The game’s level editor is built around the Wii U’s touchscreen controller, allowing players to quickly build levels by dragging icons from the top edge of the screen. New items, enemies, and environmental objects are unlocked over the course of nine days, forcing players to stick with basics like koopas, question mark blocks, and coins in the early days, before letting them play with more complicated pieces like Bowser, the flying Koopa Clown Car, and comic sound effects. The level editor is both incredibly easy to use and despairingly limited by the mandate that all of your ideas fit in the “Mario” universe. It’s open-ended enough to make one want to imagine entirely new ways to play video games, but in practice it seems capable of producing only bad variations on ideas old “Mario” has already done better.
You can find and play other players’ levels based on popularity or newness or upload your own. Alternately, you can play a selection of more than 60 Nintendo-made “Mario” levels in “10 Mario Challenge.” Here you’re given 10 lives to make it through eight new levels, which can range from short gimmick levels, remade levels from older “Mario” games, or cacophonous new creations overcrowded with moving platforms, piled-up enemies, and nonsensical clusters of question mark blocks.
Playing the user-created levels feels jarringly antithetical to the welcoming nature of most “Mario” games, which even at their most difficult have a simplicity and transparency to their challenge. The most popular user levels in “Super Mario Maker” feel bafflingly opaque, frenzied contraptions that rarely seem to have a purpose. Returning to older “Mario” games after a dozen hours with “Super Mario Maker,” the distinction becomes even more radical. “Super Mario Maker” levels often feel like they have nothing to offer but petty difficulty, while even the most unimpressive levels from 2012’s “New Super Mario Bros U”—one of the least well-regarded in the series— uses a minimum amount of difficulty to set up a sense of progress and discovery that’s missing from most “Maker” levels.
“Super Mario Maker’s” levels feel strangely raw and hostile, underscored by the game’s endless lives, allowing you to play the same level over and over until you’ve made it to the end, at which point you’re sent back to unreliable heap of broken community creations. Over time, it becomes intensely dispiriting, with the few creative levels being lost among the gaping archive of disposable failures.
There is a futile egotism to “Super Mario Maker,” a piece of software that caters to delusory belief that enthusiasm and creativity are interchangeable, that being a fan of something can, if practiced with enough care, create an equivalent of the work to which one’s fandom is fixated. This self-deception is antithetical to the genius of “Mario” games. From “Donkey Kong” to “Super Mario 64,” Mario games have always felt like creations in pursuit of abstract ideas rather than homages to any specific history or design tradition.
Famously, “Mario” creator Shigeru Miyamoto never imagined himself as a game designer. He trained as an industrial designer and dreamed of becoming a toy maker,.convincing Nintendo to hire him not by pitching a better version of “Pong” or “Breakout” but by designing a clothing hanger that could be used by children who weren’t tall enough to reach into closets. He used colorful drawings of elephants to decorate the unusual cross shape that was used to fix the hangers to more easily reachable notches in walls, merging direct utility with whimsical playfulness.
“Super Mario Maker” feels like the antithesis of this spirit. “Mario” levels begin to feel like traps that can’t be escaped. As with many digital tools that seem to liberate us from the laborious demands of creation, “Super Mario Maker” is primarily an engine for circulating bad ideas and broken gimmicks as if there weren’t already an overabundance of them.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.