Super Mario Maker review: the blueprint

Game Info
Platform Wii U
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Nintendo EAD Group No. 4
Release Date Sep 11, 2015

In a perfect world, every video game franchise would have its own Super Mario Maker.

By giving the keys to the Mushroom Kingdom to players in such an approachable way, Super Mario Maker does something beyond the scope of most user-generated content-heavy games. Sure, it allows you to make some truly bonkers levels — levels that, at their most audacious, completely rewrite the rules of the Mario canon. But what's more impressive is how it holistically teaches you what goes into making a Mario game, and just how demanding that design process has always been.

Of course, if you're not interested in the history lesson, Super Mario Maker lets you create a nightmarescape of flying Piranha Plants and mutant Goombas, and that's pretty special, too.

Mario Maker lets you create a nightmarescape of flying Piranha Plants and mutant Goombas

Nearly every component from four franchise entries — Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. Wii — are present in Super Mario Maker's creation mode. If you've seen it in one of those games, you can add it to your level, utilizing a user-friendly interface of dragging, dropping and drawing. Unlike other games with UGC components, there's virtually no barrier to entry, here. Within minutes, my first level was done and uploaded.

Those components are divided into sets, typically built around a setting (like the Underwater set) or single mechanic (like the Sound Effects set). After playing around in create mode for five minutes on any given day, you'll secure a delivery of the next set on the following day. This progression system felt irksome at first as it delayed my instant gratification, but you'll unlock everything within a couple of weeks — after that, I actually found myself missing the excitement of receiving my daily deliveries.

Super Mario Maker has a few ways of educating you on the new tools you'll unlock, including an adorable, video-filled digital instruction booklet and a "Coursebot" that adds demo levels each time you unlock new components. There's also a mode called 10 Mario Challenge that tasks you with clearing eight pre-made levels in 10 lives, with each level you clear being added to your Coursebot collection for you to replay or remix. Even before you go online, Super Mario Maker throws inspiration at you left and right.

Super Mario Maker's tools keep it simple by removing headier elements like logic programming, ala LittleBigPlanet's toggles and circuit boards. That limits somewhat the possibility of your creations — don't expect to be able to whip up a grand, turn-based Mario RPG, for example — but it doesn't mean you're hemmed into making a straight platformer. The limited, pre-launch Super Mario Maker community has whipped up a ‘shmup, a math trivia game and a weird bowling mini-game in the span of a couple of weeks.

I'm confident that those examples scratch the surface of what Super Mario Maker is capable of, because while its educational channels give you enough inspiration to get started, they wisely don't teach everything. There are item combinations and interactions that aren't revealed by the game until you drag two items onto each other and watch them change. Discovering those interactions is a joyous process, and incorporating them into your levels is deeply rewarding.

mario maker bowser process gif
mario maker gif coin block

Super Mario Maker takes a similarly streamlined approach to how it lets you play the creations of others. Levels are organized into three pools, one showcasing featured levels, one showing the levels that have received the most "stars" (accolades you can award a level after completion) and which are "up and coming." They do a fine job of showing you the community's best, but it remains to be seen how much curation Nintendo is planning on doing to keep their recommendations fresh. Also notably missing is any kind of "tag" system, which would make finding levels of a certain variety — say, auto-playing platformers or challenging puzzle levels — a breeze.

Fortunately, the game's online functionality works really, really well. Levels load in a matter of seconds, making it easy to binge play a creator's entire catalog of courses. You can follow your favorite creators and receive notifications when they publish new works, which will appear alongside your own notifications when someone plays, stars or comments on your levels. After publishing a few levels and following some creators, I had an inbox of feedback and new, awesome levels waiting for me every time I booted up the game.

mario maker gif tracks

There's also the delightfully unpredictable 100 Mario Challenge mode, which gives you 100 lives to beat a series of levels picked at random from the community, separated into three difficulty settings. You'll have literally no idea what's coming after the next flagpole — an underwater Fire Flower shoot-out? A duel against three gigantic Bowsers? An auto-scrolling maze made out of fireballs? It's a total grab bag, and each time you survive it, you'll unlock special Nintendo-themed costumes you can use as power-ups in your levels.

I've played hundreds of levels made by the still nascent Super Mario Maker community, and a lot of them are pretty rough — fortunately, you can skip levels you're not digging in the 100 Mario Challenge. Early creations show an inclination toward throwing everything Super Mario Maker has to offer at the player all at once, filling the screen with as many Hammer Bros, fire-spewing Piranha Plants and heat-seeking Bullet Bills as is possible.

mario maker gif fire level

Those too-busy levels are novel — there's something wonderful about subverting the designs of what is possibly gaming's most venerable franchise — but they really serve to highlight how good the good levels can be. Every single piece of Super Mario Maker feeds into that loop, of learning what goes into (and what gets left out of) a truly great Mario stage. It's an education that extends into the game's source material; in tweaking Super Mario Bros.' World 1-1, you learn what a masterpiece that level really was.

Wrap Up:

Super Mario Maker is a hands-on history lesson

Where other publishers might release a making-of documentary of their golden era, Super Mario Maker does the unthinkable: It lets you do the making of. I have had a tremendous amount of fun playing Super Mario Maker, but the way it developed that newfound appreciation for something I've known my whole life was the game's biggest accomplishment. Sure, there's touches of fan service here and there, like a startling number of references to Mario Paint, but that's not how it won me over. Super Mario Maker wooed me because it's a hands-on history lesson.

Super Mario Maker was reviewed using a pre-release, non-retail version provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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9.5 Wii U