Are video game reviews even relevant anymore? Can you ever trust them? What sort of baggage does a reviewer bring with them each time they a play game? Why is it that all these indie puzzle platformers with a retro art style seem to do so well, or at least be so prevalent? Could it simply be that we’ve reached a point where all the critics are in their late-20s to late-30s and share a fondness for what they consider to be a golden age of the SNES and Mega Drive? It certainly could be that.
Imagine, for a moment, that videogames are a new phenomenon. Imagine they started with the PS4 and Xbox One, that we started with that level of power from the off. Would we still look at all these ‘retro’ styled 2D games with the same regard that we do now? How much of the appeal is just nostalgia? Have we simply convinced the younger generation to like these games through our repeated insistence that they’re great? Do they choose to also enjoy them due to some sort of willingness to conform or to impress the people they perhaps look up to? Or is it that they are genuinely good games that would shine through regardless of style or era? Who knows?
These thoughts have occurred to me a few times but they’re especially pertinent when playing Super Mario Maker which, in simple terms, is the toolset to create the very core of what videogames used to be until perhaps the mid-90s. When Mario Maker was first announced some people were shocked and delighted by the idea that they might finally get something they’d always dreamed of, whilst others were apprehensive about how much Nintendo would really hand over. The truth is, it’s somewhere in between, but it’s closer to that former dream than the potential disappointment.
Super Mario Maker is like having the world’s greatest film directors come together and give you stacks of footage to edit into a film of your choice, as opposed to actually going out with a budget and a crew of your own. Personally, I like this as what Scorcese and Tarantino might shoot for me will almost certainly be much better than anything I might come up with. But, let’s get one of the games supposed issues out of the way here – those directors aren’t going to trust you with everything just yet; they’re only going to give you a few scenes until you show them that you know what you’re doing and aren’t going to just combine all the sex scenes into one long porno.
Likewise, Mario Maker will only allow you to play with a basic set of tools on the first day and will gradually unlock more options over the course of the next eight or so days, dependent on you tinkering with each set for five minutes. I, again, like this approach as too often modern games overwhelm the player with too much choice and option paralysis sets in. Should you not share my particular niche opinion you can mess with your system clock to get around these restrictions.
The actual level designing is done with the sort of sense-making simplicity and panache we’ve come to expect from Nintendo and manages to squeeze in all the humour and charm you could hope for too. Upon starting the game you’re asked to play a part of a level and then finish off its construction before you head to the main menu where you can choose to play through some samples or other user’s uploaded creations. As you might expect, what you get is incredibly varied but I’ve generally been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve found.
Some levels are just a bit crap of course, but some show some real effort to create things that wouldn’t be too out of place in a real Mario game. It’s also worth mentioning how good everything looks; seeing the older art styles in proper widescreen for the first time really is quite striking and the high-res upscaling or whatever it is they’ve done really makes everything very crisp and lovely. It’s not like playing the virtual console versions; there’s a graphical fidelity that makes everything feel modern.
There’s also a sort of joy that I hadn’t anticipated to the level creation itself; it feels like you’re communicating with people, that you’re sending out a sort of message in a bottle. One of the most famous pieces of game design ever is in the original Super Mario Bros. when you go up to the top of the level where the score and time are displayed. It feels like you’ve found a way to cheat or that you’ve broken the game, but then you discover the warp zones and realise that the developers knew all along that you might do that.
That sort of unspoken communication between the game’s designers and the player has been a central part of the Mario (and a lot of Nintendo) games’ appeal and it’s present here too, except this time you’re the one writing that message. It’s a nice feeling and one I hadn’t considered or expected to get from the game. This is emphasised even more by the feedback you receive for levels you’ve created. When playing through people’s creations you can leave them a comment or give a star to levels you’ve liked, it’s a nice way to keep that communication theme running through all aspects of the game.
So what else is there? Well, that’s it really. You create levels from four of Mario’s different styles and upload them for others to play. Then you play through the levels other people made. There are a couple of different ways to do that but the motivation has to come from you really; there isn’t much in the way of structure and the levels don’t run into each other like they might in a full Mario game – for example, collecting a mushroom at the end of one level doesn’t mean you’ll start ‘big’ at the start of the next, you always start small.
Also, you can’t really create a cohesive world or zone for people to play through. Whilst you might choose to make ten levels around a similar theme, it’s unlikely anyone will ever play them through in order as you might have planned. These are all small issues that are easy to forgive as it’s hard to see how these things could have been made to work on a larger scale. There is perhaps a slight feeling that this is an entry level version of more complex software, that perhaps a fuller-featured program might be available in the future or that some of those more complex options have been held back. However, that would be dismissing everything you do have and there’s a lot here, certainly enough to keep any Mario fan happy for, well, forever really.
Ultimately this game’s appeal will always depend on how much you like Mario. If you do have some history with the guy and have ever enjoyed any of his adventures, then this is an incredibly interesting piece of software. That’s what it is really, software for fans of Mario, perhaps more so than a ‘game’, though there is plenty of game if you, or others, want to build it. It might seem obvious but you will get out of it what you put in.
The score I’ve given it is a personal one based on my years of loving Mario games and the videogaming purity they represent. I like the fact that you’re a little constrained by the established rules of his world as they’re rules that work and that I like. You want to have that recognition and I feel it’s a large part of why this whole thing works. No matter what someone makes, you immediately understand how it’s all going to work; it’s that communication again.
It is worth remembering that the game is called Mario Maker, not platformer maker, and as such you’re making Mario games. I don’t know why you’d want to make anything else but if you’re expecting all the tricks of the ROM hacks you might be disappointed. If you’re still at all unsure, you can build and play levels in the SNES Super Mario World art style in widescreen for the first time ever. If that doesn’t sell you a game nothing will. But, perhaps that’s just my nostalgia. Who knows?