Infinite Mario platforming is what Super Mario Maker delivers, with one substantial caveat: most of it is rubbish. The biggest criticism leveled at Nintendo's joyous and inventive game-making tool is that a lot of the courses created and shared by players are uninspired or simply dreadful. It is beyond Nintendo's control, but not its management, and therein lies the game's biggest problem.
Its biggest problem, but not a major problem. As a tool for creating games that is itself a game, Super Mario Maker sets a new industry standard, besting even Media Molecule's excellent Little Big Planet series. The key is in making creation fun and stripping away the frustratingly fiddly elements that put people off similar titles.
Nintendo's decision to stagger the introduction of new level-making enemies, obstacles, power-ups and tools is an excellent one. Particularly now that new content unlocks after set amounts of play time, rather than on individual days. Like all classic Nintendo games, Mario Maker effortlessly eases the player in, with a handful of instantly-recognisable elements and a basic course which the player must fill out so they can play and finish. As more is introduced, the game gently nurtures the creativity that many players will harbour but may not believe they possess. Each new set of features is introduced with a course showing off how they are used, in ways that fit with what players know of the series and in new but logical ways – such as using a mushroom to grow a Goomba in size.
The grid-based system and features that are uniform between each of the game's four visual styles – Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros U – make placing and experimenting with objects simple to grasp. The only difference between each style is in what Mario is capable of: e.g. wall-jumping in NSMBU. There is certainly a lot on offer, but there is a large oversight. A basic checkpoint system would have completely changed the game and made the more challenging levels out there instantly more palatable and feel more achievable. It's hard to fathom why this was left out and how it might have impacted gameplay in a negative way. Even limiting players to one checkpoint per level would have been a marked improvement.
Mario Maker's creation suite is a thing of beauty, but for the best inspiration players must venture into the wild. As they browse and play, users will slowly build a knowledge of what works and what doesn't entirely through play. They'll notice interesting combinations of items and put together their own ideas, then cobble them together and see if they work.
The game's main menu asks players whether they want to play or create. Tap play and they will be given the choice between browsing courses, browsing levels created by specific users or playing the 100 Mario Challenge, which gives a simple "save Princess Peace" structure to a succession of randomly selected courses with 100 lives to complete them all with.
The latter is fun and forgiving (you can skip any level and play another in its stead) but lightweight, serving only to highlight the scattershot nature of the main level-browser. Each user-created course can be awarded a star by players and there is a marker showing the completion percentage, with figures for number of plays and number of finishes, which offers a look at how tough a level might be and determines its difficulty level. Courses a player has awarded a star to are easy to find in another tab within the player's profile, where they can also check on their own courses and see a list of all the courses they most recently played.
On the main screen, levels are sorted into three tabs – featured levels, the top-ranked levels and up and coming levels. These can be further sorted by region (your region or worldwide) and time-scale (weekly or all time), both of which are unfortunately limited. Where's the option for the best courses each month, or day? Why can't European users see what's popular in the US or Japan?
The main problem however is that the ranking system favours levels that require the least effort on the part of players. Because these are the most easy to enjoy and easiest to complete they will often be given the most stars. So, often the top ranked courses that run automatically, carrying the player and requiring no input on their part, or simple levels that users run through effortlessly to play a tune or show off a visual gag.
Undoubtedly a lot of admirable effort goes into such levels, but their prevalence buries courses that are actual platformers requiring thought and skill. This means that the very best platforming levels – the ones Nintendo themselves would have been proud of – need the help of social media and the press to get noticed.
It almost goes without saying that Nintendo could have integrated social media into the game better, such has been the case with them for years. In a game based on sharing, however, this problem is especially noticeable. Letting players share their favourite courses with a button press on more than just the Miiverse would spread the game beyond the parameters of the Wii U and dedicated games sites. Hopefully Nintendo's new online ecosystem better allows for such features in future games on future devices.
Another problem is in the difficulty of courses. Most players seek to build the hardest course possible, almost as if there's a shame in creating something simple. It's natural to want to test other players – perhaps born out of the competitive nature of most games – and the creation suite inspires fiendish design, but simple levels can be elegant and undoubtedly serve their purpose. It's hard to know how a level will play in the hands of someone approaching it for the first time when you are engineering it and know what must be done. So in that way, Mario Maker offers a great insight into what it's like to be video game developer.
As many others have said, Super Mario Maker is the game the Wii U should have come packaged with. Despite lacklustre sales, Nintendo's console is a wonderful machine with great games, but its name and lack of suitable users for the chunky GamePad controller, held it back in the public eye. Mario Maker makes perfect use of that pad.
Super Mario Maker offers an exquisite tool for creating new platforming memories. It realises a dream Mario fans have had for 30 years, but a lack of checkpoints and a skewed course browser that favours levels requiring little effort from players holds the game back from true greatness.