Super Mario Maker is now rather close, and there's every chance that the Wii U exclusive will be regarded as a key turning point for 2D Mario gaming in years to come. Having spent some time with the final build, it's clear to us that Nintendo's finest have been truly devoting themselves to this most worthy of celebrations.
Much has already been revealed about this game, though some secrets are still off the cards - what we will say is that the charm and whimsy seen so far is a good indicator of more to come. Your writer isn't sure a game has raised so many involuntary smiles in recent memory, and Super Mario Maker can achieve something that may have seemed like a distant prospect only recently - it's made 2D Mario platforming truly fresh and exciting once again.
Right from the beginning you have two stark choices for your entertainment - Create and Play. There is some potential crossover, yet each will offer enticing experiences in their own ways.
To start with the Create aspect, which is such a major selling point for the title, it has brilliance and minor frustrations in equal measure early on. The frustration is in timed unlocks, bringing to mind an experience like Animal Crossing: New Leaf in terms of the real-time patience that's required. On day one your options are very limited, and as we've been too chicken to mess around with time settings on our hardware there's been plenty of handholding in the early stages. The intention is noble - there's a huge number of options and tools in the overall package, and by limiting access to small batches unlocked over the course time you have a chance to become accustomed and skilled in their use. In truth we'd like a manual override in the game itself, as to have lovely ideas that are required to wait for a few days is a peculiar early frustration.
This is only an issue due to the strength of the creation tool, however. Utilising the GamePad touch screen, it is brilliantly put together, with the briefest of day one tutorials enough to have you intuitively placing blocks and designing levels in no time. At preview events in busy halls or press events your writer has, in truth, previously struggled to truly get hold of it. Yet in the comfort of home with our own Wii U it comes together right away; the setup is carefully crafted. Its extremely charming, too, with functional menus represented by cute icons and silly animations. There's a flying dog thing, Coursebot for saving and loading creations, and sometimes you need to swat flies, because why not?
Little touches add to the charm, such as the music reacting dynamically to your work, and in relatively little time we created a level of which we're relatively proud, albeit a bit shy of its simplicity. Uploading is extremely quick - you're prompted to clear the level, confirm the name and that's it. To start with you're limited to 10 uploads - though you can delete courses to free up the allocation - and you can earn more slots in the form of medals earned via the Star recommendation system. If people like your levels you can share more.
The 'Create' aspect is, based on early impressions, living up to the hype - easy-to-use, fun and deceptively powerful, the possibilities feel extraordinary, especially when we consider the new items, mechanics and template swapping between four 2D Mario classics. The inclusion of some incredibly pleasing amiibo support is notable (though they're limited to retro templates) - one we are allowed to mention is Donkey Kong, who is a lot of fun - and a gaggle of smile-raisers include Mario being able to wear shell helmets; this is Mario platforming the like of which has never come out of Nintendo's offices.
Which brings us to 'Play'. As confessed Mario platform-aholics we jumped into the 10 Mario Challenge mode to tackle pre-loaded stages. Though these are the work of Nintendo's teams they aren't simply 'normal' stages like those seen in New Super Mario Bros. U, for example. Evidently design rules and documents were ditched in favour of a simple policy - show off the available items and tools. Tackled with 10 lives at a time - though 1-Ups can be earned - you work through eight levels in one sitting to represent a 'World', but the resulting levels beautifully showcase just what that Create mode can do.
Some stages are cleared in 20 seconds with a bit of skill, others are clever 'remixes' of recognisable stages, and others are ambitious and crazy efforts. There's less concern with structure and more focus on short thrills, and they also show off the depth of the game's tool-set and how it takes the existing templates and goes to another level. Examples include the recently revealed sound and visual effects, with the former having custom recording options. You may spark mini-fireworks by stomping a larger enemy, or go into a familiar hidden area and be greeted by a Mario-style rave and light show. Its insanity of the best kind, and it pushes both nostalgia and discovery at the same time.
The discovery truly takes on another level when finding user-created levels, of course. While our build is final it's running with custom 'review' servers, with stages largely created by Nintendo staff; with unlocks and confidence come clever efforts from reviewers, Let's Play YouTubers and more, too. The layout is familiar by now, and it does a lovely job of showing the game template used, the clear percentage, number of stars given and a preview of the entire level in a zoomed out perspective. The process of discovery is somewhat addictive, with more time melting away than we expected when browsing and playing the available stages; goodness knows how much time with be lost when thousands upon thousands of players are uploading levels. The search options will be vital when that happens.
If you like a stage there are multiple options, too. You can give a star, share Miiverse feedback and download the course to add to your own collection; you can even then edit and tweak that downloaded course, though it has a distinct icon to show that it's not an entirely original creation. The potential of the sharing and community aspect is enticing, and it's pleasing that - in this review build - the processes are exceptionally fast. Nintendo has evidently found clever and economical ways to process and store these levels as data, as navigating around levels, playing them and saving them is remarkably slick and snappy.
Therefore Play and Create come together rather well, and that relationship between the two attractions is indicative of the overall strength of this package. Super Mario Maker feels like a Nintendo game with no shortcuts or rushed compromises, and has evidently been a project carefully nurtured and prioritised. From the substantial functionality to the beautiful re-creation of 8- and 16-Bit Mario templates in HD, this really is shaping up to be the ultimate 2D Mario experience. If you're a fan of retro Mario - this is designed for you. If you're a fan of modern Mario - this is still designed for you. The cohesion, shine and creative spark on show feels like Nintendo at its very best.
We have some way to go yet in experiencing all of Super Mario Maker, but we're excited about what it delivers. It feels like a true leap forward for the Super Mario franchise, and that's a thrilling prospect.