The Road to Super Mario Maker

The Road to Super Mario Maker

Retrace Nintendo's attempts to turn players into designers over the past 30 years.

Today marks the official release of Super Mario Maker, meaning thousands upon thousands worldwide will have their first chance at something they've previously only dreamed of: being an honest-to-god game designer.

But Super Mario Maker isn't the first Nintendo game to let players take an active part in the creative process. Since the dawn of the Famicom era, Nintendo's actively tapped into the natural human urge to make stuff, mostly thanks to the efforts of their R&D1 development team. Though this internal group has been dissolved for a decade, their history lives on through the Nintendo experiences that feel more like digital toys than straight-up games: the tactile, metronomic simplicity of something like Rhythm Heaven owes much to this division's pre-video-game roots.

With their earliest works, Nintendo designers and artists like Gunpei Yokoi (the brain behind the Game Boy), Yoshio Sakimoto (of Metroid fame), and Hirofumi Matsuoka (WarioWare director) have shown Nintendo games aren't just about the play; they can also inspire their audience to do great things. And while their toolsets have grown more complex and intuitive over the passing decades, Nintendo's desire to turn consumers into creators hasn't changed one bit.

[1984/1985] Excitebike/Wrecking Crew/Mach Rider

Strangely enough, Nintendo's experiments with player-designed content predate the first Super Mario Bros. Excitebike, Wrecking Crew, and Mach Rider—three vastly different games—each give players the chance to create levels just as complex as the ones included on their cartridges. While each of these games give players access to all their bits and pieces, some technological limitations made their Design Modes not as useful as they could have been. If you wanted to save your user-created levels, you'd need to buy the Famicom Data Recorder, which would back this data up on the reliable cassette tape format.

Needless to say, since this peripheral was never released in America, it wasn't until the Virtual Console rereleases that we could finally keep our creations, rather than have them vanish into the ether with the powering down of a console. Sharing them, however, would still be an impossible dream.

[1993] Mario Paint

Mario Paint may seem like an era-appropriate solution to graphics programs on expensive PCs—Nintendo always loved doing more with less—but there's actually a lot more going on under the hood. If you've had a chance to tinker with the basic functionality of Super Mario Maker, you might have noticed its interface bears a striking resemblance to the playful trappings of Mario Paint. Heck, it even straight-up borrows several elements, like the interactive logo letters, Undo Dog, the save/load robot, and the little guys doing sit-ups on the loading screen. And these aspects didn't return simply for nostalgia's sake.

Mario Paint didn't have much to do with making games, but it wasn't a dry and straightforward creation program, either. Every single element—from the sound each tool uses to the collection of Nintendo-themed stamps that let users create without necessarily having to start from scratch—is engineered to make the act of creation fun in and of itself, even if you're just aimlessly doodling. And, for the first time, Mario Paint gave its players the chance to create characters and art the same way Nintendo's designers did in earlier generations: pixel-by-pixel. If this Nintendo creative suite isn't at least somewhat responsible for our modern era of 2D indie throwback games, it'd come as a huge surprise.

[2000] Mario Artist: Polygon Studio

Ah, the Nintendo 64 Disc Drive: does any other console add-on out there represent more wasted potential? For years, it was believed to be the N64's savior, but it would eventually meet with an untimely fate: The DD released during the later years of the N64, and only in Japan—with a very tiny library, at that. Out of the few games available for this doomed device, the Mario Artist suite of programs stands out as one of the best. And Mario Artist: Polygon Studio definitely sowed the seeds for the game-creating experiences Nintendo would produce in the future.

Ostensibly, Mario Artist: Polygon Studio is a souped-up version of Mario Paint, tasking players with creating 3D objects rather than simple 2D sprite-based art. But, being a Nintendo production, there's a bit more than just the simple act of creation: the models created by players can then be dropped into rudimentary microgames, a format which directly inspired the creation of WarioWare three years later. (It shouldn't be surprising that Hirofumi Matsuoka directed Mario Paint, Polygon Studio, and WarioWare in his time at Nintendo.) While players had no way to design the games themselves, they at least had the opportunity to craft the assets within them—something that would play heavily into the final entry on our list.

[2010] WarioWare: D.I.Y.

Mario Paint spawned Mario Artist, which created the prototype for WarioWare, so it only makes sense for Nintendo's off-kilter microgame series to focus on pure creation with its final installment. Like Polygon Studio, D.I.Y. asks you to create assets for pre-existing games, but these are only the first steps of a much larger process. As D.I.Y. slowly walks you through the creation of a microgame, it eventually cuts the leash and allows total access to its game-creating tools. Granted, the microgame format isn't designed to last more than a few seconds, but putting creators in control of graphics, music, sound effects, and logic means the possibilities are endless.

D.I.Y. would also give its players the chance to share their levels around the world, a bit of functionality that Excitebike and Wrecking Crew enthusiasts could only dream of during the Famicom days. Unfortunately, it wasn't as easy as punching in the handy codes dispensed by Super Mario Maker, but, in 2010, Nintendo still had a lot to learn about how to do online right (and some would say they still do). D.I.Y. was produced by a team entirely different than the one who put together Super Mario Maker, but it's easy to see how this quirky little experiment proved the viability of a game about making games. Hopefully, we'll see a true follow-up to D.I.Y. one day that makes sharing and creation just as effortless as Super Mario Maker, but lets us craft experiences that aren't necessarily beholden to the rules of established platformers.

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