E3 2014: I'm Unreasonably Excited About Mario Maker [Updated]

Is the fun-but-limited Mario Maker demo on the E3 show floor all we can expect of it? We asked producer Takashi Tezuka.

Over the past 24 hours, the games industry has collectively shown off a huge number of never-before-announced games. It's a flood of content that game-starved fans have been clamoring for over the past few years, and finally the companies who control the floodgates have opened them wide.

And yet, the single game I may be most excited to own coming out of this week's press conferences is barely even a game, more like a toy: Mario Maker. While it's kind of a Mario game, it's really more of a tool to let fans create their own Mario levels and swap them back and forth. Heck, it's not even a particularly new or novel toy. Level editors and ROM hacking tools for manipulating Mario games to the point of unrecognizability have existed for years; the original Super Mario Bros. may actually be the most hacked and reassembled game ever made. I'm sure Nintendo's tool set will be far more limited than the ones you can download for free, giving you fewer editing features and imposing more severe restrictions on sharing options.

So be it. I'm OK with that, because Mario Maker has the benefit of being a legitimate, publisher-approved tool for remixing Mario -- a real rarity outside of the world of PC shooters and role-playing games. In fairness, Sony beat Nintendo to the punch here with Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet series, but -- with all due respect to Media Molecule -- the physics and control features in LBP are absolutely awful. I love the idea of editing and creating and sharing platformer challenges with friends, but LBP just isn't fun to play, because it lacks the spot-on physics I prefer in the genre. You know, like the ones in Super Mario Bros.

The last time I was this enthusiastic about built-in editing features was nearly a decade ago with Mega Man: Powered Up for PlayStation Portable. The editing mode in that sadly overlooked and undersold game built its framework around the crisp mechanics of the original 8-bit Mega Man and, while simple, allowed for quite a bit of free expression. I got totally wrapped up in that game's feature, even running a level design contest for fans (much of which resulted in hideously masochistic designs, because video gamers are cruel monsters).

Mario Maker covers much of the same ground -— a console-friendly level editor built on the framework of a time-tested 2D classic -- but in what appears to be a more robust fashion. In fact, Mario Maker looks like nothing so much as a spiritual successor to Mario Paint and WarioWare D.I.Y: a hybrid of sorts. Mario Paint has gone on to become a sort of timeless classic in its own right, with its stripped down musical editor having become a favorite remix tool. There are tens of thousands of Mario Paint remixes on YouTube! And they're wonderful.

That's what has me intrigued by Mario Maker: The potential for creative expression beyond the intended bounds laid down by the creators. I've always felt that creativity thrives most within limitations, and Nintendo has a tendency to create restrictive tools for expression that offer just the right kind of options to foster imagination.

Lately, I've been on a kick of looking into Nintendo's early history and the influence the company's legacy as a toy designer and manufacturer had on its approach to video games. Even after all these years as a game developer, Nintendo's toymaker perspective still shades its work, whether it's in the sort of aimless whimsy found in Tomodachi Life or a more overt expression like Mario Maker. This lateral approach to game design is what keeps me interested in the company's products, even in tough times.

Of all the do-it-yourself game tools presented at this year's E3 -- Project Spark, Mario Maker, and LittleBigPlanet 3 -- Mario Maker looks the most focused and the most fun. I mean, sure, it doesn't have a Conker mod, but what can you do? I'm sure I'll spend entirely too much time with it regardless.

Update: I spoke with producer Takashi Tezuka about Mario Maker today. Speficially, I asked if the two art styles available in the show floor demo — the original Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. U — would be the extent of the looks available for level design. Will we see Super Mario Bros. 3? Super Mario World?

"Obviously, there will be other graphical styles included," Tezuka said. "And nothing's been decided yet, but I'd also like to include other graphics that aren't Mario." Would that mean that if Legend of Zelda graphics were included, the game would let you design top-down stages, I asked?

"No, it won't be top-down," he said. "It's always going to be a 2D platformer." However, players can expect more level design elements than those included on the show floor. Tezuka said he plans to integrate more enemy and object types than what appeared in the E3 demo, though he doesn't want the palette of options to become overwhelming.

Tezuka also emphasized the inspiration Mario Maker draws from Mario Paint and says that he hopes to include features similar to those of that Super NES classic, including a music composition feature. As for Internet sharing and Miiverse integration, Tezuka admits those details are still being worked out as well, but that he's mindful of players' desire to show off their level designs to friends.

"Sharing with friends is really the whole point of making levels," he said.

We'll have more of Tezuka's thoughts next week in our extended hands-on Mario Maker preview and interview.

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