Retro Game Retrospective: Super Mario Maker
Yesterday, one of the most anticipated video games for the Nintendo Wii U platform got released to the gaming public. We at Retro Game Network had talked about this game over a year ago, which is an ultimate throwback to the NES. No, we are not talking about the various games in the NES Remix franchise, but instead we are talking about Nintendo giving every gamer from the 1980s the ability to do something that we have all wanted to do since we were kids, and that was create our very own levels in Super Mario Brothers. This is exactly what Nintendo has accomplished with the release of Super Mario Maker, which is now available in stores worldwide. But did it live up to all of the hype? Let’s take a look at this modern title with the retro appeal!
Picture this: You are a kid playing Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Entertainment System (or Famicom if you’re in Japan), and you are doing really well with it. You practiced and practiced and played for hours on end, and you finally after all of that hard work, were able to save the Princess. While your “quest is now over” and you have been “presented a new quest”, it left some gamers wishing that they could make their very own levels to try out. Some games of this era, such as Excitebike, had offered the ability to create your own tracks, and depending on what part of the world you were in, save them to play later. (Of course, the latter feature would be removed for North American gamers.) But there was no such creation tool for the original Super Mario Brothers. Fast forward to 2 days shy of the games 30th anniversary release over in Japan, and you finally now have the chance!
First off, let’s take a look at what you get when you fork over your hard earned dough to your video game store of choice. (Support locally owned businesses!) When you get the game, you are presented with a traditional Wii U package; however it comes along with an outer cardboard case with the traditional Wii U cover box art on it. While you may think this is just a slipcover, there’s slightly more to it than this. When you open the box, you actually get not only the games plastic DVD-style case with the disc inside, but you are also treated to an absolutely beautifully presented “idea book”. This 96 page full color book is filled with amazing photos of various stages that can be created, along with blueprints on how to make some of these said worlds. Before the launch, Nintendo had actually released a handful of these pages to the public, to help build up the hype, but the virtual version does not do it justice. (As somebody who severely prefers physical media over downloads by default, holding this book in your hand has a literal special feel to it.) Ironically, despite this amazing 96 page full color presentation, in what seems to be the trend these days, if you want the actual manual to the program, you have to load it from the disc. The physical package does give you instructions on how to access the full manual.
Before we get to the fun stuff, let’s talk about a few of the annoyances right off the bat. The program box exclaims that you can create your very own worlds in the Super Mario Brothers universe, from a selection of 4 different games in the franchise. Aside from the original Super Mario Brothers classic from the 1980s, you can also create worlds from Super Mario Brothers 3 for the NES, Super Mario World for the Super NES, and New Super Mario Brothers Wii U, for the current Nintendo platform. However this is somewhat misleading. When you first get the game and load it up, you are only given the option to create levels for the original Super Mario Brothers, and New Super Mario Brothers Wii U instantly. As you progress in your creativity, you will find that you can later unlock the remaining two games, and then have full access to all four games that you have the option for. (Also, from the beginning, you can only select from creating levels from the traditional overworld and underground worlds. You cannot just jump into creating levels based on castle worlds or underwater worlds at the very start of your adventure, they must also be unlocked.)
This same creativity progression also brings another issue that some gamers will find frustrating. In addition to not having access to all four of the games at the original startup, you will also find that many enemies and power ups are not available from the start either. When you first get started, you will have access to the various blocks and pipes, as well as a mushroom, coins, spring jump, various Goomba (which can be made into Paragoombas), Koopa Troopas (which can be made into Koopa Paratroopas) and Piranha Plants. Bullet Bill? Nope. 1-Up Mushrooms? Better not be looking for them. Hammer Brothers? Nope. (Although that’s a good thing for me since they were the enemies I hated the most as a kid!) Just like the availability of the worlds and level types, additional enemies and power ups must be unlocked.
So how to do unlock these additional worlds, levels, enemies and power ups? Create, create, create! The more imagination you use, and thus the more that you create, the more that you get access to. When you spend at least 5 minutes creating, you will get access to the next tier of goodies the next day. (Yes, the next day.) When I loaded up the game this morning, I found that I now had access to 1-Up Mushrooms, Starmen, Fire Flowers, Spiny, Lakitu, as well as the hovering bridges. After a single day, I was able to add a total of 6 new items to add to the previously existing 2 level types for the 2 games previously accessible to me. At this particular rate, it would mean that I would have to create for 5 minutes per day, for a total of 9 days, to get access to everything that is offered for creation! (It has been reported that some copies don’t have this time patch, but my copy, a North American release, definitely has these restrictions.) In addition, to unlock other additional goodies, you need to have access to some of those Amiibo figures. Nintendo had stated that this was done to allow people to get the hang of using the creation tools. While it’s understandable, I don’t think it’s necessary. That would be like me creating a paint program on a computer, but until you learn how to use the line tool for a day, you can’t use the paintbrush tool or the fill tool. It doesn’t make sense.
Enough of that negativity, let’s talk about creation! One popular comparison about using Super Mario Maker is that it is like giving a gamer a large bucket of Lego blocks. You have complete control over what blocks you want to attach to each other, and you can end up making some amazing creations. This comparison is very true, but instead of Legos, you get sprites! Using the Wii U Gamepad and stylus, you simply tap and drag whatever sprite you want to the location on the level that you want it to be. You can make your levels extremely short, or you can make them very long and intense. In fact, some of the game levels that were created in “expert” mode have proven to be quite challenging already! You also have the option to adjust the size of certain items. If you want something special to be in a mystery box, just take the power up and place it in the box you previously placed on the level! And guess what? These mystery boxes don’t have to contain something positive! You can make it so you slam Mario’s head into the box, and suddenly a Goomba pops out to get you! This is an interesting homage to the Japanese version of Super Mario Brothers 2, where these boxes could contain Poison Mushrooms. In the same sense, you can also have something that would normally be a negative become positive. Imagine Bill Blasters shooting out coins instead of Bullet Bills, as seen above! All in all, you are in complete control to allow your imagination run wild.
And on the topic of not controlling your imagination, let’s talk about the controls for a moment. I’m going to level with you all. I’ve had a Wii U for about 6 months now, and I can honestly say that I have only touched it a handful of times. While some of it has to do with lack of time because of that horrible thing called “life”, I found the Wii U Gamepad to be quite confusing. In the beginning, I was having problems playing games on both the screen of the controller and the TV, since there was lag. (Once I figured out that I had to turn on the Game Mode on the television, I was fine.) It took me a while to realize that the controller screen could be a variety of things and didn’t always have to be used. It was after I figured that aspect out that I was able to start enjoying the system more. I was also never a fan of the stylus… I hate them almost as much as Steve Jobs did. But for this particular application, the Gamepad’s screen and the stylus work perfectly. It is a natural input device for a product like this. Simply point to what you want to add to the level, drag it to the exact location you want it to be, and let go. Want to turn a Koopa Troopa into a Koopa Paratroopa? Just drag the wings to it. You also use this same technique for adjusting the size and angle of the sprites. Let’s say for instance you put a pipe on the screen, and you want that pipe to be taller than its default size. All you have to do is drag it up until it’s as tall as you want it to be. Want a pipe to be on the side instead of upright? Just drag it in a downward motion to the left or the right. When you compare this type of input to a similar retro product like the mouse that came bundled with Mario Paint on the Super Nintendo, you can see that we have come a long way in terms of technology.
The graphics are what you would expect for a game builder of this type. All of the sprites from the 8-bit era are beautifully recreated, yet still have a very slight modern look to them, with slight shadowing that was not present on the original games. What I think is really cool however, is that once you create a level using one era, with a simple tap on the screen, you can change the era to a different one. For example, if I create a rad level using the original 8-bit sprites, I can easily convert the sprites into the modern day New Super Mario Brothers Wii U style, without losing anything that I had created. If you don’t like it, you can go back to the original 8-bit style, no harm, no foul. You can also change your creation to a different level as well. If I make a level that is used in the overworld, with one key tap I can convert it to an underworld level. On a personal aspect, I find myself making creations using the original Super Mario Brothers sprites, playing around with them, and then seeing what they would look like in the modern video game era. It’s really a neat option. Plus, if you are creating levels with a few friends in the same room, you don’t have to have all of your buddies hover around your Gamepad. As you tap and drag on the controller, the television display shows a hand holding a stylus that synchs up with what you are doing on the Gamepad. When I saw these types of screens before the game was released, I didn’t think that the hands were going to be a part of the finished product, but now that I see that it is, and why it is there, it will make it a lot better during the creation process when you are using this application with a group.
The music? What can be said about the music that hasn’t been said before? It’s just amazing. The 8-bit music that we all know and love is there, and for some reason it sounds amazing when played in high definition. Nothing fancy, no enhancements, just the original musical compositions that worked so well 30 years ago. You don’t have to mess with it! During the creation process, a remix style of the old and the new can be heard in a very unique way. It’s not a direct orchestrated cover of the original tunes, but it’s a modern day take on it, which is actually very soothing while you are creating your new virtual world. It’s also not too overbearing while you are in this mode, it’s just there in the background so you are not sitting in silence. Some games of this type had background music that was obnoxious to the point that it was best to mute the television during those periods. Fortunately, that is not the case here.
But one of the things where this title shines is with its online social media offerings. No, I’m not talking about Facebook or Twitter. Think about it: If you spend all these minutes and hours creating a Super Mario Brothers level from scratch, it’s fun to do a run through with it personally, as well as having your friends and family play along. But wouldn’t it be great to have the ability to have thousands of gamers try out your levels and give feedback? That is what “Course World”, the network just for this game, is all about. When you are done making a level and testing it out a few times, you can upload it for gamers from all around the world to give a shot. We live in an era where people like to be noticed online, and it is quite clear that Nintendo wanted to make networking a primary aspect in this title. In fact, if you want to try other gamers creations on your own, you can do something called the “10 Mario Challenge”, which is a mode where you have 10 lives to beat 8 levels selected at random that were created by other gamers. It really gives a new life to the original Mario games, and as long as people are creating levels, you will find it hard to get bored with it, since you will suddenly have hundreds or thousands of different levels to play. Ponder this: We all love the original Super Mario Brothers, but 30 years later, chances are high we can beat the game with our eyes closed. This new ability keeps the classic game fresh for gamers of the era, something that couldn’t be done back in the 1980s. (And if you like one particular level that was created by another user, you can also download it for safe keeping.) On your end, you are also told when someone tries out one of your creations, but you also get some interesting statistics along with it. You are told what percentage of people were able to finish your level to the end with success, and if gamers lost a life, where exactly the life was lost. So while the online interactivity may be something that some gamers aren’t thinking about right away, I have a feeling that this is what is going to make this program be a success in the long run. I feel Nintendo was very smart to incorporate this into the game.
Okay, so with all of that out of the way, just how good is Super Mario Maker? I will start off by saying right off the bat, that it is a very interesting, and enjoyable experience. The fact that all these years later, we can take one of the most beloved video game franchises, and for the first time create our own levels to have others play and try out, is a great idea and concept. You know how it was back when we were younger. “I could do that even better!” Well, now is your chance to prove yourself! (Or, prove yourself wrong!) There is one thing however that I unfortunately have to gripe about, and that has nothing to do with the application itself, but rather its price tag. Right now, Super Mario Maker is retailing for just under $60. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of games that are that high when they first come out, it doesn’t have anything to do with that. The problem with the high price tag for me is not even that it is at $60, but that you have to still unlock basic items in a slow manner, having to wait a day for the next tier of items to be made available to you. For that price, the entire palette of sprites and locations should be instantly usable, without this gradual increase in ability. I was able to get my copy for only $30 thanks to a gift card for the local mall that I was given. (Yeah, you remember malls, right?) For $30, it’s very enjoyable, but I wonder if I would have enjoyed the game as much if I had to fork over the full price. I feel that Nintendo should have offered this title for maybe as low as $40, and then offered a version that included an Amiibo for the full $60. (Some regions offer bundles with the Amiibo, but I haven’t found it locally.)
So, should you pick up Super Mario Maker at your local game store of choice today? Well, that depends on a few things. If you don’t yet have a Wii U console, and have wanted to pick one up, then one option is that you get the new Wii U Deluxe Set with Super Mario Maker included. With this set, you get the 32GB version of the console, a downloadable copy of Super Mario Maker (boo to the lack of physical media), as well as the idea book, and a 30th anniversary edition of the modern Mario Amiibo, which adds some additional functionality to the game. This setup costs $300, and may be a new popular entry for those just getting into the Wii U for the first time. (I would have preferred for that price that the game come on physical media, but if downloading games is fine by your standards, by all means go for it.) But if you already have a Wii U console and want to pick the game up, my advice to you is this: If you can hold off buying the game for a few months, I would suggest you wait until the price comes down a little bit, because as cool as this title is, the $60 price tag (with no Amiibo), is a bit steep. If you are lucky enough to have a gift card to reduce the price a bit, by all means, grab it. If used copies become available, again, grab it. But my final answer is simple. Gamers of the 1980s will have a blast creating new levels of a game from their childhood, as I have been enjoying doing for the past day. Just hold off a little bit if you need to pay full price, until the cost comes down. I recommend you give it a look, but also just as strongly recommend that you don’t spend too much money on it. If you do, you will be in for many hours of enjoyment with Super Mario Maker. Now, it’s time for me to tinker with some video game programming! (And after all, doesn’t everyone that plays video games have some kind of desire to create something unique? I know always did, and now, I shall!)