Nintendo managed to infuriate just about the entire Internet yesterday when it announced the fact that Super Mario Maker will feature time-gated unlockable content. In order the gain access to the full suite of goodies available in the DIY platform design tool, players will have to spend a full nine days with Mario Maker as items slowly unlock on a daily basis.
This news resulted in an almost universal outcry against Nintendo and the concept of artificial restrictions on in-game content. But eventually, players will have access to the full breadth of Mario Maker's features without paying an extra dime; this is a far cry from some expensive on-disc DLC scheme. On the contrary, Super Mario Maker's timed content simply show Nintendo doing what it's always done: Nudge players through their creations through careful design.
Honestly, it would be weird to see Nintendo doing anything else. Super Mario Maker, after all, serves as a celebration of a milestone anniversary for Super Mario Bros., which debuted on Sept. 13, 1985 — meaning Mario Maker's launch arrives two days shy of the game's 30th anniversary. Mario Maker features content and visuals from that NES classic; the entire point of the package is to allow players to make their own renditions of classic Mario platformers.
Super Mario Bros. just might be the canonical example of teaching players the rules of a game through careful level design. World 1-1 of the game has been dissected, analyzed, and critiqued by countless designers and enthusiasts alike, and even the game's creators — director Shigeru Miyamoto and designer (and Mario Maker producer) Takashi Tezuka — have spoken at length about what they tried to accomplish when they were laying out the Mushroom Kingdom's environments. Super Mario became one of the most influential games of all time not because it was the first side-scroller (it wasn't) but rather because its creators took the time to consider the best way to induct players into the elaborate, complex work they were creating.
And I hate to say it, but you're not as good a designer as Miyamoto and Tezuka. Neither am I. You're not going to sit down with Mario Maker and think, "How can I make this game as fair as possible? How can I communicate the player's objective? How can I introduce a steady rise in difficulty by iterating a challenge or task through progressively more demanding permutations?" No, you're going to build a bunch of levels that actively frustrate and annoy people. You're going to see what you can possibly get away with in the Mario Maker engine, which looks to be just about anything you can imagine, and you're not going to spend much time fretting over how playable the end result is. You will measure your success in the number of tears spilled by your victims.
That's fine! Go ahead and be terrible to your fellow man. But even as you're reveling in your inhumanity, Nintendo is determined to make sure that you at least have a firm grasp on how, precisely, you can best going about exulting in your hatefulness. How do you teach people to play a game that's about making games? You could just hit them with an endless series of dry tutorials, but that's not really Nintendo's style. (OK, except in Zelda.) Even cutesy tutorials aren't really their thing.
Rather, the solution they've gone with is this series of progressive unlocks. You'll begin with the basic building blocks — literally, blocks — on day one, with ever-more-exotic items unrolling as you play, giving you the ability to create more intricate setups as you come to terms with the rules and mechanics of the construction process. The unlock sequence revealed in yesterday's video teaser is Mario Maker's equivalent of World 1-1's meticulously arranged hazards and challenges. Fittingly, the day-one items are almost exactly what you would need to make a replica of World 1-1, minus 1UPs and any power-up more potent than a Super Mushroom (and with the addition of Piranha Plants and the wing modifier that allows you to make practically any object into a flying version of itself). By the time you gain access to the good stuff, you'll actually have the functional, practical skill to use them effectively... in theory, anyway.
I understand that many people will chafe at the restrictions, but this, too, is a kind of game design — one that's defined Nintendo's approach for 30 years. It certainly eases many of the concerns I've had about Super Mario Maker: Consumer-level game-design tool software is hardly a new invention (Mario dabbled in it way back in Wrecking Crew, which predates Super Mario Bros. by a year), but it's rarely intuitive or fun to use. Mario's legacy, however, deserves one that's a cut above the competition, and now I can see how Tezuka and crew intent to differentiate Mario Maker. They can't force you to make good levels or train you to be as disciplined a designer as they are, but they can at least ease you into the process. Super Mario Maker launches in slightly less than a month, at which point countless Wii U owners will learn the meaning of truly terrible level design... but at least it won't be Nintendo's fault.