In the year of Super Mario's 25th Anniversary Nintendo released Super Mario Galaxy 2, a terrific sequel, and the rather uninspired Super Mario All-Stars 25th Anniversary Edition. Not bad, but a continuation of the norm - an accomplished (almost perfect) slice of platforming heaven and another release designed for little more than fuelling nostalgia. Now, with the 30th Anniversary upon us, Nintendo has stepped out of its comfort zone with the brilliant Super Mario Maker; 2D Mario platforming will never be the same again.
Nintendo has, on various occasions, given us creative freedom in sub-franchises, ranging from Pullblox to the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series and beyond. What it hasn't truly done, beyond some spin-offs and experiments, is hand over the keys to one of its blockbuster IPs; yet in the current gaming age that's exactly what's required. Gamers still want to be entertained, yes, but there's also a hunger for freedom and creativity. Super Mario Maker applies structure and sensible limitations, but it also gives Wii U owners the flexibility to do wacky things that not even the series developers have done up to now. This is more than it appears from a brief glance.
Let's go back to the beginning. When booting up the game its charm is immediately striking - it's about as 'Nintendo' as it gets, with cute and clear design and little touches that most developers would easily overlook. Whether it's the gawky Coursebot, the yapping dog used to undo changes, the silly countdown when wiping a course for a fresh start or just the fact you can 'play' the opening screen, this goes out of its way to make you smile. It works, too.
From the off you have two core options, Create and Play. Create is the star attraction, and from the off you're given a sample course to clear that introduces you to the first batch of unlockable tools and items. This pattern is repeated with subsequent timed unlocks; once tools are unlocked you simply spend 5 minutes experimenting with them to trigger the next set of items, stage types and features that are 'delivered' a day later. While brilliant for those eager to master tools gradually or for younger gamers, we were hoping for an option to skip this slow unlock and have everything available right away; that doesn't exist, but you can mess around with your system clock if you want to trick it into unlocking everything (then you can simply put it back).
In any case, the gradual unlock makes sense in helping you get the most out of the creation tool. An early lesson is to not over-use items just as they're available; some of the most enjoyable creations we've played have used a small number of items in innovative ways.
The general interface has been carefully constructed, exclusively using the GamePad and in the process serving as the best advert yet for the controller - the majority of activities are completed with taps and drags on the touch screen, but some neat shortcuts for copying and pasting, for example, utilise shoulder buttons. You can use other controllers for playing levels, of course, but creation requires the GamePad. Also, to appease semi-outraged individuals adamant that they don't want a specific perfectly manicured woman's hand representing them on the TV screen, this can be changed to various skin tones, cat paws and even a gloved Mario hand. That's one silly controversy that was particularly mis-informed.
The touch interface itself is certainly intuitive, but the gradual unlocks help ensure it's not overwhelming. By the end you can seamlessly switch between four game templates and six level environments, while there are 60 different in-game items and tools in rows that you alternate between; you can also setup a custom row to display at the top of the screen when you're creating. This is a simple but important feature, as it supports those that have planned ahead and have a strategy in mind. Scanning five rows of 12 to find the invisible block option can be bothersome, so having your own shortcut set is a minor but useful addition.
What makes the included items exciting is how they support creativity beyond conventional Mario design - you want swimming Goombas or to have the little villains fly a Clown Vehicle while wearing a Kuribo shoe? No problem. As Nintendo's demonstrated and can be easily recreated, you can do silly things like have Mario wear a shell as a helmet, and experimentation really can lead to unique moments. It's striking, when considering this, how Nintendo has not only provided tools for us to make our own Mario levels, but added enough strange ideas and freedom that we can take the classic gameplay in new directions.
Some other features worth noting to highlight the freedoms on offer relate to level scrolling and time limits; you can produce your own scrolling levels at three speeds to push players along or limit the time they have. That opens the scope for 10-second levels and rapid airship stages that can test the player's abilities to the max. Then there are sound effects, with some goofy pre-made examples to be deployed as you see fit or the option to record your own sounds using the GamePad mic. These are triggered by the player once they leap through a specific grid, and again add to the freedom available.
Another fun addition is the use of amiibo, with plenty of the expansive range supported here. The new Anniversary Mario amiibo figures will support super-sized characters, while existing figures from the Smash Bros. or Mario Party range are largely supported. Scanning a toy brings the icon onto the screen and you can place them in blocks to be accessed via an in-game mushroom, functioning as super mushrooms in adding a hit to the character. It's amazing how many of these figures are supported - two of our favourites that we're allowed to mention are Bowser and Donkey Kong - though they are limited to the Super Mario Bros. 8-bit template. That's a pity, but the fun animations and the fact they control the same way as Mario does make them a quirky addition to experiment with and share.
It's a testament to the grid-based templates - a virtual recreation of the original paper-based design approaches of the NES era - that extravagant stage creations ultimately need only time and creativity. The workable area can be expanded to be rather large, with decent space for verticality, and you can even have a designated sub-zone which can be jumped in and out of utilising warp pipes. It doesn't feel difficult to create a complicated ghost house labyrinth, for example, you just need to find a quiet space and free up your schedule. A sign of brilliant design is for complexity to feel simplistic - Super Mario Maker achieves that.
You can save a work in progress, naturally, and uploading is easy to accomplish. You start off limited to 10 uploads at a time, with more to come once you earn Star ratings from other players; the process is simple and very quick, with the only requirement being that you must complete the course yourself prior to uploading. Every time you load the game, too, you can have notifications pop up to let you know when someone's played your course, keeping a track of Star ratings and comments. On the review servers the whole process was particularly rapid, and even accounting for it potentially being a tad slower when the servers are busier, it's well set up.
So, if creation isn't for you or you fancy a change, let's weigh up the Play options. For starters there's 10 Mario Challenge, in which you have 10 lives to clear eight pre-loaded stages - these levels are enjoyable and also showcase various features and may give some design ideas. Beating a course adds them as Sample options in the Coursebot menu to play at any time, while clearing every level leads to some fun unlocks. For quick dip-in sessions, reliably (and professional) well-designed stages and some classic Mario platforming with a twist, this is a solid option.
Course World, meanwhile, is the hub for accessing courses created by others, which is where potentially endless replayability comes in. 100 Mario Challenge pits you up against user created stages in three difficulty settings, which is a nice way to blitz through stages, rewarding them with stars if you please. Naturally 'Expert' is packed with troll-tastic - though evidently beatable - stages, but this mode is a neat way to unlock goodies and get a quick gaming fix.
'Courses' is where many may find themselves, with 'Featured', 'Star Ranking' and 'Up & Coming' categories all designed to help you find popular or fresh stages. The interface itself is pleasing, with a level's entry including a graphic that shows a zoomed-out perspective, with shortcuts to view Miiverse posts, play or download the stage. Downloading adds it to your collection and you can even edit the levels yourself (though a symbol shows it's not an original creation of yours), while playing the level allows you to give those aforementioned Stars should you decide to, or to view the user's profile and Follow them.
A niggle we have with this mode is the potential for discoverability, especially once an audience of - potentially - millions is active. Search options allow you to target specific difficulties, regions or upload time periods, while you can also find specific stages by inputting a 16-digit code. If Nintendo's planning to evolve and improve this in the future it should consider additional search filters, such as finding levels using a specific game template, environment or set of items. As it stands, and even with the Up & Coming category, our fear is that the sheer volume of levels will make it tough for some to even have their levels played.
We'll see how that evolves, but the cream does eventually rise to the top. The 'Makers' area also broadens options. Here you can view those users with the most Stars to their name, or alternatively those that you're Following. As the interface moves so quickly it takes no time to check out the latest courses of your favourite creators, with all of the options to play, download and rate levels as you'd expect. Your own Profile page is also important in keeping track of content, in terms of looking over courses you've played and checking progress of your own creations.
When you combine Create and Play together there's a staggering amount of content on offer. What's particularly clever about Super Mario Maker, from Nintendo's perspective, is that it offers something new while not eradicating the appeal of future 'traditional' 2D Mario titles. Going back to play any of the four original games on which the templates are based provides a reminder of the tight design and stage-craft that Nintendo has, not to mention the dynamic camera work at play in New Super Mario Bros. U, for example. Those are polished, tight experiences that are still valuable parts of the Nintendo landscape.
What Super Mario Maker delivers is entirely different. With freedom and the playful options provided by Nintendo comes reckless, unconventional and goofy gaming. Many of the stages we've enjoyed would feel wrong in a normal Mario platformer, but in the context of this experience are hugely fun. If 2D Mario games are the fine art galleries, Super Mario Maker is a public 'happening' of chaotic street art, in which anyone and everyone simply goes with their instincts with spray-paint in their hand. One doesn't supercede or replace the other, it merely enhances possibilities.
So when we say that Mario platforming won't be the same again, we're not saying the time of normal 2D Mario releases is over. What Super Mario Maker does is provide a new divergent path, running perpendicular to the classic gameplay that tops the charts generation after generation. Nintendo's embraced this, in providing a toolset and means of sharing creations that's both substantial and playful, maintaining templates while experimenting with them.
Super Mario Maker isn't quite perfect - no game is - and has areas that could quite easily be improved in updates. These mostly relate to the aforementioned discoverability and improved search options when browsing creations from around the world. With some additions on this score - and possibly a YouTube upload option to take sharing to the next level - then this title can truly deliver to its full potential. Even with that said, though, what we have here is something truly special.
Super Mario Maker is so much more than a simple level creation tool, as Nintendo has clearly invested great time, resources and thought into making it greater than its core concept. The user interface, the creativity of the tools that feed the player's imagination and the overall polish are a testament to the development team's efforts. Whether creating, exploring or just playing, Super Mario Maker provides an exceptional experience.
If you've ever enjoyed a 2D Mario game and have a creative, playful spirit, then you should have already decided to buy this. It has plenty of tough competition, but this is the definitive Wii U game.