Super Mario Maker should let go and learn from Lego

Nintendo's no stranger to quirky, experimental unlock systems, but Super Mario Maker has the most audacious one yet, forcing you to wait nine days before you can access all the level-creation tools in its playful toolkit. And even by Nintendo's idiosyncratic standards, it's a method that tips past novel and into nonsensical. It's a shame to see such a generous design tool - full of wondrous possibilities for layouts never before seen in a traditional Mario game - be drip-fed in such a needlessly stingy way.

From Nintendo's perspective, it's doing you a favor. The downright delightful overview trailer above explains it all, just past the one-minute mark: giving the player access to the whole shebang straight away might be overwhelming, so you're forced to come to grips with the basic building blocks before wrestling with the more complex doohickeys. Out of the box, you're limited to the essentials like floor tiles, pipes, and Goombas; by playing for at least five minutes a day for nine days, you'll gain access to uncommon components like Chain Chomps and ice blocks. Heck, you wouldn't even be able to accurately recreate 1-1 on day one, seeing as the Fire Flower and Starman aren't available at the onset.

There's a precedent for this kind of piecemeal delivery within player creation tools. LittleBigPlanet is a franchise that lives and dies on DIY content, but makes you play through the included levels and dip into multiplayer if you want access to all its gizmos. In theory, limiting would-be level designers to the essentials when they're first starting ensures that they'll get their bearings and come to grips with the basics, before they're dizzied by manifold possibilities. And constraints can sometimes inspire the creativity to overcome them, as you try to break the rules and recreate the things you wish were there. Judging by Fallout 3's train-head NPCs, even experienced developers run into these kinds of restrictive problems that foster ingenious solutions.

But what Super Mario Maker presumes is that creativity has a learning curve of nine days, no matter who you are. If you're buying a Lego set, you can enjoy it however you like: build it as advertised, invent your own structure, or inflict bodily harm to yourself by jumping on the scattered pieces (then upload it to YouTube). With Mario Maker, it's not enough to pay money - you also need to devote time. And there's no assurance that you'll benefit from the 192-hour wait before the Mushroom Kingdom is officially your oyster. Maybe you'll spend that time carefully learning the intricacies of clever level design and smart Question Block placement - or maybe you'll just boot up the Wii U, dick around for the requisite five minutes, and frustratedly turn the game off knowing that it'll be five more days before you start creating levels in earnest.

Because Mario Maker is presented as a do-anything sandbox, this arbitrary method of unlocking additional content feels like the most patronizing handholding Nintendo's pulled since the constant 'Why not take a break!' reminders of Super Mario Galaxy or A Link Between Worlds. You won't hear many gamers complain about grinding in MMO raids to unlock high-level gear or needing to be a certain level to use a gun in FPS multiplayer, because these bits of time-gated progression come with the territory. They've still got the carrot-on-a-stick quality of Mario Maker's full suite of tools, but the need to invest your time and effort makes the compensation feel meaningful, a prize for your show of dedication. In contrast, Mario Maker seems to reward loyal players by making them be even more loyal; failure to obediently return to the game on its set schedule means you'll never get access to a chunk of the content you paid for. If Minecraft's freeform Creative mode has taught us anything, it's that players won't shriek and assume the fetal position if you give them free reign right out of the gate.

It all stings so much worse because of how genuinely incredible Super Mario Maker looks when you've got everything you need at your disposal. Both the tools and levels shown in the trailer display clever, economical, wonderfully imaginative design reminiscent of Mario Paint.

Some players are hopeful that manipulating the Wii U system clock will bypass the week-and-a-bit blockade, a proposed solution which mirrors the whole situation beautifully. Like its initially incomplete toolkit, Super Mario Maker's time-sensitive limitations are already forcing players to invent clever workarounds in the hopes of realizing their true vision. If nothing else, at least those nine days might kickstart the kind of player ingenuity inherent to loyal level creators.

Lucas Sullivan

Lucas Sullivan is the former US Managing Editor of GamesRadar+. Lucas spent seven years working for GR, starting as an Associate Editor in 2012 before climbing the ranks. He left us in 2019 to pursue a career path on the other side of the fence, joining 2K Games as a Global Content Manager. Lucas doesn't get to write about games like Borderlands and Mafia anymore, but he does get to help make and market them.