Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Brick By Brick: Super Mario Maker

Design and share your own Super Mario levels: it sounds simple, doesn’t it? Perfunctory, almost. It was frankly a surprise to me that Nintendo hadn’t capitalized on this idea already. It seems like a no-brainer, given the simple and satisfying design of the 2-dimensional Mario games. Let the player place some blocks, add some coins and some enemies, and you’re already off to the races. But Super Mario Maker, released last week for Nintendo’s Wii U, aims far higher than that. In its brilliant design and remarkable polish, it succeeds not just at creating an experience that’s totally unique in gaming, but at framing and contextualizing thirty years of that little mustachioed plumber, and highlighting what has always made his adventures so special.

The game’s interface is deceptively simple, but hides a wealth of functionality. A normal Mario level is presented with a grid overlay, allowing you to carefully place familiar items such as question mark blocks, green pipes, and enemies like Goombas and Piranha Plants. Press the “Play” button in the corner, and you’re dropped into the level you’ve just created, to jump around and test it out. Your tiniest inkling of ingenuity is encouraged – will you create a simple “hop ‘n bop” scenario, similar to the Mario levels of yore, or a gauntlet of soul-crushing difficulty, suitable only for the most hardcore platforming experts? Perhaps you’ll subvert the way Mario levels normally operate, and create something wildly new? No matter how you indulge your creative instinct, as you play around, you earn extra components to use in your designs (new items, new kinds of platforms, new enemies, etc) that can radically alter how you approach your ideas. All of this is presented with a level of polish that only Nintendo can achieve, that makes pressing every button and placing every piece a sheer delight for the senses (cute visual flairs accompany each feature, like the Eraser tool that bounces up and down in excitement when selected, and placing items on the board will produce a bright melodic version of the recognizable Mario music that’s playing quietly in the background, in perfect time with the tune). The game disc even comes bundled with a beautifully-printed “idea book,” full of wacky designs and creative solutions – with codes that allow you to see them in-game as well as on the page – to help push you in the right direction if you’re feeling stuck or uninspired. It’s a mark of great distinction for Nintendo to have developed a game that most would consider a shallow spin-off title and still imbue it with the same level of craft and loving detail that their most high-profile titles have come to enjoy.

But Super Mario Maker’s most remarkable aspect by far is its multiplayer component. You are strongly encouraged to upload your creations to the game’s “Course World,” where levels designed by other players are shared, played, and rated. Proficient or especially creative “makers” are awarded medals if their levels are highly praised, and the players with the most medals are ranked highest in the Course World’s leaderboard, meaning you can easily access the best content the community has to offer at a glance (or, if you prefer a broader look at what’s available, you can dip your toe into the 100 Mario Challenge, which provides you with 100 chances to complete 8 player-created levels selected at random). Some of these creations – and these are just a scattered few of the dozens I’ve tried so far – have been delightful twists on classic mechanics, such as a level designed to discourage you from jumping (your natural inclination when controlling the ever-bouncy Mario) by placing hazards above your head, or simple but brilliantly-designed courses that were so grueling I was unsure whether I wanted to slap the creator or shake his hand. One level I played actually attempted to recreate the arcade classic Pac-Man in the Mario mould, replacing yellow pellets with coins and those distinctive colourful ghosts with Mario’s trademark Boos. Seeing – and sharing in – the enthusiasm of this global, all-ages community of creative people, who are using the same set of tools to create wildly different games, is an experience that’s not just fun, but only possible with today’s interconnected technology. Super Mario Maker feels at once timely, and timeless.

It’s Super Mario’s 30th birthday this month, after all. This was partly the reason the game exists at all – Nintendo wanted to create something special to commemorate the success of Mario’s unbelievably long life and huge impact on the entertainment world – but it’s also the ideal tool for reflection on those thirty years, in which the series has seen many ups and downs, and in which legions of new fans have been added to the ranks of the old soldiers like me. It’s an emotional experience to know that kids everywhere are having an amazing time unleashing their boundless creativity playing with the building blocks of my youth, which remain as fun and captivating now as they ever were.

It’s tempting to call it revolutionary, although not much of the content on the surface would register as such. There have been customizable “make your own game” games for nearly as long as there have been games, from the world of simulation – build your own theme park in Roller Coaster Tycoon! – to early efforts at art and music games, like Nintendo’s own Mario Paint. But there’s an ineffable genius to Super Mario Maker that elevates it above these great experiences, making them almost seem pedestrian by comparison. The interface is gorgeously designed, yes, and its simplicity masks the profound potential of the tools at your disposal. But being pretty isn’t enough to distinguish it in the way I want to convey. None of the games that Super Mario Maker builds from carry the same sense of legacy; of participation in a tradition thirty years and still counting. It’s more than nostalgia made manifest – it’s an opportunity to actively and meaningfully give back to a series that’s given so much to us. It’s a genius self-promotion tactic for Nintendo, and it’s nothing less than a milestone in gaming history for the rest of us.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.  

No comments:

Post a Comment