When Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS was revealed recently in a Nintendo Direct, it wasn't necessarily surprising. Nintendo has seen some top notch titles achieve only modest sales on Wii U, and where possible is clearly looking to get stronger results through the larger userbase of the 3DS. This, along with Poochy & Yoshi's Woolly World, is a second chance for titles deserving of a wider audience.
Yet bringing Super Mario Maker to 3DS, including standard models of the hardware, may not have been easy; we suspect that's the case in light of cut corners and small disappointments to be found. That's a pity, as there's a lot worthy of praise here, but it's a very different experience in some ways; let's break it down.
First of all, let's recap what's missing in the portable entry. Despite searching high and low in the software we can't find amiibo support, so a brief web listing on Nintendo's official website appears to have been in error. The big thing missing is online sharing, of course - levels you create can only be shared locally. As Nintendo's marketing has made clear, there will be 'millions' of courses available to play through Course World (through Recommended Courses and 100 Mario Challenge), but unlike the Wii U version custom searches will be out. This mode is locked down (requiring a software update) at the time of publication of this preview, but will hopefully open up before review time.
The longest lasting joy of the original Super Mario Maker was in the sharing of courses, and also the ability for communities to get organised and share course IDs, in some cases even creating 'full games' and sharing them as playlists. The absence of this aspect is telling, and we suspect many won't get much out of local sharing (or StreetPass) - not as intuitively and compulsively as with the online option via Wii U, in any case. These are important points to make, but there's enough here to still make this portable iteration worthwhile, especially if you treat it as a quirky Mario platformer with a neat creation tool included. In other words, flipping the priorities from the Wii U version make this cut-size version a treat.
We're limited in what we're allowed to share, but what we will say is that the new 'Super Mario Challenge' mode is a key inclusion here, and helps justify a potential purchase. It serves two purposes - unlocking additional items and resources in the creation tool, and providing a decent-length 2D Mario adventure. That latter part has a number of provisos, but considering the over-saturation and near apathy that some had towards New Super Mario Bros. 2, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
This challenge mode comprises of a surprisingly high number of levels, all hand-picked and created by Nintendo; some eager players of the original may recognise a handful of them. Each World, when completed, unlocks new items, and game hosts Mashiko and Yamamura (the customer services lady and pigeon) pop up with little conversations to help explain what freshly unlocked items do and how they work. In that respect each World is there to introduce elements and educate players, but Mario veterans can simply treat them as challenges to conquer. Each stage also has two medals to earn, some of which are particularly fiendish, and unlocked levels can be replayed at any time.
Pleasingly, this Challenge mode is structured rather like a conventional entry in the series. You accumulate lives as normal, and there's a 'Boss' stage at the end of each World. What makes it rather fun, especially for those that have seen it all before with 2D Mario, is that the levels embrace the quirkiness of Mario Maker. The linearity and 'flow' of normal entries is replaced by themed stages, tricky puzzles and features that have only emerged through the game's creative tool-set. Though the levels are structured in this way, the vast majority are still nicely designed and smart, with only a few striking us as gimmicky and misplaced so far.
Naturally, they hop around in style, too, through all four templates - Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. U. Frankly, if Nintendo's next full 2D Mario title nicked the Sonic Generations concept and utilised cross-gen styles within a cohesive package, we wouldn't complain. Super Mario Challenge doesn't offer that same structured brilliance, but it's a mode that's enjoyable; in this preview phase it's where we've spent most of our time.
Moving onto the creation tool, it's functionally the same as on Wii U, with the same layout and user interface. Pleasingly there's plenty of content available right from the start; without doing anything we counted 32 course elements and 14 sounds, along with all four templates, all six environments and options such as auto-scrolling and time limits. The only feature that seems to be completely absent (so far, in any case) is the ability to record sounds. Having the bulk of features available right away – with just some elements to unlock in the Mario Challenge mode – is a good change from the sometimes tedious waits in the original.
Another good addition, meanwhile, are ten lessons with Mashiko and Yamamura; each consists of a Basic and Advanced part. The Basic section introduces specific features, and tasks you with placing them in a stage as instructed. Advanced, on the other hand, initially asks you to clear a stage, before breaking it down screen by screen to explain how it was constructed and the design principles at play. The tone reminds us, a little poignantly perhaps, of the conversations in some of the Iwata Asks interviews, gently explaining why careful level design is important for the player's enjoyment. Having experienced the wilds of user uploads on Wii U, it strikes us that these lessons would have been welcome in the original.
Overall, then, we're pleased - so far - at the content on offer. The transition to 3DS, on a performance level, has also been solid; in Super Mario Challenge we haven't come across any notable problems or significant framerate dips. A few disappointments are to be found, however. As previously confirmed there's no 3D support, an exclusion that points to Nintendo perhaps trying to keep the porting process as simple as possible. Oddly, too, gameplay on the top screen has a black border all around, indicating issues nailing down the emulation to the correct resolution and ratio. It's not a significant border, but it's noticeable; also of note, although the New Super Mario Bros. U template looks reasonable, it's slightly scruffy. We fired up New Super Mario Bros. 2 just to see the difference, and the game designed ground-up for the portable looked notably better than the squished down Wii U engine.
Those complaints aside, the user interface, audio and so on are generally charming and effective. As a 3DS version of a true Wii U gem this title delivers some solid hits, though some of its misses undoubtedly take away a little sheen.
At this preview stage, though, we're rather glad that Nintendo decided to bring Super Mario Maker to the 3DS. Its unique blend of nostalgia, familiarity and anarchy is hard to resist.