Though it never had much of a chance of matching its predecessor in sales, the 3DS has nevertheless proven to be a valuable hardware hit for Nintendo. Its solid sales have not only defied many gloomy early expectations, but has ensured that it's been a strong platform for vital franchises, from sure-fire hits like the Pokémon main series to odds-defying returns to form like we've seen with the system's Fire Emblem games. Now, in its later stages, the portable is offering sanctuary to a few Wii U titles that could only achieve modest success on the home console, despite their obvious quality - Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS is the latest in that list.
When Super Mario Maker arrived in 2015 to celebrate Mario's 30th Anniversary, we gave it top marks and stated that "Mario platforming won't be the same again". In handing over the keys to players, and creating a set of tools that allowed generations-old Mario norms and rules to be twisted and occasionally broken, Nintendo allowed gamers (and itself, to a degree) to drop the shackles. Levels - whether official or community-created - are often anarchic, and a core of enthusiastic online gamers still enjoy and stretch the boundaries of the toolset. It's one of Nintendo's strongest online offerings in terms of functionality, too, but has a few typical shortcomings that require smart workarounds from gamers.
That sense of community, sharing and experimentation is mostly lost in this 3DS version, there's no getting around that. The online functionality is stripped back, with all that's remaining being randomised access to pre-approved levels, though the 'approval' process seems to simply run some algorithms. Any course that doesn't include amiibo outfits seems to be fair game, for better and worse, while there are no feedback loops to reward quality creations, nor can you search and seek out levels. 'Course Creator' simply offers 'Recommended Courses' that can be sorted by difficulty, and though you can save favourite levels to dabble with in your own editor, that's it.
'100 Mario Challenge' also makes the cut, with all difficulty settings unlocked right from the off - for quickfire and randomised play it's a fun option, though there's still the danger of following a gem of a level with a confusing dud; as we said, it's Mario anarchy. The '10 Mario Challenge' is gone, though, replaced by 'Super Mario Challenge'; we'll cover that shortly.
Importantly, of course, all of this means that owners of the 3DS version can't upload their creations to share with the world. Sharing is done using local wireless between two systems with copies of the game, and you can also send and receive courses through StreetPass. These options are fine, but are of course restrictive and take away the thrill of loading up the Wii U game and seeing a notification of plays and Stars for your levels. Ultimately, this is a version that'll be mostly experienced in isolation, a private creativity tool to enjoy as a solo player.
Once that's accepted, there's a lot to be excited about for 3DS owners. For one thing, the Maker toolset comes across largely unharmed from the HD original, with exclusions being the aforementioned amiibo support and Mystery Mushroom outfits, and also the fact you can't record your own sounds. That aside, what we have is a fully functional toolset packed full of fun items, with plenty available from the off. While the original had the frustrating approach of insisting that you 'practice' with items and then wait a fixed amount of time for unlocks, this portable iteration throws items at you right from the start. As soon as it's booted up you have all four game templates - Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. U - along with all of the major environments, level scrolling, sounds and 32 course elements. That's a lot more than we had day one on Wii U.
To compensate for the overload of content the game offers lessons, hosted by Yamamura, a rather smart pigeon, and Mashiko, a 'customer services' lady. Ten of these lessons are split between 'Basic' and 'Advanced' segments, which take you hands on in a step-by-step approach before deconstructing a detailed level design to teach you important dos and don'ts of level design; the tone is reminiscent of Iwata Asks interviews, to our eyes, which prompted a pause for thought during the review process.
These lessons are a particularly smart inclusion, as newcomers to the game will feel less overwhelmed, while veterans can still receive useful reminders on what makes for good level design. They can also be ignored, too; they're not mandatory.
The creative side of the game is strong, then, with the downside being the lost online uploads. Where the portable entry has an edge is in the main 'play' mode - Super Mario Challenge. It needs it, to be clear, and it helps to bring life to the title that's lost the broader online community.
While 10 Mario Challenge on Wii U offered sets of stages designed by Nintendo, its replacement on the 3DS goes further and in the process delivers a decent-length and enjoyable 2D Mario adventure... of sorts. With 18 Worlds (some of four stages, others that are longer) it clocks in at a decent number of hours, and serves multiple purposes. Each World is designed to showcase certain items, environments or play styles, and clearing them unlocks the remainder of the game's Maker items. Yamamura and Mashiko pop up to give pieces of advice, too, and with assist items for those that struggle this is a nice way to unlock all of the creative items; it's far faster than waiting for days to pass on Wii U.
With the Worlds being fixed - with no randomness - it's allowed Nintendo to produce a quirky spin-off adventure, jumping between Mario generations in the process. Some levels re-appear from the Wii U original, though they're often tweaked, and a number of stages are all new; the key is that the structured progression, combined with the normal accumulation of lives, makes this feel like an off-the-wall 2D Mario game in its own right. It's not quite as slick or cohesive in design as a full entry in the series, but that's appropriate considering the off-the-cuff rule-bending style of Super Mario Maker.
Some of the strange single-screen gimmicky levels of the Wii U's 10 Mario Challenge have been dropped, thankfully, so stages feel decently sized. With Nintendo cherry-picking some better levels from the original and adding a number of improved new stages, Super Mario Challenge is rather compulsive and addictive. There were only a few occasions when the puzzles or mechanics being shown off felt scruffy or loosely designed, with the majority of stages being well constructed.
Importantly, this mode gives a lot of meat to the overall experience. The limited and randomised online access to community levels makes Super Mario Challenge the star attraction, and it should also satisfy highly skilled players. Each stage has two medals to collect, and some of the requirements are fiendish, necessitating precision play. Speedrunners and those that laugh in the face of the most difficult of user-created stages should be kept busy for a little while earning all of the medals. Just like in the original, too, once you clear a level in the main mode they're unlocked for play at any time in Coursebot.
All told, then, what we have with Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS is a large collection of varied, imaginative and fun 2D Mario levels, official and community-designed, along with a sizeable creative toolset. It's impressive what Nintendo's achieved on the 3DS, though there are a few technical shortcomings that should be highlighted.
First of all, to be clear, we reviewed on a New Nintendo 3DS, and haven't encountered any notable performance issues in terms of framerate. That's a positive, but sacrifices are made in shrinking a gorgeous HD Mario experience into the ageing portable. There's no 3D support, for one thing, underlining the fact that this port is pushing the system and, perhaps, that Nintendo wasn't keen on the extra work of implementing the effect. The NES and SNES-era templates also come through quite well, as would be expected. The New Super Mario Bros. U template, however, isn't an ideal fit; the zoomed out camera perspective doesn't suit the small screen particularly well, while the engine's visuals lack the clarity and colour from the HD original. It's not an engine well suited to the system - it doesn't compare favourably with New Super Mario Bros. 2, visually, which was designed with 3DS in mind. It's functional and runs smoothly enough, but the 3DS is not a flattering home for visuals designed for large HD TVs.
One other technical issue relates to a thin black border around the top screen, which is there at all times while playing stages. We're not sure whether this is an issue with emulation, or to adjust the ratio to fit a quick and dirty port from the Wii U original, but it's noticeable. It's not an overwhelmingly thick or intrusive border, but it's a little disappointing nonetheless.
In some respects, technical limitations only become apparent when you play the 3DS version shortly after trying out the Wii U iteration; the difference in fidelity is naturally significant. For those without a Wii U, however, or with short-term memories, these complaints won't be particularly relevant. It's still a big pleasure to create and play in Super Mario Maker on Nintendo 3DS, as it feels like a large, impressive bit of software to be running on the go.
Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS doesn't match the Wii U original in terms of visual polish or amiibo support, nor does it have the vibrant online scene that defined that title. Despite this, there are smart design choices that compensate for these inevitable shortcomings, with additions that enable quicker and more educated level design, along with Super Mario Challenge, a large set of official levels that's more structured and enjoyable than equivalent modes in the HD iteration.
For those without a Wii U, Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS is a no-brainer, as it's a lot of Mario on one cartridge and a terrific creative toolset. For those with a Wii U it's a tougher call, as the HD original offers smart online features and sharing, even though the portable iteration offers a strong offline and solo playing experience. On its own merits, however, avoiding those comparisons, this 3DS version of an elite Wii U title deserves plenty of credit - it's a big success for small screens.