One year ago, Nintendo published Super Mario Maker. Born from the seeds planted by Super NES classic Mario Paint, WarioWare D.I.Y., and Nintendo's own internal game development tools, Super Mario Maker democratized the concept of creating Mario games, allowing players to build their own courses with a full suite of design tools in four different visual styles.
This in itself wasn't necessarily a wild innovation. Fan games that allow people to make their own Mario adventures — and more fully featured at that — have been around for years. So, too, have the competition's game-making kits, such as LittleBigPlanet and Project Spark. Convenient, console-friendly level-making tools arrived in force a decade ago with the excellent Mega Man: Powered Up, which included decent sharing features and a ton of downloadable updates, and long before that we saw the likes of RPG Maker and Fighter Maker on PlayStation. Oh, and there's that "Minecraft" thing the kids always talk about.
So what made Super Mario Maker so great? What made it different from all the make-your-own-game games that had come before?
What we said at the time
Without question, I loved Super Mario Maker; I gave the game five stars out of five. Its appeal tied closely to its intrinsic relationship to the excellent Mario series, of course; the sights and sounds of nostalgia count for a lot in a product like this! Making your own game levels is all well and good, but building Mario levels is a different matter altogether. It's such an iconic series, its aesthetic so deeply ingrained in our minds, that putting its pieces together ourselves appeals to a deep, reptilian part of the hindbrain.
But just as importantly, Super Mario Maker offered grace and style. As I noted in my review, the first time you play, it opens in medias res: You can control Mario from the title screen, but you can only run a short distance before Mario runs out of stage. From that point, you have to build the rest of the stage yourself. It's very direct, very simple, very intuitive; and the more you build, the more tools and abilities the game unlocks for you, until at last you have command of the complete Mario Maker sandbox along with the experience to use it to its fullest.
Mario Maker's interface proved to be every bit as intuitive and direct as its concept. Combining traditional Mario controls with point-and-click stylus commands on the system's handheld touch screen, I found it to be "a truly compelling, ironclad case for the existence of the Wii U's Game Pad." Even potentially cumbersome elements, like swapping between different subtypes of a menu option, was as simple as shaking the stylus. Everything simply fell into place, with an elegance that suggested Nintendo had taken notes from its predecessors: "Super Mario Maker includes a few features that seem to function as direct responses to the bad habits that have bogged down other level tool kits."
Even so, Mario Maker suffered from significant limitations — absent features that competitors and fan projects had managed to nail from the outset. I offered a litany of complaints in my review, and Bob nailed his own list of grievances on the cathedral door of the internet. "The lack of sloped surfaces?" I lamented. "My apparent inability to change or otherwise control the direction of flying enemies so I can build elaborate jumping puzzles around them? No checkpoints? No partially submerged stages? No flipping between layers like in Super Mario World's fortresses? These oversights chafe, and they limit what you can reasonably accomplish with Maker's otherwise impressive suite of features."
And much as we all loved the sharing and community features (I admit to a certain satisfaction in seeing my own level creations sitting up near the top of the popularity rankings until review duties pulled me away to other games), the system's opportunity to witness others' unvarnished creations underlined the element of human weakness inherent in the concept: Most people aren't very good at designing game levels. "Just as Super Mario Maker refuses to hold your hand to get you started," I wrote, "so too does it leave you to your own devices when it comes to making effective use of its potential." In other words: Garbage in, garbage out. Not that this was the game's fault per se, or that it's in any way unique to Mario Maker. Still, hunting for true excellence on its public servers had a sort of wistful, quixotic feel to it.
Despite its drawbacks, though, it really did stand out as something special: A brilliantly designed tool to empower amateur design. "The whole point of Super Mario Maker is that it puts near-total control in your hands," I wrote. "As long as you're having fun, it's doing its job. And I have a hard time imagining anyone not having fun with this brilliant piece of software that so adroitly blurs the line between game and game creation. I wouldn't mind seeing better and more robust sharing features, or a few additional design options, but ultimately these feel like minor quibbles."
Since our review went live, Nintendo has released multiple updates to Super Mario Maker, folding in changes that range from minor tweaks to massive new features. Some of those features, it's worth noting, were mechanics we called out as specifically lacking in the 1.0 release. First among these: Checkpoints. By adding the ability to create a mid-stage progress flag, the game freed up designers to create vastly more complex stages, or not feel like they needed to front-load challenging elements in order to minimize frustration if players died and had to start over. It was, quite literally, a game-changer.
Super Mario Maker has seen many other improvements. Some, like the situational power-ups, made user levels feel more like authentic Mario games, changing a Fire Flower or other upgrade to a mere Super Mushroom when revealed by someone controlling small Mario. Others, like the plethora of character costumes and event courses, haven't been particularly substantial, though they've made the game more amusing. One tweak in particular — the more rapid speed with which players could unlock content at the start of the game — has almost completely been forgotten, since most players have long since opened up the game's entire sandbox. But the sandbox has expanded over the past year, with more in-game elements to explore. Some of these have been fairly minor, but others (like doors activated by P-switches or keys) greatly open up the potential for more intricate stage designs, allowing playing to create multiple or even interlocking goals within a level.
Meanwhile, one of the most recent changes to Super Mario Maker — explanatory feedback from Nintendo when a player's courses are deleted from the public servers — gets to one of the biggest sticking points to arise around Super Mario Maker. Namely, its rocky relationship with fans. Nintendo, being Nintendo, prefers to work on its own terms and never feels any particular need to apologize for its actions. But it quickly discovered that doesn't fly with a product whose core strength rests in its community; players would work hard on a stage, build up some social currency and status as people voted up their creations, and then — without explanation, their work would disappear. Nintendo hasn't slowed the frequency with which it prunes uploads, but at least now it provides a vague explanation for its actions.
The real proof of the game has been in its community, which has understandably tapered off as time has gone by. Still, Super Mario Maker seems to have inspired a fiercely loyal core userbase that continues to crank out stages. Some are quite good, though it can be tough to find them. Even now, a year later, it seems the novelty of idiotically difficult stage design hasn't worn off, and most of the stages sitting at the top of the all-time rankings fall into the category of "this designer hates your happiness." And plenty of other stage creations are just straight-up trash. Still, there's certainly enough gold out there to justify exploration... and of course the game's tool set remains as accessible and flexible as ever, meaning it remains ridiculously entertaining just to create your own stages, even if you never share them.
So does it hold up?
And good thing, too, because Super Mario Maker is about to stage a comeback on 3DS... but it'll be missing some of its most critical features. Particularly shocking: Online level sharing features will be greatly crippled on 3DS. Arguably the feature most essential to Super Mario Maker's success, the loss of sharing seems like a massive blow for the game.
We won't know its real impact until Super Mario Maker for 3DS arrives, though. For now, we still have the original Wii U game, with all its pros and cons. A year on, the pros continue to outweigh the cons, no question about it. I've picked up Super Mario Maker to toy around with at random several times since launch, and whether I muck around with my own creations or try my hand at community creations, I always have a great time. I've also shared it with family members of various ages, and they invariably love it... especially the young Minecraft fanatic set. Even without 30 years of Mario nostalgia baked into their systems, anyone who loves games or loves being creative takes right to Super Mario Maker in an instant. Its appeal is as straightforward and self-evident as its rules and mechanics.
There are still many things I'd love to see Mario Maker do more effectively. We still don't have sloped surfaces. Costumes still only work in original Super Mario Bros. mode. Each graphics set continues to have its own exclusive physics and control features rather than allowing players to mix-and-match — a real shame, since it means the most advanced techniques and stage layouts are tied to the kinda-ugly New Super Mario Bros. U look. Ah well; a year ago I said the game holds up as a masterpiece despite these quibbles, and nothing has changed since then. Nintendo has made Super Mario Maker even better than it was at launch, and the enthusiastic community and streaming culture that sprang up around the game underscore what Nintendo has accomplished with it. The 3DS port feels like a bit of a stopgap while the company tries to the get its NX console in order, but I look forward to seeing how this concept evolves on a proper next-gen system. And hey, I'd be happy to see some other publishers rip off its innovations and refinements wholesale. Steal from the best, guys.