Game design has always been a passion of mine. Level design, in particular, is such a fascinating and abstract concept, and the ways in which it meshes with more straightforward elements like controls, visuals, music, and story is a very compelling subject. Yet to create a game is not an easy task; even the simplest and most straightforward engines out there require some skill to produce anything worthwhile, and generally one needs some sort of coding and graphic design experience to really produce something great. The path to simply crafting game levels is not an easy one.

Enter Super Mario Maker. It offers the flawless controls, great visual styles, and detail of various Mario games, all with an easy to understand interface: truly, it is all about the level design. And alongside this, you can share your levels with the world, and get to experience the countless levels others have made with their own genius. Not everything is perfect, but it is a terrific tool and a great game – so let’s take a look at why.

Simple, yet robust

When you first boot up Super Mario Maker, it puts you into the driver’s seat. After quickly reintroducing you to the world of Mario with a bit of platforming, it tasks you with finishing an incomplete level. Right away, you are introduced to how the basics work. Along the top of the screen are several objects. On the top left is the option to switch between art/control styles (Original, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, New Super Mario Bros. U), and just below that you can switch between environments (Ground, underground, lava, airship, water, ghost). The lower right side has undo and reset buttons, while the upper right side has the “save” option. The main portion of the screen is your virtual playground, the level itself. With the Wii U Gamepad’s touch screen, you can drag objects from the top of the screen and place them in the level. You can switch between “edit” and “play” by hitting the corresponding icon on the bottom left corner, and start the level from the beginning by hitting the “-” button.

It is an incredibly intuitive design: simply drag what you want to where you want it. Maneuvering between options is simple – it’s easy to see which object is what and how it will react in-game; and bringing a drop down menu to switch out which options you can access on the editor is quick and clean. It is equally easy to play-test and make sure a level works as intended, as you can jump between play and edit immediately. Even more complex options, like sub rooms (drag Mario into a pipe, then switch between areas with the press of a button) and doors (various symbols help you keep track) are extremely easy to stay on top of thanks to streamlined design.

Simplicity does not limit the number of options, however, and there really are tons. Enemies and objects from all throughout Mario history make an appearance. At the start you will have just the basics – Koopas, Goombas, breakable blocks, unbreakable blocks, coin blocks, mushrooms, springs, pipes. Then it’s Lakitus and Spiny Shells, Fire Flowers, Stars, One-Ups, and moving platforms; then Bullet Bills, Bloopers, and Cheep-Cheeps; HammerBros., Thwomps, fireballs, skull platforms; Monty Moles, Bob-Ombs, POW blocks, Bowser; Boos, Magikoopas, doors, vines, switches, hidden coin boxes; Wigglers, Yoshi, Clown Cars, arrows; conveyor belts, saws, paths for objects/enemies/moving platforms to follow; the list goes on.
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Many of these can be changed into different objects simply by shaking them, so a Green Koopa will turn into a Red Koopa, for example. You can stack enemies on top of each other to make mountains of enemies; you can also add wings to some enemies to let them fly, float, or bounce, or you can make them extra big by giving them a mushroom; you can put enemies or powerups in pipes so that they respawn whenever they get killed/disappear, put them in breakable blocks/coin boxes to give players a surprise, or combine certain objects and enemies together for all new challenges.

With a little extra work, you can even create bosses. Castle levels automatically have bridges at the end, soputting a few enemies you have to get around makes a simple boss right then and there. But by, say, putting an enemy in a Clown car and then having an out of reach pipe – making you defeat the enemy before moving on – you can start to create bosses all your own. There are tons of creative ways to make bosses unique, and seeing and making them is one of the most exciting parts of Super Mario Maker.

Objects will also change depending on the area and art style. That can range from little things, like blocks looking different to fit in with the environment, to big stuff. Enemies act differently according to what era they are from, and some enemies and objects that never even appeared in certain games show up any way (like Magikoopas in the original Super Mario Bros.), and the controls/physics are noticeably different as well, meaning level design generally isn’t transferable. This means there are combinations of challenges that have never appeared in Mario before, and learning how those elements work together for the first time is truly thrilling.

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There are also some objects that only work in certain eras. You can only add Yoshi to Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. levels, and only add Kuribo’s Shoe to 3 and Original levels, for instance. And each version has an exclusive powerup: New has the Propeller, 3 has the Tanooki Suit, World has the cape, and Original has secret mushrooms.

Let’s talk about secret mushrooms for a bit. These can give Mario a new costume, which disappear if he gets hit. You can unlock some in the game, like a goomba, but you can also unlock costumes with Amiibo. Thus, you can have tons of characters from across Nintendo’s stable of franchises play through Mario’s world, from Link to Wii Fit Trainer. In the level, you can have it turn Mario into a random character, or you can choose specifically which costume it will be. Again: these are only usable in classic, but it’s an awesome addition to have, and the perfect use for Amiibo.

You can also add your own sound effects. After hitting the sound effects button, several sounds will appear in the top bar, like clapping, babies crying, or cheering. Dragging these sounds onto objects or into the level will make them play when you interact with those objects. Some sounds also have corresponding visual effects, like fireworks or a cat paw. But you can even make your own sound effects by speaking into the Gamepad’s microphone. Pretty quickly, I had Yoshi moaning in anguish as he left his shell, Koopas screaming as they died, and blocks making fart noises as they got hit. (Yes: I’m one of those people.)

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There is just so much you can do. Super Mario Maker will surprise you constantly, even after you think you know everything the game has to offer. One of the biggest joys of this experience is trying out different combinations, or shaking different objects and seeing new possibilities you did not know were there come to life.

I won’t spoil any more – and believe me, there is still a lot I did not mention – but I wanted to show the full scale of what this game allows you to do. So many different combinations and possibilities are available, and every one is a breeze to put into your level the way you want to. The interface requires very little learning curve, and it is easy to imagine even younger players having a blast with Super Mario Maker.

A slow introduction

To help with the massive number of options, the game introduces new concepts very slowly. See, if you use the editing tools for at least five minutes a day, the game will give you a new round of tools to use the next day. This goes on for nine days in total. While I am not sure this was the best way of going about things, it is a solid concept: not everyone who experiences Super Mario Maker will be gaming experts, and a gradual learning curve to help them slowly get acclimated is the right way of doing things. Besides, the date on the Wii U can be changed for those who are simply desperate for more options.

Maneuvering through the game’s different modes is pretty easy. By hitting “+”, you will open the menu. From there you can go to Coursebot (play levels you have made, edit them, and upload them; you can store up to 120 levels), 10 Mario Challenge (Pre-made levels), Course World (levels made by other players), settings, notifications (you will get a notification if someone plays your level, etc.), and the digital manual (explains how to do various things in the game. This is a valuable resource, as it succinctly sums up how to use the more complicated options, and helps keep the game from confusion.) It’s easy to get around the menus and go to the area of Super Mario Maker you want.

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Smaller details are what make the game really stand out. Be it the way some tools have character all to themselves, from the Undo Dog to the Reset Rocket to Coursebot, or the way the sound effects as you place objects in the level will line up with the background music, to the secrets in the title screen, the game does not hesitate to make the editor full of simple joys. And then there is the way even the most haphazard level looks so professionally made; background objects will spring up as you change the foreground to make it all look seamless, and every object fits together flawlessly from a visual perspective no matter what you do.

It all comes together to deliver something truly phenomenal. In truth, I was not having a great time at the start; there just wasn’t enough to make the levels I wanted to make. As I unlocked various options, though, the experience really started to come together, and by the time I hit day 4, everything clicked: I started having the time of my life. Super Mario Maker is so much fun.

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Seriously, this is some of the most addicting stuff I have ever experienced. Super Mario Maker is never far from my mind; I am always thinking of new level ideas to experiment with, or new ways to adjust, improve, and add on to existing levels. Because of how easy it is to put stuff together, it becomes entirely about designing cool levels, and designing cool levels is truly a blast. Experimenting with ideas and then tweaking them to be hard-but-fair while still fitting with your level is just…. fun.

It is not like everything is perfect; there could be more enemies, objects, environments, and overall options, and being able to better control when and where some enemies and objects move would be nice. A music maker would be cool, as well. But any complaints honestly pale in comparison to everything on display. This is an incredible tool – it lets you create and test with exceptional ease, all without sacrificing the number of possibilities or sense of professionalism in the finished product. Super Mario Maker truly offers you more or less everything you need to create the level of your dreams.

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