It’s taken almost its entire lifecycle, but the WiiU finally has a game that not only takes advantage of its primary feature, but also entirely justifies the console’s existence.

Other games have used the WiiU gamepad to great effect. ZombiU was the first, requiring the player to look down at his second screen in order to select from his inventory. Later the remake of Wind Waker did the obvious thing and put the dungeon map on the screen for easy access. Of course there was a Wario Ware game (and before that, the launch title NintendoLand) that relied on every bell and whistle the gamepad has available, and the 2D “New Super Mario Bros U” allowed for some multi-player mayhem with the gamepad being able to add platforms–and obstacles–to the other players in the game.

All of those games “used” the gamepad, and some of them used it quite well, but none of them offered a true reason for its existence. Mario got along just fine without a second screen. Zelda too. Wario Ware and NintendoLand are gimmick games with little substantial gameplay value. ZombiU was a flawed game but came very close to demonstrating exactly what the gamepad brought to the table. But then it went and proved how unnecessary it ultimately was by being ported over to other systems.

Even the brilliant Splatoon, had the gamepad never been conceived, could have worked with a traditional controller. The only absolutely necessary element the gamepad brings to that game is the ability to select players on the stage and quick-jump to them. With only three teammates per game, however, a quick cycle with the “select” button could easily replicate that. The gamepad was used, and used very well, but it wasn’t a truly needed feature.

But now we have Super Mario Maker, a game that is brilliantly simple yet incredibly deep and feature-rich. It’s not without its flaws, which will be discussed, but if nothing else, the game has finally demonstrated, not only how to use the gamepad, but why it should be an essential part of your game room.

super-mario-maker-2

The concept is, in classic Nintendo fashion, simple enough to explain: Use the gamepad and stylus to design your own 2D Super Mario Bros. courses, adding platforms, enemies, powerups and other Mario elements to your heart’s content. Once you’re finished you can upload your level to the internet to be played by people all over the world. In addition you can hop online and play through others’ levels too. With so many players and so much pent-up Mario creativity out there, there’s practically an infinite number of courses to enjoy.

It’s the kind of idea that kids have been joking about for thirty years now.

Wouldn’t it be cool if they did a level that was like this….
They should do a level where you…
What if, when you jumped over there, there was a…

Some of us grew up sketching out our dream courses, with all kinds of things we’d never expect to see in an “official” Mario game. An underwater Bowser fight? A stage where the entire floor is music blocks and you’re bouncing around trying to avoid enemies and reach the goal? Whatever you imagined as a child is now ready to be created. All of your wildest dreams can now come true.

As mentioned, the game isn’t perfect, but there’s a lot to love here. Let’s break down what’s great, what’s not so great, and what’s missing…

Try one of my levels, inspired by the opening of Mario Bros 2

MARIO 2 NEW 1.1:  1E87-0000-0039-61C9

~

GREAT

How easy would it have been for Nintendo to give us a course-maker/editor using only the “New” Super Mario Bros. template? We still would have loved it, but it would have immediately been answered by fans saying “I wish I could do this with Mario World sprites…” Personally, I hate the “New” Mario Bros. series. I guess “hate” is a strong word because, at the end of the day, it’s still a Nintendo-produced game and it’s better designed and more polished than 80% of the games out there, but for a Nintendo game, it’s a far cry from the sublime brilliance of Mario 3 and Mario World. It also lacks the raw fun-but-challenging gameplay of the original Super Mario Bros. The New series is unoriginal and uninspired. The same “wah wah” music is in all the games. The same floaty 3D controls on a 2D plane. The same flag pole goals. The same “multi-colored bricks for platforms” and the same koopa kid boss fights. After four iterations it’s still the same cookie cutter game.

Look at the advancements between SMB1 and SMB3. Look at how much “similar yet different” Mario World was from Mario 3. Now compare New Mario 1 to New Mario Wii to New Mario U. Other than graphics and a few one-note transformation-suits, they haven’t offered the 2D Mario series anything of substance. The levels are also way too easy, with too many one-ups and too many powerups. I never once encountered a “New” level that challenged me the way the last level before the World 5 airship did in Mario 3.

Me complaining about the lazy, dumbed-down “New” series could go on but the point is it’s not the only scheme made available. You start out with it and, in addition, you can use the original Super Mario Bros. graphics. Later, with additional playing, you can use Mario World and Mario 3. The more you play the more is unlocked, including underworlds, water levels, and castle themes. Though not everything is accounted for, you’ll be hard-pressed to list ten common enemies and items that aren’t offered. If you want a short level based around one particular theme—such as avoiding floating mushrooms as tiny mario in order to finish the level by going through a small tunnel—or if you want a long level with doors, warp pipes and the works, whatever you can imagine is probably possible.

My two oldest sons are nine and six years old. After only a few minutes showing them around the menus, they were quickly off to design their own levels. I came home from work one day and they had each made about four new courses, and were desperate for me to try them out. There are some shortcuts they haven’t grasped yet, and some features they still need help taking advantage of, but Nintendo has made this “game” with a very basic “point, click and drag” set up. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being able to do something with it.

Initially, Nintendo had planned on a ten-day schedule that unlocked features and items on a daily basis, provided the user played the game and was learning on the go. More experienced gamers cried afoul and Nintendo relented, opting for a more immediate unlocking system. Now, you only need to use every available item in order to trigger an alert that the next set will be available on the following day. Use those items some more and—surprise—the package will be delivered early. The original idea was designed to prevent first-time designers from being overwhelmed, but even my young sons managed to grasp the game’s mechanics within the time it took for the first additional set of items to arrive. At that point we were all just playing around with the game, waiting for that one item we needed to finish our levels to arrive.

super-mario-maker-3

Playing other levels online, playing the pre-installed levels offline, uploading your levels and commenting on Miiverse is all part of a smoothly-integrated design with breezy menu-selection. Buttons are without labels but it won’t be long before you learn exactly what does what. Nintendo has always been great about keeping things clean and simple and this game is no exception.

Another:

GO LEFT YOUNG MAN: CDBC-0000-0036-ECF0

~

NOT SO GREAT

There are some problems, and none of them are unfixable (one of them already has been) but the biggest ones center around the old achilles heel of Nintendo: online play. In my review of Splatoon I noted some deficiencies in the online gameplay, despite the fact that it is arguably the best online game Nintendo has ever created. Since then, a lot (though not all) of the problems I had have been corrected with updates (Nintendo doesn’t do “patches”), making the game even better. I’m confident the same can be done with Super Mario Maker, and as mentioned, already has been: The ten-day window to unlock everything was condensed down to one robust half-hour of gaming. We complained, Nintendo listened and corrected. Well done.

With that problem fixed there really is only one issue left to address: the problem of finding courses online. Right now if you want to seek out a specific level you have to input the sixteen digit code assigned to it. Which means you have to know what you’re looking for before you search for it. There’s no good way to find something new. You can’t search by category or graphic style. Ranking is limited to giving a level you liked a “star” or not. You can’t tag a level as “auto-player” or “too many enemies” or “frustrating” etc. You can’t tag it as “short” or “long” or “castle” or “water.” There’s only a vague “easy” or “medium” or “expert” filter, and the “easy” levels are sometimes as basic as running right, hitting a goomba and climbing the stairs to victory. The “expert” levels are usually huge, sprawling torture chambers, with a cluster of enemies every three feet, jumps that require impossible precision while a dozen fireballs are in your face, and needing more luck than skill to complete.

The way your level gets filtered into one of those three categories depends on how well others play it. If your level is played and completed, the higher the percentage of completion the lower on the difficulty scale it goes. That means a ten second level with one enemy and a flag pole is considered just as “easy” as a smartly designed one-screen puzzle level that takes a little time to finish but is very rewarding when you do. It means a well designed, challenging level that takes multiple lives is put in the same category as a steaming turd of a level cooked up by a ten year old who thinks its fun to have a dozen giant goombas stacked on top of each other every three feet. I’ve seen the levels my six year old makes. I play them because I love him. But I love the internet too, so I won’t be uploading those.

That’s the other big problem. When you open up the sandbox and let everyone play, you’re always going to end up with someone whose idea of fun is jumping on the other kids’ sandcastles. SMM has levels that—on a practical level—only the designer can beat, because he knows the secrets and the tricks. The average person might eventually conquer the course, but only after dozens of trial and error plunges to his death. A hard Mario level from Nintendo is one where you know what to do but you aren’t good enough to do it. The levels encourage you as you progress, building  your confidence so that when you die you’re frustrated with yourself, not the game. Hard levels in this game usually boil down to “you don’t know where to go, because I hid the question block that will lead to another hidden question block, which will lead to a giant bowser that will lead to a pipe that leads to a pit of lava because you should have found the other hidden question block, ha ha you suck I rule.” They are the kind of levels that make me frustrated with the designer, not myself.

Right now there’s no real way to filter those levels out, because there’s no way to tag them to warn others. Some have speculated that this game is the official end to Nintendo’s 2D Mario series. If anything, it’s an example of why we need level designers of Nintendo’s caliber, because as mundane as the “New” series is, there’s not a badly-designed level in the bunch that compares to some of the ones I’ve encountered on SMM.

Another one of mine:

KOOPAS KING-SIZED KASTLE: 682B-0000-001C-BB83

~

WHAT’S MISSING

Once you unlock all of the features, you’ll immediately—like Dudley Dursley on his birthday—start fretting over what wasn’t included. Without sounding too ungrateful, here’s a list of things I hope to see, either in the obviously inevitable sequel, or in a potential DLC release…

Checkpoints: These are desperately needed for some of the long, multi-layered levels out there, including some of my own.

Greater environmental variety: ice, desert, swamp, mountain, beach, forest, these are a few of my favorite things…

A few missing enemies: Forget what I said before. Turns out there are several baddies that were left out: Chargin’ Chuck, Spike, Koopalings, BoomBoom, the Ferris Wheel Rhinos, angry sun from Mario 3, pokey. There’s a lot left out, probably because they were game-specific and an equivalent would have to be designed to work in the other graphic-styles. But they did it with Baby Bowser…

Dedicated boss fights: It’s possible to create your own within a level, but it’s usually wonky and never turns out as good as the real thing.

Slopes and hills: Mario 3 especially needs these, to give the environments a little more personality. Right now everything is a little too “blocky.”

Vertical stages: Like with boss fights, you can fake this using warp pipes and doors, but it’s not the same as what you find in Mario 3’s World 7-1, or the end of the Sunken Ship in Mario World.

World Maps: Right now we can make Mario LEVELS…I want to make Mario WORLDS! Mwa ha ha.

One of the first ones I uploaded…

UNDERWORLD EXPLORE: CA38-0000-0015-51F5

~

CONCLUSION

10/10

Nintendo’s best WiiU game, in the sense that it’s the best game for making the case for WiiU’s very existence. It’s also a dream game that fans have wished for but never believed they’d ever see.

Better search functionality is the biggest detriment in the game right now. There are brilliant levels out there but they are lost in a sea of junk. That said, the complaint is minor when looking at the big picture of what the game offers. This is a masterpiece. If you own a WiiU, you should already have it. If you don’t own a WiiU, this is the reason to get one.

My hardest level. Good luck if you try it!

FIREBALL JUMP-N-SLIDE: 8D81-0000-0012-D55D

If you’ve got the game share your codes so others can find your levels. If you don’t have the game…what are you waiting for?!

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