The idea of a “construction set” for a video game being sold as a standalone product is something we haven’t seen a lot of in recent years, but it used to be a common sight in the earlier days of gaming.
Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, titles such as EA’s Racing Destruction Set, Interplay’s The Bard’s Tale Construction Set and SSI’s Unlimited Adventures allowed players to try their hand at game design without needing to know any of that pesky programming, albeit within the constraints of an existing game’s framework in most cases.
The concept of “programming-free game creation” was later expanded on by companies such as Clickteam (Klik and Play, Games Factory, Multimedia Fusion, the latter of which is still used by many indie developers today), YoYo Games (GameMaker) and ASCII/Enterbrain (RPG Maker) — these packages were more “general purpose” and could be used for a wider variety of projects, but became quite a bit more complex as a result.
Given Nintendo’s love of making “toy-like” games, it was entirely appropriate that it would be the one to mark a triumphant and high-profile return to the standalone, more constrained and accessible “construction set”. Super Mario Maker was the result, and it’s one of the Wii U’s most interesting titles.
Nintendo’s Super Mario games have long had a reputation of being tightly designed experiences that start simple and accessible, but gradually become more and more fiendishly challenging as you progress. They’re generally paced in such a way that by the time you reach the more challenging stages, you’re well and truly ready for them. One might argue that the monstrously difficult Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (The Lost Levels in the West) is the exception to this rule, but given that game’s mechanical similarities to its immediate predecessor, one could also argue it was always intended to be taken as a direct continuation of Super Mario Bros. rather than a distinct, standalone experience in its own right.
I mention all this because Super Mario Maker, featuring almost exclusively player-designed levels, has no obligation to treat you fairly in the slightest. But that’s what makes it interesting. Outside of the Nintendo-designed sample levels you can try out before jumping into the meat of the experience, the levels on display in Super Mario Maker run the gamut from highly creative to sadistically difficult via stunning technical accomplishments. Okay, there’s more than a few levels that are absolute crap, too, consisting largely of what looks like a toddler picking something from the palette of available components at random and then scribbling across the playfield… but it’s easy enough to skip past these, and the solid community voting system in place tends to ensure that the better levels naturally rise to the “top” anyway.
What’s particularly interesting about Super Mario Maker is something that is common to any sort of “construction set”-type game of this sort: the community will, inevitably, find out ways to do things that are far more creative and impressive than those seen in “official” levels. Whether or not those who originally designed the mechanics and physics that drive Super Mario games are aware of the possibilities in their engine is something we’ll probably never truly know, but the community is most certainly aware of how to place things with pixel-perfect accuracy and create bafflingly complex-looking levels that play themselves, or “music box” levels that play tunes, or any number of other fascinating and creative uses of the game’s toolset.
Even if you have no idea how to pull off something as complex as the top-rated creators online, however, Super Mario Maker is a rewarding experience. It’s immensely satisfying to create something and then immediately be able to play it. It’s even more satisfying to be able to upload it online and see positive feedback rolling in — this being Nintendo, there’s no means of “downvoting”, only praising.
And even if you find yourself with “creator’s block”, there’s always something new to play. Whether you try your hand at individual levels drawn from the “charts” the game makes available to you, or take on the “100 Mario Challenge”, where you have 100 lives and have to complete a selection of randomly chosen levels downloaded from all the available community creations, you can have a rewarding, fulfilling and fun experience with Super Mario Maker even if you don’t actually, you know, make anything.
There’s no real “point” to Super Mario Maker. There’s no real progression outside of the initial unlocking process for the level creation parts — a process which has thankfully been considerably sped up since the original release — and there’s no “endgame”, no way to “beat” it. But this is entirely in keeping with Nintendo’s approach to play: Super Mario Maker is one of the company’s purest expressions of video games as electronic, interactive toys. You can’t “beat” a physical toy; you just play with it when you feel like it, then perhaps you put it down for a day, week, month, even year… then perhaps you pick it up again much later and rediscover why you used to enjoy playing with it so much.
Super Mario Maker is exactly the same. It’s that beloved toy that you can’t quite bring yourself to let go of, even long after you think you might have “outgrown” it. In fact, it’s more than that; it’s a beloved toybox filled with things that stir your imagination and inspire your creativity.
The Super Mario games are timeless classics that can be picked up and enjoyed by absolutely anyone. Super Mario Maker means that your time with these old favourites never has to end. In many ways, it actually feels somewhat like Nintendo bidding a fond farewell to its beloved 2D Super Mario era — by handing over the “keys” to the community, it’s effectively saying “you’ve seen what we can do… now it’s your turn.”
It’s an expression of trust, familiarity and affection between Nintendo and its fans — and I sincerely hope it’s not the last Nintendo Maker game we see. Now, The Legend of Zelda Maker when…?
Wii U Essentials is a series of articles that each focus on a single retail game from the Wii U’s library. These articles aim to build a comprehensive record of this turbulent period in Nintendo’s history: a time when the company released some of its very finest games, yet it struggled to recapture popular attention and commercial success in the same way as the original Wii did.
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