Super Mario Maker Review, Analysis, and Critique
Have you ever tried designing with a kid? There’s a creative spark there that knows no bounds; children are whisked away by imagination, leaving a wreckage of greys, glue, and glitter. Take building a sand castle for example; what’s the first thing we try building when we are little: a moat, obviously. We try pouring water into sand expecting it to rest above ground (which doesn’t work if you were curious). Another example: put five different colours of carefully isolated paint next to each other and watch how quickly they morph into one ugly brownish blob. Kids usually take the “and then” approach to storytelling, always adding and adding without pause for reason.
But kids aren’t stupid, and when they want something —like to play their way, for instance— they will learn fast to make it happen.
Super Mario Maker lets you channel all of this creative energy. It’s a rapid-fire iteration machine that camouflages itself as a videogame, deceptively teaching its ‘players’ about game design. Super Mario Maker might be the best example of gamification around and —in typical Nintendo fashion— its philosophies are enforced through playfulness and fun, as opposed to any artificial sense of achievement. Make no mistake, today Super Mario Maker isn’t a game; it’s a piece of software, a tool. The game part comes later.
So how does Nintendo keep the wool over your eyes? How does Super Mario Maker gamify the more labour-intensive parts of engineering and level-design? Well, they start by adding rudimentary play to everything. When you touch your stylus against the grid overlay of the editor, everything you touch makes sounds, beeps, boops, ditties. It’s joyful — and it sets a mood for your creation. Then there’s the play involved in switching the elements of individual stage items: need a Koopa shell instead of walking Koopa? Shake that turtle, shake it back into its shell. But the most important aspect of play found in Super Mario Maker is how much experimentation it requires to uncover every component of its toolset. There’s a logic to what you can do, if you need to make a piranha plant bigger you drag a mushroom onto it. You know that Koopas transforms if you shake them... kinda makes you curious what else you can shake, doesn’t it?
It also helps that Super Mario Maker is presented in the most —for lack of a better descriptor— Nintendo-y packages the company could muster. The game’s presentation is cut from the cloth of things like Mario Paint (1992), Brain Age (2005), and the GameCube’s startup noises. The little things pull the whole package together: a different splash screen for each day of the week, little birds perched above the save/load menu chirp when you click them, and the instruction manual operator who goes by the name Mary O. Gosh it is hard not love.
100 Nintendo-made concept stages are bundled with the game. Each of these is about 45 seconds long and playing them back-to-back really does feel like a Nintendo design meeting dart board — as if the team is railing off as many ideas in succession as possible. After you’ve cleared a randomly selected batch of ten levels, they’re permanently unlocked, and you can edit them, or replay them for inspiration. Who knows what Nintendo’s curation process is for the levels they include in their finished games, but each of these has the sensibilities of a pitch. They feel like a vertical slice of a level that will be expanded on over time.
Nintendo has the done all the legwork to make sure you’re primed to use —or play— with its software. So prepared even, that it knows the mistake you are about to make. The first mistake everyone makes when they go to design something as a kid: mix absolutely everything you can together to see how cool it will be (which doesn’t work if you’re still curious). And that’s maybe where Super Mario Maker is at its most brilliant; it’s fast. In minutes, you’ll be able to test your ‘everything but the kitchen sink design’ and immediately recognize how flawed it is. So you start from scratch. You learn, you design, you iterate. And it’s never confusing, never daunting or overwhelming. It’s a sophisticated software designed for a tablet, and it lets you make levels in the engine of Super Mario Bros. (1985), Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988), Super Mario World (1990), and Super Mario Bros. U (2012). Like Lego Mindstorms or EV3, Super Mario Maker is a powerful resource to put in someone’s hands. It gives you the keys to the kingdom, shows you around, and most importantly puts your creativity at the center of the process.
- So I came pretty close to not giving this thing a star rating — it's really not a game in its own right. Then I started tp think about our Canon. I started imagining this moment —in 2015— where Nintendo released their videogame bible; the anthem of Nintendo's 20+ years experience. Super Mario Maker is a significant moment in design. I would go as far as to argue it is a significant moment in tablet user-interface design. A big deal. It shouldn't escape praise on a technicality.
- I spent more time than I should have trying to use the word "funky" to describe some of their 100 mini stages.
- It *is* a nostalgia trip. Somehow I found it a lot easier to get lost in Super Mario Maker's inadvertent nostalgia than the last few 2D Mario games or 3D Zelda games.
- I also kept having flashbacks to using the original 'phat' DS, which also a super "Nintendo-y" UI.
- I legitimately watched my four-year-old brother design a complex level, realize it cluttered, and start building flat planes and simple structures. Mario Maker is brilliant.
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