Videogames hold special appeal for obsessive types. Modern games offer seemingly interminable lists of objectives: maps overstuffed with destinations to check out, laundry lists of miscellaneous challenges, characters to level up, stats to optimize, and however many goddamn flags and feathers they can scatter throughout an Assassin’s Creed game. And then there are Xbox Achievements and PlayStation Trophies to collect, if you want to feel like you’ve well and truly finished a game. And there’s “Through the Fire and Flames” on Expert.
Well, for people who can’t bear to leave that one unexplored location on the map, Super Mario Maker is a glorious, maddening rabbit hole.
Mario Maker is not a game you can finish, obviously. For people with self-control, it’s an ideal game to fill just about any amount of time you choose. You can turn it on for about a minute or so to check out the latest auto-playing level, or you can dive in for hours. For some of us, though, it’s pretty much always going to be the latter, even when it’s supposed to be the former.
Take yesterday, for example. I didn’t get a chance to play Mario Maker until around midnight, so I figured I’d only jump in for a few minutes to check out the latest items added to my toolkit – the underwater theme and appropriate items, by the way – and mess around with them for a few minutes until I unlocked the next day’s batch of items. Fast forward three hours, and I’m still tweaking my latest creation.
Mario Maker employs a carrot-and-stick method to keep you engaged with its level editor. The carrot is the thirty years of memories you have with Super Mario games and the perfection of their level design; the stick is the fact that you can’t achieve that perfection, both because your toolkit is limited and because you’re not that great at level design. Chasing that balance between fun and frustration, trying to differentiate challenge from difficulty, will keep you at work for hours. Maybe if you make that pipe one unit taller and make the platform two blocks wide instead of one, or, no, keep the pipe how it is and make the platform two blocks wide, but move it one unit to the right and put a koopa on it, no, a goomba, or what if you make the jump easier but put a spike top on it…
This loop of creation and revision, chasing some hypothetical ideal, is central to countless games, “games,” creativity suites, and, you know, human existence. But what Super Mario Maker does so successfully is game-ify this loop. Every time you place a block or an enemy, you’re going to jump into play mode to test this latest section out, so even when you’re creating levels – as opposed to playing other people’s – you’ll still be doing a lot of playing, in tiny, tiny bites. And when you create and then execute a challenging bit of platforming, the experience is twice as rewarding, because you succeed at both level design and gameplay. You can spend just as much time chasing perfection in a game like Mario Paint, but at the end your only reward is seeing what you’ve made. Creation is, of course, a satisfying reward, but when you’re sitting in front of a television with a controller in your hand, nothing is quite as rewarding as gameplay, and Mario Maker gives you that. You get the satisfaction of creating a level, and then you get the satisfaction of playing that level, and then you get the satisfaction of improving the level, and then you get the satisfaction of playing that improved level, ad infinitum.
Which brings me to the highlight of my third day with Super Mario Maker. (And a bit of a spoiler, if that matters.) At one point while working on a level, I shook a block to see if it would transform. It didn’t, but a bunch of tiny insects started flying around my level. When I poked at one with the stylus, it took me into the flyswatter game from Mario Paint. Just because. For all the depth this game offers both as a level editor and a platformer, these little touches – like the way Mario cowers when the eraser gets near him – are what really send it over the top. It’s not just attention to detail; it’s attention to a certain type of detail that only a diehard Nintendo fan would appreciate. In recent years, Nintendo has sometimes seemed indifferent to the fact that a lot of “core gamers” are also Nintendo fans, and vice versa. Super Mario Maker, though, seems aimed directly at the intersection in that Venn diagram. And, as someone who lives squarely in that intersection, it’s nice to feel appreciated.
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