Who hasn't dreamed about making their own levels in a Mario game?
Super Mario Maker is a bit of an answered prayer for every kid who grew up with graphing paper and a dream, and I've been able to spend a few days, and one intense night, with the game.
Here's what I've learned.
It's OK to be a selfish bastard
This is kind of counterintuitive, but Nintendo has spent so much of the PR cycle for Mario Maker talking about the ability to make your own levels that people may not realize that aspect of the game can be ignored completely. You don't have to make a thing. You barely have to learn the basic tools before you unlock the main screen.
And Super Mario Maker is a perfect tool for what amounts to endless consumption.
This is my plan. I know how hard it is to make a good level, and I'm not that interested in doing it. I want to play your levels. I want to see what the best out there can do, and the in-game ranking systems for levels means that it's easy to log in and scrape the cream off the top. I've already seen so many interested ideas and subversions of the basic Mario designs using existing assets, and the game is only in the hands of a few people this far from release.
If you want a community-driven Mario game that may never run out of content, this is the way to do it. To heck with creating things; I just want to play the best levels from the smartest designers out there, and the game fully supports this way of playing.
Iteration is important
All that being said, you're going to want to make your own levels. You're going to learn very quickly that a good idea is 10 percent of the work of making a level. Executing on that idea, and perfecting it, is the other 90 percent. These things don't just come out of nowhere; you have to spend a lot of time honing each section and concept.
Luckily the game makes it very simple to sketch an idea for a puzzle or challenge in your level, and then jump in to try it, and then jump back out to adjust something. I was working on a quick jumping section of a level and would give it a shot, jump out to adjust placement of the bricks or to try to mix things up, jump back in to try it again, and that went on for a long time.
If you want to play around, that's fine. The game supports it. But if you want to make a good level, a level that people are going to want to play and share, you're going to see just how much sweat goes into that process. Your ideas may be good, but the important thing is how well you can execute them, and then adjust them to the reality of play.
One of the most satisfying bits of Super Mario Maker is the fact that you get to see just how good Mario's designers truly are. Don't believe me? Try it. Make a level that tells a story, that challenges and surprises the player. The tools may be easy to use, but that only gets you so far. The rest is time and effort.
Those thumbnails are a mistake
Before you play each level, you're shown a thumbnail that shows that level. In its entirety. It took me an hour to really begin to be annoyed by this fact, and now it drives me crazy.
Wired's Chris Kohler described a level he was designed with a few hidden details.
"This was going to really surprise people!" he wrote. "And then I uploaded the level, and found out that, when your upload is displayed to other players, it shows a thumbnail-sized image of your entire map. My carefully hidden secrets? All laid bare. The hidden path that I’d gone to great lengths to disguise was totally obvious. A message that I’d spelled out in coins was fully readable in the thumbnail."
Kohler ended up adjusting his design to deal with this issue.
"Why would Nintendo do this? It would never show you all of one of its own levels before you played it," he said. "I decided that I would not dwell on this too long. I could complain about it, or I could go back and design the level knowing that a prospective player would see the whole thing. I could hide my secrets better. I could remove the stupid coin message altogether."
Part of the joy of Mario games is that you're never sure of the rules of each world. The first Super Mario Bros. on the NES "broke" the world by allowing you to escape and above the level design, or to avoid the obvious end points of select levels to find warp pipes. By showing us these secret areas before we begin, by defining the size of each world before we even touch it, that magic is gone.
I'm already amazed at the creativity
I read a book once that said a good, quick test of intelligence is to ask someone what they can do with a brick. Just list things they can do with a brick. They gave an example of the answers given by an individual who was supposed to be a genius. I read them all, and it was amazing. He could do things with a brick I would never think of.
Super Mario Maker is filled with bricks.
You think you know how these very familiar items and enemies should be used, because we've been trained by years of Mario games to see them a certain way. But the community is already finding ways to break those "rules" and come up with new ideas, and even new genres, using items and abilities in the game. Don't get stuck thinking something can only be used one way, or in a manner that you've already seen before. Play, experiment and try new things.
I played one level where someone used Bowser's flying craft, a fire flower and a scrolling level to create a bullet hell shoot 'em up. That's just the beginning.
The community, which is tiny in these pre-release days, is already coming up with great stuff. When more people are involved it's going to get very strange, very quickly. And many of those strange experiments are going to be delightful.
This is just the beginning for Super Mario Maker. Expect much more coverage leading up to the game's launch on Sept. 11 of this year.