If you put a paintbrush in the hand of someone who’s never used it before, what you get probably isn’t going to rival Georges Seurat.
But even Seurat had to start somewhere, and that first-of-a-hundred-step-journey vibe definitely dominates Super Mario Maker, Nintendo’s double-edged gift to aspiring video game level auteurs and hardcore Super Mario fanboys. There’s an avalanche of tools and content to mess around with, but man do you have to wade through a lot of amateur-hour chaff to get to it.
Like Sony’s super-successful LittleBigPlanet franchise, Super Mario Maker puts the level design power directly into your hands. Right away, you’re given the option to either dive into levels other people from around the world have created or just jump in and start deploying pipes, bricks and goombas on a level palette yourself. Playing through daily gauntlets of levels — 10 lives or 100 lives, your choice — eventually unlocks a library of characters, objects and costumes to use in fashioning your own creations. The big draw here is the ability to access and play thousands of user-created levels that evoke all possible aspects of the Super Mario universe, both the classic and pixelated NES and the shiny new Super Mario Bros. U versions.
At least that’s the idea. In practice, following a standard unlock-the-content progression turns into a much bigger obstacle than even a supersized Mario is used to hurdling.
More than a few have complained that Super Mario Maker is little more than a vast dumping ground for user-generated mediocrity, and to an extent that’s true. (Then again, you could make the same argument about YouTube, SoundCloud and a vast array of other user-supported media platforms that serve up a sea of chaff elevated by examples of pure artistry.) There’s no question that the user-generated levels are rife with boring, one-trick levels that feel like by-the-numbers art projects that a third-grade class might complete en masse. But there are also brilliant and brutally difficult levels that do everything from serving up clever homage to more complicated games (think Doom and Metal Gear Solid 5) to levels that test to see how far you’d go to save a loved one. Like we said, it’s really all about who’s holding the paint brush.
The trick to loving Super Mario Maker is finding those nuggets of pure gaming gold — and finding your friends’ levels, too, neither of which is made especially easy. Connecting with your friends’ uploaded creations requires — still! — using clunky level codes reminiscent of the friend codes that should have been put out to pasture back in the Wii’s halcyon days. Thankfully, the gaming community’s taken up the challenge of finding and collecting the best of the jaw-dropping user-created levels — which is a good thing, because Super Mario Maker’s algorithms clearly can’t.
It’s not all bleak for Mario’s excellent DIY adventure. If nothing else, games like Splatoon have taught gamers that it’s wise — critical, even — to be patient with modern Nintendo offerings. Just as that game has evolved from a bare-bones multiplayer experience into a diverse and colorful playground with serious staying power, so too will Super Mario Maker once more players add experience, nuance and Bowser Jr. into their level-making wheelhouses. Even the rankest of amateurs will figure out that there’s more to life than crowding the screen with bob-ombs and calling it a day.
At least we hope so.
Super Mario Maker (Rated Everyone) is available for the Wii U and retails for $59.99.