On… Mario Maker

My recent acquistion of Mario Maker has made me realise two things: firstly, my five-year-old daughter is a sadist; secondly, Nintendo’s genius remains undiminished. A bulwark of the video games industry, Nintendo sometimes seem a little blinkered to what is happening around them. You only need to spend five minutes trying to set up your existing Nintendo Network ID on a different 3DS to realise that. What Mario Maker shows, though, is that the company still knows how to create something that is as accessible and as brilliant as anything Sony or Microsoft, or even Apple for that matter, could come up with.

My experience of level and game creators has not been a great one, I admit, probably due to my incompetence and lack of skill more than anything else. From the 8-bit days with the Shoot-‘Em Up Construction Kit and Graphic Adventure Creator through to the likes of Little Big Planet, I have been consistently unable to come up with anything halfway decent without getting bored or frustrated. Part of the problem is my own lack of foresight or ambition, but also there is a common theme with all the tools I’ve seen that they have a steep learning curve followed by a plateau when you realise the limitations of what’s possible.

Mario looking like he's cosplaying as Fix-It Felix Jr. from Wreck-It Ralph.
Mario looking like he’s cosplaying as Fix-It Felix Jr. from Wreck-It Ralph.

Mario Maker does a few things differently. For starters, it has a wonderfully simple interface that makes the best use of the Wii U’s Gamepad I’ve seen so far (though admittedly that isn’t saying much). My daughter was able to pick up the pad and start creating her own devilishly hard levels within minutes (‘Daddy, try this level with three giant flying Bowsers and a giant chasm before the flag’). From the simple drag-and-drop placement of item onto the square-paper landscape to the way you make enemies bigger by feeding them a super mushroom, it all makes sense. Though I believe it was a bit of a controversial decision, Nintendo’s choice to only provide a handful of items at first and then have others ‘delivered’ to you as the game progresses I found inspired. It gives you enough time to experiment with the basics before you start piling on the ‘extra’ things. The only downside of it is that it can be a little annoying that you can play levels made by others that are utilising tools you haven’t got access to yet.

Of course, Mario Maker is Mario Maker: the tool is designing specifically for creating 2D Mario levels and that’s it. There are some ingenious uses of it out there that have shoehorned RPG style elements and those of others titles into it, though these only really work as one-off showcases: you can’t really stretch it beyond it’s very strict remit. But whilst you might think that’s limiting, it actually makes it a better tool because it’s so focused. If you suffer a nut fixation or have been cross-bred with a squirrel, it’s far better to have a nutcracker than be given a sledgehammer.

One of my daughter's typically evil level designs, complete with bottomless pit (apologies for the rubbish lazy screengrab).
One of my daughter’s typically evil level designs, complete with bottomless pit (apologies for the rubbish lazy screengrab).

There’s nothing really bad I can say about Mario Maker. Yes, okay, it’s a shame that you can’t string a set of levels together into a world, which does make the collection of coins and extra lives seem a little superfluous, but that’s the only really feature I feel is missing. Everything else is just pretty much perfect, from the tactile interface to the way you can swap between designing and playing in an instant, Nintendo have not only managed to nail this but also to put some put some lovely shelving up around it and line it with a collection of worthy titles that wouldn’t look out of place in an Ideal Home showcase.

What the title also makes you appreciate – if you didn’t already – was how much sheer effort and skill goes into creating real Mario games, even those that don’t seem particularly innovative (I’m looking at you, New Super Mario Bros. Wii). The placement of objects, enemies and platforms which at first may seem haphazard in fact is a masterclass in level design; you realise that everything is in its place for a reason and because somebody has calculated through play-testing that it is exactly where it should go. Of course, odds are you won’t have the same level of skill or patience – heaven knows I haven’t – but it does give you a whole new level of appreciation for the Nintendo genius.

Mario Maker, then: brilliant.

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