My first day with Super Mario Maker was slow-going. I wasn't satisfied with what I'd made using the few tools I had, so I slept on it. During the night, inspiration struck. I woke up the next morning and set to work on my first masterpiece: Goomba-opolis, a level where the iconic, dim-witted enemies poured out of every brick, every pipe, and covered every surface. I made a tower of goombas. Stairs made out of goombas led to the flagpole at the end. You think you're getting coins out of that block? Nope, more goombas. It's not the Next Great Mario Level, but I'm proud of what I accomplished in my first try, and it took me ten whole minutes to create, test, and upload for the world to check out.
Super Mario Maker benefits from something no other game creation suite has: 30 years of expertly honed gameplay mechanics, enemies, items, music, and sound effects available at your fingertips. The editor features four different design 'wrappers': the classic Super Mario Bros., its impeccable sequels Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, and the not-quite-classic-but-still-charming New Super Mario Bros. Each one handles nearly identically, featuring the same tight, crisp movement and jumping action that has defined the series since the beginning, though certain 'wrappers' feature different transformations and add new moves like spin-jumps and the ability to grab shells to the mix. If you've played even a single Super Mario game in the past three decades, its myriad mushrooms, fire flowers, and koopa troopas will be instantly recognizable, and you'll find yourself designing halfway decent courses in no time.
Reaching into this deep chest of toys and laying them out for you to mess around with would have been enough, but Super Mario Maker goes from neat curiosity to absolutely essential because it allows you to upend decades of tradition. Years of playing Mario games teaches you certain certain rules: piranha plants hide in pipes, power ups and coins go in blocks, and so on. But Super Mario Maker twists those expectations, allowing you to, say, shoot invincibility stars out of Bullet Bill launchers, or build an airship level using Super Mario Bros.' 8-bit aesthetic, or stack enemies on top of each other, or use a host of bizarre power-ups never seen before in a Mario game.
Your ability to mess with Mario and his enemies is relatively limited - no AI programming or logic gates here - but you can do quite a bit of outside-the-box thinking with the tools provided. I've seen levels that look and play like Donkey Kong Jr., a side-scrolling shmup, levels that play themselves, even a game of 'vertical bowling'. By allowing you to break its most sacred rules, Super Mario Maker becomes one of the most playful Mario games in years.
The Super Mario series has always had fantastic music, but how would you like to create your own? As you play, you'll eventually unlock the ability to place sound effects, as well as the musical note box originally found in Super Mario Bros. 3. This block isn't just a way to bounce up high - if you shake it, it becomes a music block, and its pitch is determined by its height in the stage. Add a few for dramatic effect, or build a level that plays 'Never Gonna Give You Up' all by itself - the choice, as always, is yours.
Even so, anyone who's made a game will tell you game design is no easy feat. Making a level that doesn't suck is a task in itself, let alone crafting each of the feats of seemingly effortless genius typically featured in one of the dozens of Super Mario games. But what Super Mario Maker does best is strip away a lot of fear and intimidation that comes from staring at a blank slate and creating something out of nothing, making it the friendliest level editor I've ever played with.
Much of this feeling comes from how easy is it mess about with all of its tools and instantly jump in to see what you've created. There aren't any tutorials outside of the first one which teaches you how manage its interface, but honestly, you don't really need them, as Super Mario Maker is keen to get you to learn by doing.
Creating a level is as simple as dragging and dropping whatever you want onto a grid, and you can test your opus instantly by hitting the Play icon on the Gamepad. The interface is clean, laid out logically, and everything, from choosing items, to uploading your level, can be accomplished through a few simple taps.
If you haven't lived and breathed Mario games for decades, an incredibly handy on-disc guide will help explain many of the basics, as well as give you some tips for creating memorable stages. The best instruction you'll find for creating your own levels, though, comes from the sample courses you unlock from playing 10-Course Challenge. These stages are relatively easy, and they're no replacement for the levels found in a core Mario title, but they do a great job of showing how you can bend the rules to make something other than a typical run-from-left-to-right Mario level, and you can replay them at any time once they're unlocked if you need inspiration. Plus, it's the best way to get hands-on with all the subtle differences between the various iterations of Super Mario games on offer.
You'll also learn a ton from other players once you upload a level to Super Mario Maker's servers. The only prerequisite to upload a creation is that you must be able to finish it, and once a level is up, you'll receive real-time feedback on what people think of the levels you've created via in-game notifications. It's really cool to fire the game up a few hours after you've uploaded your level and see how many people have not only gotten a chance to play it, but also look at what they think and what parts tripped them up the most. And even if you're not the best level designer in the world (like myself), you'll quickly find that its crowd-sourced approach to Mario making means you'll never find yourself short of ingenious stages to play. The rating system ensures that the cream will rise to the top, but it's also easy to see newly created stages, filter by country of origin, follow individual creators, or even share your level's specific code so players can directly access it. Nintendo has provided everything you need to enjoy brand new Mario levels basically forever - or, at least until the servers go offline, anyway.
Super Mario Maker only truly stumbles in how it doles out its various bits and bobs over time. Rather than overwhelming you with dozens of moving parts, Super Mario Maker hands you a few items each day, only granting access to another set after 24 hours have passed. When you first fire up the game, you won't even have access to the fire flower - that comes on day two. And the ability to devise interconnecting levels via warp pipe won't unlock until the last day. I get that Nintendo doesn't want to overwhelm players with choice and, by limiting the tools, you're forced to be creative with what you have and to keep checking in, but in a game that otherwise sets you loose to learn by doing, Super Mario Maker can hold your hand a bit too tightly at times. Besides, all of it can be circumvented by simply fiddling with your system's internal clock, which really defeats the whole purpose.
It's a minor complaint, really, in the face of everything else Super Mario Maker gets right. Not only is it ridiculously easy to make, test, and share levels, but every facet of the game is rooting for you to succeed, to try again if something doesn't work, and to continue to learn from yourself and other people. Creating something memorable is one of the hardest things in the world, but Super Mario Maker wants you to know that it's not only possible, but you're just as capable as any of Nintendo's designers. And that's a really good feeling.