Super Mario Maker 3D
Image: Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Kevin wonders if Nintendo is ready to bring another dimension to its Maker series...

If you can believe it, Super Mario Maker was released for the Wii U nearly nine years ago. The game was an integral part of Mario’s 30th anniversary celebration, though quite a lot has happened since then. Back in 2015, the idea of Nintendo sharing a user-friendly toolkit and giving us the go-ahead to make a new game ourselves was an incredibly exciting prospect. 8- and 16-bit-style indie games were undergoing something of a renaissance at the time too, and Mario Maker was essentially a crash course in side-scroller fundamentals.

Since then, we received a version for the 3DS, and a full-blown sequel for Switch with Super Mario Maker 2 in 2019, which was essentially a very similar game to the first entry, just with a whole lot more tools and enhancements (like slopes).

Doing the math here, Super Mario Bros.' 40th anniversary is coming up next year. What better way to celebrate another decade of the portly plumber than with a potential Super Mario Maker 3(D) that takes things into a new dimension?

Paradigm shift

Super Mario 64
C'mon, let us drag and drop him on a big hill. — Image: Nintendo

I’m old enough to remember the big shift from 2D to 3D gaming. Right around the time I started getting into video games was just at the tail end of the Super Nintendo generation. My older cousin introduced me to Mario, Link, Mega Man, and more, and I took such a shine to them that my dad graciously went out of his way to buy a Nintendo 64 at launch so my brother and I could play the brand new system on Christmas day in 1996.

My little mind was completely blown. When I got Super Mario 64, I was unable to put that three-handled controller down for days – basically until winter break ended and I was forced against my will to go back to school again. 3D games have come a long way since the Nintendo 64 era, but it’s become very clear, especially in recent years, that those pointy, blocky, muddy graphics (and I say this all with love) have left a lasting impact on many players.

Similar to the era of indie games that paid homage to 8-bit classics, and then the 16-bit generation, the 64-bit indie wave is no exception. Games like Cavern of Dreams, Pseudoregalia, and Corn Kidz 64 all pay homage to retro 3D platformers like Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, and have garnered a lot of attention and generated a lot of discussion amongst gamers.

I think the time has come for Nintendo to start letting us make our own 3D Mario game.

The stage has been set

I’ve seen debate and discussion over whether it would be feasible or easily understandable enough to implement 3D development into a Mario Maker game. 2D side-scrolling is obviously a bit simpler and easier to convey to the average player. Nintendo developers used to use hand-drawn grid paper to design Mario games for the NES, and that was an easy transition to bring to the screen along with a drag-and-drop toolkit.

Aside from making a few Super Mario Maker levels (that I’m fairly proud of, by the way), I am not a game developer, and I don’t know much outside of the fundamentals I’ve read about. However, it seems like there are a lot of up-and-coming devs and modders that are already working with the 3D Mario toolkit, and to great success.

I am constantly getting videos of Nintendo 64 mods suggested to me on YouTube, and honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way. Kaze Emanuar is just one such YouTuber who considers himself a Mario 64 expert. He has used the assets from the game, modified, and advanced them to create entirely new worlds that look and feel like the fully fleshed-out, direct sequel we never got. He’s made sure that his mods work within the confines of the Nintendo 64’s hardware too, confirming that everything is playable on real N64 hardware plugged into a CRT TV.

The point is that fans are doing it already and there's a hunger for more.

Choices, choices

Super Mario 64
C'mon, let us sketch out a slide for a penguin race. — Image: Nintendo

When it comes to 3D Mario, there are essentially two different modes of play at this point.

As an official infographic shared by Nintendo leading up to the release of Super Mario Odyssey shows, Nintendo breaks them into 'linear' and 'non-linear' modes, essentially. Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D World have more straightforward, reach-the-end-of-the-stage gameplay reminiscent of the 2D generation. But with Mario 64 and Sunshine we had big sandboxes and hub worlds to play around in, with different mission objectives of various types.

When it comes to what would be easier to convey and design in a 3D Mario Maker game, the linear option would be the obvious choice. We could have a 3D World template that is actually, you know, 3D this time, as opposed to Mario Maker 2. Designing individual planets and comets with unique gravitational pulls like in Mario Galaxy is maybe a bit too advanced, but 'isometric' 3D platforming with simpler 3D planes and bosses to conquer feels doable. But I don’t think the other option is quite off the table either.

Thinking about designing for the 'non-linear' branch sounds like a lot of fun as well. Creating a sandbox environment and filling it with unique mission objectives and NPCs would be a blast. You could include more immersive 3D platforming, puzzle segments, and boss fights as well. Maybe asking for both styles is a bit much, but the original Mario Maker had a few different templates, so it’s not impossible!

Making the future

Mario Maker 3D
Image: Nintendo Life

When asking about the future of the Mario Maker series, we have to take into account the future of Nintendo’s hardware. The Switch is nearing the end of its lifespan, and I sincerely doubt that we will get another Mario Maker sequel this generation. Super Mario Maker 2 worked perfectly for Switch because, like many games for the system, it was essentially a souped-up version of a Wii U game that many people never played. Nintendo won’t be able to rely on that strategy with their next console and is going to have to pull out all the stops to win people over again.

Including a Mario Maker sequel for its next generation of hardware, one that celebrates another decade of Mario, sounds like the perfect thing to me, and perhaps new hardware features could help. Some have theorized that we could return to another dual-screen setup on 'Switch 2' with the ability to stream to the TV while displaying something different on the console's own screen. When playing Mario Maker 2, I couldn’t help but miss the intuitiveness of designing stages on the GamePad. I didn’t always love having to focus on two screens while playing (looking at you, Star Fox Zero) but for games like Mario Maker, it made total sense.

As I designed stages on my TV with my Switch docked, I sometimes wished I had the option to use two screens. Given that the Switch successor will likely be another hybrid system, it would have to have the ability to work in handheld-only mode, meaning dual screens would have to be a purely optional feature. And that’s totally fine! Two screens might be pointless when playing a fast-paced game like Super Smash Bros., but if I’m exploring in Zelda and want a map to glance down at, or designing new stages in Mario Maker, it could be a really useful added benefit. And given how 3D development is a bit more complicated, that added screen could go a long way to help streamline the process for the average player.

Super Mario 64
Image: Nintendo

We only have to look to our gaming past to see how the future will unfold. I really don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we will see a Mario Maker sequel on new hardware, and that it could very well include 3D design tools. After the success of the first two games, it feels like the logical next step.

And Super Mario Maker 3D is right there.

Update [Mon 20th May, 2024 09:30 BST]: Ha, and would you look at that!