When Nintendo announced Mario Maker at this year's E3, I was instantly smitten. I've always loved the idea behind Mario Paint, but the technical limitations of the Super NES game ultimately hamstrung the concept.
The idea behind Mario Maker couldn't be simpler; less a game than a tool, it allows you to create and play Super Mario Bros. (and New Super Mario Bros.) levels. Unlike your Mario Paint creations, which had to be recorded on video cassette and couldn't easily be shared, Mario Maker projects will almost certainly allow you to save them and trade them online. The term "tool" suggests something blandly functional, but this being a Nintendo EAD product, a better description might be "toy"; Mario Maker incorporates all sorts of amusing little details into its interface — everything from enemies that squirm and wiggle as you place them in the level to Mario Paint's annoying little gnat that entices you to waste time trying to swat it as you're trying to get work done.
I spoke to producer Takashi Tezuka in depth about the inspiration for Mario Maker, as well as the elements of the game that weren't shown off at the event.
USgamer: Given that you've been involved in the Mario series since Super Mario Bros., what does Mario Maker mean for you personally?
Takashi Tezuka: For a while now I've been thinking about creating a game that would make good use of imagination. Do you know Flipnotes Studio? I'm involved in that project. I like when you can create something and show someone, or check out something someone else has created. When the Wii U came out, I was thinking that I wanted to make use of the Game Pad to create something like a Mario Paint. But for some people, drawing and painting are intimidating, so not everyone can get into it. I started thinking about how I could approach creative software.
One day, the tools team on my development staff came to me with this idea. They were creating a course editor for our level designers that made use of the Game Pad. The tools team, they just make developer tools, they don't make courses. But they had a lot of fun with this editor, so they thought we could make a game out of it.
So, they proposed this game idea to me. This proposal reminded me of my plan to create a creative game, and that's how Mario Maker came to be. But, of course I wanted this prototype to draw from Mario Paint, to be more than just a course editor — I wanted to take the essence of Mario Paint, the really fun elements where it was enjoyable just interacting with the software itself, and bring that into our new game.
While you can make your typical Mario courses, you can also do things that you'd never see in a Mario game. I want it to be a place where you can use your imagination and do all the strange things that have ever popped into your mind.
USg: I guess what I mean is, in what way does this project express your own vision of the Mario concept?
TT: Well, take for example the people at the Treehouse. They've made courses that require impeccable timing and technique. When I try to play them, I can't get very far. But they're loving it. They're having such a great time with it! So even though I'm not good at playing their courses, I have fun watching them create.
When the original Super Mario Bros. came out, it was the first of its kind. No one was good or bad at the game. Now we have people who like action games and many other kinds of games — it's really varied. With Mario Maker, anybody can play it and use it any way they like. People can choose a difficulty level that suits their tastes.
When we create games, the thing that is the most difficult for us is the need to create a game that will appeal to both people who enjoy a good challenge as well as for people who aren't, you know, quite as experienced. Making sure everybody has a good time. Mario Maker kind of answers the difficult question of how to adjust game design for different skill levels, just in and of itself. It's hard for me to put it into words.
USg: One of the big limitations of Mario Paint was that there was no way to share easily, no Internet. I assume Mario Maker will let you swap levels online with friends?
TT: It's true, there was no Internet back then, and once we created something, that was it. It was out there. When you make a course, you naturally want someone to play it — that's the point of it. Of course, if you friend makes a course, you're going want to play it, right?
Now, with the Internet, you're able to interact with friends from far away, so if you wanted to share courses with friends far away, we're able to do that, in a technological sense. I would like to consider doing something like that with Mario Maker. There is a challenge there, though. If you create something and upload it somewhere, of course you want as many people as possible to see it. Naturally, the most popular courses will be seen and played by others, but those that don't have that top spot may not attract the same number of eyeballs for people looking at them.
Of course, it's nice to have rankings and the like, but we're trying to think of ways to ensure that everybody's creations get seen by someone. That's what I'm working on now.
USg: I feel like Miiverse has been pretty good about overcoming that problem. Lots of people use it and the best content rises to the top.
TT: It could be possible to incorporate this concept into Miiverse. Using the Miiverse framework is one way to do it, or maybe we could do something new within Mario Maker. I want it to be something that best fits our needs.
USg: Have you considered a 3DS version of Mario Maker?
TT: Yeah, a 3DS version is possible. You're the first person to ask about this! (laughs) I have thought about it. But right now we think it's best for the Wii U Game Pad. I don't know if a 3DS version would work the same exact way, but maybe if Mario Maker does well on Wii U and people really love it, I might consider doing something for 3DS. Right now, the Wii U hardware has a lot more power, so you can fit a lot more enemies and elements on the course. That's why we prefer this hardware. But of course, I am interested in the idea of a portable version.
USg: Will players be able to create interconnected courses?
TT: By multiple courses being connected, do you mean will they be in the different art styles and you can mix-and-match...?
USg: No, like... in a Mario game, you go from World 1-1 to 1-2 to 1-3. There's a sense of progression, they're not just standalone levels. Will that be possible here?
TT: I'm thinking about it. Of course, we're planning on having some different art styles... and not necessarily just Mario.
USg: So you're taking some inspiration from NES Remix?
TT: Not really — honestly, I haven't really played that. I don't know about NES Remix, but like I said, instead of just switching between Mario graphics, I would be interested in bringing in other series' game world.
USg: For other styles, if you were to create for example a stage with Zelda graphics, would that play like classic Zelda, top-down?
TT: No, I'm not thinking of something like a top-down style. Mario Maker will be a 2D side-scrolling format. USg: Mario Maker seems as much like a toy as a game, and of course Nintendo has a lengthy history as a toymaker. Does that heritage help inform your approach to creating products like this?
TT: I've never thought of it that way, never put two and two together that way, but maybe there is a thread there. You know, video games are just one genre of play, of pastimes, and I think that what's essential to play is to use your imagination and try out new things. Those are the kind of video games I want to continue making.
I'm not content with making a game that has a story that you just follow from beginning to end. My philosophy is to create a game that offers many different elements and let the player experience those different things in whatever combination they like. This may be a coincidence, but a lot of members of my development staff for Mario Maker played with Mario Paint when they were younger. There are more than a few on the team who, when they were younger, became interested in art after playing with Mario Paint and ended up pursuing visual arts as a career.
I think that combination of play and imagination and creativity is very powerful. I also think people aren't engaging in that form of play as much these days. So what I want to do and the kind of games I want to make are — not just Mario Maker, I want all my games to engage people's imaginations and sense of creativity.
USg: What about music? Mario Paint has continued to be popular thanks in large part to its music-making features.
TT: Yes, I would like to incorporate music into it, too. I think that Mario Maker makes it even easier to make your own creations. So you had the music creator, Melody Maker, in Mario Paint. I want to make the music part even more intuitive and easier this time around as well. I mean, we're working on it, and I don't know exactly what we can do, but that's our goal.
USg: Super Mario Bros. and its sequels have been some of the most successful and influential games ever made. In your opinion, how does Mario Maker express that legacy?
TT: That's a big and difficult question. (laughs)
My greatest challenge right now is that the physics of the original Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. are very different. So, people who are used to today's Mario games might have a hard time with the original if they're not accustomed to it. With Mario Maker, the retro Mario style looks that way visually, but the controls are a little bit closer to today's Marios.
I have a feeling that if I make the original Mario style content control like the original Mario, people used to current Mario may not enjoy it. So, we haven't carried those exact physics over. Yet there are parts, of course, that I don't want to let go, that I want to continue.
Back in the day, games had limitations. As far as the types of enemies you could put in, we didn't have a lot of options. When we made courses back then, we would use the limited elements we could have on screen and make it appear as though more was there. We had to work within the limitations and come up with creative solutions to realize what we were imagining. With Mario Maker, if you've played it you'll know that there's a little palette of course objects. We want to add more, but at the same time I don't want to have a crazy number of them. So I want to challenge players to choose from limited elements to create something special.