Super Mario Maker is the Wii U’s defining game

Finally, a reason to love the Gamepad

It’s been nearly three years since the Wii U debuted, and Nintendo has yet to make a compelling case for its odd, tablet-like Gamepad controller. Typically, Nintendo hardware and software exist in harmony; the N64’s three-pronged controller made sense when you played Super Mario 64, and tens of millions of people understood the motion-sensing Wii remote the moment they pretended to swing a tennis racket. But, despite a number of wonderful games, the Wii U still doesn’t have a similar, system-defining experience. As much as I love Splatoon, I would be just as happy playing it with a Gamecube controller.

That problem has been solved at last. Nintendo is set to release Super Mario Maker, the first game for the Wii U that feels like it couldn’t exist on another console. It’s a fantastic experience for fans of classic Mario adventures, and it works so well with the Gamepad you’ll wonder why it took Nintendo three years to release it.

At its core Mario Maker isn’t really a game at all; it’s a set of tools for making your own game, one styled after Mario’s earliest adventures in 2D. It’s not a new idea — games like LittleBigPlanet and Disney Infinity have similarly tried to make game creation a big part of the experience. But none of those games grabbed me like Mario Maker has. I’ve played a lot of LittleBigPlanet, but most of that time was spent enjoying other people’s creations, not building my own. In Mario Maker, it’s the exact opposite.

Part of that has to do with the controller. A standard gamepad with analog sticks and a bunch of buttons isn’t the best tool for level creation. It makes placing objects and manipulating terrain fiddly and annoying; LittleBigPlanet has done an admirable job of streamlining the process, but it’s far from ideal. A touchscreen, on the other hand, is perfect. Adding platforms for Mario to jump on, or enemies to avoid, is as simple as tapping the screen. If you want to fill a secret area with coins, you can scribble them in with the stylus. It’s easy to wrap your head around, especially because there’s so little explanation needed; anyone playing this game knows what a goomba or piranha plant is, so almost all of the objects you’re working with are familiar. Building stages in Mario Maker is like learning a language when you already know most of the words.

Mario Maker gives you a few dozen objects to play around with — from power-ups to moving platforms to Bowser himself — and you can style your level in any of four different ways, each based on a classic Mario adventure: the original Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and the more modern, 2.5D New Super Mario Bros. Each has its own distinct look and feel, and it’s fun to construct a level and then quickly see what it would look like in a different style. (It’s more than an aesthetic change too, as certain game elements, like Mario’s ability to wall jump in NSMB, will change depending on the theme.) You can also choose different level types, so you can make your dream level underwater, in a haunted house, or in your own take on Bowser’s castle.

You won’t be able to play around with all of those tools from the outset. Mario Maker hides much of its content initially, and the only way to access it is simply to play. You don’t have to achieve any specific goals, but so long as you mess around in the creation mode for at least five minutes each day, a new batch of toys will be at your disposal the following day. It took me around a week to unlock everything.

At first this was frustrating — my first idea for a level required warp pipes, which weren’t available for a few days — but in retrospect I think it’s for the best, especially for players who aren’t used to making games. I’m not a game designer by any stretch, and often when I play these kinds of games I’m overwhelmed by the sheer number of options. But in Mario Maker I started out building a really simple stage, and then as I unlocked content I was able to iterate on that core idea, revising the original concept into something more refined and complex. The timed structure comfortably eased me into what would otherwise be an intimidating experience.

I’ve had a lot of fun building my own levels. There’s something satisfying about constantly tinkering with an idea, and being able to see (and play) the changes immediately. (This also makes the game a great fit for the Wii U’s off-TV play, since you can tinker with an idea on the Gamepad while catching up on episodes of Bojack Horseman on your TV.) If nothing else, playing Mario Maker gives you even more appreciation for the effort that goes into designing a Mario game.

But I do wish there was more. When I think about why Super Mario World was so great, I don’t necessarily think about individual levels, but instead the ways those levels came together to create something bigger and more impressive. There’s a sense of progression to a Mario game that you simply can’t recreate in Mario Maker, because you’re only making individual levels, and not entire games. There’s no way to link levels together or have progress carry over from one to the next. (This has the added effect of rendering coins and 1UP mushrooms essentially useless.) So far I’ve made a trio of levels that ramp up in difficulty with purpose (at least that was my goal!), and it’s disappointing to know that when I upload those levels, they won’t be experienced the way I intended. It's the difference between making songs and making an album.

That’s the other side of the Mario Maker experience: the online sharing component. In addition to making your own levels, you can also check out creations that other players have built and uploaded. It’s hard to really say how the community will respond once the game is out, though. Right now, those who are playing the game early seem primarily focused on creating gimmicky levels. One of the most popular stages, for example, is like a Rube Goldberg machine, where you simply press right on the d-pad and watch as Mario makes his way through an elaborate set-up, bouncing on blocks and riding moving platforms with no other input required. Another recreates a Donkey Kong level (by scanning amiibo, you can unlock various Nintendo character costumes for Mario to wear) complete with lots of vines to clamber around on. Most of the player creations simply try to create a ROM hack-style impossible level that few players will ever finish.

These are often cool ideas, good for a single play, but I haven’t really found anything that scratched that classic Mario itch. Maybe that will change once more players start crafting levels, or maybe Nintendo really is just that good at designing games.

But even if there isn’t a steady influx of player-created levels to enjoy, I don’t see myself getting bored with Mario Maker anytime soon. I’m the kind of person who has lots of ideas for levels, but never bothered to go through the effort to learn to code or design so that I could actually make them. Instead, when I was young I would sketch out levels on graph paper and just imagine what it would be like to play them. Mario Maker feels just like that, except I actually get to play my creations and share them with others — and I still have a lot of ideas.

Super Mario Maker will be available on the Wii U on September 11th.

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