My girlfriend refused to play video games until Super Mario Maker came along.
The game, available Sept. 11 for the Nintendo Wii U, puts players in the role of level designer, giving them a set of easy-to-use tools to create their own Super Mario levels. These levels can then be shared online for others to play and rate within the game.
Super Mario Maker benefits from the series' 30 year history: Odds are you already know what a Super Mushroom does, at what speed a Goomba trundles along the ground, and how fast you need to run to jump at maximum height. These artifacts are the building blocks for your levels: I know if I want to reach the top of the level's ending flag pole I need to be this high, so I'm going to make sure that there's enough of a runway to make that happen.
I've had the opportunity to play Super Mario Maker for the past few weeks, and used the occasion to sit side-by-side with my girlfriend Barbie to try out several of the levels that have already been created by fellow players.
In truth, the early levels created by fellow members of the press primarily rely on gimmicks to attract attention: several levels require barely any controller input at all, instead inviting players to, say, tap the D-Pad right once to place Mario onto a Rube Goldberg-like conveyor belt that carries our friendly plumber to the goal. Others are so laughably difficult—a trait borne out of the rich tradition of hacked Mario levels that populate the web—as to merely invite a chuckle and an electronic "well played" to the creator.
While my Mario skills have held up reasonably well for someone who's pushing 30 years old, Barbie has not picked up a video game controller since the days of Donkey Kong Country. It showed.
"Fuck these guys," she yells while struggling to hop on some goombas in one of the top ranked levels. "All this make me want to do is get a Super Nintendo and play what I used to be good at."
And then she mistimes a jump and falls into a hole in the ground.
Moments like these are why it's a shame that Nintendo doesn't allow players to share videos of themselves playing through levels to services like Twitch or YouTube. (This is particularly strange given that Mario Kart 8, released for the Wii U in May 2014, does, in fact, allow direct posting to YouTube.) Nintendo defended this decision over the summer by saying it didn't think players merely watching other players play was sufficiently entertaining. Tell that to the folks who literally fill arenas watching the likes of Dota 2 and League of Legends.
Super Mario Maker is Nintendo's answer to the question, "Why would a home game console need a touchscreen and a stylus?"
The Wii U's unique, touchscreen-based controller allows players to effortlessly build levels by dragging and doodling the stylus. (As Barbie found out, you'll still need traditional video game dexterity to then actually play these levels.) Much like Super Mario 64 singularly justified the N64's awkward, three-pronged controller, Super Mario Maker is Nintendo's answer to the question, "Why would a home game console need a touchscreen and a stylus?" Had the game come out earlier than three years into the Wii U's life, perhaps the console wouldn't be treated by third-party publishers as an afterthought.
Watching Barbie attempt (and attempt…) to wind her way through this level has my heart soaring. No, the Wii U will never be home to those third-party tentpole releases like the latest Call of Duty or Battlefield, but Super Mario Maker has, if for only a brief moment, captured the imagination of my girlfriend, which is not something I'll take for granted.
"A-ha!" Barbie exclaims upon finding a warp pipe. Swoon, I think to myself. Sorry, I'm a huge dork.
Unfortunately after a few more unsuccessful attempts to reach the end of the level, the charm of the experience wears thin. I appreciate her effort more than I think she understands.
"Ahh! I'm done!" she yells, slamming the controller onto the coach, heading into the bedroom to watch an episode of Chopped.
Super Mario Maker was reviewed using a downloadable copy of the game provided by Nintendo. It was played over a period of several days on a Wii U previously purchased by the author.