Super Mario Maker, which launches on the Wii U on September 11th, does something I thought was impossible: it makes the process of designing a game fun. Real game design tools are incredibly complex, and while some games have tried to turn level creation into something more approachable, none has done so as well as Nintendo’s latest release. It makes the art of making a game as fun as playing one. Here are five techniques Nintendo uses to make game design into an experience for just about everyone.
The tools are familiar
If you own a Wii U and you’re thinking about picking up Super Mario Maker, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve already played a Mario game. The original Super Mario Bros. is ubiquitous, and the blocks, power-ups, and pipes you took for granted become your tools in Mario Maker. At no point does Mario Maker ever explain how the "?" block works, or what a mushroom or fire plant does. You already know how these things work in the virtual world. That means you can jump straight into creation without having to worry about learning new rules. It’s like creating a new card game: those 52 cards are something that everyone understands, the trick is to use them in new ways.
You won’t be overwhelmed
Mario Maker does something that will probably annoy a lot of people: it locks much of the game creation tools away at the beginning, and forces you to play regularly in order to access them. At the start, you have goombas and mushrooms and basic platforms, but if you want warp pipes or boo ghosts you’ll need to play at least five minutes each day for a week to unlock it all. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. The limitations actually keep you from being overwhelmed by choice. Making a level is hard and time consuming, and Mario Maker’s structure forces you to learn the basics before you mess around with the more complicated toys. By the time you get to the really good stuff, you'll be prepared to use it properly.
The Gamepad is the perfect input
The iPhone introduced a whole new world of people to video games, and one of the key reasons is its touchscreen, which makes on-screen interactions more intuitive. Mario Maker definitely benefits from this as well. There’s really no easier way to make a level than to simply drag and draw objects where you want them. And when you simplify that process, it frees you up to try crazier things; I made all kinds of elaborate platforming sequences, and it was incredibly easy to put them together. Of course, it still takes time to get things perfect, but the process has been streamlined a lot, so tweaking a level doesn’t feel like a chore.
Mario Maker doesn't make you wait until your level is finished to play it: at all times there’s a "play" button in the lower left corner of the screen, and tapping lets you play whatever you’ve built so far, no matter how incomplete it is. This helps you test things that might not work. If you need to know if a jump is too high for Mario, you can try it right away. If the number of enemies looks like it might be overwhelming, it will take you just a few seconds to test that out for yourself. The same goes for the different themes. You can make your level look like any number of classic Mario games — from the NES original to New Super Mario Bros. — and switching the visual style happens immediately, letting you test different looks painlessly.
Creation is playful
Mario Maker is a game about making things, but it’s also about playing. Because of this, the whole experience of building a level from scratch is incredibly playful. It’s all in the little touches: the undo button is a cute dog, and when you drag enemies from the menu to the actual level you’ll see their little legs wiggle in the air. If you try to use the eraser on Mario he’ll start to sweat. Every so often you’ll see bugs on the screen, and if you tap them you’ll be transported to the "Gnat Attack" mini-game from the NES classic Mario Paint. These tiny, wonderful details turn what could’ve been a boring series of menus into something much more approachable. Even playing levels made by other people has a design benefit, as it gives you new ideas for how to use the tools at hand.