Mario takes a long look at a great big hole in the ground. He begins a run and jumps at the very last moment, aiming to reach the brick flooring on the other side. He fails and plunges to oblivion.
But all is not lost. A ghostly trail of his jump is left behind. I can use this graphic to tweak the exact size of the hole, to make it just wide enough for a very skilled player to make a successful leap.
This is Super Mario Maker, Nintendo's 2D Mario platform game level creation tool. Due to be released on Wii U on Sept. 11, it's a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. release on the Nintendo Entertainment System. But it's also a celebration of Nintendo's much-maligned console, the Wii U, and its unloved second screen.
Super Mario Maker video
Behind the Screen
Since its launch in 2012, the Wii U has sold fewer than 10 million units. Even the GameCube, Nintendo's least successful console prior to Wii U, managed to sell more than 20 million units.
Blame has been apportioned at the console's affinity with the previous Wii, which was explosively popular from around 2006-2009, but was seen as being slightly faddish. Nintendo has also dragged its feet on key franchise releases.
But the biggest problem was always conceptual. Because of its history with Nintendo DS and 3DS — and because of the growth in use of tablets — Nintendo believed in two screens. Despite some great implementations and experiments, consumers generally have not responded to the built-in-screen of the GamePad in the way Nintendo anticipated. When the story of Wii U's failure is fully told, an image of the controller will be front and center.
Nintendo has fought an admirable rear-guard action these past few years, throwing out some big games to keep interest in the console alive. 2013 gave us the peerless Super Mario 3D World. Super Smash Bros. was released last year. And there have been interesting diversions along the way like Splatoon, Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8, Pikmin 3 and New Super Mario Bros. U.
But only now, with the new NX concept likely to be unveiled in 2016, are we beginning to see the handheld screen really come into its own.
Fine Art of Detail
Super Mario Maker is based on a beautifully-designed user interface that allows the player to select from a number of menus to pick, place and manipulate all the elements needed to create a platform level.
This is entirely absorbing as the player seeks to find the perfect place for Koopa Troopas, mystery boxes and sheer oblivion drops. There are plenty of options available for creating themes for each level and for crafting them in the style of Mario games through various graphical generations.
Nintendo will supply 200 levels with the game, which are sure to be quickly swamped by uploaded player-made levels. A level must be completed by a player before it can be uploaded. Levels are ranked according to their difficulty (percentage of players who complete) and their popularity.
All this feeds into the notion of play being about creativity and sharing, a game industry totem that sounds all well and good but is always tested to its full in actual practice. But Mario levels are timeless and universal, and the tools Nintendo is offering look highly functional and impressive.
Mario Maker began life as a real tool for Nintendo's developers, and this heritage is clear in its slick execution.
A Land of Stories
Mario platform games have an enduring popularity, which is why they have been with us for so long. Super Mario Maker seems to take the essence of these games and put them in the hands of the player.
Mario levels are like stories. They move in a linear direction from left to right. They introduce intriguing characters, peril, twists and turns. They offer mystery and delight.
This is Nintendo at its absolute best. It is the Wii U presented as a thing of real utility, rather than a corporate strategy in search of a creative solution.
If Wii U has been launched without a touch-screen controller, this game would have demanded one all for itself or, at worse, some sort of touchpad integration.
If there are doubts about this game, they are in the finity of potential levels. Young players of games like Minecraft are accustomed to vast troves of artifacts and tools to explore and derange in their own way. Nintendo's universe of characters and items is large, but not enormous. It remains to be seen if the basic formula of a 2D level and the host of Nintendo's quirky universe can hold the attention.
Super Mario Maker is headlining Nintendo's Wii U efforts for late 2015 and makes a good fist of justifying the second screen and thereby the entire console. It is not worth the $300 asking price for the entire console, of course, but it is worth digging out the machine if you already own one, and brushing the dust off that controller.