Monday, 21 September 2015

Review - Super Mario Maker (Wii U)

Celebrating your 30th birthday in style

It has been a long, long time since I have felt as excited about a game release as I have with Nintendo's brand new Mario creation title. Not since the days of my youth have I pre-ordered a game well in advance of it's release date and waited with baited breath for it to turn up on my doorstep, ready to be ripped open (well, very carefully opened anyway, this was a limited edition after all) and thrust into the console without delay. But this is no ordinary game, this is Super Mario Maker

Released to coincide with Super Mario's 30th anniversary (though not created specifically for this occasion), Super Mario Maker is a game creation tool that allows you to produce your very own Super Mario Bros levels, just like you've always dreamed of (probably). Starting with a blank level that contains only a start point and end flag, you use the Wii U Gamepad to add blocks, coins, pipes, enemies, power-ups and a whole array of familiar items in the hope of channeling your inner game designer and creating something that Shigeru Miyamoto himself would give the thumbs up. Well, that's the plan behind it anyway. 

The interface is incredibly simple and intuitive, with colourful icons adorning the top bar and a handy grid overlay for maximum ease of item placement. Once you have starting drawing in some ground, blocks, coins, and Goombas, it hits you just how easy it is to knock up a basic Super Mario Bros stage in minutes. You can switch between creating the level and taking control of Mario instantly, meaning you can edit things as soon as you want. Once you get into your stride, you can start experimenting with other Mario content, such as Bullet Bill cannons, Baby Bowser, Piranha Plants, Bob-ombs and even Yoshi himself. Yes, that's right, for not only can you create classic 8-bit Super Mario Bros stages, but also Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World and even modern New Super Mario Bros U. You can switch between them with a tap of an icon, meaning your Super Mario Bros creation suddenly turns into Mario's glorious 16-bit outing or even his latest adventure on the very console you are creating on. It's simply breathtaking how clever this mechanic is and really opens your eyes to how stages can look so different in Mario's different evolutions. You can choose from a selection of backdrops that include the colourful overworld stages, underground caves, underwater, ghost house, airship and Bowser's lava filled castle, again all instantly with a tap of the appropriate icon.

It gets even better, as you are not restricted to just using the items and enemies as they appeared in their respective games. Fancy piling up 6 Goombas on top of each other in order to form a grotesque totem pole? How about making a huge Koopa Trooper (as seen in Super Mario Bros 3's wonderful oversized stages)? Or how about creating a pipe that fires out flying fish, or coins, or squids, or whatever you like? Well you can do this and a whole lot more. It's all about experimenting with different combinations of items to see what wild and wacky results come out of it. You can shake items on screen with the stylus to change them into different variations of themselves (e.g. your standard green Koopa Trooper transforms into his red shelled brethren), or simply drag a mushroom or wings onto an enemy to make him super-sized or capable of flight, respectively. Non-swimming enemies placed in an underwater stage float comically around, until you near them, at which point they start to swim. There's always something that raises a smile and encourages you to try new things.

There is a slight clause to this experimentation, however. Originally there was to be a 9 day 'learning period' in which new items were unlocked every 24 hours. But there was a huge internet backlash so Nintendo patched the game to allow content to unlock via the time spent using the creation tools. I was able to unlock everything in a matter of hours via this method, though I would not have minded having to wait the originally intended time period.. honestly, what's wrong with everyone these days? Now that that 'issue' is out of the way, we can get back to what's important, the fun factor. And by God, this game has it in spades. Creating a stage is enormously enjoyable and incredibly satisfying to play back or, even better, to watch someone else play and gauge their responses to your fresh 'masterpiece'.  Got no friends to play with? No problem, you can upload your creation and others can play it, with the game keeping track of how many attempts and completions of your course have occurred. If your level is particularly special then users can give it a star. But be warned - don't go uploading everything you make as Nintendo have limited you to 10, with another 10 allowed once you get 50 stars. Thankfully you can delete previously uploaded stages to make way for new creations, but it still seems a little bit stingy on Nintendo's part.

Along with the abundance of game items at your disposal, you can also add visual and audio effects to your stages, creating added tension and excitement, or just getting a laugh. From swiping cat claws, a sudden techno party or fireworks to falling debris (ideal for transferring via pipe to the underground) or Bowser's evil laugh and face icon appearing. You can even record your own sound effect to include in your level, though you're restricted to just the one and it doesn't upload with your level when you put it online. Sadly, Nintendo have left out a reasonably vast array of items from Super Mario Maker, which seems very strange given the amount of effort that has clearly gone into the game. I am sure they have their reasons, but why are there no Charging Chucks, Mechakoopas or Reznor boss? No frog, Tanooki or Hammer Bros suits? Where are the cages you could climb on and flip round on? Why is there no Super Mario Bros 2 (Super Mario Bros USA in Japan) content? And, most importantly, why can't you add lava, water blocks or slopes? This seems like a massive oversight, and means that you can only replicate a tiny percentage of the original game stages from Super Mario Bros 3 and beyond. This has been a major topic of conversation online, so hopefully Nintendo will, once again, listen to the masses and fill in these gaps in future updates or DLC. On the plus side, Items and gameplay mechanics from later games have been reverse engineered into Mario's first outing, meaning Yoshi can appear in Super Mario Bros 1 and 3 levels, as well as ghost house, airship and castle stages in Super Mario World. Backgrounds and enemies from later games in the series now make an 8-bit appearance and include new animations, music and sound effects. You can also scan Amiibo's on your Wii U gamepad to unlock that character as a playable 8-bit sprite - a wonderful touch that let's you play stages as Donkey Kong Jr, Link, Sonic The Hedgehog, Pac Man, Dr. Mario and a whole host of other recognisable characters.

If you want to break from creating, then Nintendo have included two modes for you to sink your teeth into. The first is 10 Mario Challenge which tasks you with playing through 8 stages created by Nintendo with 10 lives. Don't come to this expecting a brand new Super Mario Bros adventure, though, as the levels are usually short and gimmicky (though feature some amusing and clever remixes of classic Mario levels), designed to showcase stage design ideas you may not have thought of. Once completed, these stages are saved to the course designer to edit and evaluate later - be sure to play this mode 7 times as it unlocks a nice little surprise. The 100 Mario Challenge is a similar setup, only this time with 100 lives (and 16 stages to complete if you switch from easy to normal mode) with completion unlocking a new character to use in your own stages. A nice touch for those who don't own any Amiibo figures). These levels are picked at random from the hundreds of thousands (soon to be millions, I'm sure) of user created stages that have been uploaded. Which brings us to the one major downside of Super Mario Maker - the quality of the user created stages themselves. 

It would appear that loving something is a very different kettle of fish from being good at creating it. In much the same way as you can be a huge fan of music whilst lacking any musical ability whatsoever, it's clear from trawling though stage after stage of utter dross that most gamers lack even the most rudimentary idea of what constitutes good game design. So expect to find hundreds of stages crammed full of millions of identical enemies, often falling out of the sky and bursting out of pipes; levels so full of blocks and items of all colours, shapes and sizes that it will make your eyes vomit; incredibly aggravating levels filled with hundreds of spikes and trampolines; or ones that require absolutely no skill whatsoever to finish. Thank the heavens that you can skip stages - and you will be doing this A LOT, believe me! 

This is hardly Nintendo's fault. They have simply provided one of the most entertaining and user friendly level design tools ever made and it was inevitable that much of the output of these tools would be pretty dire. It now becomes clear why the number of stages you can upload is limited to just 10. There are high quality and creative stages being made though, it's just very hard to find them. For some reason, Nintendo have made the online search tools incredibly basic. You can choose to view the stages with the highest star ratings, but this list never seems to change as newcomers will always play the top starred stages due to the complete lack of decent search options. The list is populated heavily with 'automatic' or 'don't press anything' stages - These novelty levels have Mario catapulting around the environment via a series of trampolines, treadmills, bouncing enemies and the like, while a plethora of visual and sound effects go off around you. Some of these are fairly clever and vaguely entertaining, but the novelty soon wears off and you crave the more traditional Super Mario Bros gameplay. A filter to categorise the stages into gameplay style would have made avoiding these and finding more satisfying and well produced levels far easier. You can't even search for key words such as N64, Super Mario Land, Adventure of whathaveyou, which would have been extremely useful. Hopefully Nintendo will sort out this large oversight in a update. In the meantime, users have been flocking to social media sites to promote their creations in the hope of finding new fans (who can then follow you if they like your work). Reddit's page is extreme good for finding top notch levels, while NintendoLife also host a great shared levels page.

But shoddy online search tools aside, Super Mario Maker is an utterly essential purchase for any fan of classic 2D Mario gameplay. It's not as satisfying to play as the original games that it's based on, due to a lack of a cohesive adventure mode and the aforementioned shoddy user levels, but it's unrivaled in its role as a creation tool (and the only one I have ever wanted to invest any serious time in - I'm actually designing stages on paper beforehand). It's an absolute blast to use and share levels and it really brings out your creative side while also making you appreciate just how good Miyamoto and his fellow game designers are at what they do. I am sure that Nintendo will listen to the fans and fix many of the current flaws in the future, meaning that Super Mario Maker can only get better as time goes on. If you own a Wii U then you need this game in your collection. If Nintendo can add the missing things I mentioned then this would be a 10/10 game, but for now it remains a solid 9. Now go make some decent levels and share them online!

The Good :
  • Incredibly intuitive and easy to use creation tools
  • SMB1, SMB3, SMW and NSMBU visual styles
  • Seemless switching between creation and gameplay
  • Exceptionally fun to use (especially with friends / loved ones)
  • Potentially infinite amount of stages to play online
  • Online community to share levels with
  • Comes with lovely hardback art book

The Bad :
  • No Super Mario Bros 2 content
  • Quite a lot of missing items and features from the original games
  • 90% of user created levels are absolutely awful
  • Extremely poor online search functions
  • Can be unsatisfying to play due to lack of proper 'adventure mode'

Title : Super Mario Maker
Developer : Nintendo
Publisher : Nintendo
Year : 2015
System : Wii U
Other Systems : No
Price : £34.99 - £39.99 (more for limited edition + Amiibo)

Here's a creation of my own making for you to enjoy. This stage is based on Taito's classic coin-op game, Rainbow Islands (one of my favourite platform games of all time). I have recreated the layout and enemy placement of world one (Insect Island) with an epic boss battle at the end. It's tough, but persist and you will be rewarded.. and there are a few small secrets in there too!

You can find the course using the following code :


Please star if you enjoy it, and feel free to share your creations of the Retro Spirit Games Facebook page, here.