One Giant Leap, 2015: Super Mario Maker

In One Giant Leap, Katie charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we make our own fun with Super Mario Maker

This column has focused quite a bit on big-name games, on obvious choices, which has naturally meant a fair amount of Mario. If you wanted to pick the single most influential game we’ve covered at least 3 contenders featuring the mustachioed plumber1. But the character has an underground history too. There have been plenty of, let’s say unofficial Mario games over the years, unauthorized iterations made in Flash, versions made for graphing calculators2, versions bought at flea markets.

And of course, there were fanmade ROM hacks. Kaizo Mario World gained a certain level of fame amongst those in the know. First released in 2007, this hack of Super Mario World is brutally difficult, in intentionally unfair ways. It tests not only the player’s skill but their knowledge of arcane secrets and exploits in the SMW ruleset. For instance, did you know that if you touch the goal post, and then die during the “level complete” animation, you don’t actually beat the level and reload from the prior checkpoint instead? You could play Super Mario World dozens of times and not know this because Nintendo aren’t rude enough to force the issue, but Kaizo is.

Nintendo has had a contentious relationship to ROM hacking, as they do all fanworks, because of How They Are. But at least one of their responses to this scene was an attempt to own it. Enter Super Mario Maker. SMM honestly stretches the classification of “game”; it’s one part game development toolset, one part game publishing platform. In SMM, you make and share your very own Mario levels, in the style of three classic 2D titles and also New Super Mario Bros. It’s an impressive little program, taking advantage of the Wii U’s distinctive touchscreen and stylus for easy use placing blocks and enemies on your level grid.

Additionally, you can shake certain elements as you place them for more options, shaking green Koopa Troopas to turn them red, or shaking Piranha Plants to let them breathe fire. There’s a robotic voice, autotuned to match the background music, that calls out whatever element you’ve most recently placed. The whole thing has a level of polish and presentation that really tries to elevate it beyond a simple functional program.

The fun UI doesn’t hurt, the little robot feels very Kid Pix

But Super Mario Maker is also the environment where you share the levels you’ve made, and play other people’s. And here’s where things get thorny in a few different ways. First, as you might expect, there’s a pretty wide range of quality when playing user-made levels. SMM has a mode where you can just start with 100 lives and try and get through as many as you can, and for every 1 level that’s fun there are at least 15 that are utter dogshit, some combination of trivially easy or arbitrarily punishing. And even when the levels were neat, there are limits to what’s possible. Super Mario Maker is in many ways a form of game development, but it’s not like professional development. You have access to the tools the game shipped with and nothing more. You can’t ask programming to make you new features, you can’t ask art to draw new enemies, you can’t even script new encounters yourself, as Super Mario Maker lacks any sort of scripting language.

Contemporary Mario games tend to base their levels around a single mechanic or gimmick, introducing it in a safe and simple environment before building it out, making it harder, more complicated, combined with enemies or other mechanics. This approach is certainly possible in Super Mario Maker, but you quickly hit diminishing returns. You have access to the same toolbox as everyone else. It’s big, sure, and if you’re clever you can think of unique twists and combinations. But there really isn’t a reason to build “proper” Mario levels outside of proving a point. Everyone already knows about sawblades, about moving platforms, about Bullet Bills.

As it turns out, Kaizo Mario World wasn’t super hard on accident. If you don’t have the ability to create novelty, you have to build interest another way, and the easiest way available is difficulty. Super Mario Maker has a thriving ecosystem of incredibly brutal levels, demanding the players have full knowledge and mastery of every fringe edge case interaction in the game. These levels gained an audience far outside of the masochists who played them, thanks to the popularity of streamers and YouTubers playing them and reacting in over-the-top ways. It’s not nothing, but it’s limited. It could often feel like the only levels with any verve were either Kaizo or auto-Mario.

Auto-Mario was popular pre-Maker as well. Very impressive to watch, but not especially engaging to “play”

Sometimes you’d stumble on something magical, though. In my time with Super Mario Maker, that happened once, an incredible puzzle house gauntlet that used the existing mechanics in creative new ways without expecting the player to already know what’s up. I’d love to share that level with you but I can’t; its creator removed it from the service almost immediately after I played it. I recreated it to the best of my ability from memory, but it’s just not the same.

And I can’t even share my pale copy, either, because Super Mario Maker‘s servers got shut down a few years ago. Nintendo made a sequel for the Switch that they consider to be a strict replacement, and maybe they’re right. Toolsets get updated all the time. I have a lot of great memories using Unity from 2012-2014, but no one would ever use those versions today, they almost certainly aren’t accessible, and that’s just how it is. But SMM was a platform too, and that part isn’t so easily discarded. You lose so many levels, art completely destroyed.

And even if you wanted to you can’t always recreate them in Super Mario Maker 2. The level I’m talking about had a really neat progression to it; there was a central hub with 4 doors, but only 1 was accessible to start. You could gain access to the second by getting a mushroom in room one, which let you break the blocks to door 2, and then in room 2 you got a leaf that let you break the blocks for door 3, etc. This sort of mechanic gating was needed because SMM1 didn’t have keys or locked doors, and so much of what I loved about this level was how it worked around that restriction. But in SMM2 you have keys and locks, so who cares. The clever design I fell in love with is as needless as making a 4 koma level to teach the player about fireballs.

I always try and play the games I write about immediately before writing about them, but that’s just not possible for Super Mario Maker, a game made obsolete and burned to ash before it even turns 10. It’s survived by Maker 2, a similar but fundamentally different game that will too one day be destroyed as Nintendo decides the costs of running its servers are no longer worth it. Say what you will about ROM hacks, those games don’t live and die on corporate whims, even when the likes of Nintendo try to flex legal muscle. Kaizo Mario World will exist for years, decades, maybe even “forever”, as much as that’s possible for any creative work. Meanwhile thousands of Super Mario Maker levels are gone forever, many barely mourned. That puzzle house meant so much to me, and maybe means something to a few other people3 but it can’t mean something to anyone ever again, and I can say with certainty that around the time I die it too shall die. In the immortal words of Commander James Stephanie Sterling, “something something capitalism bad”.

Stray Observations:

  • Super Mario Maker still has some features available in its sundowned state, but I was only kind of able to experience them, as my Wii U doesn’t seem to have fully survived the latest move. It constantly drops the signal even sitting right in front of it. This game was fragile in more ways than one I suppose
  • Even when it was active discoverability was tricky. You could bookmark levels you played that you enjoyed, but the game encouraged you to simply drink from the firehose of Content. You could learn a lot about Some Stuff if you played Mario Maker and paid attention.

Other 2015 platformers of note:

Ori and the Blind Forest is a beautiful Metroid-like, featuring lush painterly backgrounds. It’s a game lots of people love, but not one I personally know all that much about. Looks incredible though.

There’s also Grow Home, a cute little low-poly game about a robot climbing a giant vine. It looks very indie but was developed by Ubisoft Reflections, part of a mega publisher in what can only be described as stolen valor. Still, it must have been nice to get to make; looking at their gameography they were mostly a Just Dance support studio around this time, which couldn’t have been great for morale.

Next Time: This was kind of a sad article, huh? Well the vibes definitely won’t pick up when we play Inside so, be ready for that.