In September 1985, video gaming changed forever when Nintendo launched Super Mario Bros., immediately laying down a template for platform titles that's barely changed since (apart from when Nintendo themselves elected to shake things up, taking Mario 3D in 1996). Thirty years later, Mario's about to take on another dimension entirely, as Super Mario Maker (released on the 11th of September) gives its players the power to create their own levels, using familiar blocks, perks and enemies, and share them with the world via their Wii U.
Super Mario Maker's cross-generational focus means its aesthetics can be tweaked to fit whatever your favourite Nintendo era may be. If it's super old-school pixels you're after, you can skin your creations to resemble 1985's original game, but there are three more options to choose from: Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988), Super Mario World (1990) and New Super Mario Bros. U (2012). As something of a sucker for 16bit sprites, I elect to build my own level using World assets when trying the game out at a recent London preview, and soon enough I've an array of coins-spilling blocks, plumber-propelling springs and enemies to splat. I don't create a complete stage, but I get the idea – and the idea seems like a lot of fun. Also, blah blah, something about amiibos, blah. They're compatible, basically, and using, say, a Link amiibo will let you play these levels as Link. (I still don't really understand the appeal of amiibos, sorry.)
Player-created stages will live in an online hub that breaks them down into categories of difficulty, based on completion ratios – how many others tried the level, and how many of those got to the flagpole at its end. Makes sense, though it does mean that any one stage will need to have been attempted a fair few times for the user base to get a realistic reading of its challenge.
But then, challenge is something that's always been at the forefront of the classic Mario experience. Sure, he's a dumpy man in a silly hat chasing around the Mushroom Kingdom, butt-bouncing off turtle shells and fang-toothed fungi. It all seems cutesy, silly, simple – but series creator Shigeru Miyamoto always wanted to turn pad-clenching knuckles white, and the first evidence of this teeth-grinding difficulty came with 1986's Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. It was so tough that Nintendo of North America declined to release it in their territory at the time, only issuing the game as part of 1993's Super Mario All-Stars collection for the SNES. (And what a wonderful console that was.)
In the 3D era, too, Mario's been known to send controllers flying across living rooms, as anyone who aimed for absolute, beat-all-the-bonus-stages, collect-everything completion of the GameCube's Super Mario Sunshine can confirm. Several years later, New Super Mario Bros. U aped its 2D predecessors in punishing difficulty terms. Basically, Mario's meant to be fun, of course, but these games in their purest forms are supposed to test players, to push them to their limits. And Super Mario Maker is about to let that attitude loose on an audience of amateurs with no experience of creating games for a living.
'Super Mario Maker' E3 2015 trailer
On purchase, Super Mario Maker will have 100 premade courses available for offline play. You can expect these to show off the potential of the game's editing toolset, but the great draw of the title is its infinite possibilities. Assuming there's an eager community of level-creators consistently generating new content, this is a game that could never end – at least, not until its servers are left for dead when Nintendo does eventually abandon the Wii U. But does anyone really think that the most active "makers" are looking out for fellow gamers' fun? Don't be naïve. Be they Miyamoto acolytes of old or newcomers to the Mario series looking to mess with mainstream expectations, these regular uploaders are only out for one thing: the glory of realising the most crushingly difficult Mario levels ever seen.
I play one course crafted in-house by Nintendo's Treehouse team. It looks pretty easy, to begin with. Nail a few moving platforms, scale some vines, murder a goomba. But very quickly the mistakes creep in and I'm falling, off screen, into a pit of infinity, into death and a swift restart. Do it over: past the platforms, past the vines, onto some springs and... shit, down I go again. Every time I die, which is several times, a series of crosses litters the bottom of the screen. Bless, I think. The game is kissing away my maladies. There there, never mind, try again. "Those indicate where other players have died, too," the chap assisting my session informs me. Bloody hell. This level's got a body count bigger than a hundred playthroughs of any Grand Theft Auto entry.
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He can see I'm struggling. What began as a few failures, easily laughed off as a result of platforming-like-this rustiness, has become a veritable buffet of broken childhood memories. "Here, this is one you'll definitely be able to do." He selects the most nightmarish array of obstacles I may have ever observed on a side-scrolling screen. I'm about to tentatively edge Mario into it when I notice a text balloon, right at the start of the level. "Don't move!" it instructs. I don't. A spring fires behind Mario, sending him spinning into chaos – but every landing point is a new launch pad onward, and every lethal horror is magically bypassed by the arrival of some fresh momentum. Mario reaches the flagpole, a jingle plays, and I smile. That is some fantastic design right there, a play-itself level that will outright annihilate you if you so much as touch the left stick – which you're naturally predisposed to do. But very few of those designing levels for themselves are going to get close to its meticulous engineering and overall wow factor.
The messages appear on other levels, warning of fatal falls and sneaky traps. They provide advice, comfort. Or, at least, that's what they're supposed to do. "This is like Nintendo's very own Dark Souls," I say to my guide. He offers a nervous laugh, like he's just been found out. "Um, I've never played it." No worries, mate, I'm utterly shite at the Souls games, but I've played enough to understand their core mechanics, and I can see parallels here.
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Super Mario Maker is going to be the most fiendishly challenging Mario game of all time, well beyond "nails-from-diamonds hard", exclusively because it's guaranteed to have certifiably impossible levels. How can it not, when so many of us who love playing the Mario games haven't the first real clue of how to put together a satisfying course? We know, but we don't understand. (Edit: users will be able to report stages for inappropriate content, or if they simply do not work, and if a level's creator cannot complete their own stage, it will not be viable for sharing online.) This game is going to kill you, and kill you, and kill you, just like From Software's fantastically acclaimed series. You might not get a "You Died" screen every time Mario's toasted by a fireball after navigating 99 percent of any given stage's nasties, but the pain's the same: so much effort, for nothing. And the little messages are akin to those found in any Souls session – and you just know that sadistic sorts are going to fill them with misleading information. Try jumping? Okay, sure... fuuuu... Dead. These bastards are going to measure their levels' success in rage quits.
Super Mario Maker will have its breezy, family-friendly stages too, of course, the kind a dad (hi!) can enjoy with their kids of a rainy weekend. Nintendo gets "play", and it knows that what it's putting out are toys, more so than any other games developer. The company's 30th anniversary Mario title is one unlike anything that's come before it. It's a terrific gift; it's an invitation to innovate using iconic designs that have resisted the test of time superbly. And believe me, they've been tested – name me any other gaming franchise that could flourish after a movie as bad as 1993's Super Mario Bros.. Keep on jumping, man. Just don't believe everything that you read.
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