Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day One, Discovery

Today was the day I didn’t know I’d always been waiting for: the day I got to make my own Super Mario levels.  With the release of Super Mario Maker, Nintendo has turned untold thousands of its most dedicated fans into game designers.  And, more importantly, they’ve created a piece of fan service of the highest order.  Super Mario Maker is about creating levels, and it’s about playing other people’s levels, but, more than that, it’s about sharing the joy of Nintendo – the joy that Nintendo’s designers must feel when they get to play in this universe.

As with just about any video game, most of Mario Maker’s content isn’t available right off the bat.  Instead of unlocking that content by accumulating XP or working through a linear storyline, though, you unlock everything by waiting, essentially.  After a brief tutorial, the game begins with a pretty limited toolset: a few enemies, a few types of bricks, mushrooms, pipes, and a few other items.  After a few minutes playing around in the level editor, you’ll get a notification that more items will be made available tomorrow.  After nine days of this, you will have unlocked all of the tools, barring any secrets.  Play for ten minutes a day or ten hours, it’s still going to take you nine days to fill your toolbox.   So, instead of writing a typical review, I’m going to keep a diary of my first nine days with the game.  Today was my first day.

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As soon as you open the box, you can see that this is a game designed to please the biggest Mario fans.  It comes bundled with an art book filled with screenshots and miscellaneous, endearingly weird Mario-themed art.  The book is intended to inspire you – as if thirty years of Super Mario memories weren’t inspiration enough – but it’s such a nice touch, such an unnecessarily generous pack-in, that it makes you fall in love with the game before you even pop it into your Wii U.  And when you do pop it in, the charm offensive continues from the opening moments.  This is, for example, the only game I can recall where it’s possible to die in the title screen.

But on to the meat of the game: the level creation.  When I first read about Nintendo’s nine-day trickle of content, it smacked of overbearing hand-holding, an unnecessarily paternalistic approach to a progression system.  I assumed that I’d probably boot the game up for ten minutes each day during that first week, just long enough to unlock some more bits, and not really dive into the game in earnest until I had a decent toolset.  But now, having played with the day-one feature set, I think Nintendo has really hit the nail on the head with this weird approach.  Obviously, the point here is to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by all the tools at your disposal, and to teach you the level-design mechanics one step at a time.  But any progression system would have accomplished this.  Nintendo’s time-gate does something else, too: it forces you to be creative.

Instead of just grinding through some series of arbitrary benchmarks in a progression system – build 5 levels, place 1,000 tiles, combine ten items, whatever – you’re forced to find creative solutions to design problems.  Anyone playing this game will be aware of dozens or hundreds of enemies, power-ups, and obstacles they could be placing in their levels.  Heck, there are at least five items on the cover of the game that you don’t have access to on day one.  As a result, your brain will keep suggesting things that should be simple – “Hey, let’s put a vine here!” – but are impossible with your limited toolkit.  Sure, you could just wait out the nine days, but you’d be missing out on a lot of great ideas, and a lot of great learning.  Trying to make a fun, interesting level with so few tools at my disposal reminded me, weirdly, of Oulipo, a French literary movement centered on the idea of engendering creativity by imposing restrictions on yourself.  Nintendo isn’t forcing you to take baby steps while you learn the mechanics of their game; they’re sending you to level-design school on a nine-day crash course.

When I first learned about Mario Maker, I thought it sounded like a neat idea for other people to enjoy.  I assumed that I’d buy the game just to play other people’s levels.  But if my first dip into the “Maker” mode is any indication, I’m going to be spending a lot of time crafting levels.  Nintendo has made it unreasonably fun.  We all know the Super Mario loop: you get through twenty percent of a level and then die, learning in the process what you should have done to clear a particular obstacle; then you make it thirty percent in before dying, and then forty, and fifty, and so on; then, inexplicably, when you know everything you need to do to beat the level, you start dying at the ten percent mark; then, after cursing Miyamoto, you finish the level and feel a mix of relief and elation.  Well, when you go through this process on your own level, it’s infinitely more frustrating, but also infinitely more entertaining, because you’re shaking your fist at yourself from twenty minutes ago.  Even after I finished building my level, I still wanted to keep playing it.  There’s something enjoyable about playing your own creations that is unlike any other pleasure in gaming, something that speaks directly to your inner seven-year-old, as if all those years of GoldenEye and Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls never happened.

After one day, I am head-over-heels in love with this game.  Granted, a lot could change.  Maybe the sudden high will be followed by a sudden crash, and I’ll look back in a year and think, “Oh yeah, Mario Maker.  I played that for a few weeks.”  But right now, I can’t wait to dive back in and play with my new toys tomorrow.  And actually, the clock just passed midnight, it’s technically Day Two now.  Maybe I’ll just load the game up for a few minutes more…

(If you have Super Mario Maker and are curious, you can check out my first attempt at making a level by searching for its Course ID: EA20-0000-001B-E739.)

Read all about What I Play When I Play.

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