Way back in 2007, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé offered some notably back-handed praise for LittleBigPlanet: a 2D platform game that allowed players to create and share their own levels, being developed at the time for Sony’s PlayStation 3. He told the now-defunct magazine CVG that he was “very intrigued” by the game, but didn’t “know that it belongs” on the PS3. At the time, it was mostly assumed that Fils-Aimé’s dig was a simple reference to the platform holders’ respective markets; LittleBigPlanet’s brand of family-friendly hop-and-bop fun did, after all, seem like a more obvious fit for Nintendo’s wheelhouse than Sony’s. But I was recently reminded of the executive’s comments when I first played Super Mario Maker, Nintendo’s latest game for their current home console platform, the Wii U. Maybe what Reggie really meant, all that time ago, was that LittleBigPlanet didn’t belong on the PS3 because Nintendo could do it better.
To be clear, I understand and appreciate what the “Play, Create, Share” ethos of LittleBigPlanet and its antecedents–among which, broadly defined, can be counted everything from Minecraft to Disney Infinity–have done for the mainstream video game market. “User-generated content,” buzz-term though it may be, is still arguably the most exciting trend to break through in the last decade of the games industry; its potential is almost infinite–in, of course, that breathlessly figurative sense beloved of techie types–and still largely untapped. In practice, though, none of these games have ever held much lasting appeal for me: a Grumpy Old Man without the patience or free time to invest in their robust, but overly complicated creation systems. To return to the LBP example, I tinkered with that game’s “Create” mode for maybe an hour, watched as my entire level collapsed to the virtual ground the moment I tried to test it, said “fuck this,” and went back to playing games made by people who actually knew what they were doing. But Super Mario Maker is different. It gets me, and I get it. And I can’t help but think that it says something about Nintendo, and Mario, that this is the first truly accessible application of user-created video games I’ve played.
Let me put it this way: I created my first Mario Maker level in less than two hours. The level wasn’t a work of genius or anything; just a gimmicky riff on a powerup granted by the Super Mario Bros. 30th Anniversary Amiibo, which grows Mario to a giant size and allows him to crash through bricks in any direction (it also adds a CRT-style filter and puts moustaches and Mario hats on all of the enemies in the level, because why the hell not). I buried the end-of-level flagpole in breakable bricks, added some hazards, and named the level “Ohhhhh Yeahhhhh” in honor of another 1980s childhood icon known for busting through solid walls, the Kool-Aid Man. It was unbelievably easy: just a matter of dragging and dropping in the items I wanted using the tablet-like Wii U GamePad. And within an hour, I’d already received notification that someone had played and “starred” the level. How cool is that?
Since then, I’ve created more levels, all of them in just a matter of hours. With my second project, I played around with the mechanics of the more recent New Super Mario Bros. games, requiring the player to “ground pound” through a floor of bricks and wall-jump up narrow vertical passageways. Most recently, I made a challenging “Castle” stage in the tradition of the original Super Mario Bros., which also fulfilled a long-standing dream of mine: giving tertiary Mario-universe character Waluigi his very own starring role in a platformer. I’m currently in the middle of an “Airship” level in the style of Super Mario Bros. 3 that plays with the conventions of the series by leaving out forced scrolling, allowing the player to traverse back and forth across a small fleet of airships while being attacked by cannonballs, heat-seaking Bullet Bills, and winged Bob-ombs. At no point in this process have I been frustrated, confused, or felt like I was in over my head; Super Mario Maker allows me, for the first time, to feel like I’m playing even when I’m in the “Create” mode.
So why has Nintendo managed to make this process so intuitive and fun, when so many other developers have overloaded us (or at least aging knuckleheads like me) with complexity? Part of it, I suspect, is the game’s timed unlock system, which staggers out the options available to players so you can master one set of tools before moving on to the next. This decision was met with some predictable Internet nerd rage, to the point that Nintendo recently released a patch that helps expedite the unlocks. For me, though, it’s been the perfect introduction to the game’s systems: by starting small and gradually allowing myself to get more ambitious, I’ve avoided the moments like the one described earlier, when my grand LittleBigPlanet schemes came to naught. And unlike, say, Disney Infinity 2.0, which buries its level-building instructions in tedious tutorial dialogues, Super Mario Maker actually encourages me to learn as I play, with sample stages taking the place of rote instructions.
But there’s also a more sentimental, and timely, side to Super Mario Maker‘s success in the “Create and Share” genre. This Sunday–as you probably already know if you’ve read this far–marked the 30th anniversary of the original release of Super Mario Bros. for the Japanese Famicom. That puts me at just a little over a year older than (Super) Mario; we’ve essentially grown up together. So, for someone like me–or even someone my sister‘s age, who shares a birth year with the U.S. release of Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo–there’s really no need to explain how to make a 2D Mario level; it’s practically embedded in our DNA as, to use a word I despise, “gamers.” In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the design language of Super Mario is the closest thing we have to a video-game version of Esperanto: head-stomping, coin-collecting, and pipe-traveling is a basic vocabulary we all intuitively share and, on some level, understand. What better way to dip our toes into the byzantine world of amateur game design?
For me, of course, Super Mario Maker is probably the deepest I’ll ever go into that world; making my own Mario levels is just about the highest achievement my personal interest level in game design will allow me to pursue. And that’s fine, because as far as I’m concerned, making my own Mario levels is a pretty damned high achievement. I’m excited to finish that aforementioned airship level, and I’m already looking forward to my next creation (probably a Super Mario World-style “Ghost House”). I can’t think of a better way for Nintendo to celebrate three decades of their most enduring creation than by handing the keys to the people who grew up playing it; nor can I think of a better way for me to both begin and end my career as a wannabe game developer than by playing in the digital toy box that has occupied so much of my childhood and manchildhood alike.
…Unless, of course, Nintendo wants to hit us with a Legend of Zelda Maker in a year or two. I could definitely be persuaded to throw my hat back in the game-design ring for that.