally we would have been cautious, but we had to trust Mario’s years of in-field fungus identification when he ate it without question, and the results weren’t bad at all: he grew into Super Mario, but jumped higher, and seemed to slide along the ground when running. This, we were then told, was the ‘Luigi Mushroom’ - a rare power-up which turned Mario’s physics into those of his taller, high-jumping brother.
Then there were all the nods to Nintendo’s foremost classic of creativity, Mario Paint. The famous Undo Dog makes his triumphant return as the undo button here, for instance, delighting and perplexing attendees in equal measure (“How do I undo?” “Tap the dog.” “Oh, should have known.”). And in our second play-test, we happened to notice a tiny digital fly buzzing around the Edit Mode screen; chasing it with the stylus brought — along with a slew of unintended blocks — a flyswatter tribute to Mario Paint’s Gnat Attack mini-game.
It’s these kind of touches that make Mario Maker stand out as more than just the level editor Mario fans have been dreaming of since 1985, and which have us looking forward to it as a game in and of itself. We had just as much fun designing our level as we did trying to play through it, and that’s saying something — between the retro Nintendo references, silly easter eggs, and intuitive controls, Edit Mode felt like a platformer playground we’d have been very happy to spend hours messing around in before even placing Mario’s pixelated shoes down.
We still haven’t heard exactly how you’ll be able to share your creations, whether through QR-codes, a dedicated Miiverse community or in-game channel, or another implementation entirely, but the Nintendo reps we spoke with assured us that this was simply because the game is still early in development, and details are still being decided. In fact, of all the marquee games we played at Nintendo’s booth this year, Mario Maker was the one that seemed most in prototype stage. It was lots of fun, of course, and we would have been more than happy to walk out the door with a copy, but Nintendo stressed that this was an early implementation of the concept — we can expect plenty of new features and functionality before it eventually releases, as well as some parts of this E3 demo not making the final cut.
As proof of Mario Maker’s potential, then, the demo on the show floor worked wonderfully. We had a great time with what sounds like just the tip of the iceberg, and we can’t wait to see what other features and surprises make their way in before the game’s 2015 release. Nintendo’s hit on a brilliant idea here — it’s quirky, creative, and fun — and it's implemented it with a level of polish and charm few other studios can manage. With the right content and sharing features in the full version, Mario Maker could easily become a Wii U winner.
Be sure to check out our other hands on features from E3: