It’s hard finding a video game for a three-year-old to play. My oldest daughter wants to play games — she can’t help it, she’s around me all the time — but the simple fact is most games just aren’t fun when you’re that age. They’re too rigid, with strict rules and frustrating obstacles that get in the way of the fun. There have been a few exceptions that worked — educational game Metamorphabet, and the zen mode in Alto’s Adventure — but there’s always been one game she wanted to play, but couldn’t get into because of the challenge: Super Mario. It turns out the best way I could get her to understand the game was to build some levels myself.
Super Mario Maker on 3DS is an almost direct port of the Wii U game that launched last year. The premise is the same: using the touchscreen, you can construct your own 2D, side-scrolling Mario levels. You can make haunted houses or underwater levels, and use familiar objects and enemies like goombas, fire flowers, and moving platforms. The Wii U version made this process feel intuitive and playful, letting you seamlessly jump back and forth between creating and playing, and in some ways the portable version actually feels even better. Having both screens in front of you on the 3DS feels more natural than looking at both a TV and the Wii U Gamepad, while being able to tweak levels on the go is perfect for sudden bouts of inspiration.
However, while the core is the same, the portable version of Mario Maker is missing one key component: the ability to share your creations online. This means that you can’t put your levels online for others to play, and you also can’t explore the creations of others, which was a big part of the fun in the original game. Instead, you’re restricted to sharing levels locally with other friends who have the game, and there are 100 pre-built levels to play through. For many, this will be a deal breaker: sharing levels online is what game the Wii U game such longevity beyond the novelty of building stages yourself.
All that said, if you’re in it solely for the creation aspect, the 3DS version is great. And its ease-of-use combined with the portable form factor made it ideal for properly introducing my kid to Mario. See, while most of us may look at Super Mario as something colorful and cartoonish, for her it can actually be scary. She panics when a goomba slowly shambles toward her, and is terrified of falling down into pits (especially if they’re filled with spikes). I never realized just how deadly Super Mario games were until I saw her attempt to play SMB3 on the NES Classic.
So in order to ease her in, we sat down together and created a haunted house where you can’t die. The interface was simple enough that she actually did most of the item placement herself, grabbing blocks with the stylus and dragging them around the level to create ledges and staircases. At one point she filled a section with ghosts, but immediately erased them after discovering their admittedly terrifying tendency to follow Mario when he isn’t looking. After 20 minutes, we had a functioning level. It was simple, but she was also able to complete it entirely on her own. When she finished she asked for more.
After she went to bed that night, I went straight to work building a new level just for her. Just like our original creation, I planned to create a level devoid of real danger — no enemies, no pits, no spinning bars of fire — but I also wanted to help introduce her to important Super Mario concepts. I placed question mark blocks filled with coins at the beginning of the stage so she could try to hit them, and used even more coins to encourage her to jump to new areas and get on moving platforms. I added a series of interconnected doors that let her move to new areas of the level. I wanted to make it playful, so I put coins just about everywhere. I even added a room with a springboard so she could get up really high to collect them.
My plan worked. When I finally handed her the 3DS the next day, she managed to figure out everything on her own. It took a bit longer to finish than our first level — moving platforms are tough for anyone — but she did it. We even made a few tweaks to the level’s design based on her ideas. It was a real team effort. Then we went straight to work building an underwater level because she wanted to try out swimming.
Playing and building in Super Mario Maker has become something of a daily ritual. And because it’s on 3DS, easy to pull out and play wherever, we’re able to squeeze it into our otherwise hectic schedules. We can sit on the couch and play through a new level before dinner, or curl up in bed and spend a few minutes tweaking the placement of a jump. Every day she gets a bit more confident, and our creations get a bit more challenging. Last night, she told me she was finally ready to take the next step: “I want one with bad guys.”
Super Mario Maker is available on Nintendo 3DS today.