It’s a strange and wonderful experiment Nintendo has doled out in Super Mario Maker. The experiment is based on the hypothesis that every Super Mario game—though, specifically, it’s Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. that are represented here—is so impeccably designed, the rules and laws of their digital universes so embedded in the collective unconscious of every gamer, that just about anyone can design their own. It’s an experiment that acts as both deconstruction and overjoyed celebration of everything that’s Super Mario Bros. Considering that, in 30 years of series history, you can count the number of “bad” Super Mario Bros. platformers on one hand, the fact that the experiment is an incredible success should come as no surprise to anyone.
It’s a success made extra special by the fact that it could only exist on the Wii U, what with the gamepad acting as both a designer’s tablet and controller, allowing for the kind of on-the-fly tweaks that would be a clumsy affair for anyone except dedicated digital artists. You’re given a grid, the ability to place bricks, enemies, platforms, and power-ups anywhere. You can drop tiny Mario in at any point to test out your particular obstacle course through normal gameplay, later on even gaining the ability to see a trail of his movements; if you want players to make a leap of faith, you’ll see where the longest jump will land, and can decide whether to help or hinder them with an item or enemy. The key to Super Mario Marker is egalitarianism. Anyone can play and design, and there’s no wrong way to do either. The versed gamer who watched wide-eyed during this year’s E3 when Shigeru Miyamoto showed off his original design plans for World 1-1 will get just as much out of the game as the six-year-old who just wants to place a legion of Goombas on a stage.
The single problem with the game is that, from the start, the ability to pull off those weird and wild designs is cordoned off behind a week’s worth of timed locks, where another set of new items and features opens up after you’ve spent enough time with the game in a day. It’s Nintendo’s attempt to allow players to get comfortable with the basics of level creation using only a scant few tools—Goombas, Koopa Troopas, question blocks, and mushrooms, all strictly in the original Super Mario Bros. stage aesthetics—and not allowing the vast array of options available later to overwhelm or freeze a burgeoning imagination. In practice, because of the very familiarity players have with what a Mario Bros. stage can be, it stifles instead of teaches.
The thing is, the game didn’t need the guiding hand of Nintendo to drip-feed the best creation tools to encourage restraint. For starters, the company already included the perfect filter to the kinds of impossible, trollish attempts at modded stages that run rampant on YouTube and made it so that every player has to actually beat their own created stage before uploading is allowed. But beyond this, even the most insane creations currently being shared have an internal logic, something that made perfect sense, something that triggered joy in the uploader, even if it’s a stage that takes a mere 20 seconds to beat. The urge to just drop six giant Bowsers on a stage before you get to reach the first mushroom so easily gives way to the need to make the stage actually satisfying on some kind of level.
There are definitely hard-as-nails levels out there, and because Play Mode will throw players to the wolves with a random sampling of stages, you might get caught out there playing more than your share of the most difficult of the bunch. But the cream that tends to rise to the top through the game’s rating system tends to be either exhilarating rushes of creativity or auto-playing rollercoasters of fun, where just holding forward will take you on a Rube Goldberg ride the likes of which you’ve never seen in a game.
To put any sort of time into Super Mario Maker is to experience the kind of joy that’s inspired many of the industry’s best and brightest to start making games of their own. It’s the satisfaction of seeing the star ratings rack up on something you created, that sensation that you just made, gave, and experienced something great, on one level or another. Super Mario Bros. creator Shigeru Miyamoto has always come off in public appearances as a man who just loves making things that bring happiness. Nintendo has figured out the most ingenious way of spreading that love around.