Super Mario Bros. was the first game I ever played. Not the original on the NES, rather the remade version for the Super Nintendo's Super Mario All-Stars. On that little cartridge were the first games to capture my imagination. I went on to beat every mainline Super Mario game released before I was ten years old. Being the weird, shy, and mostly awful child that I was, I also drew my own Mario levels, dreaming that maybe one day I'd get to play them. And about 12 years later I did just that.
I've been playing Super Mario Maker for a few weeks now, and to my surprise it's actually pretty easy to use, and its accessibility encouraged me dig out a level I had designed as a child. I unearthed it from an old collection of Nintendo magazines, and if I may be so bold, it wasn't actually that bad as assessed by adult eyes that have seen their share of Mario stages since. I laid my sketch down beside my GamePad and set to work. I needed to tweak some aspects of the original to accommodate the limits of Super Mario Maker and make it less impossibly hard—I doubt anyone would ever want to play a level infested by a swarm of aerial Koopa Paratroopas, where progression is only possible if you perfectly jump from one of their heads to the next. But, eventually, it worked.
Super Mario Maker doesn't have the creation tools difficulty curve found in, for example, LittleBigPlanet. Instead, it adopts a much simpler level designer that makes it a cinch to test each course as it's assembled, which meant I could translate my old paper drawing onto the screen in under an hour. I named it "Final Destination," after my favorite Super Smash Bros level. The ease of the entire process made me think back to when I was drawing more Mario levels, and not exactly with a smile.
Had I made a huge mistake? Had I gotten my career path totally wrong? Was this my true calling, all along? I mean, there was evidence enough to suggest that I could have done something in game design: I'm obsessed with the medium for one thing, and my Mario level, well, it worked. If Super Mario Maker had been available to that ten-year-old boy with goombas running through his thoughts, would my life be different, now? Perhaps it's not too late at all, though. Other writers have moved from critique to creation. Take Tom Francis for example, a writer at PC Gamer who went on to make Gunpoint, and is behind the upcoming Heat Signature. He's proved he can do it, so why can't I?
So it's onto the development bandwagon I hopped. There are loads of tools freely available to anyone who wants to try their hand at making a game right now. I've played loads of them, so I know one or two things. No way was this going to be hard. I considered my options and found Stencyl, an application that claims to be user friendly and requires almost no coding. Perfect.
After some digging I found a platformer package, with examples to ease you in. But once I'd started to properly play around with Stencyl, its layers of complexity began to build further and further away from what my brain could keep up with. Even a supposedly simple game development tool was proving too much for me to deal with. Trying to create an enemy's AI was the final straw, the moment when I stopped and realized that creating my vision of a Mario game crossed with the movement of Mega Man X was simply unachievable. I had produced a weird, terrible game, and I just wanted to throw it out. I didn't know how to stop my dude from jumping infinitely like a shit, pointless version of Pissman.
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The experiment wasn't a complete failure, however, as now I carry a fresh appreciation of indie game developers and better understand how powerful Super Mario Maker is as a level design tool.
The anatomy of a Mario level is something that a lot of folks don't think about, but Super Mario Maker breaks it down in an incredibly succinct way. Over the course of nine days, the game gradually introduces you to new mechanics and tools to play with. Over this time you see yourself grow as a designer, drawing inspiration from the huge amount of already playable levels in the game, which can break up the monotony of only navigating your own creations.
Behind the ludicrous fun of designing levels is a master class of design. Condensing what are usually mind-bending tools into a fun to use, easy to understand toolkit is what makes Super Mario Maker special. The immediacy of the game is awesome: A little shake of a normal Koopa turns it into a red-shelled version, for example, one that actually has some sense. Mario and his friends, a variety of blocks and bonuses and an army of enemies comprise the universal language of this game, one that carries brilliantly across any number of borders, with actual instructional text fairly minimal. The game taps into the player's existing knowledge of how each element can be used, where it might be placed, and how Mario will interact with it, based on previous experiences with the series.
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If Super Mario Maker can inspire a jaded adult to try, unsuccessfully, to make a game, it has real potential to resonate with a younger audience, speaking to them in a more significant way than it did for me. In the late 1990s, map modding was a huge craze, and maybe Super Mario Maker could be equally massive for the next generation of aspiring game developers?
My childhood fantasies have been stirred anew by Super Mario Maker, and my evenings to come are to be spent creating more levels, albeit only for myself, mainly—I might just share a few online, for other owners of this game to play. The latent designer in me, that seed of potential that never truly blossomed, is an itch scratched effortlessly by what Nintendo's achieved here. I'm not cut out to be a game designer, but when creation tools are packaged as neatly as this, I at least feel like I'm part of the way there, like a short, somewhat fatter Shigeru Miyamoto.
Getting older isn't always fun, but the more that technology helps us hold onto what inspired us as children, the more that video games can preserve otherwise easily forgotten pieces of our past, the better prepared we become to face the future. Wherever Mario is 30 years from now, you can bet that he'll still be an inspirational influence on children and adults who refuse to grow up alike.
Super Mario Maker is released, for Wii U only, in the US and UK on September 11.
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