The greatest lesson of Super Mario Maker is the most obvious one: you can play a game forever and still have no idea how to make it. I’ve put 30 years into Mario, almost half a life (probably more, if you live like me), and I still feel like a true goon whenever I try to make a level in Mario Maker. I’ll toss some blocks all over the place, pipes that things sometimes come out of, turtles, some of those spinning fire sticks, all kindsa mushrooms, turtle witches, the laziest ghosts you’ve ever hung out with, and wings, wings everywhere, wings on everything, like a God who just thought up wings for the very first time and sticks ‘em on every single thing He makes, so everything bounces towards me or away from me, and never in the direction I want.
Making Mario is tough, and the game itself doesn’t go out of its way to make it easier.
Super Mario Maker is stingy with the tools, but it’ll give you everything you need, in time. If you edit levels for five minutes a day, you’ll unlock a small selection of new items and enemies to use the next day. After the first eight or so days are up, and the little cartoon truck has dropped off all the various elements from every kind of side-scrolling Mario (sans the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2 and the Game Boy games), the game picks its hands up and kicks its feet back and lets you mess around with little supervision.
It doesn’t really give you lessons on how to make a good Mario level. It gives you sample levels every day, using whatever new goodies you scrounged up the day before, so you can get an idea of how things work, if you weren’t already sure. It’s like if you bought some Legos and just used the photo on the box instead of the instructions, but you didn’t get every Lego at once. Or like if you picked out a song on your guitar by listening to it instead of using another ace 60’s tab from Andrew Rogers, but you started with only the low E string and had to gradually unlock the other five. Mario Maker wants you to learn by experience and example, but if it was that easy we would all already be masterful Mario artists after years and decades of Goomba squashing.
But then the goal isn’t to make us all into dimestore Miyamotos. We can cop his moves but no game could ever teach us his soul. Mario Maker’s goal is to turn us into the Guitar Center employees of the games world: we can maybe learn where the notes go and how to play ‘em, but good luck with the passion and the theory and the experience that makes art possible.
My most successful level is called “Alone Again.” It is an empty cave Mario goes to when he is sad. It has two stars. (You can upload your levels to the internet. People can then give them stars, if they like them.) Nobody has played my follow-up, “Alone Again Or,” where Mario’s empty cave of sadness hosts a surprise visitor. The visitor has wings.
Somebody will make a Mario Maker level that approaches the genius of a real Mario game. That hasn’t happened yet. The current review server is full of levels made by press and various other advance adherents, and so far all of them are either tentative pastiches or sheer gimmickry. There are Goldbergian contraptions that play themselves, and levels as brutal as the most unforgiving slivers of the hardest game you’ve ever played. There are familiar worlds from Metroid and other games, short stories spelled out in bricks, and playable math quizzes. Some fool even made a level with literally nothing in it. The current selection of user-made levels reveals the limitations of the entire enterprise: it’s a parallel universe of sterile, lifeless Marios, with the right iconography and recognizable backdrops on top of rote button-pushing.
It’s early, though. People will crack this, if they put the effort into it. And Nintendo fans will do that. Just as it took a while for players to gin up worthwhile levels in Little Big Planet or Disney Infinity, inevitably the congregation of Nintendo devotees will figure out Mario Maker to the point where the best of their labors will be worth a download.
Until then, the most interesting thing about Mario Maker is that disconnect between nostalgia and the new facets introduced in this game. Yes, you can play as characters other than Mario and Luigi, if you own the corresponding Amiibo. With my meager Amiibo collection I’ve been able to shoot through any number of Super Mario Bros.-inflected levels as Link, Pac-Man and Samus Aran. They don’t really play like those characters (although Samus does morph into a ball when she runs) but that visual juxtaposition packs enough post-modern frisson to have not yet grown old. The same mystery mushroom that lets you turn into non-Mario characters in the most classic of levels can also transform you into a Goomba, Koopa, question block and more, lending a slightly surreal atmosphere to a game about a one-named Italian man using fireballs and magic mushrooms to fight turtles and thunder lizards. In effect these alternate power-ups are all just standard-issue mushrooms, changing the one-hit-wonder small Mario into another videogame character instead of Super Mario, but it looks both different and familiar, and that matters in a game that’s built heavily around nostalgia. Most disturbing of all of these monstrosities is the funhouse mirror reflection known as Skinny Mario, the tall, slim customer who slouches through the Mushroom Kingdom like a sitcom beatnik, looking like the sleaziest videogame character of all time.
There’s nothing new or inherently exciting about a game with a level editor. Super Mario Maker pretty much drops the “game” part entirely—the 10 Mario and 100 Mario Challenges feature new prefab levels, but the focus here is clearly on the level editor and the user-made levels. But for many players Super Mario or one of its many sequels is the ur-videogame, the first brush with a controller, the most elemental building block in an entire multi-billion dollar industry. The ability to muck about with our most powerful memories and experiences is bewitching and almost unthinkable, but that’s the core of Super Mario Maker. It’s exactly as good and as bad as you think a Super Mario level editor would be, and that’s entirely subjective upon your own thoughts and opinions. Imagine that number above under the word “rating” is two question marks, and then punch that block as many times as you’d like. Meanwhile I’ll be building more Mario levels that nobody other than myself would ever want to play, burning through my memories in incorrect ways.
Super Mario Maker was developed and published by Nintendo. It is available for the Wii U.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. Follow him on Twitter at @grmartin.