It begins at, well, the beginning.
Turn on Super Mario Maker and you’re greeted with the ubiquitous World 1-1 from the 1985 NES classic, Super Mario Bros. The music kicks in. You stomp the first Goomba, bump the Question Block with the mushroom in it, and sidle up to the warp pipe. This is mother’s milk. You are home.
And then, without warning, Mario is staring at a massive chasm. It shouldn’t be there. Three decades of innate video game know-how vanish. You can’t make this jump.
But you can fix it. One tutorial later, and you’ve learned how to build the Super Mario level of your dreams. Or at least to fix a gaping hole in the floor.
This is a big deal. Nintendo traditionally guards its secret sauce like Willy Wonka, but here in Super Mario Maker, the company has unlocked the DNA powering the most influential video game of all time. This is the formula for Coca-Cola, just sitting there on a shelf. At once nostalgic and new, Super Mario Maker hands you the keys to the Mushroom Kingdom and lets you go nuts.
At its core, Super Mario Maker is a level editor, and while those words usually have me running to the cozy arms of a meticulously crafted single-player adventure game, I found myself quickly tossing out ill-conceived but legitimately playable Mario levels in no time. It’s the most intuitive creator I’ve ever used.
Building a level requires a rudimentary understanding of Super Mario’s visual vocabulary; any gamer over the age of 5 probably has a firm grasp of what these widgets do. Drop a Goomba, and you know it will head to the left until it bumps into something. Give it wings and it will hop around. Supersize it by feeding it a mushroom. Cram a Piranha Plant into a warp pipe and it will behave like a Piranha Plant should.
Even better is when you start building things that have no place in a Mario game, like a Bullet Blaster that fires mushrooms or a horrifying stack of four gigantic Bowsers. You can create surprisingly complex experiences using the game’s basic building blocks, and you won’t need a degree in C++ to get it done.
You’ll just need the Wii U Gamepad. Though it often feels shoehorned into Wii U games, it’s perfect for Super Mario Maker. You drag, you drop, you scroll through the level, and you don’t think twice about any of it. At any point during creation, you can hop into the level you’re creating and give it a go, then hop right back out and tweak whatever needs tweaking. It’s a shame this game didn’t launch with the Wii U, as it would have given instant credibility to the Gamepad as an indispensable controller.
Four 2D Mario games (Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros.) serve as graphical themes, and each offers slightly different mechanics and power-ups. You can bounce off walls in New Super Mario Bros., for example, or hide a Cape Feather in a Super Mario World brick. You might design a level with the original game in mind, but with a tap, you can swap it to, say, Super Mario Bros. 3, and a dozen new ideas pop into your head. The more you experiment, the better the results.
They even found a smart way to integrate that stash of Amiibo figures sitting next to your TV. Stick a figure on the Gamepad and you’ll unlock the ability to transform Mario into that character during play. It’s mostly just for show — the character still controls like Mario — but it’s exactly the kind of unexpected cleverness people look for in Nintendo games.
Unfortunately, unlocking all the various design elements takes a while. Nintendo decided to lock the majority of the game’s design tools behind timed gates; play the game each day and it will dole out a few more objects to mess with. In a sense, this was a wise decision, as you won’t get overwhelmed with options when you’re just learning how to create something decent. The bummer is that for a few days, you only get access to two templates and a handful of items.
You can bide the time by playing through other people’s creations. Super Mario Maker includes 60 prebuilt levels to enjoy offline, but the real game is found in the bottomless well of downloadable user-created courses. You can search by maker or top-rated levels, though the “100 Mario Challenge” is my favorite way to go about exploring content; the game collects 8 or 16 random courses and tosses them your way, one after the other. And when you invariably come to a level that’s just too insane, you can swipe right on the Gamepad and swap it for a new one.
Some of these levels are, as you’d expect, kind of lame. You’ll see lots of unrewarding jumps and crazy, nonsensical brick placement. I am personally responsible for at least four terrible levels, including one called “Tramps” that’s just as annoying as it sounds.
But you’ll happen upon a real gem more frequently than you’d expect. There’s the legitimately tricky “Flappy Mario” level. Or “Press Right And Run,” which, if you follow the suggestion, whips Mario through a nerve-wracking Rube Goldberg machine of near-misses. “The Great Goomba March” is like a Mario version of The Planet of the Apes. There’s real talent out there, and after playing one of the better levels, you feel inspired to fire up the course creator and get cracking on your latest project.
Full disclosure: I reviewed a finished, pre-release version of the game. To think of what kinds of amazing treats will come out of the game’s retail release, when the creativity of millions of hardcore Nintendo fans is unleashed, is both enticing and terrifying (and by that, I am of course referring to the unavoidable deluge of penises made out of gold coins).
And ultimately, Super Mario Maker is Nintendo giving its legions of admirers a wonderful gift. This isn’t just an awesome level editor; it celebrates Nintendo’s greatest character, subverts expectation, and grants unprecedented access to the building blocks of the world’s most beloved game franchise. Now that’s playing with power.
What’s Hot: Intuitive editor; limitless levels; beautiful presentation; fantastic control
What’s Not: Takes too long to unlock tools
Ben fondly remembers the first time he discovered the warp zone on World 1-2. Reminisce with him on Twitter.