Talk of the Ninja: Super Mario Maker Celebrates and Facilitates Creativity

Well, I went ahead and did it. I bought a current-gen console. Enjoy those three hundred dollars, Nintendo! I only bought it for Super Mario Maker, and let me tell you, it was worth every penny.

fuck this image

Mario Maker was released to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., the shot heard ’round the world. I know that’s the case because my Mario Maker Wii U Bundle came with a 30th anniversary Mario Amiibo (seen in the bottom right corner of the image above) who looks like he came straight out of Minecraft. It kind of fascinates me that instead of just making some sort of Mario Greatest Hits game, they made a game that challenges and encourages fans to make Mario levels themselves. That’s what Mario Maker is, and it has few bells and whistles to add on. It’s a comprehensive and intuitive level editor with tools, objects and enemies from several different Mario games, and an online sharing system for levels made by players from around the world.

It disappoints me that while the game has sold fairly well, it’s proving not to be the console-seller I feel it absolutely deserves to be. I understand why — there are people who call Mario Maker “an engine for circulating horrible new Mario levels.” Many people see games as content delivery packages, and Mario Maker doesn’t really consistently deliver “high quality content,” because it’s not interested in that. Mario Maker has a goal that I feel is much loftier: the facilitation and encouragement of creativity and self-expression. Level design is an art. Yes, programming game mechanics and creating art assets is very important and artful, but somebody has to place those assets and mechanics into a virtual space in an organized fashion so that the player may interact with them, and the practice of designing a level both in tune with and against players’ likely approaches is immensely fascinating to me.

Paying full price for a level editor might seem like a rip-off, but I’ve used a few level editors in my time (I did a lot of random shit in the Warcraft and Starcraft map editors, I also toyed around with LittleBigPlanet at a friend’s house, I experimented a bit with Gunpoint, and I already talked about the Duck Game editor) and Mario Maker is by far the most easy-to-use and entertaining level editor I’ve ever interacted with. This is one case where the Wii U touch-screen-tablet-controller-thing feels perfect and vital to the game, so you can quickly and conveniently drag and place objects and enemies into a grid to put a functioning level together within seconds. Then you press one button and suddenly you’re in that level, starting wherever you’d like (for testing purposes), and can see how everything syncs up.

mario maker editor

A wonderful amount of detail has been put into ensuring the level editor is fun to play with. Just as an example, to mega-size an enemy, you don’t (say) click on it and press the enlarge button like level editors would typically do — you drag a mushroom onto it and it grows in size just like Mario does in-game, with the sound effect included. And if you feed it another mushroom, it’ll start to grow even bigger, and then cough the mushroom out and go back to regular-big size. That feature did not need to be in the game for the purpose of level editing — it adds nothing in terms of functionality — but it’s amusing and fits perfectly with the aesthetic they’re going for, so they added it. Lots of little touches like that exist, and it makes your initial exploration of the editor very entertaining.

You can put wings on koopas to make them act as flying koopas, which are in Mario games, but you can also put them on piranha plants to make them jump up and down, and that’s never been in Mario. You can put them on any enemy you want, and you can even put them on certain platforms like clouds to make them move around. So many possibilities like that can just be discovered through use, and it really extends the potential for what kinds of challenges and puzzles you can create in your levels.

You can add auto-scrolling and set it to one of three different speeds, you can tweak the timer, make levels long or short, choose from six different level types (regular overworld, underwater, lava castle, ghost house, etc.), add a sub-level of a different level type that you can enter through a pipe, and so on. You can even choose what Mario game to make your level in the style of (between OG Mario Bros, Mario 3, Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U), and that will actually alter certain mechanics and behavior patterns in the level. (Eg.: wall-jumping can only be done in New Mario U, the cape powerup can only be placed in Mario World levels and the tanooki suit powerup in Mario 3, etc.)

mario maker metroid homage

I’ve seen people say Mario Maker is pointless because we could already make our own levels by ROM-hacking, but that argument completely ignores the usability side of software. Mario Maker might not have the same degree of functionality as a ROM-hacking tool, but it is so, so much easier to use that just about anybody can use it to make their own levels — even kids. Kids! I love the idea that a child could get this game for Christmas and begin to creatively pursue and cultivate a skill in level design, while having all the fun of simply playing a game.

Yes, technically you can’t feature every single mechanic or detail that has ever been in these Mario games, and in some cases it does feel lacking (it’s strange that you can’t add proper boss fights like the ones in Mario World) but in terms of the possibility space that’s on display, there is a hell of a lot you can do. I’ve played traditional challenge levels, puzzle levels and exploration levels that utilize so many different features and patterns I would never have thought of, and I’ve made over a dozen levels and have certainly felt creatively fulfilled from it all.

But finding all those creative and interesting levels is proving to be the hardest part of it all, because the limitations of the sharing system is far more damning than any limitation of the editor itself. Mario Maker has proven to be yet another example of both Nintendo’s ability to make absolutely brilliant games, and its inability to build a sufficient online infrastructure.

mario maker course world

When I say “sufficient” I don’t mean functional — the online Course World does allow you to upload and play levels without running into bugs. Say what you will about Nintendo, but their games are always fairly bug-free, which is pretty exceptional in today’s mainstream games industry. What I mean is that it is sorely lacking in features that would allow us not to just find levels, but levels that we’d like to play. You can’t search for keywords and there is no tagging, which means there’s no way to simply say “I’d like a traditional Mario 3 airship level” or “I want a level that’s hard but fair.”

The only filter available whatsoever is difficulty, which is split between “Easy,” “Normal” and “Expert” based solely on the completion rate percentage. How it tends to go is that Easy levels are either Auto-Mario levels (levels that bounce you around obstacles to the end without you having to press a button) and patronizing shit where you walk five steps and touch the flag, Expert levels are mostly “troll” levels that force trial and error through cheap deaths, and Normal levels are everything in between, with a bit from Easy and Expert bleeding through. In fact, Auto-Mario makes many appearances in Normal mode, because some players move forward at the start and die because moving forward is a basic and ingrained Mario habit.

I utterly resent Auto-Mario stages. They go completely against the reasons why I think level design is beautiful. Level design (to me at least) is all about player interaction. It’s about creating scenarios for the player to explore and challenges for the player to overcome. Telling the player not to interact with the level at all lest they fuck it up makes me feel like people have missed the point. I’m fine with Auto-Mario existing — I can buy the idea that it is a valid form of creativity and learning, and it can be fun to watch as a Rube Goldberg machine of sorts — but it’s far more frustrating than it needs to be because I can’t avoid playing them.

It is both irritating and draining to have to skip level after level after level to find one that resonates with me, not because nobody is making the sorts of levels I’m into, but because Nintendo didn’t bother giving me the tools to find them.

One truly baffling oversight is Wii U friends list functionality, or lack thereof. If you and your friend want to play each other’s levels, you’ll have to exchange level codes. (Each level has a unique activation-key-style level code.) Then once you’ve accessed a level of theirs, you can go to their profile, play any or all of their levels, and “follow” them. You’d think “following” implies that you’ll get a Youtube-style feed of levels from all the people you’re following, but it’s not that convenient — it basically just gives you a list of the people you’re following so you can check yourself to see if they’ve made more levels.

Individually, that is. You have to check each person’s profile, one by one, to see if any have made new levels. It’s sort of like a Mario Maker friends list, which makes it all the more bizarre that you can’t just access your Wii U friends list itself and find their Mario Maker profiles that way.

I know it’s kind of old hat to point out that Nintendo is far behind the curve in terms of online support, but we can’t give them a free pass just because it’s expected — especially not when it’s this bad.

There are tools for finding Mario Maker levels, but they aren’t within the game itself. You’ll have to look into exterior online communities. The Mario Maker subreddit is one such site that has people posting their levels every day, complete with codes, and you can search by tags, and post your own levels with tags included and hope they’ll be seen. I highly recommend checking out the subreddit’s IRC channel — they’re a friendly bunch who share and play each other’s levels, offer support and constructive thoughts, and welcome newcomers.

I’ve also discovered that Mario Maker is a great game for streaming. Some streamers play Mario Maker levels submitted by viewers in chat, which creates a very interesting back-and-forth between them and their viewers. I’ve submitted my own levels and it’s really exciting to watch streamers play and enjoy my work while the viewers discuss it. If you’re interested, check out SuperTwoU — he streams Mario Maker nearly every day.

mario maker My Hero

For the record, Nintendo released a free update at the beginning of November which added checkpoints and Nintendo-made event courses, so they’ve demonstrated a desire to improve the game and keep it relevant. If they add options to tag and filter levels, that would improve the play experience drastically.

To me Mario Maker is a joyous game, a beacon of creative potential. There have been games with features like this before, but never has it been so inviting and easy to use. As I said earlier I’ve made over a dozen levels thus far, and when playing through them I can observe my own growing skill in level design. This makes me far more eager to dip my toes into Game Maker and the like. I also enjoy playing other people’s levels, even if they don’t tend to be my “thing,” because it’s interesting to see what individual players do with a blank canvas. It’s such a wonderful frontier — the perfect introduction to level design — and I understand that it’s “not for everyone,” but I do think there’s an awful lot of cultural value on display here.

My levels tend to be tight, dense platforming challenges aimed squarely at “hard but fair.” If you have Mario Maker and would like to check them out, here are some level codes.

  • Yoshi Ride Deluxe: 14FF-0000-00A4-EBC2
  • Otherworldly: 21B1-0000-00AA-CEB0
  • Bowser’s Power Towers: 9463-0000-00D8-A799
  • Spins Over Switches: 0B7E-0000-00B7-CF5D
  • Bowser Party: 3DFA-0000-00E8-2B5A
  • Get Out Of Jail, Peach!: 3C1F-0000-00FB-8BF8

I might write a more detailed post about my levels and what I’ve learned from making them, if I see interest in the topic. Mario Maker is definitely a new fixation of mine, and I’d like to know if it is for you too.

5 comments

  1. I would /definitely/ be interested in seeing your levels and your thought process in making them. I don’t have it myself, but I’m interested in the theory of things like that, even though I’m not typically focused on level design myself. (My favorite thing to mess with is progression systems)

    1. Maybe as a video? Just a thought. Some things might be hard to explain without seeing them in action. Although you may have no way of recording from a Wii U, in which case scratch that.

      1. Yeah, I don’t have a capture card, which is also the reason I’m not streaming the game yet.

        My other concern would be that Nintendo has that weird “Creator Program” with Youtube and I don’t want to get involved, but then again, if I opt out, I think the most they’ll do is seize ad revenue which is worthless for a channel as small as ours.

        If I were to write about my levels, I’d probably just use a lot of screenshots, possibly edited with arrows and captions.

  2. The thing that bugs me the most is the lack of feedback.

    There is only two ways to give feed back on a level; Give it a star (or not), or to write a comment.

    But to write a comment you have to star the level, so people are extremely un-willing to write comments on bad levels saying why they are bad, or what could be changed to make it worth a star. I get that Nintendo wants to limit hurtful comments, but i find it really annoying.

    I so far have uploaded 2 levels both of which are eaxctly the kind of levels i would like to play, and some people whose levels i have played have done me a solid and played mine. The first one has gotten a star from about 40% of people who have played it. the second one has had more people play it but on one has starred it. I wish i knew why. Was it to hard? was it to easy? was it to confusing? idk.

    Yea there are subreddits and stuff outside of the game the the community has made, but those kind of things should not be counted as a feature of the game, and for something like Mario Maker that kind of stuff should really be in the game.

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